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Winter Hiking Tips to Stay Safe and Comfortable in Cold Weather

Once the cold weather hits, it’s easy to choose the cozy comfort of the warm indoors over getting outside. However, getting outside in the winter means fewer crowds, plus it keeps you in shape and fights those winter blues. With the right gear and planning, winter hiking doesn’t have to equate to discomfort. Follow these winter hiking tips and change how you think about getting outside in cold-weather.

Stay Hydrated

It’s easy to forget about staying hydrated during winter sports. Trudging through deep snow is quite the workout and more tiring than one might think. The same route that takes you an hour in the summer can take twice as long in the winter.

The drier winter air also causes dehydration, so be sure to bring as much water as you would for a summer hike.

To prevent your water from freezing or turning ice cold, bring it in an insulated thermos like a Klean Kanteen or Hydroflask. If you use a bladder, your body temperature should probably keep the water from freezing, but you may also want to insulate the hose to keep it from turning to ice. 

Tip: Before you head out, boil some water at home and keep it in a thermos. Bring some tea or hot cocoa to warm you up if you start to feel too cold during the hike.

Plan Ahead

With the shorter days and harsher conditions, making a plan before you get out for a winter outing is essential for safety. Snow and cold temperatures means that emergency crews will be slower to reach you and having to wait in the cold can put you at risk for hypothermia and frostbite.

Prevention is key for a safe and enjoyable day in the snow.

Start your day early: The winter days are short and dusk can sneak up on you quickly. Study your route to understand how long the excursion might take. Plan accordingly to avoid having to navigate a snowy trail in the dark and cold.

Bring the 10 Essentials: It’s a good idea to always pack the 10 Essentials, with particular importance of the following items during winter activity:

  • A headlamp with extra batteries
  • Plenty of water
  • Snacks
  • Extra layers
  • External battery charger for phone

Insulate your batteries: Lithium batteries on phones and other devices die quickly in the cold weather. Keep them in a warm spot (like a chest pocket) or wrapped in some kind of insulating layer. Emergency phone calls and maps are of no use if the battery is dead!

Check weather reports: Check the weather the night before and again in the morning when you leave. Overnight conditions can make some areas at risk for avalanches. Check with your local avalanche center for restricted zones.

If your car is not AWD or 4WD then bring chains and a shovel in case you get stuck.

Tell someone where you’re going: This is a good safety measure any time of year, but with icy roads and more difficult terrain, you want to make sure you have someone watching out for you in case things go awry.

Wear the Right Clothes

Planning the right clothing for winter adventures is truly an art! Dressing in layers is the key because it’s easy to overdress, and it helps prevent underdressing. Remember that it’s always better to have one too many layers than too few layers.

Avoid cotton and opt for merino wool, which is an insulating fabric. It keeps you warm even when you sweat.

Top Layers

Base layer: Merino wool tank top or t-shirt

Mid-layer: Merino wool long sleeve half-zip sweater or insulated jacket

Top layer: Wind and waterproof shell

Bottom Layers

Base layer: Leggings, long underwear, or fleece tights

Top layer: Snow pants or other wind and waterproof pants (or gaiters if snow pants are not necessary)

Accessories

  • Warm hat
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Merino wool socks
  • Hand and foot warmers
  • Neck Gaiter
  • Balaclava

Footwear

The right footwear will keep your toes warm, prevent you from falling, and will stay dry. Lems Waterproof Boulder Boot will do the trick.

A thick pair of merino wool socks will also help keep feet warm, even if they do get wet. 

For icy trails, bring a pair of traction spikes to wear over your shoes.

Environmental Hazards

Aside from the obvious environmental hazards like the temperature and the snow, be mindful of other hazards of snow, like avalanches, frozen water, and tree wells.

Rivers might be covered with snow bridges and you could fall in and be at risk for hypothermia. Stay on the path to avoid falling into tree wells and keep a map handy if trail markers are hidden thanks to deep snow.

Sun Protection

Winter sun is deceiving because the temperature is so cold, but the snow is super reflective and it’s easy to burn. Think about why you wear goggle skiing. That sun can get very bright!

A polarized pair of sunglasses are generally enough to keep the sun out of your face. If you’re up in high elevation, you may want to look for a pair of snow-specific sunglasses that include side shields that further protect the eyes from snow glare.

Lastly, don’t forget to apply sunblock before you head out.

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