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Just Keep Hiking: How to Enjoy the Outdoors This Winter

Fresh air. Peace and quiet. The satisfaction of exercising your body.

If you regularly go hiking, you may be familiar with these amazing benefits of traveling by foot. Perhaps you’ve been doing it for years - or maybe it’s new to you.

Maybe the stress of your job, the endless stream of news, or the desire to escape constant distractions have nudged you to try it.

Maybe you’ve found peace outside, or community, or a sense of feeling reenergized. You go on hikes not to escape something, but to find that feeling you now crave. You enjoy being in touch with the changing of the seasons: the flowers blooming in the spring, the sunny and endless days of summer, and the crisp, cool feeling of fall. And then it hits you.

Winter is coming.

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

This can mean a lot of different things depending on where you live. For some, it means slightly wetter or cooler weather. For me and plenty of fellow hikers, however, it means freezing temperatures, relentless winds, and lots of snow.

If the latter scenario sounds familiar, you may already be running indoors to curl up with a cozy blanket and cup of cocoa. I don’t blame you. But before you pack away your hiking boots for the season, hear me out.

Hiking in the winter is an amazing way to beat the winter blues. And who doesn't want a little pick-me-up right now? You don’t need to be a mountaineer or a dogsledder to enjoy being active in winter. All it takes is a little knowledge, preparedness, and the willingness to get outside.

How to Dress

The most important way to ensure you have an enjoyable winter hike is to dress for it. If you don’t dress well, you’ll be cold and wet, and if you’re cold and wet, you won’t have fun, and if you don’t have fun, well… what’s the point?

If you’ve hiked a lot during the other seasons, you’re probably already a pro at dressing in layers. The layering system also applies in the winter - and is extra important.

Starting from the inside and working out, you should hike in wicking, insulating, and waterproof layers. Wicking layers against your skin help keep you dry when you sweat (which happens in the winter, too!). In the winter, dry means warm. Merino wool long underwear makes a great wicking base layer on both the top and bottom.

Next, an insulating layer traps your body heat and keeps you warm. Depending on the weather, this could be fleece, down, or even both. Down vests make a wonderful “bonus” layer to stash in your pack - lightweight, yet so effective in keeping your core warm. Fleece or fleece-lined pants work well on the bottom.

Finally, you’ll want to bring a waterproof shell. Snow and rain can make a hike feel so much colder, especially if you aren’t prepared for it. If you’re hiking through deep snow, you’ll likely want to hike in snow pants. If you live in a warmer area, rain pants work great. A rain jacket or waterproof ski jacket will do on top, depending on temperatures. Wear this layer all day or store it in your pack as needed - just make sure it doesn’t get left behind.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

Of course, you’ll also want these necessary winter accessories:

  • Warm hat or headband - I often carry both so I can switch them out depending on the temperature. When I’m moving fast and working hard, I tend to go for the headband. This lets me keep my ears covered while allowing some heat to escape.

  • Gloves or mittens - Again, I like options here. Glove or mitten liners are wonderful to wear inside insulated gloves or mittens. This is essentially the same layering technique that you’re using on the rest of your body, and it works great on your hands, too! I always start with heavy mittens in addition to liners. When taking a photo, retying a boot, or eating from a thermos, it’s hugely beneficial to have glove liners to keep you from having to expose your bare hands. And - if it gets warm enough - you can stash those heavy gloves in your pack and wear the liners on their own.

  • Buff or neck gaiter - Sometimes I think there is nothing worse than a cold chin… especially on a windy day. Avoid the draft with a buff or fleece neck gaiter. I prefer these options to scarves because you don’t have to mess with the long tails. They are easy to pull up or down depending on your temperature, and they can even be pulled up over your ears for extra warmth.

