An Introduction to Winter Hiking



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Written for the members of the New York City Hiking and Nature Meetup. Use at your own risk!


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A lot of hikers pack away their gear for the winter, but that's just when some of us get most excited about hiking. There are substantial rewards for winter hikers - stunning vistas, glassading, the amazing stillness of a snow covered forest, and I even like the crisp cold.

Of course winter presents unique challenges too, and meeting those challenges are part of the fun for experienced hikers and one of the barriers for novices. I know I won't convince everyone to keep hiking all winter long, but I wanted to put together some advice and resources for those willing to try.


The Layer System:


"There's no such thing as bad weather...only bad clothing." With proper clothing and a couple of test runs, you can put together an clothing system that will keep you nice and cozy in even the worst weather. In fact, one of the biggest challenges with winter hiking is managing sweat and keeping yourself from overheating.

You'll need a clothing system that keeps you comfortable across a wide range of activity levels (from standing still to strenuous exertion) and in various circumstances (calm and sunny to windy and snowing). "Comfortable" means you are neither cold when standing still nor sweating when active.

Sweat evaporates very slowly in the winter (look up "absolute humidity"), and even a little sweat can leave you cold and clammy once you stop exerting yourself. Keep yourself cool by pacing yourself and removing layers.

Also remember that some standing around is inevitable, be it waiting for slower members, stopping for lunch, or waiting for the train or car shuttle. And of course if you or someone else is injured, it can be a long wait in the cold. The proper clothing (and gear) needs to keep you comfortable across all those circumstances.


The Basic Layering System:
  • Base layer - moves sweat away from your skin to keep you dry; usually wool or another wicking fabric
  • Insulating layers - provides most of the warmth; its often multiple layers of fleece or wool
  • Shell - protects you from wind, rain, and snow. Generally Gore-tex or another fully waterproof/breathable material.
Some people carry additional layers, such as soft shells or "puffies". Soft shells are used instead of a traditional shell while active. They provide some protection from wind and water ("resistant" but not "proof"), but are more breathable then traditional shells and generally stretch and flex better. The "puffy" layer is a warm, highly compressible, down jacket that you can put on over your shell during a break. But down dries slowly and loses its warmth if it gets wet, so your down layer needs to be carefully protected.

Cotton has no place in your cold weather wardrobe, even in socks, underwear or bras. It will absorb sweat, trap it next to your skin, and keep you cold and damp all day, leading  to hypothermia once you stop moving.


Learn more on Layering Systems:
Winter Hiking 101 - a short guide for winter hiking in the New York City area
How to Dress in Layers from REI (with links to products)
Layering: How to not freeze to death in the mountains at Backcountry.com (with links to products)
Layered Clothing from Wikipedia
Click through all of Bob Manley's layers for winter camping in the White Mountains


About Specific Items:
About Wool Clothing from REI
Hardshell vs Softshells from Backcountry.com


Winter Hiking Skills, Habits, and Knowledge:

  • Minimize sweat as much as possible:
    • Start out cold - Remove a layer or two before you start moving
    • Keep adjusting layers as conditions change - its easy to get lazy and start sweating or get chilled
    • Pace yourself properly
    • Communicate with your group - waiting for slower hikers is especially unpleasant in the winter time, but making the slower hikes push themselves to keep up can lead to over-exertion. The best solution is to have the slowest hiker near the front setting the pace for the group.
  • Snack regularly - It is important to make yourself snack regularly in the winter time since your body burns up to twice as many calories in the cold and taking a long lunch break is unpleasant. The perfect winter snack can be kept in a jacket pocket for easy access, eaten with gloves on, and doesn't become rock hard (like my beloved snicker bars)
  • Drink regularly - your body looses a lot of moisture when breathing heavily in the dry winter air.
  • Learn to do everything with your gloves on, even eating. Make sure all your zippers have pull cords. Practice operating your camera, put on and take off traction devices, snowshoes, and skis with your gloves on. 
  • Keep snow off your gear and out of your bag
  • Pack your bag so you can access everything without needing to set anything down on the snow
  • Remember to carry water bottles upside down so they don't freeze closed. All water bottles should be insulted, with a wool sock if needed.
  • When frostbite is an issue, make sure you don't have any exposed skin. Check yourself and other members of your group for exposed skin regularly, especially on the back of the neck, around the eyes, and at other gaps between layers
  • Understand hypothermia:

Further Read on Winter Hiking:

NOLS Winter Camping - The National Outdoor Leadership School published this great intro guide to winter camping. Hiker will plenty of great advice as well.

AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping: Everything You Need to Plan Your Next Cold-Weather Adventure - The AMC guide is a little more basic then the NOLS guide (less on ration planning for multi-day trips, more on advice for traveling with kids) but still covers everything a beginner winter hiker needs to know.


Sample Gear Lists:

All winter weather isn't created equal

I put together two gear lists because "winter" is a very different thing in the White Mountains than it is in Harriman State Park, and your winter gear needs to be very different as well.

You can hike around Harriman and the New York City area almost all year long without facing much below 20f. That's cold, but its not very cold, and most of your fall hiking gear and city winter clothes (fleece, hat, jacket, etc) will serve you pretty well if you add a good pair of long underwear, and maybe a heavier fleece. You can also easily test this gear with a long walk in the park (which I recommend).

This group also does some advanced winter hiking in the Adirondacks and Whites where the day's high is often in the single digits and any exposed ridge or summit is likely to have wind chills down to -20f. That's very cold, so you'll need specialized winter gear for those conditions and you'll need to test that gear in less extreme conditions before counting on it.


Sample Gear List for Cold Weather (about 30f to 20f):

Everyone is different. The only way to know what clothing combination will work for you is to hike, hike, and hike some more and always carry an emergency layer or two.
  • Standard "Essential Hiking Gear" - Map, compass, whistle, etc - Only winter specific gear is covered in this list
  • Clothing: No cotton!
    • On top:
      • Base-layer: lightweight long underwear or long-sleeve wicking shirt (Examples: Techwick 1 or Capilene 1)
      • Insulating-layer: mid-weight Fleece, wool sweater or other similar
      • Windproof/waterproof shell
      • Always carry one extra warm layer beyond what you expect to need
      • [Suggested] Extra base layer for when the first one gets sweaty
    • On the bottom:
      • Base-layer:Maybe some light-weight long underwear if needed
      • Insulating-layer: Your summer non-cotton hiking pants are probably fine. Wool pants are good too; Soft-shell pants are great
      • Shell: windproof/waterproof shell (rain pants generally work well)
    • For your Feet:
      • Winter wool socks (mid-weight or heavy-weight) or two layers of summer wool socks; liners
      • Waterproof high-top boots
      • Traction Devices if there is snow on the ground. STABILicers (the kind with velcro straps) are ok, Microspikes are better. YakTraxs, STABILicer Lite and STABILicer Sport just don't work for hiking.
      • [Suggested] An extra pair of a socks 
      • [Suggested] Gaiters whenever there is deep snow and in the spring when trails are slushy 
      • [Suggested] Snowshoes when there is more than a foot of snow
    • Head and Hands:
      • Windproof hat - Knit wool hats are generally NOT windproof at all. Fleece hats are a little better.
      • Water resistant gloves - Fleece gloves generally aren't water/snow/wind resistant enough.
      • Sunglasses - critical because of snow glare - ski goggles are necessary if its windy or snowy
      • Headlamp and backup batteries
      • [Suggested] Backup light source and batteries 
      • [Suggested] Ear muffs (I find a hat traps too much sweat while I'm active, and my ears get cold with nothing)
      • [Suggested] Neoprene face mask or balaclave
  • Water: 2 liters minimum, 3 for long hikes
    • Hydration tubes freeze up easily. Insulated tubes are better, but don't rely on them when its well below freezing. Always blow into the tube to force all the water back into the reservoir after drinking.
    • Store all water bottles upside down in your pack. Fill at least one with very hot or boiling water so it doesn't freeze, insulate all bottles with old socks (or a fancy neoprene bottle holders)
    • Assume all streams will be frozen so bring enough water for the day.
    • [Suggested] Thermos with a hot drink
  • Lunch, Snacks and extra food.
    • Pre-heat or cut up your lunch so it doesn't freeze into a solid mass
    • Expect to burn twice as many calories in the winter as in the summer
  • Large day-pack - remember that anything tied to the outside will get snowy
  • Hiking Poles with snow baskets 
  • Rain Gear & Pack cover - And make sure your shells are waterproof. Rain or wet snow in the 30s is the most dangerous weather!
  • [Suggested] Space blanket for emergencies
  • [Suggested] Chemical hand and foot warmers just in case (but don't rely on them - they can be slow to warm up and they need to react with oxygen, so they won't work at all inside some articles of clothing)
  • [Suggested] Small insulating pad to sit on
  • [Suggested] Handkerchief and decongestant - the cold weather makes most people's nose run 


