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Winter Hiking 101: How to Stay Warm

Winter is a great time to enjoy nature if you’re prepared. Once I attempted to hike 50 miles in December. A group of kids my age packed into a red minivan and drove to the trailhead. We began long after dark along the C&O Canal. I remember dragging my feet through several inches of snow along the gravel path.

The first few miles were easy. Then my feet got wet and things turned south quickly. Long story short, we didn’t make the 50 miles. We didn’t even make 15 miles. Now I can confidently say we were not prepared for this hike.

Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Follow these 5 simple steps to stay warm on your next winter hike.

Plan First

Before attempting a winter hike you need to plan.
  • Plan your route: How long is the trail? How many days? Where will you camp? Where are the closest emergency services? Is there potable water available?
  • Pick your crew: Don’t travel alone. Find experienced winter hikers who know about winter shelters emergency preparedness.
  • Contact locals: Nobody understands the terrain better than people who live there. Talk with locals to specific trail advice and eliminate surprise.
  • Check the weather: Prevent a world of hurt by checking the weather. Will it snow, rain, or hail? Will conditions be good enough to start?
  • Leave a trip plan with a friend: If you get lost people will know where to start looking.
  • Pack the essentials: 10 items will keep you out of trouble. Use my survival gear guide. Expect the unexpected: Carry some extra cash. Bring extra food and water. Bring clean clothes.

Wear Layers

Be sure to wear the right layers to keep you warm and dry.

Base layer: Underwear should be made of synthetic materials that dry quickly and wick away the moisture. Wear 2 sets of underwear (long & regular) to stay warm and dry. Avoid cotton.

Middle layer: The layer that goes over the base layer. The middle layer’s job is insulation. A fleece jacket will help trap heat during winter hikes. Typically, expedition-weight fleece jackets keep you warmest during winter hikes.

Outer layer: Waterproof/windproof layer. The outer layer’s main job is to protect you from severe weather. For advanced mountaineering gear be sure to check out coats from REI.

Winter Gear

Protect your hands, head, and feet with additional gear.

Hats: Pack a nice beanie to keep your head warm. I like to wear a balaclava for extra protection from the wind and snow. Balaclavas cover the entire head and neck region.

Gloves: Keep those hands warm at all costs. Bring extras in case you lose a pair.

Socks: Crucial to keep your feet and toes warm and dry. Pack 2 pears, one thin pair and a thicker pair to go over it.

Gaiters: Gaiters go over your boots and pants for protection from deep snow, mud, and water.

Essentials: These 10 items should be on every list regardless of weather.

For more information on winter gear be sure to check out these related articles:

How to Pick a Great Backpacking Tent

How to Pick a Great Sleeping Pad

How to Pick a Great Sleeping Bag

Start Early

Your window of opportunity is small in winter. The sun rises late and sets early. Wake up early, get a good breakfast, and hit the trail. Push yourself to reach camp before dark.

Never start with a long winter hike. I learned this from painful past experiences. Start simple with 10 miles or less. As you gain experience add distance.

Stay Fueled

Research shows that hikers can lose 50% more calories in winter when compared to summer hikes of similar distance. Pack plenty of high calorie foods. Keep foods in pockets to avoid freezing. For high calorie foods read my Ultimate Backpacking Food Guide.

Hope you enjoyed these 5 steps on how to stay warm while hiking in the winter. What do you do to stay warm while winter hiking?


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