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How to Hike Warm

Back to How-To

Editor's note: Ever since we introduced our insulated boots, we've gotten a fabulous response from you, our customers. Keeping your feet warm is one key to hiking in winter. And there's more you can do to stay toasty. We're going to be highlighting tips on how to hike warm throughout the remainder of 2018 so you get stoked to hike year-round. Bring on the snow!

Trudging through thigh-deep snow with frozen fingers can be intimidating. But hiking in the winter is one of the most magical experiences ever. Caitlin snowshoeing Kananaskis

The author navigating a snowy ridge in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. Photo by: Logan Gray

I live in northeastern British Columbia, which is pretty far north, and we experience winter for AT LEAST six months of the year. There is no way that I could ever confine myself to the walls of my apartment for that long without going stir crazy. Plus, hiking through a snowy winter wonderland is not something that can be experienced first-hand when you’re watching Netflix.

Trust me, you can stay warm hiking in winter. With my tips, your winter hiking will be enjoyable, and your feet won’t freeze! (Pro tip: invest in insulated boots—more on that later.)

Layers on layers

Wearing multiple layers on both your upper and lower body is one of the most important ways to stay warm. It allows you to adjust your layers as needed, taking some off when you sweat too much and adding layers when you stop for breaks. Depending on the temperature and the intensity of your activity, your layers could include: a base layer, a mid-base layer, a fleece or synthetic sweater, a down or synthetic puffy jacket and a windproof/waterproof jacket.Caitlin snowshoe mount reesor

Caitlin snowshoeing up Mount Reesor on a windy day outside Tumbler Ridge, BC

A good quality base layer is honestly one of the best investments you can make. I am a huge fan of wool base layers (it’s worth the money I promise), but synthetic materials can work just as well. Both will wick moisture away from your body when you sweat. You should NEVER wear cotton clothing when you’re hiking. Cotton absorbs moisture instead of wicking it away, so your clothes will stay wet and become cold when your body temperature lowers.

Your puffy jacket should be either synthetic or down materials. Down jackets are generally lighter and pack down smaller but synthetic is a cheaper option and better than down if you were to accidentally get it wet.

A windproof/waterproof layer, such as Gore-Tex in my biased opinion, should be worn to protect you from the elements. This is especially important in the mountains when there is more times than not a very strong, cold wind.

Keep your hands warm!

Your extremities will usually become cold the fastest which is why a pair of gloves or mittens is a must! Mittens are a good choice if you don’t need the dexterity of your hands because curling your fingers into a ball is a great way to keep them warm! Gloves are a good choice if you will be needing your hands for things like scrambling and in that case, I suggest waterproof ones so that they don’t get wet from the snow.

Hand warmers are a smart thing to bring in case of an emergency if you don’t already choose to use them while actively hiking.  Caitlin snowshoe skagway

Taking in the alpine, winter views that Skagway, Alaska has to offer.

Cover EVERY square inch of your body

Seriously, this is a game changer! A warm toque, ski goggles, a wool scarf, warm buff, balaclava and any or all combinations of those can be used to protect your face and eyes from windburn and frostbite. Unless icicles for eyelashes are your thing, I strongly suggest ski goggles. I was temporarily blinded (slight exaggeration) by gale force winds and snow pelting my eyes when I forgot to bring my goggles with me on a winter hike up a wind-blown mountain. I have never again made that mistake!

Warm toes

Thick wool socks to keep your toes warm in your boots is something that you shouldn’t even think twice about. If you find that one pair isn’t doing it for you, try wearing two pairs but make sure you are still able to wiggle your toes around in your boots otherwise it may be counterproductive!

I’ve been hiking with the Oboz Bridger 7” Insulated Waterproof boot in the high, snowy peaks in my back yard. It’s got 200 grams of Thinsulate, which is enough to trap heat without keeping my feet too hot.

insulated bridger
The women's insulated Bridger 7", left, and the men's insulated Bridger 8", right, are among the more popular insulated Oboz.

Wear gaiters over your boots to keep the snow out of your pants. If snow does get into your boots it will seep down your socks and your feet will get wet and cold. Gaiters will prevent that! 

Choose the right boots

Your feet will be in contact with the cold snow the whole time so having the right boots on your feet isn’t something that should be overlooked! Waterproof boots are essential if you’ll be hiking in slushy or wet snow. I like to wear a sturdier boot in the winter because they help to prevent my snowshoe bindings from digging into my feet.

If you’ll be hiking on packed down or wind-blown snow a good tread on your boot is a must.

Stay moving

Keeping your heart rate and body temperature up is the best way to keep your blood flowing and to stay warm. When you take extended breaks your body temperature drops which means your sweat will begin to cool down. When you feel yourself starting to get a chill it’s a good idea to continue on. It’s best to hike at a steady pace but don’t forget that short snack and hydration breaks are still vital in the winter.

Caitlin Quality Falls Tumbler Ridge
A fresh blanket of snow covers the trees surrounding a waterfall in Tumbler Ridge, BC.

Warm drinks and snacks

If you haven’t hiked in freezing temperatures before it can be easy to forget that there is a high chance that your drinks AND food will freeze in your backpack. Bring along a thermos filled with a hot drink to sip on. Keep energy bars from freezing by stuffing them inside your layers close to your body. My favourite lunch to combat all of that is to dip pre-cut cheese, pepperoni and crackers into hot chicken soup broth!

Hydration packs are tricky to use in the winter because the water will freeze in the tube. You can buy insulation for the tube (which I have yet to try) but a good trick is to flip a water bottle upside down and take drinks frequently. The water freezes on the top first which will make it impossible to open your water bottle if you leave it right-side up.

Final word

Remember that these are just a few tips to help you have a more enjoyable experience hiking in the winter. Adventuring out in the snow brings with it a whole new set of hazardous conditions to be aware of. Never venture out into avalanche territory without the proper training, tools and experience. Be aware of tree wells. Do your research. Check the weather. Be prepared in case of an emergency and never attempt anything outside of your limits.  Have fun and be safe out there!

Caitlin McKenzie is an Environmental Manager and avid hiker located in northern BC who spends her weekends travelling to the Canadian Rockies to satisfy her mountain fix. Follow along with her adventures on Instagram @mountainbait.

Women’s Bridger 7" Insulated Waterproof
MSRP $185.00

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