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Are you thinking of hiking in winter? Would you like to start with winter walking but don’t know what to expect and how to prepare? Does the idea of conquering snow-covered hills sound overwhelming? It should not!
Indeed, it is true that winter hikes require more preparations and precautions, but after reading our tips and advice (and applying common sense!) you will plan your first winter hiking adventure with confidence. Don’t forget to let us know how it went, please!
Based on our own experience we prepared a guide which will take you thru the important aspects and facts to ensure you can fully enjoy the wintry outdoors. We believe that our winter hiking guide will come in handy for beginners as well as more advanced hikers.
Let’s have a look then, shall we?
If you feel that something is missing from the list, please let us know (in comments below) and we’ll add it to the guide!
1. You’ll walk much slower in the snow or on the ice
We made it a number 1 tip! Despite being quite obvious, many people who haven’t hiked in winter may not actually consider this important fact when planning their first winter hike… well, sometimes even those who have experience still underestimate it; including ourselves!
With snow far above your knees and no footprints to follow, the progress you make is slow! A quick example from our ‘hiking career’: after 3-4 hours of wading thru deep snow we realised we only covered few kilometres, but were totally exhausted, and decided to turn back. Constantly struggling to negotiate surprisingly deep snowdrifts can tire you out like hell!
But seriously, walking the same route in deep snow may take twice as much time, compering to summer. This would turn a 3 hours summer hike into a hard 6 hours walk in winter. It may sound crazy, but is very true! All depends on how deep and hard the snow really is!
Remember that it is especially hard to walk on soft, freshly fallen snow. If you’re hiking with a partner, take turns in breaking the snow – it can be really tough to go first!
This naturally leads me to the next two tips…
2. Be prepared to turn back
Again, every outdoor enthusiast needs to remember this one! If you feel that you are struggling or making too slow a progress, there is no shame in turning back! This does happen to everyone from time to time!
Once, while hiking in The Cairngorm National Park we felt that it was too much of a struggle and we would never manage to make it to the summit and back before nightfall. We thought that rather than stressing out we can still save the day and have some fun! We were in the stunning outdoors after all, so decided to enjoy our time and make a snowman (also to have a snowball fight!). Surely, we rejoined the car even more knackered but totally safe, and managed to have some fun (a lot of it!) along the way! After all, being outdoor is all about enjoying the time and staying safe!
3. Start small and start early
This is an absolutely amazing advice! First, remember you do not need to be a mountaineering champion straight away! Let’s face it – there is no way you will be one straight away, sorry. After all, winter hiking requires some practice, fitness and strong muscles. So just be realistic and for your first wintry adventures pick routes which take about 2-3 hours in summer conditions. A small hill or short stroll would be perfect for starters, ideally a location well known to you, so you’re confident with navigation. One has to start somewhere, OK? You can then build up to longer and more demanding hikes, practice makes a master!
You should always try to set off as early as you can to give yourself as much time as possible to deal with the unknown. Consider that there could be more snow or ice on higher ground, or conditions could worsen; this could slow you down considerably, therefore you should ensure to have some ‘time margin’.
4. Before you set off to the great wintry outdoors, learn how to use the winter gear
We all agree that frozen trails can be quite slippery, right? How to minimise the risk of injury, then? The answer is simple – to stay safe be extra careful and use dedicated winter gear!
Crampons, mini-crampons and micro-spikes will prevent you from slipping and falling, especially while walking on icy ground (frozen snow can be just as bad!). But it is important to know how to use/put them on before you set off for your first hike. So try them on at home first. Believe me, you really want to know how to quickly put them on before hitting the trail in winter! If you don’t, you may end up fighting with stiff rubber and cold steel, in very cold conditions, gloves off and your hands almost frozen dead. You definitely don’t want that! Strong wind and subzero temperatures are not the best and most comfortable conditions for working out how to put your crampons/micro-spikes on. I can assure you, you will be willing to have them on as quickly as possible to avoid getting frostbites.
So instead of cursing yourself for not trying it beforehand, get familiar with the technique of putting crampons on your boots in warm comfort of your home!
