Ah summer hiking…the days are long, the temperatures are warm and the gear you need is minimal. Many days you can just stroll out the door with nothing but a ten pound pack, wearing shorts and trail runners. But alas, winter is right around the corner and with it comes cold temps, snow and short days. Winter can be an amazing time to play outside. There are no crowds, no bugs, and the walking through the snow covered woods is like walking through Wonderland. In order to be comfortable, have fun and stay safe in winter, more planning and preparation is required. As they say in Alaska: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only badly prepared.”
Let’s talk a little about winter gear and planning considerations. Before you even walk out the door, it’s imperative to check weather, avalanche forecasts and conditions for you planned adventure. How cold it is going to be? Will it be likely to snow or rain? What about white-out conditions and visibility? Will the trail be icy? Will we be crossing avalanche terrain? One of the most important questions to ask yourself is: Are the conditions within my skill and comfort level, and if things don’t go as planned, can I get out safely? I would highly recommend taking an avalanche safety course, particularly if you will be going backcountry and off trail. There are also some great classes that teach winter camping skills. You can see my tips on this here.
Now let’s run through some gear considerations for winter hiking and climbing (note: I don’t ski so you’ll have to get tips on that elsewhere).
- Traction devices
Basically there are three general options here, depending on your plan: snowshoes, crampons and micro-spikes. I won’t go into all the different brands and styles or we’ll be here for days , but just go over what each item is best used for. There are some trips where I will carry none of these things, but others where I will bring all three.
Snowshoes are best for deeper snow, where you would be constantly sinking without them. If you are going to be off a packed trail, you’ll probably want to have these with you. Their purpose is mainly flotation, although if you plan on hiking steeper stuff, there are snowshoes that have built in crampons for extra traction on icy ground.
Micro-spikes are lightweight traction devices with tiny teeth on them that can be strapped onto any kind of shoe. These are great for slick, icy trails or to have in your pack “just in case.” They are pretty much useless in soft or deep snow but great for trails where you might encounter slick sections. Avoid the styles that have only springs or rubber bottoms, those are made for city streets and are usually not ideal for mountain trails.
Crampons are long, sharp points that attach to your boots. There are many styles but in general these are used for glacier travel, technical climbing and steep, icy terrain. If you are traveling off packed trails or headed up steep slopes with hard snow, crampons are a necessity.
- Safety Devices
Important: please be sure that you know how to use this equipment. It will not do any good to bring it if you do not have proper skills to use it.
Avalanche safety gear could potentially save your or your friend’s life. This includes probes, avalanche beacons and shovels. Again, please take a course to learn how to properly use this equipment
Shovels are also good to carry for other reasons, such as digging an emergency snow cave and making camp.
Ice Axes are used to stop your slide in the event of a fall, or in some cases for technical climbing. This is another must-have item for off trail mountain travel and I’d highly recommend learning to use one and getting plenty of practice with self-arrest before you carry one.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBS) have grown in popularity and could save you in an emergency. They are not required but highly recommended. They offer many different features, prices and options so find what works best for you, should you decide to carry one.
It’s probably pretty obvious that you will need to carry extra layers in winter, but here are some considerations
Hat and Gloves are two things I never go without in cold weather. In many cases, I bring two sets in case one gets wet or gets blown away in the wind. You would not want to be caught in a blizzard without gloves.
Extra socks should be in your pack as well. Nothing creates cold feet quite like wet socks, plus the spare can double as make-shift gloves in an emergency.
Waterproof layers include both jacket and pants. These help not only for wet snow but also for wind. Waterproof pants are also great for glissading.
Insulated jackets, or “puffies” are absolutely essential, in order to keep you warm and toasty. These come in both down and synthetic versions, which both have their pros and cons. Do your research to make sure you have the kind that works best for you.
Boots for winter should be waterproof and warm. They can vary from hiking boots to snow boots to mountaineering boots, but be sure to try them on with the same thick socks that you will be wearing. Some people also like to add a liner sock for a little extra warmth. Don’t get boots that are too snug, or your feet will be more likely to suffer from cold.
In snow, you cannot see trails and winter weather can make for some bad visibility. You must know how to safely navigate in these conditions. Never rely on simply following someone else’s steps. There are many terrain hazards in snow and just because someone went that way does not mean it’s the best way. Remember that routes that are safe in summer are often dangerous in winter, and there might be a safer way to get to your destination. Always bring a map, compass and GPS device and know how to use them! Don’t rely on your buddy. Ask yourself, “If we get separated, can I find my own way out”.
- Miscellaneous tips and accessories
Phew! Are you still with me? Just a few more suggestions and tricks to help make your winter excursions comfortable and safe.
Gaiters are pretty much a requirement, unless you have pants with built in gaiters. They keep snow out of your boots and keep your legs warm. They also protect your legs from sharp crampon points.
Chemical hand/toe warmers are little packets that can save your digits or just make you more comfortable. They are cheap and light and I always have a set in my winter essentials.
Vapor Barriers create a layer between your skin that is waterproof and not breathable. They are often used in boots and gloves and are very effective in keeping your feet dry and warm. They can be as simple as a plastic bag that you put between your feet and your socks.
Buffs and balaclavas will protect you face from harsh winds and intense sun. They are versatile and great for protecting your nose and ears.
Sunglasses are something you may not think of when you head out on a cloudy day, but with snow glare on the ground, they are absolutely needed to protect your eyes from snow blindness, blowing snow and glare.
Goggles are not just for skiers. When you are in a blizzard or high in the alpine in the glaring sun where sunglasses just won’t cut it, goggles are a great thing to have along.
Sit Pads are just foam pads that you use for sitting on cold, wet and snowy ground. They keep you warm and dry and they don’t weigh a thing.
Trash bags can be used to line your pack and keep your clothes and other essentials dry
Lithium Batteries are better in winter because they do not freeze like alkaline batteries do. Use these in your headlamp and camera if it’s cold.
Trekking poles with baskets are nice to have for balance on uneven terrain.
All right! Now it’s time to get out there! Take some classes, practice your skills and if you are new to winter travel, ease in slowly so that you can test out your gear and stay safe. Snow is accumulating up there and our winter playground is waiting. Have fun and be safe out there!
What are your tips or tricks for winter hiking?