Don’t Be Scared of Winter Hiking
Winter hiking isn’t as scary as you think, you just need to know how to prepare.
A couple weeks ago, a friend and I made plans to go hiking in the Catskills, a forested and mountainous region about 2.5 hours north of New York City. The morning of our trip, I pulled up the weather forecast and it read 7 degrees. Yikes! Then I saw that strong winds made the temperature actually feel like -10 degrees. Double yikes!
When most people think of hiking, they think of warm-weather jaunts through green grass and wildflowers, or foliage walks on crisp autumn days. Below-freezing snow treks aren’t typically top of mind. I’ll be the first to admit that cold weather is sometimes a pain in the ass but, if you’re prepared properly, winter hiking can be just as enjoyable as—dare I say even more enjoyable than—warm-weather hiking.
First of all, you’re going to find fewer people, which, for most of us, is a good thing. Instead of standing in line to take a picture or awkwardly maneuvering yourself to avoid getting others in your selfies, you’ll have the trails, mountains, and valleys all to yourself. Second, snow actually makes certain types of terrain easier to hike.
Most trails in the Catskills are mile after mile of steep, punishing ascents that are full of rocks. A certain amount of skill, patience, and ankle strength is required to balance on and maneuver around them without falling. Once the snow falls, however, it evens out the landscape; as long as you’re wearing proper footwear, hiking requires a bit less technicality and there’s less risk of injuring your ankle.
A previous ankle sprain makes me more susceptible to injury so I actually prefer hiking rocky terrain when it’s covered in snow. I also relish having the powdery trails to myself, I just know that I need to prepare much differently than I would for a summer hike.
Basic Safety Principles
The flip side of having the trails all to yourself is that if you’re an inexperienced hiker and head out with insufficient water and improper gear, it may be awhile before you run into another person that could help. During my recent hike in the Catskills, my friends and I ran into other hikers every 10 minutes or so when climbing the popular Windham High Peak. When we climbed the significantly harder Hunter Mountain, we passed only four people during the six hours it took us to hike 11 miles.
Another one of my favorite places to hike is the Adirondacks, a 6 million-acre mountainous region in upstate New York. Even if I know where I want to hike, I always stop into the information lodge for advice on current trail conditions and weather. For instance, if the snow is especially deep, snowshoes may be recommended, or even mandatory. If snow is packed down and slippery, micro spikes may be required (more on these later). And if the weather is expected to change later (or be different at the top of the mountain than at the base), you may need to pick another route.
A quick note about snowshoes: not only do they make it easier and safer for you to hike through deep snow, they also make it safer for others. Many trails are shared by hikers, snowshoers, and skiers, and any deep holes left by boots turn into dangerous “post hole” traps for skiers. According to Benjamin Brosseau, the director of communications of the Adirondack Mountain Club “If the snow is soft enough that you’re sinking up to your ankles, it’s time for snowshoes.”
Rangers and park staff can help you find a route that matches your ability and they’re a great resource to find lesser-visited trails. They can also help you determine how long it might take to complete a trail and how much food and water you should bring along. If you’re going for an hour-long hike along a flat trail, there’s less concern, but if you’re attempting a multi-hour hike along challenging terrain, it may be helpful to get recommendations on what provisions to bring.
If you’re hiking somewhere that doesn’t have a visitor center or call-line, defer to local tourism boards, outdoor outfitters, and recently-updated guidebooks. Have a look at the information board in the parking lot or at the beginning of the trailhead but know that some boards can be very outdated. If the board is updated, you’ll usually find a helpful map (take a picture for reference during your hike) along with updates on current trail conditions and suggestions for what to bring on the hike. The map may indicate where to find bathrooms and water sources in the area but there may also be a notice posted next to the map that says they’re closed for repair. Always read the notices.
In some cases, a ranger, visitor center staff, or trail marker will advise that a certain route is extremely challenging and should only be attempted by very experienced hikers. If you are not a very experienced hiker, DO NOT TRY IT. Hiking through snow requires more energy and hiking on ice requires specific gear so attempting it with insufficient experience and inappropriate gear is stupid and dangerous. Don’t do it.
Preparing for a Hike
You do not have to summit a steep, snowy mountain to enjoy winter hiking; strolling around county and state parks absolutely qualifies and starting small is usually a good idea anyway.
Before attempting a big hike, I like to “hike” up and down steep city blocks and around Prospect Park in New York City (Brooklyn’s version of Central Park). Not only does this help me get in shape, but it also helps me determine how suitable my winter clothing is at different temperatures. If you’ve recently purchased new winter hiking gear, first try it out on a small hike before heading out on an epic adventure. New boots may take time to break in and jackets may not be as warm as you thought they would be.
