Winter hiking might just be the fourth season’s best kept secret. Don’t let a chilly forecast keep you indoors. Learn the facts, and use them to master your gear, fueling, and layering systems. Do that, and you can have just as much fun winter hiking as you would in summer. Honest.
Capitalize on the fourth season’s peace, solitude, and snowy landscapes by remembering these 10 winter hiking tips next time you take on a cold-weather adventure.
1. Hot cocoa is actually a winter safety essential.
Your body needs plenty of water for efficient temperature regulation. When you’re well-hydrated, your blood stays thin, which makes it easier for your heart to pump it through the tiny capillaries in your fingers and toes. If you’ve ever spent time exercising in the cold, you know it can be tough to motivate yourself to stay hydrated when all you’ve got is a half-frozen Nalgene. Instead, pack an insulated bottle with hot tea or cocoa.
Because it’s an effective mood booster and way to coax in some extra calories, cocoa mix is actually a recommended item for many search and rescue kits, and a documented tool for helping winter rescue victims cope in emergencies.
Pro tip: If you do carry a water bottle while winter hiking, remember water freezes from the top-down. Store your bottle upside-down in your pack to keep the lid from freezing shut.
2. There’s no such thing as bad weather—just bad gear.
If you find yourself cold or wet on a day hike, don’t blame the weather: You might just be wearing the wrong things. The biggest step you can take to stay safe and comfortable while winter hiking is to choose the right materials and really dial in your layering system. Wet or sweaty clothes can sap warmth from your skin, and in winter, that can result in hypothermia even in moderate temperatures. To keep yourself warm and dry, opt for plenty of thin layers so you can optimize your body temperature no matter how fast or slow you’re moving.
At the very least, pack a windproof layer, a waterproof shell in case of precipitation, and a fleece or light jacket to go under your shell. Select wool or synthetic materials for everything from your baselayers to your hat, gloves, and socks, and consider adding gaiters to seal out snow and a scarf or Buff to seal in heat. Unlike cotton, wool and synthetics retain warmth even when they’re wet. It’s also smart to pack an insulated “crisis puffy” in case of unexpected drops in temperature, as well as extra gloves or socks on long winter hikes.
3. Batteries die faster in the cold.
If you’re using Gaia GPS to navigate and want to make sure your phone lasts in the cold, keep it in a pocket close to your body to keep the battery warm when it’s not in use. For other electronics, consider using lithium batteries, as they’re lighter, more efficient, and typically perform better in extreme temperatures than alkaline.
(Note: Lithium batteries are a great choice for many uses, but not all. For example, most avalanche beacon manufacturers recommend using alkaline batteries, as a lithium battery’s remaining charge is harder for beacons to measure.)
4. Traction and flotation are essential for safe travel.
You wouldn’t drive on packed snow with summer tires, would you? Think of your winter hiking footwear the same way. If your route carries you across steep slopes, boilerplate, ice, or no-fall zones, consider bringing crampons and an ice axe (and know how to use them). To negotiate packed snow or even just a few slick spots on lower-consequence slopes, consider traction devices for your shoes like Microspikes or Yaktrax, as well as a pair of ski or trekking poles. If the forecast calls more than a few inches of fresh snow, you’ll need flotation, as well: Bring snowshoes or backcountry skis to save yourself some post-holing.
5. Walking through snow will take twice as long.
Traveling through even just a few inches of unpacked snow can increase your energy expenditure by up to 2 to 3 times what you’d need to hike the same trail without snow, and that means hiking slower—think one mile per hour or more. Even with snowshoes, you should budget for a longer and more strenuous day than you’d otherwise have in the summer.
If you’re in a higher latitude, you’ll be even tighter on time due to shorter days. Look up sunrise and sunset times before you plan your hike, set a hard-and-fast turnaround time, and start full-day trips before dawn to make sure you don’t get caught in the dark. (Bring a headlamp just in case.)
6. Frostbite and hypothermia can sneak up on you.
Hypothermia can strike in temperatures as high as 50°F, and many people who get frostbite fail to notice it until it’s too late (it’s easy for numb feet to stay out of sight and out of mind). Know the symptoms before you head out, and bring the right gear to keep your fingers and toes comfortable and safe in the cold.
If you notice you’ve got chilly toes even in thick, waterproof boots, take a look at the fit: Sometimes thick socks can impair circulation just enough to keep hot blood from flowing through. Try thinner socks, or sizing up your boots to accommodate your winter-weights.
Also be sure to keep your feet dry: Long days in wet boots can result in immersion foot, or trench foot, which takes longer to develop than frostbite but can also cause lasting damage if left untreated.
7. Winter navigation is a whole different ball game.
Even familiar trails are bound to look different in winter, either because of snow or just the visual differences of fallen leaves and bare branches. Download maps and routes in Gaia GPS before you head out, just in case. Be sure to reference the Snowfall Forecast overlays, which will show NOAA’s forecasts for snow accumulation up to 72 hours in advance. Always bring a map and compass as backup.
8. On average, temperatures drop 3 to 5°F per 1,000 feet in elevation.
This is a good rule of thumb, and it makes sense: The higher the altitude, the colder the air. However, winter weather can be unpredictable. Check the forecast before you go, and pack for the lows, not the highs. Use a weather resource like mountain-forecast.com, which shows the expected temperatures and wind speeds at the tops of mountains as well as at the bottom. If you can’t find a detailed elevation forecast for your area, do some rough math: If it’s 40°F at the trailhead and your hike’s high point is 2,000 feet above that, make sure you have layers to keep you warm down to 30°F.
9. Snow can reflect up to 80% of the sun’s rays.
In most conditions, the worst you’ll come home with is a pretty serious goggle tan. But on sunny days above treeline, all that reflected light can cause serious sunburns and even snow blindness, a type of UV damage to the eyes that can impair vision for up to several days after exposure. Wear sunscreen, UV-blocking chapstick, and polarized shades or glacier glasses with full coverage.
10. Quick-burning carbs warm you up the fastest.
Constantly adding fuel to the furnace is one of the best ways to stay warm in the winter. Carbohydrates metabolize the fastest, giving you a quick burst of energy and warmth. Munch on high-carb snacks like potato chips, crackers, and candy bars throughout the day. Mix in high-fat foods like nuts, chocolate, summer sausage, and cheese, which provide more consistent, slow-burning energy.
Whatever you bring, make sure it resists freezing and is easy to eat on the go. And make sure it tastes good: Winter hiking should be fun, and it’s hard not to have fun when there’s chocolate involved.