So you’ve decided you want to go snow hiking. You want to experience the wonder of the natural world in winter. As with any extreme environmental situation, it is very important to be prepared for the conditions that you will face. In this post we are going to discuss the snow hiking equipment you should have on hand when you’re out there adventuring this winter.
This post will focus on winter day trips. If you are planning on heading out on a multi-day hike or winter camping trip you will need to have additional gear on top of the equipment discussed in this article.
Layering. Layering. Layering. If you’re new to the outdoor scene you may not yet understand the importance of this word, but you soon will. Layering is perhaps the most important aspect of snow hiking equipment. Layering is the key to staying safe and comfortable in winter environments.
So what layers should you bring? Of course, it depends on probable conditions. The more extreme the conditions, the more important the layers. I often adventure in areas where winter high’s tend to hover right around 10º F. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is very cold!
In addition to my base layer I usually wear a polyester pullover, an insulated down jacket, a waterproof shell and snow pants. I also wear 1 or even 2 hats, a neck warmer that I can pull up over my face, a good pair of wool socks, and a thin pair of gloves inside thicker waterproof gloves.
It is important to think about your most vulnerable body parts, namely fingers, toes and the tip of your nose. These body parts are vulnerable because they are small, isolated bits of you that don’t get to share in the collective heat that the larger parts of your body generates.
Everyone is different so adjust your clothing to fit your needs. If your feet get cold easily you may want to wear a thicker pair, or even 2 pairs, of socks. But be careful not to restrict blood flow to your feet by wearing too thick socks shoved into too small boots.
If you’re prone to chilly fingers, consider trying mittens instead of gloves. This will keep your fingers closer together so they aren’t individually isolated. A hand warmer or two slipped inside the mitten can also work wonders!
Keep your nose warm with a scarf, neck warmer, or balaclava.
Be careful of cotton
You may have heard the phrase, “cotton kills.” And it’s true, cotton can be dangerous. This is because cotton is not very good at releasing moisture into the air. When cotton gets wet, it’ll stay wet. This is bad news in the winter because wet means cold.
When you are snow hiking you will likely still sweat even when it’s cold. If you’re wearing cotton, the sweat from your body will soak into the clothing and it won’t go away, this can make you very cold! This is also true of any other material with poor wicking properties.
Instead, wear clothing made from synthetics like nylon, or fibers with natural wicking properties such as merino wool.
Consider your traction needs
Trail conditions will determine whether you can hike simply in your boots or if you need some extra traction to help you along. Good winter hiking boots should already give you a fair amount of traction. If you’re only hiking trails of moderately compacted snow you will be just fine.
However, when the trail gets icy, or the snow-pack gets very firm, your boots may no longer be up to the challenge. This is when you might need a bit of extra help to keep going.
The first line of defense against slippery trails are donning some micro-spikes. Micro-spikes attach to your boot and dig into the snow or ice so that you can gain the traction you need. They are good for fairly level trails.
When the trail gets steeper you may need to move to phase two, crampons. Crampons are the micro-spikes big brother. They are longer and sharper and can help you gain traction on those very slippery, steep slopes.
If you don’t feel like gearing up with either of these traction devices, don’t worry, you can find tons of winter hikes where you won’t need them. Just be aware that they do exist, and could help you hike to that hard to reach frozen waterfall you’ve wanted to visit.
What about snowshoes or skis?
When the trail is covered in fresh powder or the snow is very deep, you won’t want to head out with just your boots. If you do, you will quickly exhaust yourself as you sink waist deep with every step!
Snowshoes are perfect for powder. This piece of gear spreads your weight out onto the larger surface area of the snowshoe which prevents you from sinking deep into the snow!
Cross country skis will also help you remain on top of the snow. There are tons of different styles of skis, too many to go into depth with this post, but you can find skis geared toward off-trail travel as well as skis that are meant to be used on groomed or packed trails. If you rent skis from an outfitter, they will most likely be the latter. Either way, skis are a great way to cover ground when hoofing it just won’t cut it.
Food and Water!
Don’t think you won’t need as much water just because it isn’t hot. You will still sweat as you exert yourself on the trail and you need to replenish those fluids! Staying hydrated helps you retain your body heat. When you’re dehydrated, your vulnerable body parts that we discussed earlier will be at an even higher risk of frostbite.
Remember that water can and does freeze! It does no good to you if you need a drink only to find your water bottle is frozen solid. Keeping your water in a main pocket of your pack instead of an external pocket will help it stay warmer. You can also take along an insulated water bottle which will keep your water temperature constant all day.
Same goes for food. Food is your bodies fuel, you directly convert that fuel into heat energy. Hungry and cold is a recipe for disaster. So pack a lunch and bring some extra snacks. You can even eat something spicy to give yourself a boost of extra warmth!
When I think of sun screen, I think of hot summer days at the beach. I’ll admit that I often forget that sun screen is just as important in the winter time. On clear winter days the sun has a double plan of attack. It shines down from the sky, and it’s UV rays reflect off the snow from below. So don’t forget to lotion it up!
Along those same lines, the snow can be blinding. I never leave the house without a pair of sunglasses.
Protect yourself from wind with chapstick and good windproof layers. (Yes I said it again.) The wind can cut right through your insulation if you don’t wear a good windbreaker. If it’s waterproof, it’s probably a great wind-resistant layer as well.
If the conditions are wet, sleety or slushy you would do well to have a waterproof pack, or a waterproof cover, to keep the contents nice and dry.
Don’t forget the 10 essentials
I am a big advocate of bringing emergency supplies with you every single time you enter the backcountry, whether it be a day hike or a multi-day trip. So, in addition to all the previously mentioned items, don’t forget the ten essentials!
I’m a fan of the saying, There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. With the right gear, the weather and the cold is no match for you! So don’t let it get in the way of your adventure plans this winter.
I hope you found this article useful and I hope you get out there, stay safe, and have a great time in the good ol’ outdoors!
If you have any questions, concerns or suggestions of something you would add to this list, please reach out in the comments below!