Winter Hiking Tips & Recommended Gear

How to Make the Most of Winter on the Trails

by Sam Ortiz

Winter recreation can seem daunting! With special considerations for cold weather and changing conditions, it’s tough to know where to start, but getting outside in winter is possible (and fun!) even if you don’t ski or snowboard. With a few key pieces of gear and know-how, you’ll be ready for winter hiking adventures in no time.

I first fell in love with winter hiking when I attended a free ranger-led snowshoe walk at Mount Rainier National Park. As someone who had always written off winter activities because I simply didn’t know how to begin, I was excited for the opportunity to learn from the expertise of a park ranger.

Now, six years later, I am deeply in love with winter and all that it has to offer. Perhaps, more than anything, I’ve fallen in love with winter recreation because getting outside is accompanied by vitamin D, serotonin, and endorphins—a much needed combo during the darkest time of the year.

Winter hiking gear: Traction & layers

When it comes to winter recreation, simple gear staples can really make a difference in both comfort and safety. 

Traction devices

These are all things that you can add to your shoes to make it easier and more enjoyable to move around in snowy and icy conditions. Three common types of winter traction are microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons.

 

  • Microspikes are rubber and metal webs that stretch over the bottom of your shoes. They’re ideal for walking on patches of ice or in shallow snow. 
    •  Gear recommendation: I’ve tried nearly every option of microspike on the market, and my favorite by far is the Yaktrax ICEtrekkers Diamond Grip Traction System. While these are one of the more expensive microspike options, the extra price pays for itself with a longer-lasting piece of equipment that can stand up to your adventures. (Bonus: because of the way that the Diamond Grip traction system is designed, these won’t slip on smooth rock and indoor surfaces like many other microspike options.)
  • Snowshoes are large rigid plates for the bottom of your feet that are designed to spread your weight on the snow’s surface. This weight disbursement keeps you from sinking in snow! They’re great for walking on flat & moderate grades.
    • Gear recommendation: The type of snowshoe that will work best for you will depend on the kind of trails you’re interested in exploring. For flat, groomed trails any kind of snowshoe will work. But if you’re venturing onto mountain trails,I love the MSR Revo Ascent Snowshoes. These not only have built in traction to keep you from sliding when going up and down hill, they also have built in heel-lifts to make traveling uphill easier.
  • Crampons are large spikes that you attach to a rigid boot, such as a mountaineering boot. They are meant for walking on very steep snow and glaciers. These are technical tools meant for technical environments and should only be used with training or when accompanied by a professional guide.
    • Gear recommendation: I love the C.A.M.P. USA Stalker Universal Crampons. These crampons fit a wide variety of boots, including hiking boots!  At a lower price point than many other options on the market, this option is also more accessible for those on a budget.

Trekking Poles

While not necessary, trekking poles are a piece of winter gear that I never leave home without. By its nature, winter recreation is a little more slippery and awkward than regular walking! With things on your feet that you might not be used to, trekking poles can help keep you steady and balanced.

  • Gear recommendation: There’s nothing worse than trusting a trekking pole to hold and having it collapse while using it! That’s why I opted for the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock Trekking Poles. I trust them to withstand the shock of a sudden fall and have unintentionally tested this feature many times over the 4 years that I’ve been using them.

Pack the essentials

In addition to packing all the basics for a day on trail (which you can learn more about with our Illustrated Guide to Packing a Day Pack), there are some extra items you might want to consider bringing along on your winter adventures.

  • Waterproof gloves or mittens can help protect your hands from exposure to the cold.
  • Hand warmers are helpful to stash inside of gloves and can also be used inside shoes, or in pockets to help add a little extra warmth wherever you might need it.
  • Sunglasses help reduce the extra glare that the sun creates when reflecting off the snow.
  • A hot drink like cider or cocoa will stay insulated and spill proof inside of a Hydroflask and will keep you warm during snack breaks and help you stay hydrated.
  • Warm & cozy clothes stashed in the car is something I bring on every winter trip to make the drive home dry and comfortable!

Layer up

The best thing to wear for winter recreation is layers! I typically opt for 3 or 4 lighter layers, rather than 1 or 2 heavier layers. Having more layers allows you to adjust easily and regulate your temperature throughout your trip.

It is both normal and expected to adjust your layers numerous times throughout your adventure! You’ll need less layers when you’re working up a sweat heading uphill and need more insulation while taking a break or heading downhill. 

Opt for fabrics that are breathable and moisture wicking, like merino wool. Stay away from fabrics that contain cotton which traps moisture from sweat and can make you very cold!

Important things to know & plan around

Avalanche Danger

An important consideration before heading out for a winter hike is whether or not avalanche danger is present. The Northwest Avalanche Center is a great resource. They post daily avalanche forecasts mid Nov through mid April and also offer free avalanche awareness courses throughout the season.

Trail Conditions

Winter trail conditions can change quickly! Look at recent trip reports from trails associations or AllTrails to see current conditions.

Weather

Don’t forget to check the weather forecast for the area you’ll be headed to. You can also check in on road conditions of any mountain passes you may be traveling through. Many states’ Department of Transportation sites have live webcams on all major mountain passes, and also update their Twitter pages with real time traffic.

Turnaround Time

Winter brings shorter, colder days and with that comes an increased need for implementing safety measures before an outing. You can also expect for snowy trails to take more time to complete than the same trail might take in the summer. 

Choose a turnaround time prior to your outing and stick to it! After sunset, temperatures can plummet and navigation gets more difficult. It can be very tempting to push on if you haven’t reached your goal destination. However, having an agreed upon turnaround time can help to make the decision to stop easier.

Takeaways and tips

While getting outside during winter does require a little extra gear and planning, the beauty of snow-laden adventures definitely makes winter hiking worthwhile. 

If you’re interested in finding groups or events to join for new winter experiences, there may be a number of options depending on the area that you live in.

  • REI offers snowshoe classes and day trips around the country that you can join to build skill and build friendships.
  • Looking for a more formal group hike led by an expert? Here you can find a list of free ranger led walks in WA compiled by the Washington Trails Association (WTA).
  • Facebook groups like PNW Outdoor Women and other region specific groups offer opportunities to connect with likeminded people and join events near you.
  • For those in WA state, the Mountaineers offers a basic snowshoeing course and a myriad of trip options that course graduates can join.

All photos courtesy of Sam Ortiz.

Editor’s Note: This article includes affiliate links, which help to support She Explores at no cost to you.

  1. Mon says:

    Brilliant Article with so much important information. Thank you!!!

  2. MJ Sackett says:

    Even though a an experienced winter outdoor person, I found this article to be very informative

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