After living most of my life in a place where it never snows, I was so excited for winter hiking when I moved elsewhere. But I had no idea how next level winter hiking was until I set out (100% unprepared) down the trail. That’s why I wanted to share my top winter hiking tips for beginners.
10 great winter hiking tips for beginners are:
- Invest in the right winter gear
- Be mindful of snow conditions
- Recognize inclement weather
- Plan for longer hike times
- Bring more food and water
- Learn how to avoid hypothermia
- Dress in insulating layers
- Take sun protection
- Have strong navigation skills
- Never hike alone
Since winter hiking poses so many new challenges, it’s important that you know what to expect before venturing out as a beginner. These 10 great tips will have you confidently setting out down a snowy trail just in time for the upcoming winter season!
10 Great Winter Hiking Tips For Beginners
Having a good set of winter gear can make or break a long hike in the snow, and building your gear list starts with footwear. Namely, a solid pair of waterproof hiking boots should be on your list.
Once you have a good pair of boots, you need to decide if further footwear is needed for your travels this winter. To know what you need to buy, consider the type of conditions you’ll likely be hiking through.
If you’re planning your hikes for when there is little to no snow on the trail (early or very late winter), microspikes may be the option for you.
Microspikes work in a similar way to putting chains on a car tire when driving down snowy or icy roads. These are essentially chains made to slip on over your boots while hiking, so if you come across slushy snow that may have been refrozen into ice, you can put them on for more grip.
These are easy to use and maintain for beginners, but are best used on flat terrain. You can purchase microspikes for as little as $20, making them an excellent, inexpensive tool for the novice winter hiker.
For trails with a much steeper incline or especially icy conditions, crampons are the way to go. Similar to microspikes, crampons slip on and off your boot with ease when you encounter snow or ice, but these have much larger spikes to grip the ice and keep you from sliding all over a sloping trail.
Crampons are bulkier than microspikes and not as comfortable to hike on in normal conditions, so you’ll likely take these on and off as needed. Since these are built for scaling icy mountains and climbing steep, snowy trails, it’s not likely that a beginner will need a set of crampons.
If you’re planning to trek across deep snow and fresh powder, snowshoes are a must. The wide, robust frames allow for weight distribution over a larger area, keeping you on top of the snowpack instead of trudging through it.
There are various styles and sizes of snowshoe designed for different inclines and snow conditions, but this option is ultimately user-friendly and ideal for beginners on snow-packed trails.
The most important thing to learn before heading down the trail in microspikes, crampons or snowshoes is to have a firm and confident step to make sure your spikes grip the ice or snow wherever you may walk.
You should also consider putting snow baskets on your trekking poles, if you’re using them, to keep them from poking through the deeper layers of snow as you hike.
There are a variety of different snow conditions that beginners should be on the lookout for during winter. Websites such as SnowForecast and J2Ski can help you track snow conditions in popular snow and ski resort areas across the US and the globe. Even then, you should know how to recognize the following dangerous conditions while you’re out on the trail.
In areas with little snowpack, the remaining snow will continue to melt from the sun’s warmth as well as become packed down by repeated travelers throughout the day. This creates a slushy surface that is slippery to walk on.
When the temperature drops again, these melted areas refreeze as thick, hard ice, which can be even more difficult to hike on and present a serious hazard for those without proper footwear. These areas are especially common in well-travelled areas and where snow may be periodically cleared by snow equipment.
Snow depth presents yet another obstacle for winter hikers. Not only does thick snowpack block trail markers, but it’s also incredibly difficult to walk in without the right equipment, such as snowshoes.
Tree wells, also called spruce traps, form when the amount of snow under the base of a tree is significantly less than the surrounding area, resulting in a hollow spot underneath the lower branches. These wells can also form around large rocks, aptly named rock wells.
Hikers and skiers have been known to accidentally fall headfirst into these wells and because the snow around them isn’t stable, there is no way to pull themselves up and out on their own, regardless of their level of fitness.
Be mindful that people die from these Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths (NARSIDs) every year, so be cautious of your surroundings when hiking in snow, especially around the base of large trees.
Avalanches are also a big worry for many winter hiking areas and all outdoors folk that enjoy wintertime activities should know how to look for avalanche danger. Avalanche territory is on a mountainside with a slope of 30 degrees or more.
To spot potential avalanche areas, keep an eye out for deep cracks in the snow and listen for a very deep, distinct “whump” noise as you cross exposed, sloping sections of the trail. If the area you’re visiting has experienced more than a foot of new snow at one time and/or rapid warming, this is a prime spot for an avalanche.
Check out your local avalanche center for more information about what’s going on up on the mountain before you venture out!
Hiking in the winter is tough enough when you’re just battling the cold and already fallen snow. The addition of unexpected rain, snow, or even a blizzard can not only make you miserable and ruin your hike, but it can also be downright dangerous.
To avoid putting yourself in life-threatening situations, you should begin tracking the weather patterns of the area you’ll be visiting a few weeks in advance. It’s also a good idea to double check incoming weather conditions the morning of your hike. Winter storms can be unpredictable, shifting course and resulting in unexpected inclement weather.
While some hikers love being out in all elements, it’s not advised to go hiking in winter on a whim. It takes much preparation and the correct gear to maintain a comfortable and happy demeanor while hiking in temperatures below freezing.
Many beginners find that their temperature threshold for winter hiking is 40oF. Anything below that becomes too uncomfortable and difficult for the average outdoors person. If you’re hiking in conditions that are uncertain, bring emergency shelter in case you get caught in the elements (like an unexpected blizzard). This could save your life in a pinch.
