What to Wear When Hiking in Winter
For hikers who can withstand cold weather, the winter months are just as good as the high season to explore the backcountry. On really cold days in places covered by a blanket of deep snow trekking and backpacking can be darn tough. Design features that help hikers keep up their body temperature and prevent common trail injuries like blisters make hikers’ choice in hiking clothes for cold weather trekking an essential consideration for completing a backpacking or mountaineering trip.
A winter hike can be demanding in various ways depending on the biome you’ve chosen for your trekking adventure. Some parts of the backcountry will be icy and blanketed in deep snow, while others will be experiencing a rainy season instead. Unless you’re planning on jumping hemispheres for your winter hiking trip, staying dry and warm will be the central challenge you face.
When it comes to winter hiking clothing, two important factors must be considered. The first is the construction of each individual article of clothing in terms of durability and material. Hikers will want to wear long underwear, a long-sleeved shirt, mittens, hoodie, a puffy down jacket, wool socks, a softshell fleece jacket, waterproof hiking pants, and a water-resistant or waterproof shell jacket.
That may seem like a lot to keep up with on a hiking trail, but it’s not so much to manage and there’s good reason to wear so many items. That’s because the second factor is how each individual piece of winter hiking clothing you wear on a trekking journey in the backcountry must also be considered in terms of how it works and interacts with each of the other articles of winter hiking clothes.
In a single word, this interaction of your winter hiking clothing as the sum of its constituent parts is known as layering. Hikers and non-hikers alike are probably already aware of basic layering – we do it every day with sweaters and jackets off the hiking trail. Since hikers are more exposed to the elements while they’re trekking in the winter, the layering of winter hiking clothes has to be done correctly to ensure body heat retention and dryness.
Most hikers trekking in cold weather with deep snow layer multiple layers on every part of their body from head to foot. Multiple hand coverings like gloves or mittens and two or more pairs of hiking socks work to keep the extremities warm while three or four layers can be worn over the torso. Each layer has its own specific purpose for cold weather hiking.
In addition to the insulating layers of cold weather hiking clothes, there are some critical pieces of hiking gear that hikers should be sure to wear while they’re trekking on a backcountry trail in the winter. A headlamp will help illuminate the trail when the sun goes down early as it tends to do in the wintertime. Goggles can also help protect the eyes and typically exposed areas of the face.
Additional hiking gear like snowshoes, gaiters, and crampons are useful in a variety of icy mountaineering and backpacking situations. Read on for a full run-down of winter hiking clothing and other wearable hiking gear that will help you along on your next winter trekking adventure in the backcountry. Take in everything from here until our final verdict and you’ll find it simple to stay warm and dry on a winter hiking trip when you know what to wear hiking in winter.
Layering your winter hiking clothes
There are three layers in a typical layering system for cold weather hiking. Each one has a separate purpose and in tandem with one another a straightforward layering system should keep wind and weather from affecting you too much. A handful of materials can be used in the construction of the articles of clothing used in each of the layers. Choosing the right material will depend on your specific requirements and the conditions you’ll be trekking through.
The first layer, the one closest to the skin, is called the base layer. The base layer should be underwear such as boxers, briefs, boy shorts, or bikini briefs. Hikers can also wear long underwear either by itself or layered over short underwear, depending on personal preference. The base layer on the torso can be a t-shirt or long-sleeve shirt. Since the base layer has direct contact with the skin and therefore has direct contact with sweat, hikers should take care not to wear a standard cotton t-shirt or underwear because cotton will absorb the sweat and retain it, adding not only addition weight over time but also causing discomfort. Some articles of hiking clothes like a down jacket that could be worn in the mid-layer are ineffective if they get damp, so it’s important to choose a base layer made of wicking fabric that’s quick-drying.
The second layer, called the mid-layer and worn above the base layer, is the most important one for hikers in cold weather conditions because it’s the one that provides the majority of the insulation that helps hikers retain body heat. Common articles worn as a mid-layer include down jackets, fleece jackets, down vests, and synthetic-material jackets and vests. Down jackets are probably the best in terms of comfort, insulation, and packability. Watch out that a down jacket used as a mid-layer doesn’t get wet from perspiration or precipitation, though, as this can seriously undermine a down jacket’s ability to insulate. If a down-jacket mid-layer gets wet somehow, hikers can suffer a serious chill that can be trip-ending or cause serious illness.
