Winter Hiking Tips That You Must Follow Before Setting Out

winter hiking tips to ensure safety and comfort

There I was, at the summit of Bear Mountain nestled in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York (about 40 miles north of NYC) when it hit me…

I completely forgot to pack a flashlight or head lantern with me.

It was a such a beginner’s mistake that I so easily overlooked when getting all my gear ready for the hike.

Sure enough I thought I had checked off all the boxes on my list:

dressing in layers,

telling someone where I was going,

and wearing the appropriate foot wear.

But, as ready as I was just earlier that day (or so I thought) – I quickly learned that nature is unforgiving and will never bend the laws for you.

Every time since that hike I always now put a flashlight at the top of my list before heading out the door.

Just a simple tool, along with others that I will go over in a minute, will make a huge impact on your overall hike, especially when hitting the trails in the winter.

As With Any Hike, It Starts With The Base: The Layer of Clothing Of Course

winter clothing in layers

When deciding what to wear when hiking in the winter – there are a few key things you need to look out for in order to make your hike a bit more enjoyable and comfortable.

First and foremost, you need to wear your clothes in layers as it will help in several different ways to keep your body temperature well-regulated along with having the ability to serve you the best.

When dressing, your layers should come in three components (at the very least):

  • Base
  • Middle
  • Top/Shell

Winter Hiking Starts At The Base

The base layer in any clothing will be a liner such as products usually found in the Under Armor, ColdPruf, or Carhartt clothing lines.

These products are typically filled with materials that will pull the moisture away from the surface of your skin.

Why is this important?

When hiking in the winter, and especially if you are wearing heavy clothing, you will naturally sweat as you get your heart rate up.

If you are wearing a material that breathes, but also retains the moisture (like cotton – which is just about any piece of casual clothing you own), it will keep the moisture within the threads of the fabric and ultimately pressed against your skin.

Why is this bad?Well when the mercury drops, this can (in severe cases) lead to hypothermia (be sure to know the signs of hypothermia).

As I eluded to in the intro, with my heart rate soaring while at the summit wondering what I will do for a light source, I was sweating profusely as the sun was setting.

If I had been wearing a cotton base layer, not only would I be alone in the dark, but I would be incredibly susceptible to hypothermia due to excess sweat.

No! Your Winter Hiking Adventures Shouldn’t Just Be Base And Shell

Alright so now that we have the base covered, it’s now up to the next layer of clothing.

This would be the middle layer that rests between your base and your shell.

Middle layers are typically constructed from fleece, down, cotton, and other natural fillings and fibers.

These will act to keep you warm and generate insulating pockets of air between the layers of clothing.

It’s important to know that this layer doesn’t really feature any sort of sweat management feature like the base layer.

Natural fibers are much more breathable but will soak up sweat as we mentioned above in the base layer.  This is why they are so great as an intermediary layer.

If you are looking for extra comfort or warmth, it’s in this level that you can pair up an additional flannel, fleece, or any other article of clothing in order to keep yourself a few degrees warmer when hiking.

The Outer Shell Will Protect You From The Elements

Shells are often mistaken for a traditional jacket that will be filled with down or simply provide an extra layer of warmth.

While this might traditionally be true for casual jackets, shells, especially when going for the daily winter hike, serve to keep both rain or snow (or some mixture between the two) along with high winds at bay.

For construction sake, outer shells are typically made from synthetic fibers that aren’t inherently breathable.

So don’t expect to see cotton as the leading fiber on the tag for these products.

In addition, shells are extremely light weight leading to very little addition of overall weight to your pack list.

Keep A Grip On The Rocks, Slush, And Whatever Else The Winter Trails Throw At You

winter hiking shoes to maintain grip

When hiking in the northeast, or anywhere in a northern climate, the elements can switch on a dime.

While you typically can check out the weather forecast or trail conditions before hand, one product I like to pack is a pair of lightweight crampons (i.e. winter cleats).

Now when most people look up crampons or winter boots for hiking they may see something that is suitable for those hiking above 65.8256° latitude (the arctic circle).

Mini crampons on the other hand are terrific for retaining grip in icy conditions in casual hiking environments.

What’s great about crampons is that they can just about fit over any sort of winter boot – therefore you can take them on or off if the trail calls for them.

Their typically sub $50 price tag makes it an incredibly low investment that will pay dividends in icy conditions.

Now if you check the trail conditions ahead of time and expect heavy snowfalls or simply are hiking in a winter wonderland, snowshoes can help to displace the snow beneath your feet in order to maintain balance when hiking.

