10 Tips for Successful Winter Hiking

The weather is colder, ground is blanketed in white, and air is crisp: it’s officially the peak of winter. With temperatures and snow falling, many people think to retreat indoors and seek shelter rather than braving the elements outdoors. Fortunately, getting out on the trails in the midst of the most wonderful time of the year doesn’t have to be a hassle. Being prepared is the key to enjoyable winter hiking. The following ten tips will help ensure your next winter hike leaves you feeling invigorated rather than infuriated.

1. Remember Layers are Your Best Friend

Dressing appropriate for harsh winter conditions is key to truly enjoying your time outdoors. The best way to accomplish this is to wear multiple water-proof layers to keep you warm and comfortable. For me, this typically means wearing a long sleep shirt, a light fleece jacket waterproof gloves, waterproof pants, wool socks, and waterproof hiking shoes. Additionally, I tend to err on the side of caution and pack a light rainproof jacket in my pack and bring an extra set of clothes in my car just in case my clothes do get wet while hiking. It’s better to over prepare and strip off clothing than needed, than under prepare and grimace every step of your hike.

2. Have Traction to Stay on Track

Even if your hiking shoes are designed for the most intense hiking conditions, the amount of traction they offer may not be enough. Snowy conditions especially call for more than just your boots; you’ll also need a chain traction system. Metal or steel links assist with biting into snow for better grip in all directions. These can be purchased for as little as $30 at your local outdoor retailer and will give you the traction you need to ensure you stay on the trail rather than slipping off it.

3. Leave Your Hiking Plans with a Loved One

No matter where you are heading out, leave a detailed itinerary of your hike with a friend or a family member. Let them know exactly when you set out on the trail, when you arrive at your hike (if you have cell reception, and the time you expect to be home. In the event that you do happen to get lost on the trail or have an accident, they will then be able to notify the right contacts for you. As an extra precaution, if checking into a state park, log your contact information with the visitor’s center.

4. Don’t Venture Off Trail

When weather conditions are good, it can be fun to venture on a spur trail and discover less-traveled territory. Doing this in the snow is a completely different story. More often than not, these trails will be less traversed in winter months which leads to better odds of getting lost. Getting lost in general is dangerous; in the winter the danger increases tenfold. Search and rescue teams may have a harder time finding you, cell phone reception may be spottier, and temperatures will drop lower at night. Stay staff and follow the path most traveled during winter months.

5. Avoid Bad Weather

As much as you’d love to tackle your favorite peak in the middle of winter, sometimes being fully prepared won’t be enough to make for an enjoyable hike. You can have the best gear and be fully stocked with first aid supplies, but this will be no match for a brisk snowstorm. While bad weather sometimes can’t be avoided, you can do your due diligence and check the weather forecast the day before and day of your hike to know what to expect. If there’s an 80% chance of a thunderstorm expected, it may be best to put your hike on hold until the next time the weather clears.

6. Stay Hydrated and Fueled

Hiking in general causes your body to expend a lot of energy. With constant movement, uneven terrain, and dramatic elevation changes, your body can burn some serious calories in a short amount of time. Hiking in cold conditions is said to burn even more calories (around 445 calories per hour), when compared to similar distances and terrain in warm weather (around 430 calories per hour). Even though you may not feel as quenched for thirst, be certain to drink plenty of water while hiking in the winter and pack protein-packed snacks.

7. Check for Road Conditions

When it comes to planning for a hike, there’s nothing worse than overlooking road barriers that may prevent you from getting to the hike. This could come in the form of road closures or not having chains for your car. Winter is the time of year when road conditions are typically their worst: roads are icier, sketchier, and more dangerous than ever. If your vehicle is not properly equipped to handle these conditions, its best to find a different trail that is safe for you to get to. Additionally, you’ll need and want to look up if road access is even possible. Heavy rain and snowfall may close a road entirely. Avoid wasting your time by doing your research ahead.

8. Don’t Be Afraid to Give Up

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “The harder the struggle, the greater the triumph”. This does not apply to a hike in the winter. When the going gets tough, it is time to turn back around. Remember getting up to the peak is optional, getting down to your car is mandatory. If weather conditions worsen, the trail becomes too tough to continue, or you’re just unsure of where you are going, it is best to throw in the towel and call it a day. The trail won’t go anywhere and will still be there once the snow melts.

9. Carry the Right Safety Tools

A first aid kit should be a mandatory item you bring on every hiking trip. When it comes to winter hiking, a few extra supplies are a necessity. These include: waterproof matches, a pocket knife, a space all-weather blanket, and hand warmers. Additionally, you will want to have a compass and know how to use it in case you get off trail. A topological map of the area you will be hiking will also be helpful in the case you do happen to get lost.

10. Don’t Go On a Solo Mission

Solo hiking can be a great way to clear your mind, escape from reality, and have some much-needed alone time in nature. However, a solo winter hiking should be avoided at all costs. Save your self-discovery adventures for the summer and always bring a friend with you when embarking on a winter hike. More people means a better chance of getting found if lost, more body heat, more supplies, and will lessen the chances of accidentally veering off trail.