The final layer is called the outer layer and its most important attribute is keeping moisture and wind from infiltrating into the lower layers where they can possibly cause a dire chill. Softshell jackets and waterproof or water-resistant jackets that have been treated with a DWR coating or Gore-Tex are ideal for the outer layer. These outermost jackets should also be windproof to prevent a strong gust of wind from chilling hikers to the bone. If you’re planning on going trekking in a place where the weather isn’t cold enough for deep snow, a lightweight rain jacket is likely suitable for the outer layer as long as it’s windproof.
The right hiking pants for cold weather
Hiking pants are fairly straightforward. In warmer temperatures, many hikers swear by convertible hiking pants that have zip-off lower leg sections that enable hikers to convert them into shorts, oftentimes without even taking off their hiking boots. On a winter hike, though, these convertible pants are unlikely to be much use. Even if you’re hiking on a longer trekking journey or a thru-hike, your tent is unlikely to be warm enough to merit converting your hiking pants into hiking shorts. A thicker and more robust pair of hiking pants are more likely to provide the requisite level of windproof, waterproof protection demanded by strenuous mountaineering, backpacking, and hiking in cold weather.
When used in tandem with gaiters, hiking pants that are tucked into tall hiking boots can offer enough layering to keep snow, rain, and debris from entering your hiking boots and causing blisters. Hiking pants used in this way with one or more pairs of hiking socks can also retain body heat and add insulation for your feet, which can be crucial if you’re trekking through deep snow or attempting river crossings in really cold weather. It may not be as relaxing to take your hiking boots off in the middle of a winter hike, but foot care is just as important and extra pairs of dry hiking socks should always be in your daypack, even in winter. Rinsing your feet in a water source like a river or stream may not be an option, but keeping your feet dry will help avoid blisters and keep you trekking longer.
Hiking socks for cold weather
Layering your hiking socks adds insulation within your hiking boots and there are many different types of hiking socks to choose from for your winter hike. The best pair of hiking socks will be made with wicking fabric to pull moisture away from your skin and disperse it over the surface of the sock to quickly dry. Merino wool is one of the best materials for hiking socks and has a natural wicking ability. Hikers often wear merino wool hiking socks as a base layer on their foot and then add a synthetic material or another merino sock as the mid-layer. If you are planning to add some layering for additional insulation in your hiking socks for trekking in cold weather, make sure you have enough room in your hiking boots to accommodate the extra hiking socks.
Wool socks are much better at wicking than cotton socks and you may be able to get away with only changing the base layer of your hiking socks each time you want to alternate into a dry pair of socks. Essentially you would be moving each layer closer into the foot each time you change your socks. Alternatively, you could only change the base pair if you feel too much sweat is building up close to your feet. As always, stop as soon as possible if you feel any pressure points or hot spots in your hiking boots. It can be more difficult to tell if you have tons of insulation from layering your hiking socks, so remember to pay extra attention to how your feet are feeling when you’re trekking on a backcountry trail in cold weather. If your feet are too numb to tell, it could be a sign of poor circulation and you may want to invest in some compression socks as an addition to your hiking sock layering.
Hiking gear for cold weather hiking
In addition to particular apparel choices, some of the hiking gear you bring along with you while winter hiking will be tailored to cold weather applications. We’ve already mentioned goggles, gaiters, crampons, and headlamps. Let’s go into more detail about how each of these pieces of hiking gear can be used for winter hiking.
Headlamps for winter hiking
Headlamps are used in the other three seasons if hikers want to explore the nocturnal world or stay out trekking later than expected for one reason or another. In the winter, a headlamp is even more important because the sun will be setting much earlier than usual. Most hikers tend to pack it in and head for the campsite or back to the trailhead when the sun goes down in the winter, as this also means a corresponding drop in the temperature. But it happens all too often that there just isn’t quite enough time to finish hiking before darkness sets in.
