Winter Hiking Safety Guide: How to Stay Warm and Plan Ahead

solo hiker over looking mountains in snowy scenery

Winter hiking offers the ability to test out new skills, push your physical limits, and experience a landscape transformed by either snow or an open tree canopy. Plus, in many places, you will have the trails all to yourself, making winter one of the best times to seek solitude in nature.

However, the same things that make winter hiking special also introduce unique considerations for preparedness and safety: Colder temperatures, empty trails, and shorter days reduce your margins for error. Snow can also impair visibility and obscure navigational handrails.

In this article, you’ll learn how to pack for winter excursions, what hazards to expect, how to stay fueled and hydrated in the cold, and how to navigate in snowy conditions. This guide also includes tips for diagnosing and treating cold-related illness and injury in case of an emergency.

Included in this guide:

  1. Hazards of hiking in winter terrain
  2. Fuel and hydration for hiking in cold weather
  3. Navigation in winter conditions
  4. Essential winter hiking gear
  5. Winter first aid

Hazards of Hiking in Winter Terrain

hiker traversing glacier

Winter can radically alter a landscape, giving it both otherworldly beauty and unique dangers. Here are a few to be aware of before you set out.

Ice

In the winter, melt-freeze cycles can turn trails into slick ribbons of ice. Similar conditions can result when snow on popular routes becomes compressed over time. Slips on icy trails usually only result in bumps and bruises, but a bad fall can cause more serious back, ankle, or wrist injuries. Pack traction (see “Essential Winter Hiking Gear,” above) and metal-tipped trekking poles for extra stability in icy conditions.

Tree Wells

Skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers can all fall victim to tree wells, which are pits of deep, unconsolidated snow that form around tree trunks. The danger occurs when skiers or riders skim too close to the edge of the pit, which is often obscured by evergreen boughs, and fall in head-first. Experts estimate that 90 percent of tree well victims are unable to escape the soft, deep snow on their own—one reason why solo tree-well victims often succumb to suffocation. Avoid traveling alone in snowy, forested terrain, especially just after a snowstorm. Stay in sight of your partner and be ready to call for help and excavate them if a fall should occur.

Avalanches

An avalanche is a mass of snow moving down a slope. In the US, avalanches kill 25-30 people and injure many more each winter. Most victims of avalanches are backcountry skiers and snowboarders, snowmobilers, and ice climbers, but oblivious hikers occasionally get caught in slides, as well. Avalanches can occur above and below treeline. About 95% of avalanches start on slopes that are 30 – 45 degrees in steepness, but the snow can travel all the way into flat terrain that appears safe to the untrained eye. Before you head out, consult trip reports, topo maps, and local experts to make sure your hike won’t take you into avalanche terrain. You can view your local avalanche report, another invaluable resource, at www.avalanche.org. If you’re a skier, check out this comprehensive guide to planning a backcountry ski tour and avoiding avalanche terrain.

Steep Snow

The adventure and challenge of kicking steps into steep, snow-covered slopes makes snow climbing appealing for many. However, it’s often more technical than it looks, since slipping on a steep slope can send you sliding for hundreds of feet. Make sure you know how to assess snow conditions, use crampons, and self-arrest a fall with an ice axe.

Many snow climbs also cross avalanche terrain, so if you’re bagging winter summits—make sure you’re familiar with avalanche safety first.

Glaciers

Glaciers guard many of the U.S.‘s most iconic summits. While there are many permanent snowfields throughout the West (some of which are misnamed as glaciers), for the most part, true glaciers only exist in the far north and in the Pacific Northwest. These active glaciers move and form cracks over time, and these fissures (called crevasses) can be hidden under snow, making unexpected, fatal falls a possibility. Don’t venture across glaciated terrain unless you’re experienced with snow travel and glacier navigation. This includes brushing up on your crevasse-rescue skills.

Fuel and Hydration for Hiking in Cold Weather

coffee cup, backpack, snowshoe and bench on snow

Harsh conditions can a toll on your body, and cold weather can affect your natural hunger and thirst signals. Having a strategy for fueling and hydrating is vital to a successful winter hike.

Eating to Stay Warm

Fighting your way through snow, using ski poles, and wearing heavy clothing can all cause you to burn more calories in winter than in summer. Consume plenty of fats and carbohydrates during the day to keep your energy levels up. Bonus: All that food also serves as fuel for your internal furnace. The more you snack, the warmer you’ll be.

Keep in mind that in very cold temperatures, you’ll need snacks that don’t freeze solid. (Below freezing, Snickers bars and many protein bars are tooth-breakers.) Some great options:

  • nuts or trail mix
  • beef jerky
  • dehydrated drink powders
  • milk chocolate
  • chips or pretzels
  • deli meat and cheese
  • crackers or tortillas
  • peanut butter sandwiches
  • slices of pizza
  • banana or pumpkin bread

Staying Hydrated in Winter Weather

The other secret to staying warm is staying hydrated. Drinking water thins your blood, allowing it to reach further into the capillaries that extend into your fingers and toes. Unfortunately, breathing cold, dry air can leave you dehydrated, and cold temperatures reduce your body’s perception of thirst.

