How to Hike in the Winter

Find tips and tricks for winter hiking in cold weather, from basic essentials to mountaineering.

By: David Miller (MyHikes Founder & Admin)     Published on: 1/18/2024     Updated on: 1/18/2024

Essential Winter Hiking Guide

Explore essential winter hiking tips and recommended gear in this guide by MyHikes' Founder, Dave Miller (Admin). Discover valuable tips, tricks, and convenient links for purchasing gear at competitive prices.

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About the Author

Dave's experience with winter hiking spans over 10-years, including mountaineering in the Adirondack Mountains, canyoneering and ice climbing in the PA Grand Canyon, along with flat and easy snowshoe hikes in an abundance of different places around the Northeast United States.

The gear linked to in this artcile have been used and tested by Dave -- sometimes over the course of several years. Also included are substitute gear options if the products used are not readily available on Amazon.

Why Hike in the Winter?

Winter hiking offers a unique and exhilarating experience that goes beyond the typical hiking season. Here are some reasons to hit the trails during winter:

  1. Escape the Crowds: Winter hiking provides a serene escape from the bustling crowds of the warmer months. Enjoy the tranquility of snow-covered landscapes and pristine trails without the usual congestion.
  2. Embrace Solitude: If you crave solitude and a deeper connection with nature, winter hiking is the perfect choice. The hushed atmosphere and snowy vistas create a peaceful environment for introspection and mindfulness.
  3. Challenging Adventures: Winter hikes present a thrilling challenge for outdoor enthusiasts. Navigate through snow-covered terrains, conquer icy trails, and experience the satisfaction of overcoming winter-specific obstacles.
  4. Breathtaking Scenery: Witness nature's stunning transformation as landscapes are draped in a blanket of snow. The winter wonderland scenery offers a picturesque backdrop for your hiking adventures, providing ample photo opportunities.
  5. Unique Wildlife Encounters: Winter hikes may bring unique wildlife encounters not commonly seen during other seasons. Animals adapted to colder climates become more active, offering hikers a chance to observe and appreciate their resilience.
  6. Photography Opportunities: Capture mesmerizing shots of frost-covered trees, frozen lakes, and snow-draped mountains. Winter hiking provides photographers with a canvas of natural beauty, creating memorable images for social media and personal keepsakes.
  7. Physical and Mental Well-being: Embrace the refreshing benefits of winter hiking for both physical and mental well-being. The crisp, cool air and physical exertion can boost your mood, energy levels, and overall health.

Proper Winter Hiking Footwear

Choosing suitable footwear is crucial when planning a winter hike. The right selection can be the deciding factor between a successful or unsuccessful trip.

Boots: Waterproof vs. Water Resistant

Waterproof boots provide a higher level of protection against snow and moisture, ensuring your feet stay dry and warm. Water-resistant boots may repel some water initially, but in prolonged exposure or heavy snow, they are more likely to allow moisture in, leading to discomfort, potential freezing, and increased risk of frostbite. For winter conditions, the superior insulation provided by waterproof boots makes them a more reliable choice than water resistant boots.

Boots: Mountaineering vs. Non-Mountaineering

When considering waterproof boots, you should also consider what type of terrain you plan on hiking during the Winter. If you plan to hike up a tall steep mountain, you'll want to consider mountineering boots instead of a waterproof hiking boot. Mountaineering boots provide extra ankle support, better insulation and protection against the cold, and usually include welts on the heel which are used to attach crampons. For winter mountaineering, I personally use the Scarpa Men's Manta Tech GTX Waterproof Boots but got by just fine for a very long time using Vasque Men's Sundowner Gore-Tex Backpacking Boot .

Buy Winter Hiking Footwear

Proper Winter Hiking Clothing

Before you step out into the cold, you'll need essential clothing to ensure warmth, comfort, and safety. Opt for insulated layers, a waterproof outerwear, and moisture-wicking fabrics to stay cozy in chilly conditions.

Water Wicking Layers

I personally use water-wicking long-sleeve shirts that are primarily made of Polyester with a small amount of Spandex woven in. These shirts are very light and stretcy which provide the right range of motion for winter activities. I also wear water-wicking socks like Wigwam, which are perfect for keeping my feet dry.

Down Jacket

Enhance your winter adventures with a versatile down jacket, a must-have for backcountry and mountain explorations. While my insulated waterproof hardshell is reliable, the down jacket serves as a cozy and insulating layer, ensuring extra warmth when needed.

Waterproof Hardshell Jacket

A waterproof hardshell jacket is essential for outdoor activities, especially in winter, as it provides a protective barrier against rain, snow, and moisture. This specialized layer prevents water from penetrating, keeping you dry and comfortable in unpredictable weather conditions.