Dressing for the Cold
Many of the same principles apply to winter hiking as apply to other sports: dress in layers and avoid cotton. If you run, ski, or cycle in cold weather, you may already have some clothing that would work well for winter hiking.
When choosing cold-weather clothing, you want your base layer to be a moisture-wicking fabric like merino wool or a synthetic fiber that breathes out the moisture from the inside while also keeping out the snow. Merino wool is more expensive than synthetic fabrics but it’s highly breathable and doesn’t hold as much odor as other types of fabric.
After your breathable base layer, you’ll want to put on a warm layer, like fleece. After that, top it off with a waterproof, windproof jacket. All of these layers come in different levels of warmth and breathability so I suggest trying out a few different brands and styles to see what you like.
If you live near an outdoors retailer like REI, Patagonia, or Eastern Mountain Sports (and if you feel comfortable visiting), I highly suggest shopping in person. No sizing chart is perfect and nothing compares to trying on a pair of pants or boots in person. The staff in outdoorsy stores tend to be extremely knowledgeable so even if you don’t know exactly what you want or need, you can explain what sort of activities you’ll be doing and they can make suggestions. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting in person, REI offers a live, virtual outfitting, where an expert makes recommendations based on your needs, sizes, and any brand preferences you may have.
Proper equipment makes a tremendous difference in terms of trip enjoyment and comfort. As with any other activity, there’s a certain amount of trial and error when it comes to finding the equipment that works best for you. Before I invested in higher-quality (and more expensive) gear, I bought cheaper versions, borrowed from friends, and rented from outfitters to get an idea of what I liked.
I have quite a few base layer tops from REI, including some affordable REI Co-op branded tops and a couple expensive name brands (most of which I scored from REI’s incredible clearance racks). I typically wear one of the long-sleeved base layer tops under a bootleg North Face fleece I got in Peru a few years ago. The logo doesn’t look quite right but, somehow, it’s the warmest fleece I’ve ever owned. My top layer is an REI XeroDry rain jacket. Depending on how hot I get while hiking, I’ll take off the fleece and/or the jacket then put them back down when I cool down.
If I’m heading out for an easy, breezy winter hike and I just need my legs to stay warm, I’ll usually wear some thick leggings or Under Armour long underwear. I also sometimes wear thick cycling or yoga tights because there’s nothing wrong with repurposing clothing as long as it keeps you warm. If I need a bit more protection from wind and snow, I’ll throw some water-resistant utility pants on top (I love these pants, which also come in a men’s version).
Women's Black Diamond Swift Pant
Men's Black Diamond Swift Pants
Most outdoorsy pants are “water-resistant”, which means they’re not fully waterproof but, unless you’re stuck in a massive downpour or you’re wading through a river, they’re good enough. If I think I’ll need something fully waterproof and don’t mind wearing pants that resemble black garbage bags, I throw these Patagonia pants over my base layer (also available in a men’s garbage bag version).
Staying hydrated is key with any activity but it’s especially important to keep in mind during winter. In the summer, heat and sweat are cues that you should be drinking water but in their absence, it’s easier to forget to drink. Even if it’s cold outside and even if you’re not sweating, if you’re moving around for an extended period, you should be drinking. I’ve caught myself getting dehydrated during cold-weather hikes on more than one occasion so I now pack more water than I think I’ll need and throw an electrolyte tablet in one of my water bottles for especially strenuous hikes.
Hydration packs may be nice during warm weather but if it gets really cold, the water could freeze in the hose and you won’t be able to drink it. Water bottles and canteens can also freeze so consider getting an insulated container. Sipping hot tea or coffee during a cold hike is a real treat but you could also pack some hot soup in there! Hydroflask and Yeti are two very popular (and very good!) brands but I’ve been using Klean Kanteen for at least a decade because they’re an extremely ethical and sustainability-driven company. If you don’t have an insulated water bottle/canteen, slip a beer cozy around the vessel to help it retain its heat.
Hiking poles are optional but if the terrain is challenging and slippery, they’re very helpful. If the snow is deep, you’ll also want to make sure you have little “snow baskets” on them that prevent the poles from plunging too far into soft snow. I use the same Black Diamond shock-absorbing poles (which come in both a men’s and women’s) year-round.
Black Diamond Trailback Trekking Poles
This should be a no-brainer. It’s cold outside so you need warm socks. But not only do you need one pair of socks, you may need to layer up with a second pair of socks. Keep in mind that if you try to wear too many pairs of socks, your feet will be cramped and hiking will be very uncomfortable. If your feet are extremely cramped, it may even limit the blood circulation, which means your feet will actually get colder faster. For long hikes, bring a spare pair in case your primary socks get wet. You can find many brands of good hiking socks (which should be wool or synthetic - no cotton!) in most outdoors stores but I like Farm to Feet since they’re made in the US.