The amount of water you should consume varies dramatically based on things like activity level, personal sweat rate, altitude, and how cold/dry the air is. For that reason, experts warn against offering set hydration recommendations due to fears of people forcing liquids and therefore succumbing to hyponatremia. They instead recommend hikers to drink when they’re thirsty (even though that’s compromised in winter), and/or to drink consistently at breaks.

Consider bringing hot tea or cocoa in a thermos and sipping whenever you take breaks.

Keep Your Drinks From Freezing

Wide-mouth water bottles like Nalgenes are more resistant to freezing than narrower bottles or bladders, which have more surface area exposed to the cold. If your bottle is uninsulated, fill it with warm water and store it in your pack upside-down. That will ensure that any ice forms at the bottom of the bottle rather than freezing the lid shut. You can also add some DIY insulation: cut a strip of foam from an old sleeping pad and duct-tape it around the bottle.

hikers in a blizzard with low visibility

Most of the time, navigating in winter is harder than navigating in summer. Snow can obscure landmarks, terrain features, and even the trail. Fog and blowing snow can also snuff out visibility, making it impossible to orient yourself.

Before setting out on a snowy hike, brush up on your foundational navigation skills first. Then, download a navigation app like Gaia GPS. Use it to plot your route, set waypoints to mark the parking area or any campsites, and download topo maps for offline use. That way, if snow or fog rolls in over the trail, you’ll still be able to follow your route and get an idea of the terrain ahead.

If you decide to hike in snowy, foggy, or unpredictable weather, always record a track. That way you’ll be able to retrace your steps, even in zero visibility.

Weather and Conditions Overlays to Help you Prepare

Snow Depth Overlay

snow depth map indicating deep snow coverage

Check the approximate depth of the existing snowpack to make educated decisions about necessary gear and preparation.

24-, 48-, and 72-hour NOAA Snowfall Forecast overlays

forecast overlay shading indicating 2", 4" and 10" of precipitation

Keep an eye on upcoming snowfall to help inform your gear choices and to predict the likelihood of avalanche and tree well hazards.

24-, 48-, and 72-hour NOAA Precipitation overlays

Forecast overlay indicating various amounts of precipitation with color-coding

Use rainfall forecasts in conjunction with temperature forecasts to predict icy conditions and to pack the right layers. Rain can also be a factor in avalanche likelihood.

Slope-angle shading overlay

slope angle shading surrounding Red Slate Mountain indicating slopes above 35 degrees

Avalanche-savvy skiers and riders can use the slope-angle shading overlay to help inform their analysis of avalanche terrain.

Base Maps for Winter Travel

ESRI World Satellite imagery

Satellite image of mountains

Get an idea of expected tree cover and other landscape features with advanced satellite imagery.

Gaia Topo

contour lines surrounding a river bed

Stay on-trail even when it’s under snow with Gaia GPS’s proprietary worldwide topo map. Gaia Topo also includes labeled backcountry huts and ski runs in many areas.

Essential Winter Hiking Gear

hiker traversing snow ridgeline on a sunny day

As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong gear. You can stay warm, dry, and comfortable in any weather—even heavy snow and strong winds—if you’ve packed the right equipment.

Winter Hiking Apparel

A proper layering technique is at the crux of ensuring a comfortable winter hike. Opt for wool and synthetics, which dry more quickly and retain some warmth even when wet, over cotton, which can sap heat from your body when damp. Make sure you have plenty of moisture-wicking and waterproof layers to choose from in case of temperature swings. Remember to remove layers before you start sweating (damp clothing will leave you feeling clammy and chilled) and add layers to trap heat when you stop for breaks. It’s easier to stay warm than to get warm.

You can find more information and best practices on how to layer for winter hiking in this in-depth article.

If you’re expecting icy, snowy, or wet conditions, make sure you have shoes with built-in waterproof liners (often Gore-Tex). Boots are better than low-tops in snow. If there are more than a few inches of accumulation, add gaiters to keep it from getting into your boots. Also, be sure to pack a hat and gloves.

Flotation for Snow Travel

For loose, unconsolidated snow that’s more than several inches deep, consider snowshoes, or nordic—they’ll help you float on top of the snow rather than sinking in. While sinking knee-deep into snow (known as “postholing”) is a great workout, it will leave you sweaty and exhausted, reducing the mileage you can cover. Plus, being dehydrated, damp, and low on calories can leave you a candidate for hypothermia.

Traction for Winter Conditions

If you expect packed snow or icy conditions, bring some form of traction to prevent slips. Often, it’s smart to bring both traction and flotation, as snow conditions can change drastically throughout a hike as tree cover and wind activity change.

