If you are an avid warm weather hiker, it may be time for you to give cold weather hiking a try. Winter, fall, or colder times can reduce the crowds, and show off the landscape in a unique way that can be strikingly beautiful. In this article, we’ll give you some important cold weather hiking tips, as well as point you to some resources to ensure you are fully prepared for all types of conditions.
12 Tips for Hiking in Cold Weather
1. Bring Warm-Layered Clothing
While there are many things you can bring along, this is an absolute “must-have”. Without this, you risk the likelihood of developing hypothermia or serious health issues that can even be fatal if untreated.
Be sure to check out our winter hiking clothing guide for specific tips on how to layer during winter, or cold weather.
You should always dress appropriately when hiking in cold weather. We’re talking everything from sweatshirts, hats, gloves, long johns, and more. A wicking layer is crucial, as well as multiple other layers as described in our winter hiking clothing guide. This serves as your base layer, while your outer-layer should be both waterproof and windproof in case temperatures drop, winds pick up, or an emergency occurs. You don’t always have to wear this layer, but you always should be ready.
2. Freeze Proof Your Water
Even when you’re cold, hydration is hugely important. You may not feel as thirsty, but you could be losing just as much water as on a hot summer day. Hydration is key on any hike, and there is not much worse, or more dangerous than having a frozen water bladder and the inability to drink water. It happens really quickly when temperatures drop below 30 degrees F and even faster below 20. With temperatures above 20 degrees, you can get away with an insulated water bladder for quite a long period of time.
When temperatures drop below that, you may want to leave the bladder behind and take an insulated bottle to avoid freezing.
3. Bring Instant Foods & Tasty Freeze Proof Snacks
If you’ve been camping before and cooked something as simple as soup, the same process applies when you are hiking in cold weather. You’ll want foods that will stay soft even if the temperatures fall. These include nuts, cheese, candies, chocolates, and more. We love peanut butter, jelly sandwiches, dry camping meals, softer granola bars, and even apples as snacks.
The energy bars that people rely on so much won’t be the best options. They often get extremely hard in cold temperatures, and very difficult to consume. Avoid Clif bars, and other thick and hard bars when the temps drop below freezing. Gel packs usually work in all temperatures as well.
One more thing – drinking mixes like teas, instant coffee, and hot cocoa are great options. A small thermal bottle for warm liquids is an awesome treat with only a little bit of added weight. You’ll want something warm to drink while before conquering your next leg of your hiking trip. As always, water will be your best friend here since keeping hydrated is key, no matter what the temperature is outside.
4. Bring Comfortable or Emergency Sleeping Gear
If you are making this a weekend-long hiking and car camping trip, it’s always a good idea to sleep on something inflatable. The good thing about air mattresses is that you don’t have to sleep directly on the ground (like you would on a pad) – this way, you avoid contact with the cold and don’t risk hypothermia while you are asleep. Obviously an air mattress would be for a car camping trip, but if you are backpacking, your winter gear has to get a bit more serious.
Your sleeping bag should also be of high quality and made to withstand the temperatures you’re expecting. Lower quality sleeping bags may add to the weight and volume of your backpack, so you want to make sure you’ve got something appropriate.
Any time you are hiking in cold weather in remote places, or on long hikes, you should be prepared to spend the night. Carrying an emergency blanket, and backpacking supplies is what smart hikers do. If injury occurs, this may save your life, or someone else’s life.
5. Bring A First Aid / Survival Kit
A first aid or emergency survival kit is going to be your best friend on any hiking trip. Especially when you accidentally take a wrong turn or get lost. You want a first aid kit to last you a while. Plus, you want survival or EDC items that can get you through a 72-hour survival situation.
One of the best items that you must pack aside from first aid kits are emergency blankets (which will conduct plenty of heat if you are near a fire), a firestarter, flashlight, a survival whistle, and others. No need to overstuff, but make sure that you have the essentials you need so you can be easily spotted by a search party when push comes to shove.
6. Bring Extra Socks
If your feet get wet in winter, say from snow getting in your boots and melting, your feet will get wet, and expedite the process of your feet getting cold. We recommend to always bring an extra pair. We also highly recommend wearing gaiters in the winter, as they will prevent snow from getting inside your boots.
7. Start Early
With winter, you have significantly less daylight than in summer. For longer hikes, or hikes started later in the day, you need to be cognizant of this. If you have a long day ahead of you, know your sunset time. Be sure to finish before sunset, or at least plan to be in a safe area when the sun goes down. Always carry a headlamp in case anything goes wrong, or things take longer than expected.
8. Take Sunglasses & Eye Protection
There are two major reasons for wearing eye protection. Winter is very bright, the white snow mixed with sunlight will make for lots of squinting. Be sure to have sunglasses. Also, if snow is present, and wind, snow and ice can get whipped around. You’ll want sunglasses or goggles to ensure your safety and keep you comfortable.
9. Bring Traction & Flotation
Cold weather means the potential for ice. If there is any potential for ice at all, you should always bring microspikes. These are essential safety items, and will prevent falls. In addition, if you are in an area where snow falls can be heavy, snowshoes are great options. They double as traction on ice, as well as flotation for deep snow. A good rule of thumb to bring snowshoes is if the snowpack is above 6 inches, their is the potential for sinking in, and therefore snowshoes are a good idea to at least strap on to your bag.
10. Pay Special Attention To Weather
In winter, or in cold weather in general, you need to pay extra attention to weather. Are there high winds expected? Any precipitation? In cold weather, these different conditions can put hikers in dangerous situations. You should be checking the weather the morning of your hike. If you are hiking where your elevation will be changing, you should also be checking Mountain Forecast, or another tool to get wind speeds, air temperatures, and chance of precipitation and different altitudes.
11. Continuously Layer And De-Layer Your Clothing.
In cold weather, you likely are going to start out hiking cold, and as you get moving, you’ll warm up. When this occurs, you should be de layering your clothing to avoid sweating large amounts and getting your layers wet. Don’t be lazy when it comes to layering up and delayering. You may need to stop frequently to match your clothing to your body temperature, but doing so will keep you safer, and more comfortable in the long run.
12. Bring Hand Warmers
Hand warmers are super cheap, super light, and super effective. They last a long time, take up no space in your bag, and can be a big deal for adding comfort to your hike.
If you are hiking somewhere where the climate is cooler, knowing what to bring, and the proper precautions and research to do before your hike is essential. You’ll not only be safer, and more prepared for emergencies, but you’ll likely be more comfortable, and have a better time.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about