Waterproof Hardshell Pants

Hardshell pants are essential for winter outdoor activities due to their protective and versatile nature. These pants are crafted from waterproof and windproof materials, acting as a robust barrier against rain, snow, and harsh winds. In winter hiking or mountaineering, where weather conditions can be unpredictable, hardshell pants offer crucial defense against moisture, keeping you dry and comfortable. Additionally, their durable and abrasion-resistant construction provides an extra layer of protection against rough terrains, ensuring longevity and reliability during challenging winter adventures.

Winter Hats & Balaclavas

Bringing a winter hat or balaclava is indispensable for hikers venturing into cold climates. These accessories play a crucial role in maintaining body warmth by preventing heat loss through the head, a significant source of thermal dissipation. A winter hat snugly covering the ears and head provides insulation, safeguarding against frostbite and ensuring comfort during chilly hikes. Similarly, a versatile balaclava offers added protection, covering the face and neck to shield against biting winds and cold temperatures.

Waterproof Gloves

Waterproof gloves are a crucial investment for winter hiking or mountaineering due to their ability to keep hands dry and warm in challenging conditions. Snow, ice, and freezing rain are common in winter environments, and wet hands not only lead to discomfort but also increase the risk of frostbite and cold-related injuries. Waterproof gloves act as a reliable barrier against moisture, providing essential protection and insulation.

Buy Winter Hiking Clothing

Winter Hiking Tools

Having the right tools for winter hiking is critical depending on what you plan to explore. Enhance your winter adventure with top-notch tooling gear, including snowshoes, ice axe, ice spikes, and crampons.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles provide stability and support, especially on uneven or slippery terrain, reducing the risk of slips and falls. In snow-covered landscapes, trekking poles help distribute weight, preventing postholing and minimizing fatigue. The added balance and leverage they provide are particularly valuable during ascents and descents. Additionally, trekking poles can assist in testing snow depth and stability, enhancing overall safety.

Snowshoes: Why use Them?

Snowshoes are a winter adventurer's best companion, preventing the frustration of postholing by distributing your weight and allowing you to effortlessly traverse deep snow. They not only provide flotation on deep snowpack but also enhance traction, ensuring a stable and enjoyable experience on snowy terrains. Snowshoes also improve access to winter landscapes while minimizing the physical strain of navigating through deep snow.

Snowshoes: When to use Them

Optimal snowshoeing is with a 6-inch or deeper snowpack, though it can enjoyable at around 5 inches of snow. Be mindful, as without a frozen base, snowshoes may reveal patches of dirt in snowpack less than 6-inches deep.

Snowshoes: Mountaineering vs. Non-Mountaineering

Mountaineering snowshoes and non-mountaineering snowshoes differ in design and purpose. Mountaineering snowshoes are typically more robust and feature aggressive traction for challenging alpine terrain, steep slopes, and icy conditions. Non-mountaineering snowshoes are designed for general use on flat to moderately hilly terrain and do not include aggresive traction. Choose based on your specific winter activity, with mountaineering snowshoes for advanced, rugged adventures, and non-mountaineering options for recreational and casual outings on flatter terrain.

Crampons vs. Ice Spikes

Ice spikes are not crampons, but they're used in a similar way. Ice spikes and crampons serve similar purposes, providing traction on icy surfaces, but they differ in design and use. Ice spikes are smaller and suitable for casual walking on icy sidewalks or trails. Crampons are more robust, featuring larger spikes, ideal for challenging terrains like steep ice, mixed alpine conditions, or ice climbing. Generally speaking, ice spikes are for lighter use and crampons are for more demanding ice and snow adventures on steep terrain.

Ice Axes: Do I Need One?

An ice axe is a crucial tool for various winter hiking activities. It provides stability on icy or steep terrain, aids in self-arrest to prevent falls, and serves as a balance support during challenging ascents and descents. Additionally, an ice axe is essential for creating steps in snow and ice, enhancing safety and maneuverability in alpine environments. Ice axes are also handy for ice climbing or climbing frozen waterfalls. For safe winter hiking on steep, snowy, or icy terrain, it's advisable to have an ice axe. Carry this essential tool to prevent slips and aid in traversing challenging mountainous areas, ensuring a secure adventure.


Enhance winter safety with a rope —- an essential tool for secure ascent and descent on steep slopes, providing stability in challenging terrain, ensuring emergency preparedness for self-rescue or assisting others, and maintaining group cohesion for a safer outdoor experience.