Sample Gear List for Very Cold Weather (20f and down):

Everyone is different, and I tend to have an easier time staying warm than most. The only way to know what clothing combination will work is to hike, hike, and hike some more and always carry an emergency layer or two.
  • Standard "Essential Hiking Gear" - Map, compass, whistle, etc - Only winter specific gear is covered in this list
  • Clothing: warm and windproof! layers! No cotton!
    • On top:
      • Base-layer: mid-weight or heavyweight long underwear, or Powerstretch
      • Insulating-layer: Powerstretch, 200 or 300 weight fleece, wool sweater or other similar
      • Windproof/waterproof Jacket, with a hood
      • Always carry one extra warm layer beyond what you expect to need
      • Extra base layer to change into when the first one gets sweaty
      • Down jacket for extra (emergency) insulation
    • On the bottom:
      • Base-layer: mid or heavy long underwear, or Powerstretch
      • Insulating Layer: Non-cotton hiking pants; Fleece or Wool pants are good too;
      • Soft-shell pants
      • Windproof/waterproof shell
    • For your Feet:
      • Insulated mountaineering boots are standard gear for any mountains; They can be rented. (Waterproof high-top boots are ok for short day hikes)
      • Winter wool socks (mid-weight or heavy-weight) or two layers of summer wool socks; liners
      • An extra pair of a socks
      • Gaiters whenever there is deep snow or whenever crampons are being used
      • Traction Devices: STABILicers (the kind with velcro straps) are ok, Microspikes are better. YakTraxs, STABILicer Lite and STABILicer Sport just don't work for hiking.
      • Snowshoes and crampons are generally not necessary in the NYC area, but are required in the mountains. (They can be rented)
    • Head and Hands:
      • Windproof hat - Knit wool hats are generally NOT warm enough
      • Heavy winter gloves or mittens, or mid-weight gloves with over mittens (I can both a heavy and mid-weight pair)
      • Ski goggles are necessary if its windy or snowy
      • Headlamp and backup batteries
      • Neoprene face protector
      • [Suggested] A second pair of goggles and anti-fogging treatment are necessary if spending a long time above the treeline
  • Water: 2 liters minimum, 3 for long hikes
    • Use a small (1/2 liter or so) water bottle that fits into the inside pocket of your shell, or use a clip-on insulating bottle holder
    • Store your main water bottles upside down in your pack and insulate them. Assume all streams will be frozen so bring enough water for the day.
    • [Suggested] Thermos with a hot drink
    • [Don't Bring] Hydration tubes - even insulated tubes are not reliable in the teens.
  • Lunch, Snacks and extra food. Pre-heat your lunch so it doesn't freeze.
    • Most candy bars and other foods are rock hard in the single digits, so pre-cut them into bite size portions. Store them in inside jacket pockets for easy access and to keep them warm while you hike. Energy gel never seems to freeze.
    • Expect to burn twice as many calories in the winter as in the summer. Always bring extra food.
  • Large day-pack - remember that anything tied to the outside will get snowy
  • Hiking Poles with snow baskets
  • Chemical hand and foot warmers (but don't rely on them - they can be slow to warm up and they need to react with oxygen, so they won't work at all inside some articles of clothing)
  • [Suggested] Space blanket
  • [Suggested] Small insulating pad to sit on
  • [Suggested] Handkerchief - the cold weather makes most people's nose run
  • [Suggested] Backup light source
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