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 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.
Light snow in early season on the Elfin Lakes Trail
Here in Vancouver, BC our winters are typically not that cold: temperatures between +5C and -10C in the mountains are pretty typical. So 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 or snowshoeing 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. If you are starting from scratch, choose midweight long underwear and a long sleeved midweight base layer top. Polyester and merino wool are both great options for fabric that retains warmth even if you get wet. If you already have winter tights that are a bit thicker or have a fleecy inner, you could wear those instead of long underwear: just make sure they’re not made of cotton since cotton won’t keep you warm if it gets wet.
The next layer is the midlayer. 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 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 Light Obsession
synthetic insulated puffy jacket because it uses breathable synthetic insulation that traps warmth but keeps me from overheating. 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. Buy: MEC
For midlayer bottoms some people like to wear lightweight fleece pants but I find that is too warm when hiking, especially if I’m wearing 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.
I wear the MEC Synergy Jacket
. 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. Buy: REI
Depending on how cold it is and whether or not it is raining or snowing, there are a few options you 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. 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.
I usually wear the MEC Uptrack pants
for snowshoeing or cold weather hiking. They breathe well but block the wind and shed snow (but not rain). There’s lots of other great softshell pants out there too. Buy: .
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 so you might get overheated in them. (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. I wear a pair of really basic waterproof breathable rain pants over long johns or tights for most of my winter hiking.
I like the MEC Hydrofoil Pants
since they have full 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. Buy: REI
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.
If you already own waterproof hiking boots, they will work great for winter hiking and snowshoeing. If you live in cold climate or get cold feet really easily, you might want to consider buying a pair of insulated hiking boots. It’s also helpful to wear thicker wool socks for snowshoeing or winter hiking, since they add a bit of warmth.
I just wear my regular summer hiking boots for winter hiking and snowshoeing. I wear the Salomon X Ultra Mid GTX Light Trail Shoes Buy: MEC
. I also wear thicker wool socks in the winter time. My favourite are Darn Tough socks since they last forever. For winter I wear the Midweight Hiker Boot Sock. Buy: MEC
| Darn Tough Socks
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.
For deep snow, of course you will need snowshoes. When the snow is not very deep or the trails are icy you still need something to keep you from slipping. That’s where crampons or mini-crampons come in. I put them in my pack for every winter hike since I never know when I might need them.
I like MSR snowshoes since they provide great traction on steep or icy slopes, plus they aren’t too heavy. I wear the MSR Lighting Ascents. Buy: MEC
. For mini-crampons, I can’t say enough good things about my Katoolah Microspikes. They are easy to put on but provide lots of grip. Buy: MEC
You are going to want to pick up a few accessories to make winter hiking much more comfortable. Of course you want to 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.
For gloves, basic fleece gloves are fine. Buy: MEC
When you’re looking for insulated ski gloves, make sure you choose waterproof ones. I actually prefer mittens since they keep your fingers warmer. Buy: MEC
. I always bring a merino wool buff (in fact I have three of them!). Buy: MEC
Puffy jacket, fleece gloves… good to go!
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