Just because there’s snow on the ground it doesn’t mean you can’t get out there and hike! We’ve rounded up all the best winter hiking tips and formulated this awesome beginner’s guide to get you hiking this winter. Brrr.
Even when there’s snow falling outside, it might not be possible to get out on your board or skis. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t get your cardio in! Winter hiking may seem like an oxymoron, but trust us when we say that it’s even more breathtaking than summer hiking. And not just because of the cold! Winter hikes offer a greater challenge than summer hikes for a variety of reasons, but there’s a low barrier to entry with cost, and it’s great exercise too. So if you’re ready to bring your hiking boots out of hibernation a little early this year, you’re in the right place.
And if you are looking for stylish clothing for your next winter hiking adventure, make sure to check out our newest collections at Ridestore:
Before you pack your bag and lace up your boots, there are a few things you should prepare for to ensure that you have a stellar day in the mountains and get the best out of your winter hikes.
It’s imperative to check the weather forecast before heading out in the winter. Freezing winds, snow and rain, and shorter sunlight hours all mean that winter hiking is more dangerous than summer hiking. And if you’re in a high snowfall area, be sure to check the avalanche forecast and snow depths, too, as it’s likely to get deeper the higher you travel, and we all know that the weather can change on a dime in the winter.
No matter how fit you are or how much mountain experience you have, hiking in the snow will be a game-changer. It can be an exhausting and intense on those climbs, with heavier clothing making it tougher, the colder air making it more intense, and the unsure footing more exhausting. So, don't tackle a big hike for your first trip. Instead, plan a short and manageable route and make sure to set off early in the morning to give yourself plenty of time to hike out and back before the sun goes down.
Hiking in the winter — and in particular in the snow — has its risks. Risks that maybe just don’t exist in the summer. While a sunny jaunt in July is something you can do at the drop of a hat, winter hikes should be a little better planned. We always recommend taking someone with you as its easy to get turned out with landmarks hidden beneath snow. It’s easy to take a break and get cold. And it’s easy to lose your footing on ice or fall into a ditch because you can’t see it! Having a buddy with you ensures you’re going to have help when you need it. But at the very least, let someone know where you’re going, and stay in touch with them.
Although hiking has become a lot easier and safer with the use of Google and Apple Maps and with the advent of smartphones, up the mountain, you never know what’s going to happen. Dead batteries, fumbled phones, and no signal might leave you stranded. In these cases, it’s always good to have a physical map to help guide you to safety. And maybe even a compass, too, if you’re not sure where you’re going!
When hiking in the winter, what you wear can make or break your experience, so planning ahead and having all the necessary layers and accessories will keep you in good stead for the unexpected.
It's all about the layers when hiking in the snow. Being able to add or take off a layer depending on the temperature is the best way to deal with winter hikes. Think about dressing for skiing, starting with a long-sleeved, thin and breathable top, and a lightweight mid-layer, such as a fleece or a breathable puffer jacket.
On the bottom half, depending on how cold it is, you may want to wear thermal leggings or base layer pants or just go straight for the fleece-lined walking trousers, which are breathable and protect you from the wind.
Although you will inevitably warm up during the hike, you will need an insulated and warm coat when you first start hiking, especially if you’re embarking on a cold morning. Make sure to pack a lightweight waterproof shell too, in case the weather turns.
On your legs, we recommend you bring a pair of packable, lightweight, waterproof trousers, as although walking trousers may be waterproof, they will be cold and uncomfortable after a heavy downpour or period of snow.
The gloves you bring should reflect the temperature you’re going to be hiking in. But regardless of that, make sure they’re waterproof! Cold hands are no picnic on a hike. Though if the weather is warmer, it’s worth packing a liner glove, which is thinner and more breathable. A liner glove can be kept on when you put on an outer glove, so you get the versatility of both depending on the weather!
As we all know, you lose a lot of heat from your head, so make sure to pop a hat on to keep you cosy. Many hats made for hiking come with special inner wool liners make them warmer, more breathable, and maybe even waterproof. The hat should be reasonably form-fitting, as it can get very windy at altitude, which means it might blow away if you’re not careful!
