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How to Hike in Cold Weather

Nicole Will | Oboz Ambassador

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Thinking about heading out to explore a winter wonderland? Do it! This is one of my favorite seasons to hike. 

Yosemite Snowshoe
Yosemite snowshoe. All images by Nicole Will.

Pros: Number one in my book is that there are fewer creepy crawlies! With mosquitos, ticks, and other biting menaces out of the way, you can focus your attention on the peace and quiet of winter hiking with long range views and fewer folks on the trail. Guides usually say that there’s no such thing as bad weather...just poor preparation or inadequate equipment. 

Here’s hoping the following tips will help you plan your winter hike:

1. Food & Water.

Your body needs extra energy to keep you warm and cozy, so you’re going to need to eat more calories than usual. Fatty nuts, cheese, salami, and chocolate are all great snacking options. 

Pro Tip: keep food in pre-broken pieces for easy snacking, bring along a bit of peanut butter for scooping, and tear open the corners of power bar wrappers before you start hiking. If it’s really cold out, make sure you keep snacks in easily-accessible pockets so you can munch while you stroll.

For more substantial meals, consider hearty, hot dishes like mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts, bean chili, and egg/bacon/hashbrown scrambles. When guiding for multiple days, I carry a stick of butter (yes, really) and put it in can you go wrong with butter?! Mmmmmm.

Stay hydrated! You’ll need to be hydrated to regulate your core temperature. In cold weather, your body won’t offer as many “drink up, buddy” cues like sweat and thirst as it does in the hotter months. Warm liquids like tea and hot cocoa are usually more pleasant to sip, so treat yo’self to a steamy, insulated mug of goodness. 

Pro tip: prevent water freezing in your bladder hose by blowing it back into the bag at the end of each sip and store water bottles upside down to keep the tops from freezing and stuff them inside your bag if there’s room for extra insulation. 

If you’re hydrating properly, you’re going to need to “go” know? The best advice I can give you is to pee when you need to pee, people! The facili-trees are ready and waiting...don’t let your body use up critical energy stores to keep that liquid warm. Let it out.

Winter Creeks Peaks
Winter creeks and peaks.

2. Clothes. 

Layers are going to be your key to comfort and safety in the winter. Cotton is forbidden. Do not wear it. Seriously. Ensure all layers are moisture wicking, synthetic fabrics and then layer up! Here’s why layers are critical: a sneaky villain in winter hiking is overheating. If you're too warm and get wet and sweaty, you're at risk of cooling down rapidly (and perhaps battling hypothermia) as soon as you stop moving. If you have a great layering system, you can peel off layers as you warm up and add them back on when you stop and cool down.

My personal layering system = light layer, mid layer, puffy jacket, and waterproof shell (the shell protects from wind too so is useful even when it's not raining). Make sure everything is tucked in to the next layer so there aren't any gaps for the chill to sneak in on you...long underwear tucked into socks, upper layers tucked into pants, thumbs in thumbholes of shirts, etc. Don’t forget to care for your extremities with gloves, nice thick wool socks, and a warm winter hat. 

And finally, there's a saying "be bold, start cold". When beginning your hike, consider stripping down to a layer where you feel slightly chilly. You'll warm up fast and won't have to pause 10 minutes in to de-layer. Put layers on and take them off throughout the day as you warm up and cool down. 

WA Cascades Backpacker Snow Lake Landscape
Backpacking in the Cascades.

3. Sleeping.

Staying out for more than a day? Sleep dry! Don’t even think about letting your sweaty hiking clothes from the day into the dry-zone of your sleeping bag, at least not on your body. Some folks stuff damp clothes in the bottom of the sleeping bag to dry them out with body heat overnight but definitely don’t wear them. Remember how I talked about sweat/wet = chill? 

A lot of folks will say that you’re coziest when sleeping in the buff (only for temps above freezing) or with a light, synthetic base layer. If you have too many layers on and you sweat throughout the night, shivers and discomfort are guaranteed. Assuming you have a bag that is appropriate for the temps, strip down to the lightest layer you’re comfortable with, snuggle up with a hot water bottle, and enjoy a good snooze. 

Pro tip: on multi-day trips, I keep a pair of socks in my sleeping bag that never leave the bag so I always have a nice, dry layer to keep my toes toasty.

If it’s below freezing, you have more than just your body to worry about. Consider stuffing your sleeping bag with:

  • your boots (in a stuff sack)
  • clothes for the next day
  • meds that might freeze (epi pens, etc.)
  • hot water bottle wrapped in a wool sock for cuddles and oodles of warmth; place it where large arteries are pumping to maximize the warmth. Bonus: it won't be frozen in the morning, so you can enjoy some swigs to jumpstart your hydration

These are just a few of the myriad of ways you can keep yourself comfy and safe while hiking in the winter. Do your research based on the area you’re hiking in and be prepared. It’s better to have an extra layer or emergency equipment and not need it than to need it and not have it. Stay safe, stay warm, and keep hitting those trails. See you out there!

Winter Geysers
Winter geysers.
Nicole Will

Name: Nicole Will

Hometown: Asheville, North Carolina

Where I’ve Been: My love for the outdoors was born in some of my earliest experiences: camping, canoeing, and backpacking with my family in the hills of North Georgia. Throw in my restless spirit, and I've made it all over the world. I've worked at a fly fishing ranch, ski resort, and high adventure Boy Scout base. 

Why I Hike: I love travel and the outdoors, and I've worked with at-risk adolescents as in wilderness therapy. Supporting others in unplugging and getting out into the great wide world is my biggest motivator!

Lead The Way: In addition to guiding with Wildland Trekking, I solo hike and explore with others; my favorite memories are formed around camaraderie and a shared experience. 

Ambassador Focus: #protip

Find Me:

Instagram: @wildlandtrekking

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