Another handy piece of winter equipment (which somehow gets ignored very often!) is ice axe. Why would you need to carry an axe in addition to your walking poles? Ice axe provides great support when climbing steep and/or icy ground and provides stable support should you have to scramble up some rocky terrain. In simple words: it can act as an extension of your hand or be the ‘third leg’, the only one that is perfectly stable and never slips! It can also save you from serious injuries during a potentially life-threatening slips (for example if you slip while traversing a ridge).
However, even the best ice axe will be useless if you don’t know how to properly use it!
Therefore it’s essential to learn how to use your ice axe! The easiest would be signing up for a winter skills course, but you can also learn the techniques by checking out Youtube demonstrations and practising them on a small hill, before the hike. Ensure to learn self-arrest technique, this can potentially save your life one day! Also, ensure to make yourself familiar with using ice axe on steep ascents, it’s a very useful tool indeed!
When we first got ice axes we went to our local hills to learn their use, we practised self-arrests in comfort of ‘safe environment’, without risking a serious injury in case we turned out really bad at it (but Ela still managed to stab herself in the knee with the spike ha!).
I think walking poles can be of great help during winter walks as well. They provide additional support and balance, especially on flatter ground where walking with a ‘ready’ ice axe would make you look like a fool! Nowadays, I cannot imagine going for a hike without a pole or two. In winter, they will definitely help you keeping a good balance and stay steady!
And finally, keep in mind that even the most amazing winter gear won’t help you to be safe if you leave it at home or keep in your rucksack instead of having it handy. So, if you have winter equipment make sure to take it for your winter adventures, and use it!
5. Take a head torch (and spare batteries)
We learned this the hard way and it wasn’t even during a winter hike!
Once, while hiking in Scottish hills we realised that the guide timings we were advised were underestimated for our pace of walking. In fact quite often the guide timings don’t include rest or lunch breaks… and we love to take is slowly, enjoy the view and take loads of photos, so the evening caught us unprepared. Fortunately, the last few kilometres led thru familiar ground in a valley, but still we were stressed and couldn’t wait to finish the hike. As it became darker and darker we struggled to identify features of the ground and I jumped on a massive cow’s poo, thinking it was a rock, a fantastic stepping stone.
We returned to the car in pitch black, only helped by lights from our mobile phones. First thing we did once back home, we went to buy decent head torches!
If you only end up confusing a pile of sh**t with a rock it’s not too bad, but in fact the whole adventure could turn our worse.
I think a head torch really is one of the most important pieces of equipment when thinking of winter and autumn hikes. Ultimately, winter or any other season – if you’re caught by nightfall in the outdoors you’re screwed. Take the very recent example from our trip in Slovakia: the hike was perfectly timed and we would manage to get back well before dark but I had some stomach issues and I was unable to walk for some time! We spent a lot of time sitting, I was running to the bushes and I think we lost over 1 hour just trying to ease my pain.. which meant we got down after nightfall. Having learned on our previous mistake (mentioned above) we had the torches and this time the nightfall didn’t take us by surprise! To be honest, I still don’t know what caused my stomach issues on that trip, but hey, shit happens! so be ready for it!
6. Stay hydrated
You will be surprised how many people don’t drink enough while hiking in winter. Of course, we do not feel THAT thirsty, and sometimes don’t appreciate that we do sweat even in sub-zero temperatures. Also, because it’s very cold, we do not want to faff around, stand still, looking for the stuff inside the bag. But we DO need to drink as regularly as we would in summer!
And that takes us to another thought: what drinks to take on a winter hike and how to keep them warm?
If you asked that question to a dozen hikers, you would probably get a dozen different answers. Some would point in direction of isotonic and energy drinks, but… The truth is: there isn’t a better drink to warm you up in the hills than a good old tea! Add some lemon, ginger and honey and you’ll end up with gods’ nectar! After years and years of reluctance, even Ela finally gave in and can’t imagine a winter hike without a flask of hot tea! We ALWAYS carry a thermos of hot tea with lemon and honey!
As far as cold drinks go – keep in mind that they will become very cold and drinking them on a wintry hike may actually be a rather cooling experience. Also, you’ll have to make sure to keep them in liquid form, rather than an ‘isotonic ice lolly’! One good way to prevent your drink from freezing is using bottle sleeve insulator.
But how to keep your ‘in-sack bladder’ and a tube from freezing? Follow these simple steps and your ‘hydration system’ will stay in good shape: fill your bladder with warm water, keep the water circulating by taking a sip or two every 10 minutes, warm up the tube by blowing warm air in it after each sip.
If you run out of water, don’t eat snow. Eating snow will actually dehydrate you more; instead melt the snow first and then drink the water.
One last word on what drinks NOT TO take on your winter hike. We don’t recommend taking alcoholic drinks for wintry hikes (and any hikes actually). Surely, a sip of whisky would warm you up and there’s nothing wrong with it, but have a couple of sips and your judgement, speed of reaction and mind could be clouded. So just be careful with alcohol when outdoors.
7. Have enough food
Did you know that during winter hikes, when the temperatures drops below zero we burn up to 30% more calories than in above zero temperatures? The main reasons being that the body uses calories to keep us warm and we do use more energy while walking in the snow! Just another perfect reason for having a winter adventure, don’t you think? Just make sure you do have supplies to give your body enough fuel!
That leads us to question: what food is best suitable for winter hikes? We believe that all food is suitable, however one should keep in mind that some snacks can be a bit difficult to eat when cold. Like fruit for example, which can actually freeze. But also energy bars or chocolate bars can become very hard in cold conditions, and therefore difficulty to eat. However, cereal bars, nuts, raisins, dried fruit or cheese won’t get hard, so are perfect snacks for winter excursions, just as the classic sandwiches are.
8. Layer up
We can’t emphasise enough how important is to have layers of clothing!
The temperatures can vary at the bottom of the mountain and at its top. In addition, you may feel cold at the start of the hike but after walking up steep sections you will desperately want to remove some clothing to feel comfortable. Layers are the way to go to keep you warm and dry.
Let’s start with a next-to-skin base layer top: you should opt for either synthetic material (so called ‘technical’) or merino wool. We personally find mid-weight (200) merino tops a bit too warm, but we always have them in handy should we feel cold.
Next layer should keep you warm and act as an insulation: the best would be fleece, wool, or when it’s extremely cold, a down jacket should be sufficient.
The outer layer: this could be a water proof jacket for protection from the elements. However, in dry conditions we often find a windproof soft shell jacket sufficient to protect from the wind.
On the bottom, we normally wear merino long johns (200 weight) base-layer. The outer layer depends on the weather conditions and usually is either soft shell pants (wind protection) or water proof trousers to protect from rain and wind.
Why is ‘technical wear’ so important? Can’t I just wear my favourite cotton T-shirt and a jumper?
Of course you can, but you shouldn’t, and here’s why!
Cotton makes some comfy home garments, but isn’t really suitable for hiking. When you sweat, cotton absorbs the moisture, and does not wick it. Quite the opposite, it sticks to your skin and makes you feel cooler. In cold weather damp cotton clothing will make you feel even colder and can contribute to getting a hypothermia.
Technical wear, on the other hand, have been designed to make you feel comfortable during activities. It will wick the moisture so you won’t have the ‘damp cloth’ feeling on your back. What is more, if you combine more technical layers, you can actually feel very comfortable despite producing a lot of heat and sweating hard when hiking.
You’ll probably find that many technical clothing items are made of merino wool (or merino wool mixed with other fibres, like coconut). It’s for a very good reason. Merino wool is unique: it’s light, provides a lot of warmth (even light and mid-weight items!) and most importantly – it still has warming properties when wet!
It’s also advisable to have spare dry clothing in case you need to change along the way.
9. Don’t forget your hut, gloves and buff
According to a 2008 report published in the British Medical Journal, people lose 7-10% of body heat through the head (if head is uncovered while the rest of the body is covered). Hence it really makes sense to wear your hut during a winter hike!
Also hands can suffer badly if not protected from the elements. For everyone with poor blood circulation this should be one of the most important pieces of advice: never forget the gloves! What is more, you can even take two pairs of gloves – one to keep you warm and cosy and the second pair to act as an outer layer to protect you from wind and rain or snow.
Wind and low temperatures can also affect your face, a buff would be a very good protection against both.
10. Wear gaiters and insulated boots
If you can afford or are planning to get serious about winter hiking, getting robust and insulated boots would be a great idea! Winter hiking boots should be 0,5 -1 size larger than summer ones, as your feet should be comfortable even when wearing thicker, winter socks. The boots should also be maintained – winter proofed boots won’t get dump as quickly so the insulation can serve its purpose and will keep your feet warm even when walking thru snow. If possible, your winter boots should have a water-proof membrane, ideally Gore-Tex to ensure dry feet even in slushy snow.
