Three season hikers looking to expand into winter will find that it takes a lot more gear to be able to hit the trail. Clothing for hiking is much different than sports like skiing as it’s highly aerobic. You’re consistently moving uphill so the ability to add or remove layers is key. You also much prepare for above treeline conditions. Many of the items I use as my winter hiking gear are unisex, but there are some female specific clothes listed. Links to the men’s version will be included when applicable.
On top of having the right gear, you need to have an understanding of how to properly use all items and learn a variety of new skills such as snowshoeing. There are many factors to also consider when hiking in winter such as forest road closures and preferred routes.
Just about all of the gear I may take for a day hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is pictured above. The one thing not pictured is my ice axe. It’s in a box after moving, but there are only a few trails I would use one on. If you do purchase an ice axe, get one of mountaineering and not ice climbing as they’re different. Also take a course to learn how to self arrest properly.
Not everything pictured goes with me on every hike. For example, I research the conditions and track the weather to know which foot traction I’ll need. I’ve separated the gear pictured above into sections and will give you a look into what I use as my winter hiking gear as well as some additional information.
My winter hiking boots are Salomon Toundra Mid WP boots. I’ve owned them for four years and am impressed by their quality and comfort. In warmer weather I wear trail runners so switching into boots is an adjustment for me. Mt feet and hands get very cold so these insulated boots are a must. They rated to -40F and waterproof. I’ve worn these with windchill bringing the temps down to -30F with a single pair of wool socks and my feet have never been cold. I wore them on a hike to Willey, Field, and Tom the day after I got them and they were comfortable. They are snowshoe and crampon compatible.
I use Smartwool hiking socks. Make sure you wear a pair of thicker socks like these if trying boots on in the store so you know if the sizing is right for you. With these boots I went a half size up.
To add a little additional warmth around my lower legs and more importantly, keep snow from entering my boots, I use tall gaiters. For a budget friendly pair, go with EMS Spindrift Gaiters. If you constantly rip your gaiters with crampons, upgrade to the Hillsound Armadillo Nano Stretch Gaiter
Depending on the terrain and conditions, you may need additional traction. From the bottom up are Microspikes, crampons, and mountaineering snowshoes.
Kahtoola Microspikes (pictured) or Hillsound Trail Crampons are extremely handy for hiking in the Whites. They provide a little extra traction with their small spikes that area ideal for trails with mixed rock, ice, and some snow (when you don’t need flotation). I carry my ‘spikes in my pack from November through April. Kahtoola just revamped their Microspikes for 2015 so they are lighter, but more durable.
If you run into steep terrain covered in thick ice and consolidated snow, crampons will be beneficial. I will say that 95% of the time I’m either wearing Microspikes or snowshoes, but there are times crampons have proven extremely beneficial such as the steeps going up and down the summits of Lincoln and Lafayette. If you are just getting into winter hiking, I suggest sticking with some below treeline hikes to s become acquainted with the varying conditions before you invest in crampons.
Snowshoes are needed when hiking on unconsolidated snow to prevent you from sinking in. The weight of snowshoes might make you cringe, but going without them when needed causes deep holes (known as post-holing) to be created in the snow which often freezes up in winter, which makes for treacherous trails for other hikers. Snowshoes will help you conserve energy by preventing post-holing, which can cause you to sink into snow up to your thighs or waist.
It is important to purchase mountaineering snowshoes which have integrated crampons that help provide traction on ice or packed snow along with the power of flotation. I have used MSR Lightening Ascent Snowshoes for four years and have yet to have an issue with them. Be sure to add in the weight of your pack for winter hiking when looking at the sizing guide.
Ever hear the phrase “if your feet are cold, put on a hat”? It is said that about 40% of body heat is lost through your head. Invest in a quality hat that is made of wool or a synthetic material and covers your ears. The Outdoor Research Oracle Beanie is a very comfortable and warm hat.
For above treeline sections, you may need to protect your face from strong winds and below freezing temperatures. I got a bit of windburn on my face a couple winters ago because I didn’t pull out my balaclava. I suggest trying a few options on in stores to see how comfortable/breathable they are for you. I have a Seirus Innovation Balaclava which is a budget friendly option. I don’t find the ventilation exceptional and find it does accumulate moisture. I’ll likely upgrade to the Outdoor Research Gorilla Balaclava.
Goggles will protect your eyes from harsh winds and snow glare. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, you can use those goggles for hiking too! You’ll want to invest in a quality pair of goggles that don’t fog up and have adequate protection.
I also like to carry a Buff when I need just a little protection around my neck or face and a bandanna. The bandanna is tied to my pack for easy access to wipe my nose. It does get runny winter hiking!