For packed snow or less challenging terrain (think flat trails or rolling hills), you can often get by with chains or spikes that bungee over your shoes. These are available at most outdoor stores.

Additional Winter Hiking Essentials

Whenever you need traction or flotation, you’ll also need ski poles. (Hiking poles will work for bare or icy ground, but not for snow; the baskets on ski poles keep them from sinking in so far that they become unusable.) The poles will help you propel yourself up hills and stay balanced on slick or uneven ground. Goggles or wrap-around sunglasses can also be smart to protect against wind or blowing snow.

Tools For Advanced Winter Travel

An ice axe and crampons can assist you in exploring steep and icy terrain. It’s best to take a snow-travel clinic with a local guide service to learn how to use an ice axe and crampons. A guide will be able to help you practice these skills in a safe environment until they become second nature.

Backcountry skis are an efficient way to travel longer distances in unpacked snow.

Mountaineering, ice climbing, and backcountry skiing often involve exposure to avalanche terrain. We recommend avalanche safety courses as part of your training for these activities. Learn more here on the Education page at Avalanche.org.

Winter First Aid

Jagged, snowy mountain peaks with tent in foreground

Wilderness first-aid is a complex topic, and it’s best administered with complete knowledge from a trusted source. Before you head out on your next big trip, consider taking a hands-on wilderness first aid class, many of which can be completed in just a weekend. The education could save your life.

Here’s a list of reputable course providers:

These courses will teach you more about cold-related injury and illness, but here’s a refresher of some of the most common winter medical emergencies:

Hypothermia

Prevention
Hypothermia occurs when your internal body temperature dips below 95°F. While it’s more common in sub-freezing temperatures, it can also occur in temperatures as warm as 50°F if your clothes are damp and there’s a bit of wind. The bottom line: Always bring plenty of layers, including a windproof and/or waterproof layer, when you head outdoors. Do everything you can to keep those layers dry.

Symptoms
Some of the signs of mild hypothermia include:

  • shivering
  • rapid breathing
  • fatigue
  • impaired speech or coordination.

More serious hypothermia can cause additional symptoms:

  • severe confusion
  • extreme drowsiness
  • low or irregular heartbeat
  • cessation of shivering without any significant warming

Treatment
If you or your hiking partner starts to exhibit symptoms, stop and treat the condition right away.

  1. Put up a tent or find another shelter.
  2. Remove any wet clothing from the affected person, and have him or her layer up with all the spare dry clothing you have.
  3. Have the person sit or lay on a sleeping pad, and wrap him or her in a tarp or sleeping bag. Skin-to-skin contact can also be useful in rewarming.
  4. Give the patient sugary snacks and plenty of fluids (heat warm water or make tea or cocoa if you can). Don’t venture back out until the person is completely warm.
  5. If he or she doesn’t start to warm up, is exhibiting signs of moderate to severe hypothermia, or isn’t able to take in food or water, call for rescue.

Frostbite

Prevention
Frostbite—and its precursor, frostnip—most often affects the fingers, toes, ears, nose, and other extremities left exposed to the cold. Prevent frostbite by keeping your hands and feet warm and dry, and ensuring good circulation by wearing properly fitting boots and gloves. Always pack a hat and extra gloves, and wear a scarf or balaclava in very cold temperatures.

Symptoms
Signs of frostnip include:

  • excessive redness or paleness
  • numbness
  • a tingling or burning sensation

When the lack of blood flow has gotten more advanced, frostbite sets in. Symptoms of frostbite include

  • skin that’s both pale and hard to the touch (it may have a waxy appearance)
  • blisters
  • a purple or black hue in more advanced stages

Treatment
Rewarm frostnip immediately. Do not rewarm frostbite in the field unless you’re absolutely sure that you can prevent refreezing, which can cause even more damage. Always avoid rubbing frostbitten tissue, as that can intensify injury as well. Instead, try to prevent further cooling, and get to help immediately. If help is more than a few hours away, read more about rewarming in the backcountry. Wilderness medicine is often complicated, so we always recommend getting professional training before administering any advanced first aid — see the section below on Hands-On Wilderness First Aid Training.

Snow Blindness

Prevention
Snow blindness is essentially a serious sunburn to the eyes, often caused by light reflected off snowy or icy surfaces. Always wear polarized, UV-blocking, full-coverage sunglasses, goggles, or glacier glasses in snowy conditions, even when there’s not full sun.

Symptoms
Symptoms of snow blindness don’t typically set in until hours after the injury has occurred. They include pain, redness, and, of course, impaired vision. Some describe the cornea as feeling scratchy or gritty, like “having corn flakes under your eyelids.” In extreme cases, total but temporary vision loss occurs.

Treatment
Snow blindness usually clears up on its own, though it can take one to three days. Keep your eyes closed and bandaged as much as possible during this time.


*Note: Always consult with a medical professional or seek qualified training before undertaking any medical treatment on your own. Always call for rescue or professional help if symptoms seem serious and you’re unsure of how to proceed.