Winter hiking beats summer hiking for two reasons: There aren’t any bugs and it isn’t hot. It’s also the best way to beat the crowd and have the whole trail to yourself. It can get a little slippery out there, but with the right gear and a little know-how, you’ll be taking more winter excursions than you think.
1. Wear The Right Hiking Boot For The Winter
The Lowa Tibet GTX Hi is a rugged boot that will keep your feet dry. Lowa
Look for a hiking boot with a deep tread that gives good ankle support. My go-to boot for a few years has been the Lowa Tibet GTX Hi. They’re really backpacking boots, and are meant for heavy loads. But even on a short day hike, they keep out moisture and are absolutely dependable. Snow and ice are hard on leather so it’s good to lean towards high-quality, sturdy footwear. If your boots have Gore-Tex, treat them with a breathable waterproofing, like water-based Nikwax, before going out. You can treat non-Gore-Tex boots with Obenauf’s or Kenetrek boot wax, but oil-based waxes will void the warranty on Lowas.
2. Make sure you’re a little cold when you leave the car.
It’s not comfortable at first but try to dress down before you start walking. The last thing you want to do is break a sweat because when you stop for a break, you’ll get cold fast. To avoid this, I’ll hike in just a sweater, a base layer, or even a T-shirt depending on how hard the trail is and how cold it is outside. Pack multiple loose-fitting layers in your daypack and put them on when you stop or slow down.
3. Wear wool socks (and bring an extra pair).
Invest in a couple of good pairs of socks like the Damascus Midweight from Farm to Feet. Farm to Feet
You don’t necessarily need insulated boots to go hiking in the winter, just good wool socks. And if you’re moving all day, those socks shouldn’t be too thick. Thick socks make your boots too tight which actually makes your feet colder. Try to find a warm sock that gives you a little breathing room, and always bring an extra dry pair in a ziplock bag in case you get wet. One more thing about socks: Don’t cheap out. In a world full of cheap socks, getting a pair of $25 socks seems crazy, but they’re worth every penny. For hiking any time of the year, socks are one of the most important pieces of gear you can bring.
4. Boil your drinking water before you hit the trail.
On really cold days, your water bottle will freeze while you’re walking and before you know it, you’ll be eating snow to get a drink. A buddy of mine who hiked every high peak in the Adirondacks and Catskill mountains shared this trick with me, and it works when temperatures plummet. Before leaving the house, he boils his drinking water and pours it into a Nalgene bottle. This buys extra time and will keep your water bottle from freezing pretty much all day. Insulated bottles also help to stave off ice. It’s also a good idea to save any hydration packs like camelbacks for warmer weather. The straws freeze quickly leaving you with a bag full of water and no way to drink it.
5. Microspikes work better than YakTrax.
Get a grip on icy trails with microspikes. Kahtoola
YakTrax work, but on a long hike they can clog up with snow. I’ve found Microspikes to be the best option for gripping icy trails. They’re like mini crampons and they’ll let you walk right over slick surfaces. In fact, you’ll look forward to ice because you’ll be able to move over it quicker than you would snow. Even if a winter trail seems clear, I’ll pack some Microspikes because there could be some ice down the line.
6. Snow gaiters are a game-changer.
Hiking through the snow sucks because it can soak your pant legs and get into your boots making life miserable a mile or two down the trail. One fix is to go with an extra-high boot, like a pac boot, but they can be heavy and cause blisters. Snow gaiters are another option and probably one of the best. They pair with just about any hiking boot. A good pair will keep snow out even when it goes over the top of the gaiter. I’ve even worn them to cross streams without getting wet.
7. Pack high energy food.
Forget Nutri-Grain bars. You’re going to need some serious calories for walking around in the cold and for that I suggest turning to something like pemmican. I use a coffee grinder to make my own from jerky and either beef fat or bacon grease. The reason I go for pemmican is because of the fat. Food with a high fat content will give you more energy and less crash than sugary foods. A good low-cost, lightweight option is a bag of Fritos. They’ve got plenty of fat (and can even start a fire). Dried smoked pork sausage is also good as well as nuts like almonds and cashews.
8. Have a way to make a fire.
The Morakniv Companion spark is a great trail knife. It has a built-in ferrocerium rod for starting a fire. Morakni
If you go into the woods in the winter, you should have some way to build a fire—preferably a few ways. At the very least, put a lighter and pack of waterproof matches in your pack. Consider a ferrocerium rod, bushcraft knife, and some firestarters if you’re heading off the beaten path. It goes without saying, but if you get lost, a good fire can mean the difference between life and death. It’s also essential for making s’mores or cooking a hot lunch on the trail, which is another good reason to go hiking in the winter.