Winter Hiking Basics

Now that the weather has shifted, it’s easiest to stay inside until the sun regains its rightful place in the sky. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is real, and one of the best ways to negate its affects is by getting outside, despite the weather. If you’re one of the millions of Americans who hit the trails each summer, it might be worth it to try tromping around the woods in the snow. Here are some tips to get you started!

Pack the Right Gear

You’re going to need layers, but just how many? When traveling through the backcountry, I generally wear a merino wool base layer (any synthetic or silk base layer will have similar properties), a lightweight fleece quarter-zip, and a synthetic jacket to top it off. For pants, I usually do a softshell to protects against wind and moisture.

Winter hiking
Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

Depending on the trail there are three options for footwear:

  1. High-top boots and snowshoes for deep snow
  2. Hiking boots and microspikes (shown above) for packed snow
  3. Regular hiking boots and gaiters for light, muddier snow

Bring Navigation, Know How to Use it

This is especially important if you’re breaking trail, and was always one of my biggest fears when I started backcountry skiing: will I know how to get out of here? Learning how to read a topographic map could not only put you at ease in the backcountry, but could also save your life. Maps and compasses are easy to find at any outdoor retail store like REI.

Know When to Hightail it Home

Winter Hiking

There’s a difference between the weather being bad and the weather being life-threatening. A few informative books exist to help backcountry users track weather patterns like Mountain Weather: Backcountry Forecasting for Hikers, Campers, Climbers, Skiers, SnowboardersI know the summit looks like it’s in reach, and you’ve come all this way, but learning when to turn around is the most valuable skill you can have in the backcountry.

Pack a Lot of Food

Be the friend that packs too much and has snacks to share. It’s easy to underestimate how many calories your body actually needs when it’s hiking three, four, even seven hours. Packing extra food is also a safeguard against the off-chance possibilities. If you are stranded or stuck or injured, you’ll need your stash to keep you going.

Learn How to Build a Snow Cave

It might sound silly, but this is one of those fat-chance safeguards. Traveling in mountain territory means unpredictable weather, the possibility of losing your way, and a myriad of other chances that are highly unlikely, but possible. Plus, learning how to build a snow cave is fun, and might help you survive the apocalypse. Who knows. This video from Outdoor Research is helpful to understand the basics:

So get out there, stay safe, and start having fun!

One thought on “Winter Hiking Basics

  1. Having an ice ax doesn’t hurt either, a lightweight waterproof ” pocket blanket” and a lightweight shovel. The general idea as you put it, is the “fat chance” scenarios. If you are going any sizable distance, plan for the impossible . You may come back, no problems, fine. Granted, it’s extra weight but still worth having. The layering is sooo important. I was climbing in Aspen once and remember how we shed our clothes down to a tank and shorts on one side and as we got around to the other side of the mountain, we had everything we could dig out of our packs to keep warm. Ooooh, also an extra pair of wraparound glasses!
    No fashion statements here. There’s nothing worse than snow blindness. It is extremely painful and normal glasses are no protection if light can still get in from the sides, especially on a bright day. When outdoors, you never know what will hit you.


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