So you want to go winter hiking or snowshoeing, but… what do you wear? How do you stay warm? And how can you transition your summer hiking wardrobe into the winter season? I definitely had all of these questions when I first started winter hiking and snowshoeing, and through years of trial and error (oh so many errors!), I’ve come up with a bunch of pretty good winter hiking outfits that work for a variety of cold temperatures. So here it is: my guide for what to wear for winter hiking and snowshoeing.
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How Cold Will it Be?
The first thing to do is figure out how cold it will be. Don’t just look at the weather forecast for your city – the temperatures can be MUCH colder in the mountains. Try checking the weather forecast for a nearby ski resort. Or use mountain-forecast.com to find the forecast for a peak near the area you plan to hike or snowshoe.
In my hometown of Vancouver, BC (that’s in Canada!) our winters are typically not that cold: temperatures between +5C and -10C (41F and 14F) in the mountains are pretty typical. In that climate, as long as you are moving and not taking long breaks, you won’t need any Everest expedition-level super warm clothing. If you are heading out in colder temperatures, you will obviously need warmer clothing.
Dress in Layers
The secret to staying comfortable while winter hiking or snowshoeing is layering. You take off layers when you get too hot and add more when it cools down.
It’s also important to wear the RIGHT amount of layers. If you wear too many, you’ll overheat and sweat. Then when you stop, all that cold perspiration in your clothing will cool you down too quickly, or even worse, turn to ice.
My winter hiking and snowshoeing mantra is “Be bold, start cold”. I always wear less layers to start with since I know I’ll warm up as I move. I carry warm gear in my pack to put on when I stop.
The classic layering system consists of a base layer, mid layer and outer layers. I’ve got details on each of those layers below.
Base Layers for Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing
A good winter hiking outfit starts with a warm and wicking base layer (also known as long underwear). If you are starting from scratch, choose mid-weight long underwear and a long sleeved mid-weight base layer top.
Polyester and merino wool are both great options for fabric that retains warmth even if you get wet. I prefer polyester since it’s cheaper and more durable. If you get cold easily, live in a very cold climate, or plan to go winter camping, consider getting heavy-weight base layers instead of mid-weight.
If you already have winter running tights that are a bit thicker or have a fleecy inner, you could wear those instead of long underwear. Just make sure that your base layer is not made of cotton since it won’t keep you warm if it gets wet.
Mid Layers for Snowshoeing and Winter Hiking
Mid-Layer Jackets: Fleece or Puffy
The next layer is the mid-layer. You can wear a lightweight insulated puffy jacket or a mid-weight high-loft fleece jacket for extra warmth when it’s chilly out. Or just keep it in your bag to throw on while taking breaks.
Many people like the warmth and compressibility of a down jacket. But on the WET coast, and when you’re sweaty, choosing a synthetic insulated jacket or a fleece is a better choice. It will dry faster and keep you warm even if it gets a bit wet. When down gets wet, it’s pretty useless.
I recommend: My husband loves his Patagonia Nano Puff jacket. It uses high end PrimaLoft Gold synthetic insulation so it packs down really small when you need to store it in your backpack. Check prices: MEC | REI | Patagonia | Patagonia Canada.
Mid-Layer Bottoms: Fleece Pants
For midlayer bottoms some people like to wear lightweight fleece pants. I find fleece pants are too warm to wear when snowshoeing, especially if I’m wearing wearing long johns or tights. Unless you are really a cold person or out in very cold temperatures, I’d go with either a baselayer or a midlayer on the bottom but not both.
I recommend: I have an older pair of MEC Trek Pants that work fine, but lately I’ve been thinking of picking up a pair of Patagonia Crosstrek fleece pants since they have a wide, flat waistband and a zippered pocket. Check prices: Patagonia | Patagonia Canada
Outer Layers for Snowshoeing and Winter Hiking
For hiking in any season, you need a rain jacket since it can rain or snow at any time of year in the mountains. Make sure you choose a jacket that is both waterproof and breathable so you don’t sweat inside it. 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.
I recommend: I wear the MEC Synergy. It’s made of Gore-Tex C-Knit, Gore-Tex’s most premium waterproof breathable laminate. For years I wore an Arc’Teryx Beta SL (sadly it finally wore out). It’s a super premium lightweight Gore-Tex jacket and if you can afford it, get one. Check prices: MEC | REI | Arc’Teryx
You have a few choices when it comes to picking a type of outer pants for snowshoeing or winter hiking. The type you choose will depend on your budget, how cold it is where you hike and what style of hiking you do.