Hiking in the snow, even in snowshoes, can take more than twice as long to complete than when conditions are ideal. When planning a day hike in winter, be sure to account for the extra time you’ll need on the trail. Beginners should choose a shorter hike to start off, somewhere between 1-2 miles.
It’s also important to remember that the days are much shorter in winter, so be sure to start your hike early in the morning to avoid getting caught out by the sun going down.
Having a good headlamp in case you get stuck hiking at dusk or later is also strongly recommended. You may also want to bring an extra battery for your head lamp, or at the very least keep it close to your body for warmth, since winter temperatures are known to affect battery usage.
Hiking through the snow requires a lot more effort, so you’ll be burning more calories and require more hydration as you go. This means you’ll want to take more food and water than you think you would need on an average hike.
One of the cool things about hiking in the freezing cold is that there are no worries about food spoiling, so you can take things on the trail you may normally avoid during long hikes, like cheese and meats.
You do, however, have to worry about foods being too cold. Store food close to your body to keep it thawed, such as in your pocket. Having your snacks stored here is also beneficial because you’ll probably want to avoid stopping to eat in order to keep the heat your body has generated during exercise.
Eating On The Go
In this case, try to pack foods you can eat on the go to keep your body fueled and maintain body heat. Even if it’s cold, you can still get dehydrated, and dehydration speeds up the onset of hypothermia (next on our list), so be sure to keep drinking water throughout your hike.
Try bringing a thermos full of the hot liquid of your choice. This can be tea, coffee, cocoa, broth or just warm water. Having this on hand will keep you warm and nourished, while also boosting morale.
As with any exercise, you will start to sweat as you hike, even if it’s below freezing outside. In normal conditions, this moisture evaporates as a natural way to cool your body down, but when you’re in extremely cold temperatures, this moisture is what causes hypothermia to set in.
Understanding the warning signs of hypothermia is key to prevention. Early hypothermic conditions are easily remedied by simply raising your body temperature, but past a certain point you could be prone to very real danger.
- Extreme fatigue (exhaustion)
- Feeling confused
- Slurring your words
- Loss of memory
- Inhibited motor skills
To avoid hypothermia, hike at a pace that you’re comfortable with to prevent excess sweat. Try to keep your feet dry, too, especially when hiking longer distances to avoid things like “trench foot.”
If you’re beginning to show signs of hypothermia, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends removing any wet layers and getting to someplace warm and dry as soon as possible.
There are three layers you should wear during winter hiking, whether there’s snow on the ground or not. These are: a base layer, a mid layer, and a shell layer.
Your base layer is the clothing closest to your skin. This should be a sweat-wicking, quick dry fabric to prevent hypothermic conditions from setting in. I like to use nylon thermals, both top and bottom, for this layer. Don’t use cotton for your base layer. Cotton is notorious for soaking up and retaining moisture. Synthetic materials or wool are best here.
The mid layer you wear can be waterproof if possible, but the amount of warmth it provides is most important. This layer will likely consist of materials like wool, fleece, or down, which are designed to keep your core temperature up.
Your shell layer is the most waterproof layer worn. This includes your snow or rain jacket and waterproof pants or gaiters. You will also want a set of insulated water-proof gloves, a thick warm hat, and wool (or synthetic) socks.
The colder the conditions are, the more important it is to cover up every piece of exposed skin. For your neck, nose and cheeks, I like wrapping up in a wool scarf, but you can also invest in a neck gaiter. It’s always a good idea to pack an extra set of clothes for yourself, even if you keep them in the car for the end of your hike. Don’t forget a warm, dry pair of shoes and socks!
Even in winter, you’ll want to bring sun protection on your hike. If you’re hiking with any skin exposed, be sure to apply sunscreen regularly, just as you would in summertime. It’s also a great idea to wear polarized sunglasses, even if it’s not exactly sunny out.
Because of a phenomenon called the albedo effect, the sun’s rays actually bounce right off of the white snow and are reflected back up, causing sun damage to your eyes and exposed skin. This still holds true even if there is cloud cover!
It’s incredibly easy to get lost with deep snow blocking trail markers, so having a means of navigation is crucial. Because the extreme cold can affect the performance of electronic devices, don’t rely solely on your phone or GPS to guide you. Instead, a physical map is the way to go.
Get familiar and comfortable with reading topographical maps and navigating with a compass. Another option is to try hiking with experienced winter hikers your first time out, who can teach you basic navigation in the snow.
If you have no one to show you the ropes, try going to areas you’re familiar with from the offseason.
With so many added hazards for winter hiking discussed above, it should almost go without saying that you should never set off on a winter hike alone, especially if you are a beginner. Wild animals, avalanches, and blizzards are among a few of the dangers you can encounter while out on the trail. Being with a group of people can help alleviate some of these stressors.
For example, it is easier for search and rescue teams to find a large group of people who are lost or caught in a snowstorm than it is to spot an individual. Additionally, if you or someone else in your party gets hurt on the trail, having extra helping hands to seek assistance or carry the injured person to safety can be a literal lifesaver.
Wild animals tend to steer clear of large groups and loud noises from humans. Since not all animals hibernate during winter, it is smart to use a group setting to keep curious and hungry animals deterred while hiking.
It’s also a good idea (and this goes for any hike) to let someone else know where you’re going and how long you’re going to be gone. That way, if you and your group do get lost or something unfortunate happens on the trail, there will be someone who knows the route you planned to hike that day and when to alert search and rescue in the case that you don’t return in your allotted time frame.
If you’ve ever been out in the forest when there’s a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, you know how peaceful the silent wonderland that surrounds you feels. The 10 tips above are essential if you want to stay safe when going on a winter hike, so you can spend less time worrying and more time enjoying the great outdoors.