Want to stay warm on the trail this winter? Follow these five time-tested tips to do just that.
By Kraig Becker
One of the best things about hiking is that it is an outdoor activity that you can do all year long. So why is that so many avid hikers hang up their boots with the arrival of winter each year and don’t return to the trail until spring? As it turns out, a winter hike can be just as rewarding and exhilarating as a trek through the woods at any time of the year. That is provided you’re prepared to deal with the elements and can embrace your sense of adventure.
If you’re tired of staying inside all winter long and are ready to embrace the cold on a winter hike, we have some handy, time-proven tips that can help you stay warm. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
One of the most important keys for staying warm while outside in the winter is dressing properly for the conditions. That means using a proper layering system to keep you comfortable and dry no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.
Start with a set of base layers next to your skin, add a down jacket for warmth and insulation, and cover it all up with a wind- and waterproof shell. Those layers can be added or removed as needed, allowing you to adapt as the weather—and your own level of comfort—change. If you get warm while climbing up a slope, shed the insulating layer to vent out excess heat. Reach the summit of your hike and find that it’s a bit windier? Add the jacket back into the mix and pull on your shell, too. This level of versatility will help keep you prepared for just about anything.
A layering system is great for keeping your core warm, but those layers won’t do much for your head, hands, and feet. It is important to give your extremities the attention they need as well or you’ll find yourself extremely uncomfortable in the cold. That means gloves, hats, and boots paired with warm socks.
When it comes to picking a hat we’d recommend the Dome Perignon ($36) from Mountain Hardwear, as it was designed to keep your noggin warm in all kinds of extreme conditions. Add in a pair of North Face Apex gloves ($45) and Wigwam Merino Airlite socks ($14) and you’ll be well protected against the wind and cold. You’ll also need a good pair of winter hiking boots as well and its tough to beat the Lowa Renegade EVO Ice ($295) in that department.
Quick Tip: No matter what season you’re hiking in, don’t forget to let someone know where you are going, who you are with, and when you expect to be back. If trouble should occur, at least they’ll have some idea of where to come looking for you.
Cold weather conditions will cause your body to burn more calories in an effort to stay warm, so it is important to keep yourself fueled up while out on the trail. Be sure to have a good meal before setting out on your hike and bring a few snacks along for the trip as well. Energy bars, trail mix, and cookies are relatively lightweight but are also packed with calories, which makes them excellent options for a quick snack while on the go.
Staying hydrated is another key to staying warm so be sure to drink plenty of water. The colder temperatures you’ll experience on a winter hike will trick you into thinking you’re not expelling as much moisture, but the fact is your body can dehydrate quickly without you even realizing it. Always bring water with you on your hike either in an insulated bottle or a hydration reservoir that is stored inside your pack to help prevent freezing.
Warm beverages, such as coffee or hot cocoa, are excellent options for winter hiking, too.
One of the best ways to stay warm is to simply keep moving along the trail. Aerobic exercise will help the body to generate more heat, keeping you warm in the process. This will allow you to stay surprisingly comfortable on the trail, even when the mercury drops well below freezing.
If you do stop, be smart about when and where you choose to take a break. For example, pick a spot that is protected from the wind and blowing snow. Large rocks, a cliff face, or even a tree can make for a good windbreak, giving you a chance to escape the maelstrom of winter for a bit. Wherever you decide to seek shelter, though, be careful not to sit down directly on the cold snow. That can cause your clothing to get wet, which will ultimately prove detrimental to heat retention once you resume hiking again.
When you aren’t walking your body will naturally begin to cool down, so limit your pitstops to just a few minutes. The sooner you start hiking again, the sooner you’ll start to warm back up and feel more comfortable.
If anyone in your party begins to exhibit signs of hypothermia, take steps immediately to get their core temperature restored:
Get them to shelter out of the wind
Build a fire to warm them up
Get them out of wet clothing and into warm, dry coats
Place them in a sleeping bag with another person to transfer body heat
Wrap warm heating packs or hot water bottles in a t-shirt and apply to the back of their neck, head, chest and groin area
Have them sip warm, sweet liquids
Never give a hypothermia victim alcohol as it restricts blood vessels and will only make the situation worse
Quick Tip: When hiking in the winter it is always a good idea to stash an extra layer in your backpack just in case. If temperatures start to drop or you find yourself getting wet, having a warm and dry piece of clothing you can pull on could be a lifesaver.
Even on cold days the feeling of the sun on your skin is reassuring and provides a little extra warmth. Use that feeling to your advantage by hiking when the sun is up and keeping a close eye on the time to avoid getting caught out after dark. The temperature can drop quickly once the sun goes down and even though you may have dressed properly for your hike beforehand, you may find yourself getting cold very quickly.
During the winter, the days are shorter and it is easy to lose track of time, so be sure to return to the trailhead while there is still some sunlight left. This will not only help you navigate better but will eliminate the chances of getting caught out after dark.
Keep these handy tips in mind when planning your winter hikes. Chances are, you’ll stay a bit warmer on the trail and be much safer in the backcountry. You’ll probably end up enjoying the experience that much more as well.
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About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Gear Institute, Digital Trends, OutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for about.com and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann.