Guide to Winter Hiking: Dangers, Preparation and Things to Consider

winter hiking
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Many hikers overlook winter hiking in favor of other quick-fix activities or go into hibernation mode and binge-watch TV shows. That’s mainly because hiking in the winter isn’t just about adding some extra layers of clothing. It’s a challenge hikers have to prepare and gear up for.

Most outdoor enthusiasts usually hang up their boots when they see any sign of frost. However, hiking season is not over with the milder months. Let’s start with why you should consider winter hiking before moving on to things to dangers, preparation and things to consider when hiking in the winter.

Why Winter Hiking?

Less (a lot less) Crowded Trails

The first and most obvious benefit of winter hiking are less crowded trails and views that you cannot experience during the summer months. Hiking through a snow globe in complete silence is a new experience altogether. Hiking in the winter is generally considered to be a challenge, but with proper planning and appropriate gear it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

In the summer and milder months, the trails are normally crowded and you need to get there early or during the weekdays to enjoy an open trail. Winter months keep most casual hikers out and offer those who accept the challenge a private trail, which itself is the biggest reward of winter hiking. In addition to almost no people, you also would not find any bugs or other insects in the colder months. It’s too cold out there for them to bother you, allowing you to enjoy a bug-free hike.

A lot Quieter

The trails get seriously quiet in the absence of leaves with snow weighing down tree branches.  You’ll feel like wearing noise-canceling headphones in the open and able to hear sounds coming from far away. This level of silence can be a great tranquilizer and melts away all the stress you have been carrying.

Stunning Photo Ops

Natural glow that comes out of snow is a dream come true for photographers and makes mobile photos look like some pro shot them. The best time to take some stunning photos include in the morning when the sky is clear and when the sun is shining brilliantly over snowy landscapes.

winter wonderland

More Workout

Deep snow and unstable ground create more resistance, making your legs do almost double the workout. You’d have to spend almost double the energy you spend on normal hikes when making your way through deep snow. That’s why you need to pick the trail carefully according to your fitness level and experience. At the same time, if you have been hiking on rocky terrains, hiking on soft snow will be a relaxing experience as it provides more cushion and builds hiking fitness.

Then there is the mental side of your health. Winter comes with an inside-anxious feeling and opting for winter hiking can greatly help prevent that feeling. It’s a perfect escape if you are tired of binge-watching Netflix and other indoor activities and allows you to spend some quality time with your family and friends.

Your Dog Will Love It

Cold weather keeps dogs from getting overheated, which is a concern in the summer months. Unless it’s -35 degrees or more below freezing, they’ll love to get their paws in the snow. We have already covered hiking with dogs in a detailed post, so you might also want to have a look at it for more information. Winter hiking provides an excellent opportunity to hike with your dog on open trails with only a few (if any) people/other animals on it.

white and black siberian husky on snow covered ground during daytime

Provides a New Perspective

Winter hiking provides a new perspective and refreshes your mind, especially on trails leading to waterfalls. You’ll be able to see the tried-and-tested trails in a totally different light and environment, even if you have hiked the same trial multiple times in the summer months.

Some people don’t like winter and end up focusing too much on the negatives. Hiking in winter can teach you not to dislike winters and make everything more fun. You’ll also love warm drinks and hot food after hiking in the cold. Hot buttered rum, hot chocolate or mulled wine give you more satisfaction in winter than at any other time.

Winter Hiking Preparation and Things to Consider

Start Small

Be realistic about the distance you can cover and the level of difficulty you can handle when planning your first hike in the winter. A 15-mile loop might not be an issue for you in warmer months, but the same trail can take double the time and effort to complete in the winter. In many areas the access roads leading to a trail get blocked over the winter, which can add a lot of mileage to the hike. Making your way through deep snow for miles can quickly become frustrating. Start with a trail you already know and can easily manage.

Start Early

Starting early is another important point to keep in mind because you have less daylight time. Plan your trips such that you are off the trail before it gets dark. Getting lost in the wild in deep snow is the last thing anyone would want out of their hiking trip.

In summer, hikers try to avoid the hottest parts of the day, but it’s the opposite in winter. Time your hike when the sun is the warmest and highest in the sky because temperatures can drop drastically once the sun goes down. If you want to catch the sunset, do it somewhere near the trailhead, so you can get back quickly.

Avoid Traveling Alone

It’s a simple, yet very effective tip you can give to anyone considering winter hiking and the reasons are quite obvious. Winter hiking is a lot safer and more fun when you share the adventure with others. It’s even better if you are accompanied by someone experienced, who can help you choose the appropriate gear and show how to use that gear such as snowshoes and crampons.

You can also expect experienced hikers to already have some extra gear and clothing items such as gloves, googles, hiking poles, which you can borrow and save some money. In case you plan on leaving alone, make sure to inform someone about your trip plan and keep them updated about your whereabouts whenever possible.

Dress According to the Terrain and Weather Conditions

Follow the ‘dress like an onion’ rule, which means dressing in layers. Temperature can vary a lot between trail’s bottom and top. Different layers of clothing keep you comfortable and warm, including a long underwear, waterproof pants, soft shell jacket or a light fleece. A synthetic loft or down-filled insulated jacket, waterproof shell jacket and fleece pants work great in case weather turns foul and allow you to layer up when needed. Silverlight Hiking Crew Socks will provide enough warmth for your hike while you’re on the move, if you plan to camp as well, we recommend to get some thick wool socks in addition for sleeping.

Depending on the terrain, you can also consider wearing two layers of gloves/mittens (one for waterproofing and the other for insulation). This dual-layer outfit not only keeps you warm and comfy, but also works great when you reach higher altitudes or in case of precipitation.

The key to a comfortable and enjoyable winter hiking trip is to stay warm and dry. If you are wearing the wrong material and start sweating, you’ll probably end up being cold and wet. This can turn an otherwise great trip into a miserable one, so be very careful about picking the right materials.

Below are some suggestions for winter hiking clothing, but if you are not willing to invest in expensive winter hiking clothing, consider buying used. You can find a lot of good used deals on REI, which not only saves money, but also reduces waste.

Tops: we recommend three layers, including the base layer (for wicking moisture), insulating layer and shell (keeps moisture and wind out). The advantage of dressing in layers is that you can add/remove layers throughout the hike. For example, you can shed a layer if you start getting too sweaty or add one at higher altitudes.

Synthetic materials and wool are a much better choice than cotton because of their moisture-wicking and quick-drying properties. Say no to cotton when hiking because it keeps the moisture and takes a long time to dry.

Bottoms: A base layer plus a water-proof top layer is recommended in snowy/cold conditions. Depending on the terrain and weather, you can also wear ski pants or fleece leggings.

Hands: It’s a good idea to have both mittens and gloves to keep your hands warm and dry

Head: A lot of heat is lost through the head, which makes wearing a warm beanie or hat a must even if you think you don’t need to cover your head on the trail.

Nose and Cheeks: Cover with a neck gaiter

Footwear: We are strong advocates of picking lightweight trail running shoes over heavy boots (hiking boots vs. trail runners), but things are different in the winter. That’s the time when heavy-duty boots make more sense, especially when hiking in deep snow. It’s better to invest in quality waterproof hiking boots such as these if you plan on frequent winter hiking. Pair your shoes with hiking socks that keep your feet warm and dry, and make sure to keep an extra pair. Shoe/leg gaiters prevent snow from getting inside boots and can be very useful when hiking through ungroomed snow.

snowy landscape in winter

Avoid Wearing Tight Clothing Items

The chances of getting frostbite increase due to poor blood circulation. Items such as cuffs of gloves, wristwatch bands, boots and gaiters that are too tight are among the things that can negatively affect blood circulation, so you need to pick the right size and fitting for better circulation. Consider buying hand warmer and/or toe warmer pockets if you are prone to cold fingers/toes.

Invest in Quality Gear

You can learn more about the essential backpacking checklist here. Most of the items in that list are also applicable for winter hiking. But there are some items that need serious consideration when hiking in the cold and should be carried by every hiker. In addition to the basic hiking gear, make sure you have a detailed trail map, a compass or a GPS device, a first aid kit, a multi-tool/pocket knife and a headlamp or flashlight. If the weight feels too much, you can divide the weight of heavier items if traveling in a group.

All hikers including day hikers should be prepared for emergencies such as spending a night outside. Although this will make your backpack a bit heavier, the extra weight can mean the difference between life and death in some cases.

Although the winter hiking checklist can vary from one person and area to another, there are a few basic and common items anyone planning for winter hiking needs to consider. We encourage hikers to find good prices on season-end sales, closeout items or using coupons to save money, instead of buying dirt cheap and unreliable gear.

Don’t Say No to Turning Around

There is no point in risking your safety and trying to push yourself too hard to reach the summit when the conditions are not right. Getting down safely is more important than risking everything to get to the top. The mountains will remain there for a long time to come, so it’s better to turn back if the conditions are not suitable. Head back while you still have the time and energy for the descent.

Keep Hydrated, Drink Tea/Cocoa and Bring Plenty of Food

A portable stove can make winter hiking more enjoyable and enables you to make tea, cocoa or coffee when you need it the most. You might not need to carry as much water as you might have to when hiking in summer months. However, you should still keep yourself hydrated even if you are not feeling thirsty (feeling thirsty usually means you are already dehydrated). Carrying some tea or coffee in a thermos can provide a nice break, warm you up and keep you motivated for the rest of the hike.

Having a great meal when you come off the mountain is a great way of treating yourself for the accomplishment. Find the nearest source of food and don’t worry about how you look and smell. Exercising in the cold burns more calories than usual, so you need to carry plenty of food to stay nourished.

Consider bringing carb and protein rich snacks you can eat without having to stop. You cannot afford to stop for long periods of time when hiking in winters not only because of shorter days, but also because it takes some time and effort to warm up the muscles again.

people standing on snow covered mountain

Learn to Use Crampons

Crampons are very useful when hiking in winters, especially if the trail is icy. However, you also need to learn to properly use them otherwise you may end up injuring yourself. Read online or watch videos and try different techniques on an easy trail if you are not familiar with crampons. One stumble or misstep can result in a sprained ankle or serious cut in the legs. You need to be extra careful when using crampons because in the end, they are just metal spikes firmly attached to the feet.

Don’t Forget to Check the Weather

It’s an obvious and important step to have a clear picture of the weather to expect. Temperature is just one thing to consider as you also have to look at other factors such as wind speed, daylight hours, wind speed and avalanche reports.

Hiking in the winter is a different experience than hiking in warmer months. It can become difficult to find your way above the tree line in limited visibility. Hike on a day when it’s clear and the weather conditions are manageable. Postpone the trip if it looks scary and plan the trip around the least able or least experienced person in the group.

Leave No Trace

We have already covered trail etiquettes in detail, but the most important thing is to leave no trace. Bring a trash bag and take all the trash with you, including biodegradable stuff such as banana peels.

Dangers of Winter Hiking

Unlike regular short hikes, you cannot just get out and start hiking in winter without considering the dangers. You need a bit more preparation, planning and gear to deal with potential dangers including:

Cold Temperatures

With the right gear cold temperature is not much of an issue, but it still remains the most obvious danger. You need to take into account everything you’ll need to minimize heat loss. It’s imperative to layer correctly according to the temperature and bring proper attire.

Just because it’s cold out there does not mean the sun is not going to cause any damage to your skin. Sunburn remains a concern when hiking in winter (even more because of sun rays reflecting back from the snow). Use sunscreen on the exposed parts, including around the neck, nose and chin and underside of the nose.

Electronic devices and batteries are prone to malfunctioning in extremely cold weather, so it’s better to bring some extra batteries to be on the safe side (lithium holds up better than alkaline). Keep the batteries/battery packs warm and store them inside a pocket, preferably wrapped in a piece of cloth.

group of winter hikers

Hypothermia

Hikers interested in winter hiking must have a basic understanding of hypothermia and how to act when you notice symptoms. Hypothermia refers to a medical emergency in which your body is losing heat faster than it can produce. Our normal body temperature is 37C/98.6F. Hypothermia starts occurring when core body temperature decreases 2 degrees below the normal body temperature i.e., 35C/95F, which impairs the cerebral and muscular functions.

Hypothermia makes you feel confused and can make it difficult to evacuate back to safety. That’s why you need to be well aware of the warning signs and act timely before you completely lose your ability to think clearly. Cold temperature, improper clothing, wetness, dehydration or malnutrition, exhaustion, fatigue and alcohol intake can all lead to hypothermia.

Common symptoms of hypothermia include violent or uncontrollable shivering, inability to properly communicate or slurred speech, lethargy or fumbling, memory loss, numb hands/feet, shallow breathing and even complete loss of consciousness.

How to Deal with Hypothermia?

You need to act immediately if you experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms and try to get back indoors as quickly as possible. Call the local emergency number for help or alert local authorities if the regular emergency service is not available. Assuming you are not hiking alone, here are some tips to deal with hypothermia:

  • Your group member needs to investigate if you are wearing wet clothing and replace it with something dry and warm you up if needed
  • Avoid warming extremities like hands and feet first because it can cause shock
  • Warm the trunk first
  • Warm up by putting a blanket or layers of dry clothing
  • Avoid immersion in warm/hot water. Rapid warming in warm water can result in heart arrhythmia
  • Avoid applying warm water containers such as water bottles directly to the skin. Wrap water containers in a cloth and then apply them to the skin to transfer heat
  • A warm drink can help the person if he/she is still conscious, but avoid caffeine or alcohol

Frostbite

It refers to freezing of the tissue and is most common on toes, fingers and ears. The three levels of frostbite include:

Frostnip: the damage is not permanent, can be treated with first aid measures, continued exposure to the cold leads to numbness. The affected person may feel tingling and some pain as his/her skin warms up

Superficial frostbite: Occurs when reddened skin starts turning pale or white. The affected person might feel that their skin is warm, but that’s actually a sign of second-degree frostbite. Rewarming the skin at this stage might cause the skin to appear mottled and the affected person may notice swelling, burning or stinging. Fluid-filled blisters may start appearing after 12-36 hours of rewarming.

Deep frostbite: Affects all layers of the skin, including the underlying tissues. The skin turns bluish gray or white. Muscles/joints usually stop working at this stage and the affected person loses sensations of pain, cold and discomfort in the affected area. The area turns hard and black after the tissue completely dies.

Common Symptoms of a Frostbite

  • A prickling feeling, cold skin
  • Numbness in the affected area
  • Waxy-looking, harder skin
  • Color can change to bluish-white, grayish-yellow, red or white
  • Clumsiness
  • Blistering in severe cases after rewarming
  • Fever
  • Swelling, increased pain

Preventing and Dealing with Frostbite

Frostbite and hypothermia occur because of almost the same reasons, so they can be prevented and dealt with in the same way while on the trail. Avoid direct contact with hot water or rubbing the affected area (can damage tissue). Seek medical help immediately and try your best not to let the affected area refreeze.

Wild Animals

There are many animals that hibernate during the winter, but that does not mean you’ll never encounter any. Some of these animals wake up from hibernation for a short walk. You need to be well aware of the wild animals in the area you plan on hiking. You might be tempted to feed harmless animals such as squirrels, but that can do more harm than good. Human food is not suitable for wild animals and might even change their habits.

deer in winter

Less Daylight

Although not technically a danger, having less time to complete the distance can become a real issue when your hike starts taking longer than anticipated. Plan ahead if you think you might coincide with dusk and take a headlamp or flashlight and other essential gear for such situations. We have also covered night hiking in a dedicated post and most of the things covered in the post also apply to hiking at night in the winter. However, night hiking in the winter takes a lot more consideration and planning than hiking in warmer months and is not for the faint hearted.

Low Visibility

During winter sometimes the visibility can be very low due do snowfall, fog or storms. Getting into a storm in winter can be very dangerous, it’s crucial to check conditions beforehand in order to avoid such low visibility scenarios that make it easy to get lost. When trails are covered by snow it can be hard to not get off track, it’s recommended to bring a GPS map and check it frequently if the trail is difficult to follow due to low visibility or snow.

hikers in winter experiencing low visibility

Trail Conditions

Hiking on fresh and soft snow is a different experience than hiking on compacted snow. Knowing trail conditions is necessary in planning and enables you to pick the right gear, which can include ice grippers, trekking poles and snowshoes.

Difficult trails also mean more time to cover the same distance, so you need to plan your trip carefully to get home safely. A trail that takes one hour in summer might take more than three hours in the winter when walking through deep snow. Crossing streams and other water bodies also becomes a lot more difficult.

Avalanches are another danger to consider, especially if you are new to the trail. It’s better to avoid areas that are prone to avalanches, but if you must walk such terrain and are not sure, ask the locals about dangerous spots. Sometimes, a lot of snow can hide trail signs, so you need to be aware of your surroundings and keep the starting point in sight.

Best Winter Hiking Destinations in the US

We have already covered some of the best day hikes in Colorado and Near Denver and many of them are also great for winter hiking. Some of the best winter hiking destinations in the US include:

Jus Wiebe Trail (Colorado, Telluride): 3-mile trail that remains dry for the most part of the year

Rock Mountain National Park: Cub Lake and The Pool Trails (difficulty level easy to moderate)

Grand Canyon National Park: South Rim for day hikes, The Hermit Trail is a comparatively easy day hike with less ice and snow

Yosemite National Park: The Snowboard Area and Yosemite Ski are home to some great and marked winter trails

Mount Rainier National Park: There are a lot of trails where you can hike on your own, while you can also opt for snowshoe walks guided by Rangers in the Washington park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A 71-mile Appalachian Trail section traverses the park and offers some stunning views in the winter

Emerald Lake Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado: 3.5-miles round trip, pristine water scenery and jagged peaks

Angel’s Landing – Utah (Zion National Park): crystalline white snow, bright red rock formation. A 5-mile strenuous round trip, traction devices needed in ice

Crumbaugh Lake – California (Lassen Volcanic National Park): Short 1.3-mile hike, which is considered to be suitable for a snow-covered trail

Landscape Arch – Utah (Arches National Park): Earth’s largest arch, no uphill slogging, easily accessible, 1.6-miles easy round trip

Jenny Lake Loop – Wyoming (Grand Teton National Park): A relatively difficult 7.5-mile round trip, closed when conditions are not suitable

Yosemite National Park in Winter

Conclusion

Winter hiking is about finding the middle ground between safety/comfort and being overly self-confident/reckless. We have our own comfort zones. Some like challenges and crave for a continuous sense of fulfillment, while others like to stay safe and comfy. Hiking in winter allows the former to test their skills and abilities and the latter to experience nature from a different perspective.

Overcoming common dangers associated with winter hiking mainly comes down to preparation. Knowing the area well and having the right gear is the key to an enjoyable hiking experience. You also need to be well aware of your own physical and mental limits. Avoid pushing it to its limit if your body is not sending positive signals.

Winter hiking is a great way of dealing with winter blues and staying active the year around. But you should also leave nothing to chance and take all the necessary precautions. Knowing the trail well, never hiking alone and packing all the necessary supplies can make winter hiking a great experience that is likely to remain in your memories forever.

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Guide to Winter Hiking: Dangers, Preparation and Things to Consider

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