For my hands I typically bring two pairs of gloves and a pair of mittens. I like to bring a pair of thinner bike gloves for warmer winter hikes or if I need to wear them under the mittens on very cold days. Mittens will keep your hands warmer so I like to use them especially when hiking above treeline in cold weather. Below treeline when I know I’ll be taking multiple quick stops for gear adjustments or snack/water breaks,waterproof and insulated gloves will allow you to stay warm while having easier movement of your fingers. If you use trekking poles in winter and need to remove your gloves or mittens, stick your poles in the snow so they’re standing up and cover the handles with your gloves/mittens so you don’t drop them in the snow.
Staying hydrated in winter is a bit of a project, but easily done with the right equipment. I personally do not recommend using a hydration bladder in winter even if you purchase an insulated tube. It still runs the risk of freezing. I switch over to wide mouth Nalgene bottles in winter. EMS sells a zippered insulated koozie that will help prevent your water from freezing. I place the bottle upside down so if anything freezes it will be the water at the bottom of the bottle and it is still drinkable. In exceptionally cold weather, toss a hand warmer inside the koozie. I usually carry two 1 liter bottles for hikes up to 10 miles and an additional bottle for longer treks. You will need to figure out how much water you’ll need for your hikes. You may be able to filter additional water on the trail or melt snow but be prepared to find most water sources frozen and huts closed for the season. If you do bring a filter or Aquamira be sure to keep them warm to prevent them from freezing.
Some of the smallest items in my pack are extremely beneficial. Here’s a quick rundown on what I bring with me on winter hikes:
Map and compass: Understand the trail you will be hiking and know your bailout routes. You may find blazes (especially along the AT!) hard to follow covered in snow. Knowing how to properly use a map and compass could save your life.
Derlorme InReach SE: I have yet to use mine in winter (I got it for my JMT thruhike) but it’s not a bad idea to have one, especially if you have friends and family that worry. It isn’t a replacement for poor mountaineering skills. In winter it may take hours or even days for rescue to get you and that’s if the beacon is accurate.
Headlamp: This Black Diamond Headlamp is bright and durable. Bring spare batteries as the cold will drain the batteries quick. I like the e-lite as a really lightweight secondary headlamp.
First Aid: My kit is simple with gauze, band aids, Ibuprofen, Leukotape, etc. I know I won’t be suturing my arm on a hike so I don’t bring those items. In case myself or someone in my group gets hurt I have a copy of Wilderness Medicine Institute’s SOAP notes to aid in a rescue effort. I also carry an emergency bivvy (not pictured- inside my other pack!) and sometimes a sleeping bag, pictured below. If someone hurts themselves a sleeping bag, emergency bivvy, or space blanket will help them regulate their core temperature when waiting for rescue. I highly recommend taking the SOLO Schools Wilderness First Aid course.
Whistle: Make sure to bring a plastic whistle as a metal one will freeze. It will also work better than the integrated whistle now on most packs.
Other essentials: bathroom kit (toilet paper, extra baggy to pack out trash, hand sanitizer), lighter, rite in the rain pen or a mechanical pencil, letherman, sunscreen (the sun’s reflection off the snow can give you a sunburn), and chapstick.
When you need to head to the grocery store in winter you may find yourself wrapped in a thick sweater, scarf, and puffy jacket, almost immovable, but you don’t freeze in the lot. Many people try and use the same method for winter hiking. After all, you may be spending an entire day in below freezing temps!
Once you hit your first steep climb, you begin shedding layers. But what if you don’t have many? You run into issues like overheating. If you sweat on a winter hike and then your sweat is exposed to frigid air and whipping winds, you run the risk of getting hypothermia.
Swap out those heavy layers with thin ones that work hard together. I’ve been down to a short sleeved shirt and layered up with midlayers and a down jacket during the same hike. The key is versatility and a clothing system that works together. This is what I bring:
Salomon Elevate Mid Jacket– I have a similar hoodless version that is no longer sold.
My favorite Salomon Windstopper Trail Tights are no longer made. SmartWool PhD Run Wind Tights are the most similar.
I wear an older pair of long underwear that’s I’ve cut above the knee under the tights. I find wearing full length long underwear is too warm for me.
Finally I keep everything in a pack suitable for winter hiking. I like the Gregory Jade 38 for winter hikes. The capacity is good for the gear I bring (make sure your pack is large enough to accommodate your gear), is tough enough to deal with the conditions, is easy to organize, and I can strap my snowshoes on the sides easily.
I use a piece of Polycryo to line my pack and keep my clothes in stuff sacks to protect them from precipitation.
As I mentioned above. I sometimes bring a sleeping bag. Typically I will on longer above treeline hikes. Some choose to bring one all the time.
For trekking poles you will want to make sure yours are snow basket compatible. Unfortunately when I purchased my Black Diamond ZPoles four years ago, I didn’t look to see if they were and the tips do not come off so they are unable to accommodate snow baskets. The baskets will prevent your trekking pole tips from sinking into the snow. Basically, acting as mini snowshoes.
The last item I would recommend bringing is a sitpad for breaks. You can quickly become chilled when having lunch. I suggest also keeping your breaks frequent but short.