Winter hiking can be intimidating, especially if your plans take you above treeline, chasing epic peaks across exposed ridgelines. Even non-technical winter excursions can feel overwhelming if you’ve never hiked in the colder, snowier months. However, most winter conditions can be mitigated with the right preparation, gear, and clothing, and getting out on the trails in the winter will let you experience the mountains and forests during this peaceful, quiet season when most people are either at home or on the ski slopes.
Checking the forecast is essential no matter the season, but it’s especially critical in winter, and even more so if the route includes exposure. Check the radar for temperature, precipitation, wind, and snow conditions, and do not be afraid to postpone or turn back if something feels unsafe. The summit will always be there!
Here are seven of our best tips and tricks for staying warm, fueled, and safe during winter hiking season.
1. Manage Your Body Temperature
Your core temperature will rise fast as you work to gain elevation, so once you feel yourself begin to sweat, stop and delayer right away. (If you can handle it, starting cold is an excellent way to avoid that first delayering stop.) What goes up must come down, and the heat you’re building on the climb will make you chilled and clammy whenever you stop or have to work less on the descent. Wicking layers will help prevent sweat from collecting, but it’s still a good idea to shed an insulation layer or headwear as you climb.
2. Carry Multiple Sets of Traction
Consider carrying both microspikes and snowshoes. Snow and ice conditions can change rapidly with elevation gain, and you don’t want to be caught unprepared. Often the snow will be packed and icier at lower elevations where the freeze-thaw cycle is more extreme, with snow becoming deeper and fluffier as you gain altitude. Microspikes are ideal for packed or icy trail, but as soon as you start to sink, stop and strap your snowshoes on. This isn’t just easier for travel, it’s also good trail etiquette: if you’re creating post holes from bare-booting in deep snow, you’re wrecking trail conditions for people who come after you.
3. In Deep Snow, Switch out the Leader Every 100 Steps
When the snow has drifted over the trail, or your group finds itself breaking trail, switch out the front person in your line every 100 steps. You’ll see after one round of being in front just how much more work it is to break the trail than follow in other people’s snowshoe tracks. This keeps the effort evenly spread around the group, and everyone’s core temperature stays about the same—plus it gives the leader a break. After 100 steps of breaking trail, the leader steps off to the side, allows the group to pass, and then slips into the back of the line for some restful hiking on snowshoe-packed trail.
4. Pack Your Bag Differently for Winter Hikes
Your stops will be shorter during a winter hike, as you don’t want to let your core temperature drop too much between efforts. Your winter pack setup should reflect this need for efficiency. Quick-grab items should be even more accessible than normal, as you’ll be wearing hand protection and be less limber under all those layers. Wearing a fanny pack is a good accessibility option, and stashing your neck gaiter or spare hand warmers in a jacket pocket means you don’t have to take your pack off and deal with fumbling for zippers and buckles.
5. Keep Snacks Accessible and Edible Even if Frozen
You burn more calories trying to stay warm in cold conditions than you would during a moderate-temperature outing, plus breaking trail makes you work harder than you would over bare ground. This means you need to be taking in more calories, which can be a hassle during winter. Keep a small, wide-mouth container with trail mix hooked to the front of your pack to avoid stopping and digging, and stash small candy bars in your fanny pack or hip-belt pockets. Also remember when you’re packing your food that things will freeze. Some high-calorie snacks like a peanut butter sandwich will still be edible frozen, but you might have a hard time gnawing through a rock-hard energy bar.
6. Hot Gatorade (Seriously)
Your water will freeze unless you prepare correctly. Water-bottle insulators can attach to the outside of your pack, and many come with large zippers suitable for mittened hands. Bring hot water in your bottle, and add a scoop of Gatorade powder. It’s less weird than it sounds, and you wind up with a hot yet hydrating drink. If your hike is long enough for a second bottle, stash a well-insulated option in your pack, or put a less-insulated bottle in a wool sock to prevent it from freezing.
7. Brush Up on Avalanche Awareness
This is less of a tip and more of a no-brainer for safety. Depending on the region and terrain, an understanding of base and snowpack could quite literally save your life. If you’re planning a backcountry outing in avalanche territory, we highly recommend taking at least Avy 1, which will give you the skills and knowledge to traverse avalanche-prone terrain and understand the conditions. At the very least, carry a beacon, shovel, and probe in avalanche territory, and know how to dig a snow pit.
Written by RootsRated for Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Paxson Woelber