Photo by Matt Heaton on Unsplash

What to Bring

When you head out for a winter hike, you may be tempted to forgo the usual necessities. However,

what you should put in your pack doesn’t differ a whole lot from summer to winter. You’ll still need the basics - and some winter-specific items. Here are some crucial items to double-check off your list before heading out:

  • Water- You may feel a lot less thirsty when hiking in the winter, but it doesn’t mean you can leave your water behind. Hydration is still extremely important - and no, eating snow will not hydrate you! If you’re afraid of your water turning to ice (been there), fill your bottle or thermos with hot water. You can even buy an insulated straw for your hydration bladder to keep the water from freezing in your straw.

  • Sunscreen- Yep - sun rays reflecting off the snow can cause serious sunburn (again, been there). Though you won’t have as much of your skin exposed to the sun, make sure to protect your face and any other areas that aren’t covered by your clothes.

  • Food- Food means calories, and calories mean warmth - meaning it’s very important to stay well-fed while hiking in cold weather. Bonus points for packing hot foods - soup, macaroni and cheese, or hot chocolate taste heavenly on a cold winter hike.

  • Headlamp- Remember that winter months bring shorter days. The darkness may surprise you when the sun starts to disappear in the late afternoon. If you don’t want to hike in the dark, start early enough to be finished well ahead of sunset. Even if this is your plan, pack a headlamp in case you get delayed.

  • Extra gloves- There may be nothing worse than wearing wet gloves or mittens on a cold hike. Prepare for this and always bring an extra set - you may not even realize your gloves are wet until you put on a warm pair.

  • Handwarmers - Ideally, you’re well dressed and prepared to stay warm through the length of your hike. But just in case, a few hand warmers in your backpack can be a huge comfort. While I don’t suggest you always rely on these to keep your fingers warm, a little extra help can really turn your day around if it gets brutally cold.

Photo by Arūnas Naujokas on Unsplash

Tips for Success

Now that you’re dressed for the elements and prepared with the necessary gear, you’re almost ready to head out on your wintry adventure. Take note of these final tips for a fun and safe hike in the winter:

  • Know where you’re going - It’s remarkable how different a trail can look in the winter, even if you’ve hiked it dozens of times in the summer. If your winters are quite snowy, you might be surprised to find your favorite trail looks a little unfamiliar. Bring maps or a GPS if you are ever unsure about where you’re going. And it’s always good practice to let a friend or family member know where you’re hiking.

  • Bring a small insulated pad - This is great to sit on for any snack or emergency stops. You’ll be grateful for some separation between your body and the cold ground if you ever want to sit. A piece of foam cut from an old ground pad will do the trick, or you can find folding pads designed for this very purpose at an outdoor gear store.

  • Move to warm up - Before sitting down for lunch or a break, make sure you’re comfortably warm. When you stop moving, the cold will start to creep in. It may seem silly, but doing a few jumping jacks before and after any stops on the trail can really help you stay warm. Additionally, swinging your arms in a circular motion can help get the warm blood flowing to your extremities. Use this motion when you start to get cold fingers.

  • Don’t let your clothes touch the snow - or the wet ground, for that matter. If you need to take off your gloves to eat, don’t toss them on the ground. If you plan to put them right back on, stick them in the zipper of your jacket, right against your chest. This will keep them nice and toasty until you put them back on.

  • Consider extra gear - traction cleats, snowshoes, and trekking poles may be beneficial or necessary depending on where you are. If you’re hiking in a lot of snow, snowshoes and trekking poles will make your hike infinitely more enjoyable. For icy trails, wear traction cleats to help you keep your footing. Check out local trail conditions and weather forecasts before you go, if possible - that way you can be sure to bring the right gear.

Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash

Now, Go Get Out There!

With the right layers, a full pack, and the knowledge to keep you warm, safe, and dry, a winter hike can be a magical way to enjoy these shorter, quieter days. There’s no need to hibernate this winter - instead, keep the adventures going all year long. Each season brings its own adventures, and winter isn’t one to miss. Where do you plan to explore this season?

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