Footwear is of the utmost importance to any hiker and a good boot is essential for hiking in the snow. You need special soles for hiking on the snow and ice (or clip-on crampons at the very least!), plus they need to be waterproof, insulated, and comfortable. We recommend you wear a hiking boot (rather than a shoe), which protects the ankle and offers more support. You can get specialist mountaineering boots which are moulded to your feet, much like a ski or snowboard boot, which should enhance the comfort and foot stability on more difficult terrain.
Gaiters are an absolute necessity for hiking in the snow, and are a guard between your trousers and boots against moisture and slush. They wrap around the angles and fit to the top of the boot to prevent snow from going down the cuff. This rather unique accessory comes in handy when trudging through deep snow and keeps you warm and dry.
Hiking in the snow is much more physically taxing due to both the temperature and the terrain. And that’s not even mentioning the different types of snow and ice like fresh powder, compact snow, and spring slush. As such, you’ll really benefit from some special equipment, especially if you want to do big hikes into the high mountains.
Microspikes are a thin chain that wraps around the base of your shoe, and has small spikes that will dig into the ground. They are used to hook into the ice or hard, compact snow on each step, and provide an extra grip that will prevent you from slipping. Wearing them allows you to generally manage uneven and slippery terrain more easily, but they’re not suitable for really demanding hikes.
Crampons are, however, great at managing demanding hikes! Very similar to microspikes in the sense that they attach to your normal boot, crampons are sharp hooks that allow you to scale otherwise unclimable slopes in the snow and ice. Crampons come in several variants, from those intended for more casual use with smaller spikes, right through to ice-climbing crampons, which are aggressive and sharp.
Snowshoes work by expanding the effective surface area of your feet, thereby reducing the amount of weight on any given point. The compressive strength of the snow may not be enough to support your normal shoes, but snow shoes help to utilise more snow to support you, making it less likely for you to sink in! They also come with microspikes, and are designed to make walking uphill easier. If you’re intent on walking in deep snow, snow shoes are a must buy.
Hiking poles are very much like ski poles and provide many of the same benefits. Poles add an extra point of contact with the ground, which will improve your balance and help you stay on a more secure footing. They are also massively helpful when descending, as they help you control speed and provide support if you lose balance.
While you’re up on the mountain, you’ll be exposed to the sort of weather that only the mountains in winter can produce. As such, it’s important to be prepared for any eventuality. Below, we’ve outline some of our top tips for staying at the top of your game, even in the harshest conditions.
While hiking, you’ll feel warm and pumped, but when you stop for a break, there’s nothing more soothing than warming your insides with a hot drink. Prep one in a thermos before you go to give you some extra energy and warmth on the go. We like soup, or hot chocolate if you prefer a quick sugar boost!
Hiking in the snow is sure to work up a sweat. So even if it is cold, you will need to make an effort to stay hydrated all day. A water bladder is the best way to stay hydrated on the move, but if you’re hiking in below zero temperatures, you’ll probably need an insulated water bottle or special winter water bladder to ensure it doesn’t freeze!
It is recommended to start early on in the day, just as the sun is coming up if possible and ensure you get your route completed well before the sun sets. A good rule of thumb is to check the time the sun hits the zenith (it’s highest point), and if you’re not at least halfway through your route by then, turn back. Night comes quickly in the winter, and you don’t want to be caught out when the temperature drops.
To keep you warm throughout the hike, it can be useful to choose trails that have a steady incline. Too steep and you risk falling or injuring yourself, but too flat and you won’t generate enough body heat. Choosing a walk with a medium gradient allows you to stay warm, get your cardio in for the day, and minimise the risk of injury!
Whether you’re out for a little while or a long while, carrying energy-rich snacks you can eat on the go is important. Stopping for lunch means allowing your body to cool, so grabbing little snacks like nuts, berries, dried fruit, chocolate, or energy bars is definitely the way to go. Pair that with some warm soup from your thermos and you’re going to be blazing a trail right through the snow.