I like to wear softshell pants for winter hiking and snowshoeing since they are wind resistant and water resistant. (Key point – they aren’t waterproof so they won’t hold up to constant rain, siting in the snow, or bum sliding.) They are also quite breathable so they are good for days when you are working hard or it’s not that cold.
There are some softshell pants on the market designed for snowshoeing or winter hiking, but I’ve found that pants designed for ski touring actually work really well for snowshoers. Many softshell pants designed for winter have a thin fleecy layer inside for extra warmth.
I recommend: I have an old pair of MEC Uptrack pants for snowshoeing or cold weather hiking. They breathe well but still block the wind. They also shed snow but won’t stand up to heavy rain. (They’re discontinued but have been replaced by the MEC Tobo Softshell Pants). The Outdoor Research Cirque pants are similar. They are built for ski touring and have a fleece lining. Check prices: REI | Outdoor Research
Many people (including me) like to wear waterproof breathable rain pants over their base layer for winter hiking and snowshoeing. They are windproof so they’ll retain body heat. This means you might get overheated in them so get ones with leg vents if you run hot.
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 or long johns.
I recommend: I like the MEC Hydrofoil Stretch Pants since they have 3/4 length zips for easy on/off. If you want minimalist rain pants that will disappear inside your pack when you don’t need them, check out the Marmot Precip Pants. Check prices: REI | Amazon
Insulated Ski Pants
Another option is to wear ski or snowboard pants. Many people already have these in their closets. If you don’t, they are easy to find at used gear shops or on clearance at ski stores. Most of them have good waterproofness, although they often aren’t as waterproof as rain pants. Most ski pants are insulated which can be too warm for hiking in, especially in our mild Wet Coast winters.
I recommend: Buy a cheap pair. You don’t need to worry about durability the way you would with ski pants since you won’t be falling down on them. (Or I hope you won’t anyway!) There are tons of budget options on Amazon, but the ones from Arctix get the best ratings. Check prices: Amazon.
Footwear for Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing
If you already own waterproof hiking boots, they will work great for winter hiking and snowshoeing. Just make sure they are really waterproof. If they’re not, the heat from your feet will melt any snow on the outside, which will leak inside and cause cold feet. Brrr!
If you live in cold climate or get cold feet really easily, you might want to consider buying a pair of insulated hiking boots.
(Tip: Winter hiking can cause blisters since the slippery snow moves your foot around inside your boots. Get my tips for preventing blisters.)
If you get really cold feet, an easy way to add warmth when you snowshoe is heated socks. I haven’t tried them yet, but a friend with Reynaud’s disease (a circulatory disorder that causes cold hands and feet) swears by heated socks. The have a small battery pack and you can control the temperature with an app on your phone. There are a few different heated companies out there, but I’ve heard good things about both Lenz and Hotronic. Check prices: MEC | REI | Backcountry | Amazon
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 recommend: I wear Gore Tex ones from MEC but any waterproof or water resistant gaiters will work for winter hiking and snowshoeing (the Gore Tex is for breathability for summer use in sand and mud). The Outdoor Research Verglas Gaiters get really good reviews. Check prices: REI | Outdoor Research | Amazon
Snowshoes and Microspikes
For deep snow, of course you will need snowshoes. (I’ve got a whole guide on how to choose snowshoes if you need help!) When the snow is not very deep or the trails are icy you still need something to keep you from slipping. (Slip and fall cause the most common snowshoe and winter hiking injuries. Read my post about snowshoeing safety to learn how to prevent them.) That’s where crampons or mini-crampons come in. They come along in my pack for every winter hike since I never know when I might need them.
Accessories for Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing
When you’re out in the cold your hands and head often feel cold first, so make sure you wear a warm hat and some gloves. Actually you’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.
I recommend: For gloves, basic fleece gloves are fine. When you’re looking for insulated ski gloves, make sure you choose waterproof ones. I actually prefer mittens since they keep your fingers warmer. I always bring a merino wool buff (in fact I have three of them!).
- 8 Tips for Winter Hiking (You Don’t Have to Freeze!)
- Snowshoeing Safety: 14 Ways to Get into Trouble and How to Prevent Them
- Winter Camping For Beginners
- How to Choose Snowshoes: A Complete Guide
- Best Gifts for Snowshoers (20+ Ideas)
- 17 Ways to Save Money on Hiking Gear
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