Advice Hiking Tips

8 Tips for Winter Hiking (You Don’t Have to Freeze!)

Snowshoeing on Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, BC. Find out how to have a safe and fun hike with these 8 tips for winter hiking.

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If you’re like me, hiking is a year round activity.  I’m not a big winter person (sorry!) and I don’t love skiing.  So when winter rolls around, I just keep hiking.  If there’s enough snow I’ll wear snowshoes, but really snowshoeing is mostly just hiking with weird things on your feet.  Of course in the winter, it gets cold, it gets dark, and it gets slippery so there are more factors to consider before heading out on a winter hike.  Here are my tips for winter hiking to ensure your cold weather trips are just as fun as your summer adventures.

 

Know the Forecast and Trail Conditions

Before I leave, I pick a destination based on the weather forecast and conditions.  Checking the weather is kind of a no-brainer and is something I do all year long, but in the winter I also try to get an idea of trail conditions since harsh weather can do a number on the trails.  I want to know if there is ice, how much snow there is, and if there are any washouts or other issues with the trail.

For trail conditions I like to check a local online hiking forums for the area as well as the website of the park I plan to visit. If you want a complete list of everywhere you can find hiking conditions for the Vancouver area and Southwest BC, check out my post on how to find trail conditions for Vancouver.  For snow conditions I use the closest ski resort forecast to my destination from snow-forecast.com since it will provide conditions and forecasts for various elevations.  But watch out for artificially inflated snowpack numbers from man-made snow!

Winter walk in Pacific Spirit Park, Vancouver, BC. Find out how to stay warm and have fun with these 8 tips for winter hiking.

A casual winter walk in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Park

 

Be Prepared

I always carry The Ten Essentials when hiking and it’s even more important to do so in the winter. (For a complete list of what I carry, check out my post “What to Bring on a Day Hike” on Vancouver Trails.)  I supplement my regular first aid kit and emergency supplies with some chemical hand warmers and a bright headlamp with fresh batteries (in addition to the small emergency light I always carry).  I also add in sunscreen and lipbalm because the snow reflects light and no one likes sunburns and chapped lips.

I recommend: I use a Petzl Actik headlamp. It’s super bright and easy to use without being too expensive. Plus the batteries last a long time on low power. Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com. I also carry the super tiny Petzl E+Lite in my first aid kit as a backup emergency light. It’s tiny and has a battery that lasts up to 10 years. Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com

Winter hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Find out how to stay safe in the mountains in the winter with these 8 tips for winter hiking.

Winter hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park

 

Be Safe

Avalanches are no joke.  Read avalanche warnings and information about the area where you will be hiking on avalanche.ca (Canada) or avalanche.org (America).  If you plan to regularly travel on snow into avalanche terrain take an avalanche course and check out this great article on recognizing avalanche terrain from MSR’s blog, The Summit Register. I learned SO much when I took avalanche training and it changed the way I look at mountains.

 

Bring the Right Gear for the Conditions (And Know How to Use It)

If there is lots of deep snow I wear my snowshoes. But in the Vancouver area, often there isn’t that much snow or it’s so packed down that snowshoes aren’t necessary.  That’s why I always pack my lightweight mini-crampons.  They are great for packed snow, icy trails or steeper slopes.  Most winter accidents involving hikers occur when someone slips and falls on a steep icy or snowy slope.  Snowshoes are great for providing floatation in deep snow, but they aren’t great at gripping steep slopes.  Read SAR professional Michael Coyle’s excellent blog posts “How to Kill Yourself Snowshoeing” for a great overview of situations where snowshoes are actually more dangerous than they are helpful and the companion article “How to NOT Kill Yourself Snowshoeing” for what to do when, as he says, “everything goes to shit”.

