How to Warm Up to Winter Hiking

25 January 2022

CL Croft

A winter hike is, quite literally, no summer picnic. But if done right, it’s worth the effort to bundle up and venture out.

Why hike in winter? Once-crowded trails become sparse and serene; there is exquisite quiet in the woods, offering a special stillness that invites deeper connection between earth and consciousness.

As a NYC-based writer with hiking experience ranking somewhere between enthusiast and dilettante, I spoke with expert trail guide Nate Rowland to learn everything I could. A year-round guide living in the remote mountains of Aspen, Colorado, Nate is also a search and rescue volunteer with Mountain Rescue Aspen, and tests products (like ours) to evaluate outdoor garment performance in the wild.

Here’s your guide to embracing hiking in winter, according to an expert.

How to find a winter hike

“A trail that might be completely benign in summer may travel through avalanche terrain in winter, or breaking trail.” said Rowland. Don’t rely on the internet, as most information is relevant only for warm weather. “In winter, trails may start 6-10 miles from where the road closes.”

Research and select a hike appropriate to your own skill level, and level of terrain awareness. Contact local guide services or outdoor shops to find winter-friendly, avalanche-free hikes and safety information. For the snow-shoer, Nordic centers are a great source for guidance.

A few cardinal rules

The first rule of winter hiking: everything is harder. A four mile walk on the Santa Monica boardwalk is entirely different from four miles in the mountains in the snow, where friction and cold require more energy.

Plan ahead, and be prepared

First thing’s first: check that the trail is open, and safe from avalanches. Time your hike with the sun—an early start will set you up for success. And check the weather (an afternoon thunderstorm can come as an unpleasant surprise). To learn more about conditions in your area, consider taking a local avalanche class .

Never go out alone, stick together on the trail, and don’t go off-route or into rocky terrain. Our expert guide pointed out that the person who’s been hiking in the back can easily get lost if separated, because they’ve spent the whole hike looking mainly at the other person’s butt.

And if you do encounter a problem, don’t panic, and don’t rush. Be prepared for emergencies by bringing a first aid kit, a simple repair kit for tools, and some way to communicate when out of cell service, like a radio that communicates to emergency channels. Tip: even when out of cell service, your phone’s GPS can tell you your location.

Winter hiking can mean unpredictable weather. Especially at higher elevations, never underestimate the power of the sun. Pack for the possibility of the best as well as the worst conditions.

winter hike preparation

Pack your provisions

“When it’s cold, we burn more calories, so we need more snacks,” Nate told me, which made me excited about having a legitimate reason to eat more snacks.

And what kind? According to Nate, the best food is the food you actually want to eat. Energy bars can be disruptive to your digestive system, and the cold, they can also freeze and break your teeth (so can gummy candy). Nate recommends lots of fruit, salty snacks, leftovers from proper meals, and the guilty-pleasure treats that you wouldn’t normally have every day. You’re burning more calories, after all.

Staying hydrated is even more important in winter. Cool air carries less water than warm air, which means that even humid conditions in winter translate to the body as very dry. When you hike in the cold, you lose a lot of water (more from effort and respiration than from sweat), and the rate of evaporation is quicker.

Hydration is also important to staying warm. When you’re dehydrated, your circulatory system will start preserving fluids toward your core. Hydrate before you hike, and drink about one liter per hour of exercise. Opt for bottles instead of bladder style vessels, as the hose can freeze. Insulate your water bottles with layers inside your pack.

Wear the right gear

In colder temps, what you wear to protect yourself matters more, from insulation to waterproofing and breathable base layers. It’s important to avoid sweating, as perspiration in the cold rapidly evaporates and chills you. The secret is layering properly, so you can shed and add pieces as needed.

Here’s how, from the outside in.

On top

Pack a waterproof and wind-resistant outer layer—ideally semi-breathable. This could be a lightweight outer shell, or in the coldest conditions, our MegaWarm puffer (which would function as both outer layer and the next layer of insulation).

Next, an insulator to trap warmth and protect from hypothermia. The WarmLife jacket is ideal for temps above 20°F. Nate tested the jacket and reported, “you get more warmth with less weight, freedom of movement, and a drier, more comfortable experience.” He also recommends the WarmLife Vest as a versatile layering piece.

Then, an intermediate fleece layer. Fleece stays warm even when damp, breathes well, and dries fast.

Finally, a breathable base layer. This helps regulate your temperature by moving perspiration away from your skin. The best options are synthetics (like our CoolLife Long-Sleeve Tee) and wool.

On bottom

Wear pants over long underwear. The pant should be attuned to the day’s weather, and rainproof if there’s a chance of rain or snow. The fully waterproof WarmLife pant was made for these conditions, resolving warmth and breathability with our nano-metallic coating that weightlessly reflects your body heat back to you. They layer effortlessly over long underwear, and with an extra-long side zip, you don’t even have to take off your shoes.

Wear warm socks (we like wool), and shoes suited to your activity. For winter conditions, Nate recommends micro-traction gear, micro-spikes, and cleats (like you’d put snow chains on your car). If you’re walking on ice or snow, a pole is a smart stabilizer.

dress right for winter hiking

Protect the extremities

Always bring a pair of mittens and a pair of gloves. Since fingers together are warmer than fingers apart, mittens are warmer than gloves. On the WarmLife glove, Nate reported that they’re “dexterous, super lightweight, and not overly insulated, providing good hand movement and finger control. They do a really good job of reflecting your body heat back to you.”

When it comes to sun protection, hats and hoods are key. If your down or insulation layer has a hood, you don’t necessarily need a beanie—but bring one if you’re going hoodless.

It’s worth the work

Meaningful endeavors take effort. “In the mountains and outdoors,” Nate reflected, “you’re rewarded for methodical, slow, thoughtful movement.” In short, go take a hike!