featured-winter-hiking
Even with snow and rain and ice, hiking in the winter can be a great way to stay in shape and enjoy the outdoors. You just have to be prepared. And that brings up the question, what clothing to wear? I’ve been hiking in winter for many years, and here’s what I’ve found almost always works.

Avoid Bulk

I was a Boy Scout, and they taught us the mantra “layers, not bulk.” Big bulky coats, big insulated pants and clunky fur-lined boots are going to make things less fun for you on winter hikes. This gear exists for snowmobilers and hunters, not for hikers.

It’s All About Layers

Hiking is exercise, and your body usually generates enough heat to keep you comfortably warm. It’s actually really easy to become TOO warm when hiking in the winter. A simple layering of the right clothing works wonders. And you can always shed a layer or two if you get too warm.

Base Layers

A base layer, or thermal, top and bottom are required for temperatures down in the 30s or colder, especially if there is wind. Base layers come in many varieties and prices. Avoid the cotton variety, and instead look for merino wool or high-quality synthetic material with wicking properties. It’s best to stay away from big retailers and head to your local outdoor store. They’re going to stock the better quality base layers that are made for active use.

Personally, I prefer merino wool, such as those made by Icebreaker, Patagonia and others. After having lost my Icebreaker bottoms on a trip, I’ve been using Pearl Izumi leggings, all synthetic. While these are warm, I don’t find them nearly as comfortable as the merino wool bottoms. I have a Patagonia merino wool top with a zipper neck, which is nice to open when you’re climbing a hill and getting a bit warm.

Insulating Layer

You don’t have to go crazy here. There’s lots of expensive gear available, but I find basic works fine. I use a medium weight fleece zippered jacket. The downside is that it is often TOO warm and it often comes off part way into a hike. But when you first start out, it is really nice to have. In the past I have also used lightweight wool sweaters and Pendleton wool shirts. All work well. I don’t wear an insulated bottom layer.

Outer Layer

An outer layer that resists wind and water, but is comfortable and versatile is key. some form of nylon or other synthetic jacket is standard. The top should be big enough to fit over your insulating layer, and should always have a hood. A hood is essential for resisting moisture and wind, and also to help keep your head warm. I use a GoLite Trinity jacket. For hikes in light to moderate snow and rain in the Rocky Mountains, it has performed well. I plan to put it to a full test on a trip to the Northwest next month.

Outer layer bottoms can range from lightweight nylon hiking pants to waterproof, depending on the conditions you expect. I usually get away with standard, non-waterproof nylon pants. They actually repel light moisture just enough for most conditions I experience. For full-on rain, you’ll want to investigate waterproof options, such as those made my Marmot.

Headwear

ALWAYS pack some kind of insulating hat, such as a Pearl Izumi skullcap, and if temperatures tend to get down below 25 degrees or so, a balaclava can be a lifesaver. A balaclava covers much of head, with an opening for your face. Usually you have the option to cover up your nose and mouth for the really cold conditions.

Scarves

With the proper insulating and outer layers, you probably don’t need to bother with a scarf. Just turn your collars up and zip them if you need to keep wind and snow off of your neck.

Gloves

Obviously, these are required. I find a good solid pair of synthetic fabric gloves such as Black Diamond or Seirus adequate for many conditions. Expect to pay about $35-$50 for gloves like these. If they are waterproof or windproof, the gloves will be more versatile. Keep in mind it is possible to have gloves that are too warm. What I’ve found works well is a light or medium glove, supplemented when needed by an extra layer on top, either a windproof glove shell or insulated mittens.

Sunglasses

These are essential when there is snow. I prefer polarized lenses because they cut the glare best.

Footwear

Boots are often a good idea if conditions are wet, muddy or snowy. Try to find a pair that is not too stiff, but is water resistant. Old-style stiff boots are still popular with many, but I find them very uncomfortable. Out in the howling wind and driving snow, you don’t want to have to take your boots and socks off to tend to a blister. For more on footwear selections, see my footwear post.

Gaiters and Spikes

Gaiters and spikes are highly recommended for snowy and icy conditions. See my footwear post and Kahtoola Microspikes review for more information.

Socks

For hiking in cold conditions and on snow or ice, you may want to bulk up your socks for some insulation. I prefer a medium-weight merino wool or lately, synthetic sock (such as Feetures full length running sock). It is very important that your socks wick moisture away from your foot. For this reason, avoid cotton. Again, see my footwear post for more information.