I recommend: I wear MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes since they provide good grip on icy slopes. If you’re looking for something a little less expensive, any I recommend any MSR snowshoes. I used the budget-priced MSR Evos for years. They’re not as light, but they grip just as well Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com. For mini-crampons I like the Kahtoola Micro-spikes. They are pointy enough to grip most moderate ice and the rubber straps stretch to fit both my trail runners and my bigger backpacking boots. Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com.

Snowshoeing at the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish. Find out how to stay safe in the mountains in the winter with these 8 tips for winter hiking.

Snowshoeing at the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish

 

Layer Up, BUT “Be Bold, Start Cold”

A common tip for winter hiking is to dress in layers.  The trick is to avoid sweating since once you stop you’ll be wet and cold.  A few years ago my avalanche course instructor taught me her winter mantra: “Be bold, start cold” and I’ve lived by it ever since.  I wear as few layers as possible while hiking and save the warm layers for breaks.

The type of clothing I bring depends on the weather and how long I’m out for, but in general I consider the following items as must-haves in addition to regular three-season hiking clothing: long underwear, a puffy jacket that is compressible, two pairs of gloves (one warmer than the other), a warm hat, a buff or neck warmer, gaiters and warm socks.  It’s also worth keeping in mind that if you take off any article of clothing that is wet from sweat, it will soon freeze and be virtually unwearable so that’s why I always bring extra gloves and often bring extra hats and hiking shirts. Check out my blog post about what to wear for winter hiking for MUCH more detailed info about clothing choice for cold weather hiking and snowshoeing.

 

Stay Hydrated

When its cold out I find that I just don’t feel as thirsty and tend to drink less water.  The downside of this is that I’m often horribly dehydrated after winter hikes.  It’s important to keep drinking, but in temperatures below freezing, it can be hard.

If the temperature is around freezing you can get away with using a hydration bladder.  Follow these tips to keep the hose and mouthpiece from icing up: Fill it with warm water at home.  Keep as much of the hose inside your pack as possible.  Take small sips of water often to keep water moving through the hose and mouthpiece.  After you are done with each sip, blow air back into the hose to force the water back down into the reservoir.  You can buy an insulated tube cover and put a chemical hand warmer pack next to your mouthpiece as well, but that strategy will only work for milder temperatures, not extreme cold.

For weather that is well below freezing you’ll need an insulated water bottle or a thermos.  You can also buy a insulated water bottle covers or cozies (or just wrap your bottle inside an extra fleece in your pack).  Fill your bottles at home with hot water, tea or hot chocolate.  You can also turn your water bottle upside down in your pack to ensure that the top doesn’t get frozen shut as the side facing up will freeze first.

I recommend: If I’m going to use an reservoir, I like to use the Source Durabag since it’s got a bit of insulation in the bag inself. Buy: MEC. I’ve also used the Source Insulated tube cover, which has a pocket for a chemcial hand warmer. Buy: MEC. For insulated bottles, I like the Kleen Kanteen bottles. They keep drinks warm for a reasonable amount of time and come in lots of colours. Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com. If you want to use a water bottle cozy, Outdoor Research makes a great one called the Water Bottle Parka Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com | Outdoor Research.

Garibaldi Lake in the Winter. Find out how to keep warm with these 8 tips for winter hiking.

Hot chocolate cheers to great views at Garibaldi Lake

 

Eat Lots

As well not being thirsty, I’m usually not that hungry when it’s really cold and sometimes it’s not that pleasant to stop for long breaks.  I like to bring along high calorie snacks like gummy candies, energy chews, nuts, jerky and chocolate that I can keep in my jacket pocket and eat as I hike.  Traditional hiking food like sandwiches tends to freeze into solid lumps in the winter – not appetizing! (Pro tip: keep your food in your pockets to keep it from freezing.)  Another great option is a thermos full of warm soup.  If you have the time and can find a good place to stop out of the wind, bring along a backpacking stove and an easy to prepare warm meal (think just add boiling water).

I Recommend: I love Honey Stinger Energy Chews. They taste like gummy candy but have added electrolytes. Plus, they don’t really freeze unless it’s really, really cold. Buy: MEC | Backcountry.com.