Buy Winter Hiking Tools

Winter Hiking Navigation

Navigational skills, including map reading and the use of tools like a compass or GPS device, empower you to stay on course and reach your destination. In winter conditions, where visibility may be reduced, and landscapes can be covered in snow, proper navigation becomes even more vital. Being equipped with the knowledge and tools to navigate ensures that you can confidently explore diverse terrains, avoid getting lost, and respond effectively to unexpected challenges.

Bringing waterproof maps is essential for navigating winter terrain effectively. In cold and wet conditions, standard paper maps can quickly become damaged or unreadable, compromising your ability to navigate. Waterproof maps, made from durable and weather-resistant materials, ensure that crucial navigation information remains intact even in rain, snow, or when exposed to moisture. These maps provide a reliable and accessible guide, allowing you to confidently explore winter landscapes without the risk of losing vital orientation points.

Utilizing offline tracking devices and apps is essential for enhancing safety and navigation during outdoor activities, especially in winter. In remote or mountainous areas, where network connectivity may be unreliable, offline tracking provides a reliable solution. These tools allow you to record and follow your route without depending on a constant internet connection, ensuring you have access to crucial navigation information even in areas with limited signal. In winter conditions, where visibility might be challenging and terrain features can be obscured by snow, offline tracking becomes a valuable aid in maintaining your orientation and preventing getting lost.

Download the MyHikes App to track and record your hikes to stay safe while in the backcountry or in areas with no cell service while hiking.

Bringing a phone charger cable and battery backup is essential for ensuring communication and safety during outdoor activities. In winter conditions, where cold temperatures can drain your phone's battery faster, having a backup power source is crucial.

Having an SOS or satellite device is crucial for emergency communication and safety during outdoor activities, especially in winter. In remote or mountainous areas, where traditional cell reception may be unreliable, these devices offer a direct link to emergency services. In the event of an accident or unforeseen circumstances, pressing the SOS button can trigger a distress signal, alerting authorities to your location. Satellite devices generally come with monthly or annual payment plans and some even include rescue insurance. I personally use a Spot X 2-Way Satellite Messenger and it works really well -- I can text my wife that I'm safe or clue her in on how far I am from completing my trek.

Fair warning, like all winter hiking gear, satellite devices can be expensive. the Spot X 2-Way Satellite Messenger for example, costs the upfront device cost of ~$200, plus ~$150/year for rescue insurance and monthly satellite device fees.

Winter Hiking Safety Gear

Ensure winter safety with essential gear: an Emergency Blanket for warmth, Headlamp with Backup Batteries for visibility, Trekking Poles for stability, Ski Goggles for eye protection, Hand/Foot Warmers for comfort, and a Climbing Helmet for added head protection on steep terrain.


For winter day hikes, opt for a backpack not exceeding 30 liters, equipped with specialized compartments for seamless gear organization. Ensure ample space for vital items like safety gear, food, water, and more. Planning a mountaineering adventure? Look for a backpack featuring a dedicated holder for your ice axe. Some backpacks even have a dedicated holder for snowshoes which is extra-handy. I personally use the Osprey Talon 22L Men's Hiking Backpack which has served me well -- it even includes an ice axe holder; however, it does not have a dedicated snowshoe holder.

Food & Water

When planning for winter activities, it's essential to bring an ample supply of food and water to sustain energy and stay hydrated. Aim for 200-300 calories per hour and at least 1 liter of water every 2-3 hours. Choose high-energy, non-perishable snacks like energy bars, nuts, dried fruits, and trail mix. Include complex carbohydrates for sustained energy and protein-rich snacks for muscle support.

To prevent water from freezing, use an insulated water bottle or thermos. Keep the bottle close to your body to benefit from your body heat. Alternatively, use an insulating sleeve or wrap the bottle in an extra layer of clothing. Consider using an insulated hydration system or bringing warm water in a vacuum flask. Insulating your water source helps ensure access to liquid hydration during your winter adventure.

Wear Bright Colors

When preparing for a winter hike, it's wise to opt for vibrant-colored clothing as a safety measure. In unforeseen situations, such as being stranded in the cold, wearing bright colors like yellow, orange, or blue enhances your chances of rescue. Conversely, wearing predominantly dark clothing may cause you to blend into the natural surroundings, potentially complicating rescue efforts, especially if you're injured. Choose bright hues for increased visibility and safety during winter adventures.

Mylar Emergency Blanket

A Mylar emergency blanket is a crucial addition to your safety gear during winter adventures. Its reflective material helps retain body heat, providing essential warmth in emergency situations. Compact and lightweight, it easily fits into your kit, offering an effective solution for preventing hypothermia or providing temporary shelter. The reflective surface can also be used to signal for help in rescue scenarios. Including a Mylar emergency blanket enhances your preparedness for unexpected cold weather challenges, making it an invaluable asset for ensuring your safety and well-being in outdoor environments.