Gaiters are of great help in preventing snow from getting inside your boots from the top! They also help keeping the pants and legs dry. Although at first they may feel a bit awkward to wear, you’ll quickly get used and appreciate them.
11. Don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses
This tip is also very important! Despite the general assumption of winter months to be dark, gloomy and cold, very often the days actually turn to be bright and sunny! And as much as we all love a nice hike on a lovely sunny day, the sun reflecting from snow can really make your hike uncomfortable. Sun glasses should be a permanent part of hiking gear, summer or winter!
Also, being exposed to direct sunshine for a long time without protection can be as damaging in winter as it is in summer. Having said that, I admit to postponing to apply the sun protector, so I can get a vitamin D boost, so much needed in winter!
12. Join an experienced hiker, let someone know where you’re heading
Why not go for your first winter hike with someone more experienced? A more experienced walker could actually help you to learn winter skills, use of gear and navigation.
Also, it’s best practice to let someone know where you’re heading; in worst case scenario it will increase chances of being found as quickly as possible.
13. Have a map and compass, first aid kit and thermal blanket
Often when walking in winter you can already see footsteps of other hikers who walked the trail before you. They’re a good indication of where to head, but you should be able to find your way without these hints. Therefore, we recommend taking a hiking map and learn how to use compass – if the conditions worsen you’ll still be able to follow the ‘route’.
Other helpful piece of winter safety gear is an emergency blanket. It can be described as a large sheet of heat reflecting foil, so it’s light to carry and when neatly folded would almost fit in your pocket. Such a simple ‘gadget’ can potentially save your life if you get in trouble during a winter hike. The blanket would reflect your own heat to warm you up, and prevent hypothermia.
14. Always, always keep warm
Keeping warm in winter conditions can never be underrated! It’s essential to make sure that you’re dressed accordingly to the conditions, add more layers when feel chilly! When having a break, try to find a sheltered spot. Also, consider having more often, but shorter breaks, so you don’t cool down.
15. Check the weather and avalanche forecast
I know, I know you are going to tell me that this is obvious and that you always check the weather forecast before going for a hike. But in winter it is even more important to know such details as wind speed chart, avalanche reports, daylight hours and also (if possible) the depth and state of snow cover on the slope (how deep and hard/soft it is). These factors will greatly impact your outdoor experience.
In cold weather even a relatively light breeze can add severe chill; you may feel much colder than it actually is. Therefore, be aware that strong wind in connection with sub-zero temperatures can make you feel very cold (so have those warm layers handy!)
Avalanches occur more often that most of us think, also ‘mini-avalanches’ occur in lower hills and can be just as dangerous as the big-scale ones. Hence, it’s vital to check the latest avalanche forecast – during winter season it can often be found on your weather forecast publisher site, but you can also research online the detailed avalanche reports for specific areas.
16. Keep your electronic devices warm
Has it ever happened to you: you’re heading out for a winter stroll with your mobile fully charged, but after an hour spent in your pocket the mobile’s battery is suddenly drained? Here’s a lesson to be learned!
All batteries passively loose ‘power’ to some extend when exposed to low temperatures. In practice it means that the battery may drain twice as quickly (or even faster!) than at home. You should always keep this in mind, especially if you rely on electronic devices for navigation purposes. If you’re using a GPS device or a map/tracker which requires your phone switched on all the time, you can expect the battery to drain surprisingly quick.
Hence, for winter hikes we recommend taking a hard-copy, paper map. It’s the safest navigation tool in cold conditions, does not require mobile reception and would lead you alright even in thick low clouds when GPS signal can be too elusive.
However, follow these two simple tips if you’re heading out and rely on electronic devices:
- try to always keep them warm. Carry your mobile phone or GPS close to your body; an inner pocket in your insulated jacked would be ideal, or a pocket of mid-layer (fleece etc).
- carry a power bank. I appreciate this would add some weight to your bag, but I can’t recommend enough the power bank devices. Not only you’ll be able to re-charge your gadgets on the go, numerous times, but they will charge quickly. This can be of great importance if you find your mobile phone dead, but needing to call for help/rescue.