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Winter Walking Essentials: The Right Gear, the Right Pack, the Right Attitude

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I will never forget my first winter hike. It was in Northern England and I was woefully unprepared.

Despite my outdoor cred as a Colorado native, I’d never hiked in snow. Snow was for skiing, either alpine or Nordic. 

Still, I figured I could handle winter hiking, especially in England, where I assumed the walk would be canceled in the case of inclement weather. So, at a friend’s suggestion, I gamely signed up.

On our first hike, breaking trail on a frigid day, I learned a lot. There’s nothing like having the wrong gear, the wrong pack and the wrong attitude to make learning quick and easy.

The Right Gear

If you’re walking in snow, you’d better have good boots. Sturdy, waterproof, over-the-ankle hiking boots are a must for winter adventure. Smart hikers look for a combination of insulation, waterproofing and solid footing. The higher ankle helps keep snow out, but even better, wear gaiters.

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The author's son exploring Bozeman's Hyalite Canyon in the winter.

Other musts for your feet: wool socks, one pair on your feet, one pair in your pack (just in case).

Moving up the body, you’ll want to dress in layers: baselayers, a wool midlayer or fleece, water resistant pants and a water resistant shell or jacket. I also carry a down vest or puffy coat in my pack (again, just in case).

Waterproof mittens or gloves (and possibly liners), a beanie or headband and good sunglasses round out the gear requirements. As with socks, bring extra mittens in your pack (just in case).

And don’t forget sunscreen. Put it on before you go out and reapply frequently on sunny days.

The Right Pack (With the Right Stuff in It)

I’m not a long-distance hiker at any time of year. I love hitting the trail, but I max out at about 10 miles in summer and about 6 miles in winter. I am a dayhiker, nothing more.

I prefer insulated hydration packs designed for cold weather. Hydration is critical and the relatively lower humidity in winter means you need to drink and drink some more.

Here’s my list of daypack essentials, for hikes away from civilization.

  • Warm beverages. Treat yourself to a small thermos of hot chocolate, tea or hot water.
  • Snacks. Try to eat something every hour. Avoiding hunger and thirst will help keep you warm.
  • Hand warmers. Disposable handwarmers offer easy comfort and can make the difference between fun and misery.
  • Extra socks and mittens, plus extra layers, if needed.
  • Headlamp. Winter days are short. If you’re out on a long hike, a headlamp can make a huge difference if you are delayed.
  • Cellphone. While it pains me to advocate technology in the wilderness, a phone can be your guide and your lifeline if something goes wrong.
  • Emergency blanket. I’ve actually had to use one in a freezing rain. Best $3 investment ever.
  • Multi-tool. Because you never know what you might need.
  • Matches. And since it’s winter, bring some paper.
  • A map, in case your cellphone battery dies or you lose coverage and your GPS coordinates fail.

Other items you might consider depending upon the length and condition of the trail: hiking sticks and crampons.

The Right Attitude

Having a “nothing will stop me” attitude is probably the most important thing I learned from my British hiking club.

Before the winter I spent walking with them, I was a fair-weather girl, heading out on frigid winter days only if the sun was shining brightly. Easy enough in Colorado, right?

Not so easy in many other places and that’s the key lesson.

Whether walking in pouring rain, hiking on frozen trail or pushing through deep snow, you can hike at any time of year, as long as you have the right gear, the right stuff in the right pack and the right attitude.

Before you go out, check the weather and be prepared for whatever adventure you’re on: whether walking your dog on neighborhood routes or breaking trail in the backcountry.

And please, if you have suggestions for winter hiking success, please leave them in the comments.

Cheers!

Oboz Trail Ambassador Kristen Lummis is from Grand Junction, Colorado. At age nine Kristen found crystals on a hike in Utah’s La Sal Mountains. She’s been hooked on hiking ever since. Kristen is as avid a skier as she is a hiker and being a mom, she strives to be prepared for every emergency. She’s actually used the space blanket she carries in her pack. Find her (@braveskimom) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.

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