 

Keep Your Electronics Warm

Cold weather kills batteries.  There is nothing more frustrating than arriving at a beautiful viewpoint only to find that your camera is too cold to function.  If you are using a GPS for navigation or are carrying a mobile phone that could be used to call for help in an emergency, you’ll want to keep them operational as well.  Carry electronics in a jacket pocket to benefit from your body heat and bring spare batteries just in case.

 

Bring a Big Backpack

With all the extra stuff you’ll need to carry for winter hiking, you’ll need a bigger backpack.  In the summer I typically carry a smaller 20L daypack, but for winter trips I upgrade to a bigger pack.  When considering a pack for winter hiking you’ll want one that has lash points or compression straps that allow you to carry your snowshoes and trekking poles in case you don’t need them.  I also like packs that don’t have a lot of mesh pockets on the outside since these can collect snow.

I Recommend: Right now I’m using a Deuter Freerider Backapck that has straps for my snowshoes and lots of interior pockets for organization. Buy: MEC | REI | Backcountry.com.

Winter hiking in Iceland. Find out how to have a great winter walk with these 8 tips for winter hiking.

Winter hiking in Iceland. For more otherworldly winter photos from my trip, check out my post about my winter week in Iceland

 

Further Reading:

Do you want more tips for winter hiking and camping? These posts are a great start:

Need some ideas of winter destinations near Vancouver? I’ve got some!

 

Do you keep hiking even when the cold weather comes?  What are your favourite tips for winter hiking?

 

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Tips for Winter Hiking (You don't have to freeze!)Tips for Winter Hiking. How to stay safe and keep warm. You don't have to freeze. 8 tips for winter hiking to keep you safe, warm and happy.

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9 Comments

  • Reply
    Andy
    December 10, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    Great article – the point about not wearing too much to start off is an important one for me. But it’s also important to get those layers back on the minute you stop so you don’t get chilled. I’ve made that mistake too many times but I think I’ve learned my lesson now 🙂 I’m also a recent convert to having a down jacket in my pack for extra warmth when an extra layer of fleece isn’t quite warm enough.

  • Reply
    Al
    December 31, 2016 at 10:19 am

    My favorite cold weather hiking tip is hike faster! A lot of times when its chilly people want to slow down, but I think that just makes them colder. It’s always hard to get started when you put on less layers than you think you need but once you start to exert yourself a little more the body heat kicks in and you warm up pretty well, but always make sure you cover extremities! Cold fingers nose and toes are no fun!

    • Reply
      Taryn Eyton
      December 31, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      I also try to wear less at the beginning – be bold, start cold. For me it’s tricky to hike faster because I don’t want to hike too fast or I start to sweat. Sweaty clothes are no fun in the cold.

  • Reply
    5 Tips for Hiking in the Rain | Happiest Outdoors
    January 9, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    […] Hiking Through the Cold Season […]

  • Reply
    Josy A
    November 28, 2017 at 9:46 am

    This is really really helpful!
    I’ve never been snowshoeing or hiking in truly chilly weather, but i am really looking forward to it (as well and learning to ski!)

    It sounds like I might need a bigger bag though!

  • Reply
    Steve
    November 28, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Nothing was said about wind chill and the dangers of exposed skin?

    • Reply
      Taryn Eyton
      November 30, 2017 at 6:25 pm

      That’s a great point about wind chill and exposed skin. I guess I could have been a bit more explicit about that. I do have more details about what to wear in my other post about what to wear for winter hiking.

  • Reply
    Carmelatte
    December 2, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Love your post!

  • Reply
    Aireona
    December 2, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    I LOVE hiking, but I ALWAYS freeze when I go in the winter (somewhere not AZ). So, this is absolutely great advice for me. I need to give winter hiking a try, although I am not keen on buying new gear that I won’t use a ton. Either way, I am definitely going to bookmark your lovely guide.

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