It’s crucial that your feet stay warm and dry so it’s worth investing in a good pair of hiking boots. Depending on how cold it is, how long you’ll be hiking, and how sensitive your toes are to cold, you may or may not need insulated hiking boots. Before I got really into winter hiking, I relied on my summer hiking boots and thick socks but when it got really cold out, they just weren’t enough. Now, I use these Oboz insulated hiking boots (here’s the men’s version), which have been an absolute game changer for cold weather hiking.
To prevent snow, rocks, and dirt from getting in your boots, consider hiking gaiters, which wrap around your calves and hook under your boot.
Foot Traction Devices
So-called “foot traction devices” attach to existing footwear to provide more security when walking on ice, snow, and slippery surfaces. Yaktrax are good for some basic snow hiking but if the snow is icy and slippery, spikes would be a better option. I use Kahtoola MICROspikes, which easily slide over my boots and give me a better grip and more confidence, especially when I’m hiking down steep hills.
Moisture-wicking base and top layers are great, but if you put them on over cotton undergarments and work up a sweat, you’ll be stuck walking around in cold, wet undies. Again, this may not be an issue for a really short hike (and you’ll want to remove additional layers before you start sweating anyway), but the last thing you want on a long hike is cold, are wet knickers.
Wool and synthetic, moisture-wicking underwear are widely available but many hikers (both male and female) skip underwear altogether and just wear thermal tights or long underwear. Tight underwear can result in chaffing (which is why many hikers skip it) but according to the male hikers I awkwardly interviewed about their undergarment preferences, loser-fitting boxers and boxer briefs are strongly preferred. Some swear by high-tech merino wool boxers, while others go for more affordable synthetic brands that aren’t specifically for hiking but work well enough. As for me, I go with whatever fancy pants brand I can find in the women’s clearance section at REI.
For the ladies, I suggest wearing a moisture-wicking sports bra that is supportive but not too constrictive. I like the Molly T bra, a wrap-around sports bra made of antimicrobial, moisture-wicking fabric that lets you adjust the level of compression and support.
My hands run really cold so I’ve found that most hiking gloves aren’t sufficient for me. Some skiers suggested I check out ski gloves so I now use “professional-grade” ski gloves for hiking (they come in both men’s and women’s). If your gloves can fit liners inside, start your hike off with a pair of glove liners, which you can take off when your body begins warming up. Also bring an extra pair of warm gloves with you in case your primary gloves get wet and you need to swap them out.
Hand and Foot Warmers
You know those hand and foot warmers that gas stations and outdoorsy stores sell for a few dollars? Grab at least two pairs. It’s rare that they’ll malfunction, but during my 7-degree hike in the Catskills, my 5-hour hand warmers stopped working after two hours. Fortunately, my friend, Hector, had a bag full of supplies, including extra hand warmers. He also had an ice axe and rope “just in case”.
Odds are, you won’t need an ice axe and rope on your next winter hike but if you think you might, hit me up because I’m always looking for some new adventure buddies.
Leave No Trace
Regardless of the season, it’s important to take steps to leave natural spaces as good as—or better than—they were when you arrived. I usually bring a small, re-sealable plastic bag with me to hold any trash I may accumulate during a hike (banana peels, granola bar wrappers, used toilet paper, etc.). That’s right, people, you’re supposed to pack up your used TP and take it out with you. Why? According to Brosseau, of the Adirondacks Mountain Club, bleach in toilet paper can drag the decomposition process up to almost two years. According to me, it also just looks gross on the trail. Using an “all-natural” brand of TP? Great, me too, but even those were designed to be flushed and processed through a sewage system, not to sit on the forest floor until some unfortunate animal gobbles it up.
Need to poop out there? Technically, you’re supposed to bury poop 150 feet from trailheads, trails, campsites, and water sources in what’s called a “cathole” (a hole that’s 8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide). Please don’t bury poop in the snow. The snow will eventually melt, nobody wants to look at that, and it risks the health of local wildlife and water quality. If you’re going for a quick hike, it may not be an issue but if you’re going for an all-day hiking adventure (and perhaps ate some questionable takeout the night before), you may have to handle your business in the wild.
If you’re hiking in a wilderness area that doesn’t have bathroom facilities, check the map for what’s called a privy (basically a wooden box toilet). Pooping in the woods isn’t as gross as it sounds but if you think it would be too much for you, maybe eat some extra fiber the night before and spend some quality time in the loo before your hike.