Do you have questions on how to choose gear, where to go hiking, backcountry etiquette or something else about the outdoors? Well you’re in luck. This is the first post of a new series here on HappiestOutdoors.ca that I’m calling “Ask Taryn”. For these posts I’m going to take a question from my readers and answer it here on the blog. If you’d like your question answered feel free to leave a comment, send me an email (happiestoutdoorsblog at gmail dot com) or message me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
For our very first question I have a question submitted by Tonie from Vancouver via Instagram. Check out her account @toniemacaroni! Tonie usually hikes in the summer but wants to get into winter hiking in the snow so she wants to know what to wear for winter hiking. She says:
I was gonna ask whether my long sleeve base layer, wool jacket from Mckinley, and rain jacket from North Face is sufficient for winter hiking? I also use a regular hiking boots up to my ankles that are waterproof. I’m not sure whether I need a better thermal layer or boots? I wear North Face tights/leggings for my pants. Could you give me any advice for winter attire when in comes to hiking?
It sounds like Tonie is on the right track but she will need to add a few more items to her wardrobe to make sure she stays warm and dry this winter on the trails.
Light snow in early season on the Elfin Lakes Trail
In Vancouver our winters are typically not that cold – temperatures between +5C and -10C in the mountains are pretty typical and for day hiking as long as you are moving and not taking long breaks you won’t need any Everest expedition-level super warm clothing. The secret to staying comfortable while hiking in the cold is layering (and of course only wearing as many layers as you need so you don’t get too sweaty).
A good winter hiking outfit starts with a warm and wicking base layer and it sounds like Tonie is set with her long sleeved base layer top and tights on the bottom.
The next layer is her midlayer. Tonie’s wool jacket will probably be warm enough as a midlayer while she is walking but when she stops she’ll be cold. As well, while wool retains warmth when it’s wet from wet snow or sweat, it doesn’t dry that fast. I’d recommend that she get a lightweight insulated puffy jacket or a mid-weight high-loft fleece jacket to throw on when it’s really cold or while taking breaks. Many people like the warmth and compressibility of down for this application but on the wet coast and when you’re sweaty, choosing a synthetic insulated jacket or a fleece is a better choice since it will dry faster and keep you warm even if it gets a bit wet. When down gets wet, it’s pretty useless.
I wear the MEC Uplink synthetic insulated puffy jacket and an older MEC fleece jacket that is the predecessor to the MEC Clarion Hoodie. If it’s really cold I’ll wear them together but usually I just wear the fleece and keep my puffy in my bag for when I take breaks.
For midlayer bottoms some people like to wear lightweight fleece pants but I find that a bit warm for our climate, especially if you are wearing long johns or tights. Unless you are really a cold person, I’d go with either a baselayer or a midlayer on the bottom but not both.
Bundled up for winter hiking at Bowen Lookout
For any hiking in any season in the Vancouver area, you’ll want to make sure your outerlayer is waterproof and breathable. That usually means a jacket with Gore-Tex or another waterproof breathable technology. There are lots of technologies out there and many brands use their own, but as long as the jacket is advertised as a waterproof breathable garment, you can be sure it is waterproof. If you spend more money for Gore-Tex or another branded technology you’ll often get more durability and a lot more breathability, but the waterproofness straight off the shelf will be comparable to the cheap jackets. Tonie’s North Face jacket will work just fine for winter hiking in Vancouver.
While Tonie already has what she needs for her top, she’ll need to add something on top of her tights for the bottom. Depending on how cold it is and whether or not it is raining or snowing, there are a few options she can wear on the bottom. The most basic would be a pair of softshell hiking pants with a DWR (durable water repellency finish). They are wind resistant and will shed light precipitation. They are also quite breathable so they are good for days when you are working hard or it’s not that cold. I don’t have a pair (and I wish I did), but the MEC Snowfall Softshell Pants were designed with snowshoeing and winter hiking in mind.
Many people (including me) like to wear waterproof breathable rain pants over their base layer for winter hiking. They are windproof so they’ll retain body heat well, but this means they aren’t as breathable as softshell pants so you might get overheated in them (but you can get ones with leg vents). The bonus is that you can use them as rain pants at other times of the year so you don’t have to buy a dedicated pair of winter pants. They also tend to be lighter weight and packable so you can take them off on bluebird days and just go in your tights. I wear a pair of really basic waterproof breathable rain pants over long johns or tights for most of my winter hiking.
Another option is to wear ski or snowboard pants. Many people already have these in their closets and if they don’t, they are easy to find at used gear shops or on clearance and ski stores. They are usually made of waterproof breathable material but don’t have taped seams so they don’t have the same waterproofness as real rain pants – but you don’t need that extreme waterproofness in the snow anyway. Some ski pants are insulated which tends to be too warm for hiking in, especially in our mild Wet Coast winters.
Tonie’s waterproof hiking boots will work great for winter hiking. It doesn’t get that cold here in Vancouver so she probably won’t need a dedicated insulated winter hiker unless she finds that she gets really cold feet. Hopefully her boots are big enough that she can wear thicker wool socks inside them to add a bit of warmth.
Even if you have waterproof boots, you can’t really go out in the snow without a pair of gaiters. These bridge the gap between the top of your boots and the bottom of your pants and make sure you don’t get snowy socks. Even really basic and cheap water resistant ones will be fine but you can’t skip these. I wear Gore Tex ones from MEC but I’ve worn cheap nylon ones in the past and for snow they work just as well (the Gore Tex is for breathability for summer use in sand and mud).
For deep snow, of course Tonie will need snowshoes, but when the snow is not very deep or the trails or icy I bring along a pair of cleat-like traction devices. I’ve been using Katoolah Microspikes since they are really only a step down from full on mountaineering crampons but cheaper less burly options will work for less technical trails.
Tonie is going to want to pick up a few accessories to make winter hiking much more comfortable for her. Of course she is going to want to wear a toque and some gloves. Actually she’ll probably want two pairs of gloves: one pair of lightweight fleece gloves and one pair of insulated and waterproof or water resistant ski gloves or mitts. It’s good to have both since your hands will be warmer while you are moving, but cold when you stop or when you are exposed to the wind. Another accessory that I like to bring is a wool or fleece buff/neck warmer. You can wear it as a headband, as a hat, around your neck or over your nose and mouth – I always bring one and always find a use for it.
Puffy jacket, fleece gloves… good to go!
So it sounds like Tonie is going shopping! She’s going to need a lightweight synthetic insulated puffy jacket or a midweight fleece jacket, a pair of outer layer pants, some gaiters, a toque, a couple pairs of gloves and maybe some microspikes. She can find all of this at any outdoor store, ski shop or even a used gear shop.
If you want more tips on hiking in the winter, including what else to bring and how to ensure you are prepared for the conditions, check out my blog post “Hiking Through the Cold Season“.
What other advice would you give Tonie before she goes shopping? What are your top picks for winter hiking clothes?