Just as a note of clarity – snowshoes are for significant snow fall and crampons are for icy conditions. 

Trekking Poles or Walking Sticks: You Should Never Leave Home Without Them

trekking poles to maintain grip

When the trail becomes slippery, no matter how warm you feel internally, one item that you should never overlook is the trekking pole.

With the addition of crampons, trekking poles are absolutely paramount to ensuring that you have total and complete grip in even the most adverse conditions.

While some of the lower-priced sticks will be tipped with rubber or other inferior (i.e. low cost) products, we very highly recommend trekking poles that have a metal tip.

Metal tips for walking/trekking sticks will pierce the snow and ice to ensure an incredibly firm grip that won’t leave you wondering if the stick will hold when putting your weight in order to cross a stream, tricky lay of rocks, patch of ice, etc.

Beyond just the occasional winter hike, trekking poles can be used year-round and help you to attain leverage and balance whether you are taking a simple country-side hike or if you decide to go bouldering.

While it wasn’t anything that I initially realized when I was a bit younger, but trekking poles will help your knees out tremendously as well.

Therefore, trail calls for a bit of elevation gain or downhill areas, trekking poles will help to offset all the weight that is being applied to your knees to other areas of your body.

This is especially noticeable if you are hiking with substantial weight on your back as well.

Head Lantern or Flashlight Should Never Be Overlooked

As I eluded to at the beginning, a simple flashlight or head lantern can make all the difference between being completely lost in the woods (even if you know the trail like the back of your hand) and getting home safely.

Head lanterns is the preferred device of choice and one of hiking enthusiasts everywhere will use.

The versatility of a head lantern allows you to concentrate on your footwork rather than juggling a flashlight continuously.

If you are hiking in the winter, head lanterns will allow you to easily avoid icy patches that would likely spell disaster otherwise.

In addition to simply lighting up the trail, having both hands free will allow you to keep a handle on your trekking poles, or if you are sans trekking poles, allow you to have your hands free to look at maps, phone, clearing away brush, etc.

Don’t Forget To Fuel Your Body – You Are Likely Burning More Calories And Water

nuts for trail mix

When hiking in the winter, you should keep in mind the amount of energy that your body is exerting.

With the additional layer of clothing, trekking poles, heavier boots, crampons, etc. the amount of weight you are hauling is significantly more when compared to a summer hike. 

Not to mention, the amount of effort that your body needs to make to get through snow and muck conditions will generally take a lot more effort.

Therefore, you want to make sure that you take a snack with you.

But not just any snack.

When hiking in the winter, while it may seem obvious, you don’t want to rely on foods that will freeze.  Instead you will want to pack up products like nuts, seeds, dried meats, etc as they will be less susceptible to freezing.

For hydration purposes, you want to make sure that you get plenty of fluids.

If the air temperature is below freezing, you will want to keep the fluids closer to your body (i.e. think underneath your outer shell layer) as it will help to prevent the water from turning to ice.Another option to check out for hiking with water would be to use a Camelback or similar hydration pack.

Always Tell Someone Where You Are Going – Even If You Hiked The Trail Before

One of the rules of hiking, even more so in remote areas, is to share with someone where you are hiking.

Just a simple text message or phone call can ensure that you are never stuck on a mountainside for more than a couple of days if your lifeline lets local authorities know that you are missing.

Now if you are unable to get in touch with anyone prior to hiking – not to fret, another great way to let folks know that you will be in a secluded area is by simply sharing a post via social media letting everyone know your trail.

Now I will be honest, the reason why I go hiking is to have some alone time to clear my mind, however just a simple status update is incredibly easy to do 🙂

Check The Weather & Sunset Time – Nature Is Unforgiving

When it comes to hiking in the winter, be sure to check the weather forecast before setting foot on the trail.

There is always the possibility that the weather can (and likely will) change while you are in the middle of your hike.

Don’t be surprised if it changes from a beautiful snow fall to a warm sunny afternoon all the way to an overcast and windy near-blizzard experience in only a few short hours.

Lastly, you always want to be mindful of the time that the sun will set and subtract at least 30 minutes off that time to ensure a safety buffer.

Remember, winter days are much shorter, and if it’s an overcast day, while the sun may set at 5:25, it will start to get dark much earlier than that!

When you take all the winter hiking tips into account that we outlined above, it will help to ensure not only your comfort, but ultimate safety.