Although rare, hiking in the snow can come with risks. Avalanches, cornices, sink-holes, sluffs, and weak ice are all things you’ll need to give due respect to, and have a plan in place for, too.
Even if you are expecting good weather and stable conditions underfoot, and you may even know the trail, you should always keep a safety plan up your sleeve. Bring a backup phone or even a satellite phone with the local mountain rescue number saved. Have a quick and easy alternative route that could get you back down the mountain, and also knowing the location of shelters, such as mountain huts, is a extra, extra layer of protection.
You should check the avalanche risk for your destination before you head up, but also being aware of which parts of the mountain are prone when choosing your route is a smart choice. While on the mountain, you should stay alert for signs of avalanche, such as cracks in the snow, the ground feeling hollow underfoot, and strong winds.
You should plan to start and finish your route within daylight hours, but if you are running behind schedule, you may find yourself finishing your route in the dark. Pack a fully charged headlamp and keep it wrapped up warm in your bag, ready for this eventuality.
A day hike likely won’t require you to bring a tent, but bringing an emergency bag in your rucksack is recommended. Emergency bags or shelters are used if you need to stop for an extended period and need protection from the chilling winds and snow whilst retaining body heat. An emergency shelter is a lightweight pop up tent, while an emergency bag is an oversized waterproof sack that can be crawled into to await rescue.
In a worst-case scenario, you may be stranded for some time, and if this happens, keeping warm is of the highest priority. Being able to start a fire also means that you can signal for help and show your location, as well as melt snow for water, dry wet socks if need by, and much more. There are weatherproof fire-starters you can buy and carry with you, which make your life a lot easier than just carrying matches or a lighter. Portable burners will do the trick as well and also provide you with a hot drink if you need it, but won’t creat smoke or ‘flames’ that might help signal any rescuers.
We’ve covered the basics, but let’s recap our top tips for hiking in the winter:
Our first tip is to carry a head torch! Darkness comes fast in the mountains, and even faster in the winter. Keeping a fully charged torch with you is key. You never know what’s going to happen so always having a source of light is the smart choice, just in case.
The sun at high-altitudes is famously strong, and snow reflects UV, making it even easier to burn. Wear sunglasses with 100% UVA/UVB protection to keep your eyes safe, and also make sure to also wear sunscreen, even if it is cloudy. Pop the sunscreen in your rucksack so you can top up throughout the day, as there’s a good chance won't realise how burnt you are until you get home.
It’s know that electronic devices begin to function differently in cold weather. Contracting metal components inside your phone may prevent it from working properly, and cold temperatures can also cause batteries to drain much faster. Keeping your phone close to your body and away from the wind and snow will preserve it for much longer.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but making sure your phone stays dry is pretty important. As well as for snapping photos, giving updates to someone to tell them where you are, being able to call for help, and using maps to look for the best routes is all going to be dependent on making sure your phone stays dry and fully functional.
Dressing in layers means you can adapt to the conditions at hand, but also stay warmer than you would in just a thick jacket, with reduced bulk! Thin layers are packable, too, so you can slip them into your pack without much trouble if you need to cool off, or carry an extra one if you think it might get cold. Layers are versatile, better for insulation, wind resistance, and even waterproofing!
As you head out on a winter hike, it’ll likely seem like you’ve got all the time in the world and the horizon at your fingertips. But life is difficult to predict, and should you take a wrong turn, not make as much progress as you hoped, or twist an ankle, turning back is the best and safest option. It’s disappointing at first, sure, but it’s also the right decision, especially when it comes to winter hiking. That view will still be there next time, we promise!
Hiking in winter is a magical experience. And if you can time it right with the snow and the weather, you’ll be treated to the most wonderful vistas, the cleanest, crispest air, and empty trails that make you feel like the mountain belongs to you and you alone.
But as much as we’d all love to start checking off summits, winter hikes require a little more prep than their summer counterpart. But now, after reading this article, we hope you’re a little more aware of the demands, the risks, and the differences. Now then, all that’s left to do is layer up and get out there.
See you soon!