Additionally, seeing a glittering winter landscape by the light of your headlamp is a really serene experience. Many of the backcountry critters hikers hate to encounter on the trail in-season are hibernating or gone in the cold weather months, so hikers may enjoy night hikes more in wintertime than they do at other times of the year.
Layering with gaiters for cold weather hiking
As we mentioned earlier, using gaiters alongside hiking pants and hiking socks as a layering strategy can keep your feet nice and warm and your hiking boots dry while you’re trekking through rain or deep snow. If you aren’t familiar with gaiters yet, you’ll get the hang of them pretty fast. Gaiters go on pretty intuitively; all you need to do is wrap the gaiter around the back of your calf with the zipper or velcro opening running along your shin bone.
Before you fasten it shut, make sure your hiking pants are tucked into your hiking boots in the way you want. Fasten the gaiter and, if it is equipped with such features, attach the lace hooks and tighten the adjustable top so that the gaiter fits snugly but not too tightly. Gaiters differ from model to model, but they aren’t difficult to don and for waterproofing and insulating your hiking boots gaiters can really come in handy.
Crampons for winter hiking
For mountaineering enthusiasts, crampons are crucial for traversing ice and deep snow that has become so packed in that normal hiking boots won’t puncture the surface to gain traction. You’re going to want to put your crampons on as soon as possible. If you get to treacherously slick conditions it’ll be too late. If you don’t know how to put crampons on, all you need to do is remain standing and, if you’re already on a slope, face the hill and step into them. Don’t face downhill or you’ll risk a tumble.
Do your research before you head out to the backcountry to make sure your crampons are suitable for your particular hiking boots and that you have the proper size. Step into the crampon toe first with your toe pointing uphill if possible. Once your heel is also in the crampon, fasten the sizing strap. There should be no movement in the crampons at all. It should fit snugly and not budge when you take a step.
If you’re unfamiliar with using crampons, practice in the snow before you head out to the backcountry. When you’re wearing crampons, you can start with a ‘flat-footing’ method when walking uphill. It won’t be the same as a normal walking gait. Rather, in order to get all the sharp points of the crampons into the snow for a solid purchase, you should be taking straight-down flat-footed steps. If you’re going a steep slope, try taking sideways footsteps.
If you’re going downhill, make sure you don’t get in the habit of taking a normal heel-first step. You can also jab your foot toe-first into a particularly steep slope, but make sure you’re well-practiced at this method before you risk it on a high-elevation slope. There are many other methods for cramponing, but flat-footing is a good place to start if you’re new to it.
Goggles for a winter hike
Hiking goggles offer great protection for one of the most sensitive parts of the body. Eyes and the soft skin around them are susceptible to sunburn and snow-blindness and goggles can protect against both. If you can find goggles that are windproof, so much the better. The best goggles are protected against cracks and impacts, so do your research before you select the hiking goggles you want. They’re some of the most straightforward pieces of hiking gear out there but many hikers don’t consider them at all or think of them as being skiing gear more than they are hiking gear. They are super useful for hikers who are going out in high winds or underneath a bright sun that can reflect off the snow and injure the eyes.
Winter hiking clothing is quite similar to hiking apparel intended for the other three seasons, but since winter weather is so much more severe than it is at other points during the year, it’s more important to understand how to effectively strategize your outfit for cold weather hiking. Layering is critical in all areas, from hiking socks to the base layer on your torso. Moisture and cold can cause a chill, illness, or even injury in the most serious cases, but the right layering and winter hiking clothes can prevent this from happening. Many manufacturers such as Marmot, The North Face, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia have designed entire lines of hiking apparel that can be combined into a layering system for use in cold weather hiking.
Hiking gear specifically designed for use in the backcountry in cold weather or for such pursuits as mountaineering or backpacking in deep snow is widely available and every bit as important as selecting the right winter hiking clothing. If you know how to pair the right hiking gear with the right winter hiking clothing, your winter excursions will be that much more enjoyable and you’ll be able to avoid blisters and possible illness much more successfully. Now that you’ve reached the end of our guide and you know what to wear hiking in winter, you can tackle the backcountry at any time of the year with relative ease.
Bonus tip: Listen to this hiker explain his layering system and what he wears hiking in winter!