Heamlamp w/Backup Batteries

A headlamp with backup batteries is an essential piece of safety gear for various reasons. In winter conditions, daylight hours may be limited, and having a reliable light source is crucial for safe navigation. The headlamp allows hands-free illumination, making it easier to navigate trails, set up camp, or attend to emergencies in the dark. The inclusion of backup batteries ensures a continuous and reliable light source, preventing unexpected darkness and enhancing your overall safety during winter adventures.

Ski Goggles

Ski goggles are a valuable addition to your winter gear for several reasons. In snowy and windy conditions, ski goggles provide crucial eye protection, shielding against snow, wind, and UV rays. Their anti-fog features ensure clear vision, even in cold temperatures, enhancing visibility on the slopes or during winter hikes. Additionally, ski goggles guard your eyes from potential hazards like tree branches or blowing snow, reducing the risk of injuries.

Hand/Foot Warmers

Hand and foot warmers are essential for winter outings, offering an extra layer of comfort and safety. In cold conditions, these warmers provide instant heat, preventing frostbite and keeping extremities comfortably warm.

Climbing Helmet

A climbing helmet is a vital safety accessory for winter activities like mountaineering. In icy or snowy conditions, there's an increased risk of falling ice or rock debris, making head protection crucial. A climbing helmet offers impact resistance, shielding your head from potential hazards and minimizing the risk of head injuries.

Buy Winter Hiking Safety Gear

Know Before You Go

To ensure your own safety while hiking in the winter, you should always plan ahead or Know Before You Go.

Weather Forecast

When planning for winter activities, it's essential to pay attention to the weather forecast. Current weather conditions, including snow storms, rainfall, and precipitation can all play factors into terrain conditions and risks. Hikers should be aware of the current day's weather on the day they plan to head out. It's smart to avoid extremely windy or wet conditions.

The Route

Before heading out, always plan your route ahead of time. Study and understand the trail junctions, turns, and how long it might take you to complete the hike.

Your Limits

Knowing your limits and when to turn around is key in winter hiking and may save your life. Heading home at the end of the day is more important than summitting a mountain, so always be prepared to turn around in case trail conditions are not safe or in case you begin to feel uncomfortable.

Tell Your Plans to a Friend

Always tell a friend or family member your plans. Give them your route information and as much detail as possible like how long you think it might take (worst case scenario time), when you'll start, when you think you'll be off the trail, and when to call for help in case you do not communicate that you made it out safely.

How Much Time I'll Take

If you cannot estimate how long it'll take you to complete the trek, you should not be out winter hiking. Always have a rough educated estimate on how long you think it'll take to hike. Remember that hiking in the snow is generally slower than during Summer-time conditions.

Water Safety

Winter hiking around water can be extremely dangerous for many reasons. For one, during the Winter, water levels are generally higher in rivers, creeks, ponds, and lakes. Depending on the weather conditions, ice can become thinner over time, so you cannot fully trust hiking or traversing along the tops of creeks, atop swamps, lakes, ponds, or other bodies of water. If you plan to hike near water sources during the winter, you should always be well-aware of their natural features like how deep they are, how thick the ice is, and how to call for help in case you need to.

Avalanche Safety

Knowing about avalanche safety is crucial for anyone venturing into snowy mountainous terrain. Avalanches are natural hazards that can pose serious threats to safety. Understanding avalanche risks and safety measures can help prevent accidents and ensure a safer winter experience.

Key aspects of avalanche safety include:

  1. Avalanche Awareness: Learn to recognize potential avalanche terrain, understand weather conditions, and be aware of recent snowfall.
  2. Avalanche Forecast: Check avalanche forecasts and reports for the area you plan to visit. This information provides insights into current snow conditions and potential risks.
  3. Safety Equipment: Carry essential avalanche safety gear, including a transceiver, probe, and shovel. Learn how to use them effectively through proper training.
  4. Group Communication: Establish clear communication within your group. Have a plan for safe travel, discuss potential hazards, and establish a communication protocol.
  5. Decision-Making: Be prepared to alter your plans based on the current avalanche risk. Avoid traveling in high-risk areas during periods of elevated danger.
  6. Education: Take an avalanche safety course to learn about snow science, risk assessment, and rescue techniques. Stay informed and continuously update your knowledge.

By being informed and prepared, you can significantly reduce the risks associated with avalanches and make more informed decisions when navigating snowy mountainous terrain in winter.