If you are reading this, you are probably interested in hiking in the snow, and don’t have a ton of experience in the colder months. You might be wondering things like: is it safe? will it still be fun? do I have the right equipment? I wonder how different the terrain looks, etc.
This article is here to help navigate you through the fluff. Before we jump in, there is a lot to cover here (more than one article) – so we want to make sure you are finding exactly what you are looking for.
If you are looking for detailed information about layering, and the correct clothing for winter hiking, you should click right on through to our Winter Hiking Clothing Guide.
If you are looking for detailed information beyond clothing, like specific gear you should bring, check out our Guide To Winter Hiking.
If you are looking specifically for tips on hiking in the snow, during snowy conditions, or just after snowfall, continue reading on. We will also cover, clothing, and gear below, but in less detail than the two links provided.
Traction – Snowshoes? No Snowshoes? Microspikes? Crampons?
You may or may not know, but hiking with or without snowshoes is a touchy and highly debated subject among hikers. The conversation can get heated even on the coldest winter days. The truth of the matter is, in our opinion, quite simple. When there is more than 6 inches of snow on the ground – you should bring your snowshoes just in case. If the snow is packed down, and your boots aren’t sinking in deep – don’t put them on, if they are, put them on. It is that simple. Hiking with snowshoes is more difficult than with boots (when you aren’t sinking in), so there is no need to be wearing snowshoes if you can easily walk on top of the snow in your boots.
If it is winter, or there is snow on the ground, you should ALWAYS bring microspikes. That doesn’t mean you always need to use them, but they can keep you far safer on treacherous stretches, and take up little space and weight in your pack. Put them on on steep inclines or any icy sections. They will prevent falls and injuries that are substantially more likely without them. We recommend not buying the cheapest one’s on Amazon, because they break easy. Hillsounds or Katoohla’s are great. There are some other brands as well.
Seriously, always bring microspikes.
Crampons are really only for serious hiking/climbing. You may hear hikers interchangeably talk about crampons and microspikes, but crampons technically have far larger spikes, and are meant for more serious ice, and climbing scenarios.
Preparing For Your Hike In The Snow
Avoid Solo Hikes As Much As Possible
There isn’t anything wrong with hiking by yourself, you just need to be aware of the added risks of doing so. Being alone substantially increases your risk of bad things happening. Don’t be solo hiking if you are new to hiking, or new to winter hiking. Go with someone experienced first, gain your own experience, and then consider it.
Tell Someone Where You Are Going
Always tell someone where you will be hiking and the route you are taking. Why? If something were to happen – now you have a backup plan. Someone will know you haven’t come back yet, and they will also know where you are supposed to be. Make sure other people know where you are headed.
Check The Weather Right Before You Head to Trailhead
Winter hiking can be dangerous. But it is extremely more dangerous in bad weather. Winter is renowned in many places for fast changing conditions. The forecast the day before could actually significantly change by the morning you are heading out. Be sure to check as close to your departure time is possible. Use tools like mountain forecast to understand temperatures, winds, and snowfall at different elevations.
Daylight is pretty short in winter months. In many cases, it makes sense to start before sunrise to ensure you are maximizing daylight. Know sunset and sunrise times. Bring headlamps just in case.
Bring a Map – And Know How To Use It
If you have hiked a place 10 times in the summer – it could be entirely different in the winter, and in many cases almost unrecognizable. Always be prepared with trail maps and compass just in case you get off trail, need to make a detour, or cannot recognize the area. Many hikes also have off- trail winter routes to avoid avalanche danger. Make sure you know about these.
Wicking layers are extremely important for helping your body regulate temperatures properly. Be sure to be wearing wicking base layers. An accumulation of sweat can be dangerous if things go wrong, or you get stuck somewhere.
With snowy conditions, you’ll also want to be prepared with a hat, sunglasses/ ski goggles for windy and sunny conditions, and a windproof layer.
Your hands also need to stay warm. Having a thin pair of gloves and a thicker more protective pair is usually a good move.
Lastly, make sure you have the proper footwear. Sneakers generally are not the best in winter conditions. A mid to large sized hiking boot is best. If you are going to be an extremely cold conditions, or have a history of your toes freezing up a bit, we recommend getting an insulated hiking boot meant for winter conditions.
If you would like to dig further into the exact clothing you should be wearing and bringing on your hike, be sure to check out our Winter Hiking Clothing Guide
Food & Hydration
Just because it is cold outside, does not mean you don’t need to be drinking. Be careful with hydration packs like Camelbaks as they can freeze in winter. Either bring insulated bottles, or an insulated hydration pack.
Food can also freeze up and become difficult to eat, be sure to bring enough calories for your hike.
More details about the proper food can be found here.
Summary & Insights
Winter, and snow conditions, can be some of the most beautiful times to be on the trail. The bugs and people disappear, making for a more isolated experience. The terrain can become stunningly beautiful, even in some of the worst weather conditions imaginable. With the right equipment and knowledge, nearly all weather conditions can provide you with a safe and beautiful experience. We encourage you to not let the cold weather or snow prevent you from being in the outdoors.
Extra Tips For Hiking In The Snow
- During snowfall mixed with wind, it is essential to have sunglasses, ski goggles, or some type of eye protection. Without it, you may find yourself having to turn around early. Balaclavas are awesome too! On sunny days – snow can be blinding, having sunglasses is key.
- Finding trail can be difficult in snowy conditions, especially if you are the first on the trail after snowfall. Be sure to know the area; have a map and compass.
- Start your hike colder than you think you should. It is really easy to layer up, but generally, you should be starting a little cold – because once you start get moving, your body is naturally going to heat up. If you have all your layers on, you are going to sweat, and get them all wet really quickly. Give yourself a warm up period.
- Pack a warm drink or soup in a thermos – nothing better than warming up to something tasty.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor 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. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about