It’s winter and you are snug by the fire staring longingly out the window as fresh snow blankets your world. Okay, that may be a bit idyllic but the theme is there. Thanks to COVID you ventured out on to the trail and now you have the bug. However, seasons change and you are afraid to head out into the winter wonderland. Now you are stuck inside passing the time until the snow melts and you step foot on a fresh spring trail. Sound about right?
I am often asked about what is needed for a winter kit (the gear for winter hiking). This is a list of everything I can think of that will make your winter adventure comfortable, enjoyable, and safe. If you are considering hitting the trail in the winter, I recommend using this list and giving a winter adventure a go. This list isn’t in a particular order, it sort of moves from head to toe, then back from head to toe. I’ve tried to note when something is not needed, or needed in specific circumstances.
Backpack (30-40 liters)
There is a lot of gear listed in this piece. Get a bag that can carry all of that. A good rule of thumb is ‘don’t pack more than you can wear at one time (with the exception of socks)’. So, try to determine how much space all that gear will take, add in your water and food. That is how big a bag you should have. Your backpack should be comfortable, and the straps should work with your body not pinch or dig into you. I like Osprey, for their fit and their guarantee.
Base Layer (Top)
Merino Wool, 100% is best but no less than 65% Lots of good brands out there, stay away from anything that says light weight or light activities.
Insulation Layer (Top)
A functional kit is versatile, an insulating layer gives you the ability to layer your outfit to match the needs of the trail. A good insulating layer can be fleece, PolarTec, Down, PrimaLoft, Thermore. Fleece should be 200-300 weight. Another option here is a heavyweight softshell, the key is that it provides warmth
Puffer Jacket (Top)
There are many options for puffer jackets. I prefer down fill. These should be able to be worn over the rest of your layers and be easily accessible. Any time you stop, the cold will start to dig in fast, a puffer jacket will go a long way to sealing in that heat. Down will work worse as it gets wet, so wearing these while hiking can lead to a wasted layer.
Outer Shell (Top)
This is meant to worn over the rest of your layers (except the puffer jacket) and serves the purpose of shedding water and snow. Waterproof, windproof, fully taped seams, and breathable are the must have features. Pit zips and a full hood are important with bigger more technical trips.
Base Layer (Bottom)
Merino Wool,100% is best but no less than 65% Lots of good brands out there, stay away from anything that says light weight or light activities. For legs there is often options with targeted venting. Since you are pumping so hard, this can feel pretty good.
Outer Shell (Bottom)
Full side zip pants are not a must but very helpful. Beyond that waterproof, windproof, and fully taped seams are must haves. If the cuff of the pants can fit over your boots that is great especially when sealed inside gaiters. There are many options with fleece/wool linings. This is an extra layer of insulation, if you run cold, consider lined pants.
Most body heat escapes through your head. Even if you don’t wear a decent hat while hiking, you want one in your kit for any long stops. This should be made of fleece or merino wool. If you don’t want a full hat, a head band and/or ear muffs, even a ball cap. Just remember to cover your head, all that sweat freezes and that is no fun.
Snow glare can be a real pain and snow blindness is a real thing. A sunglass that wraps around the side of your eyes will keep your eyes comfortable if it is a sunny day.
If you are going to be above the tree line. Goggles are encouraged. It doesn’t take very long to go snow blind, goggles can save your eyes. They also seal around your eyes, so they offer wind protection. They will fog up so if you are planning an extended trip in extreme conditions, 2 pairs are recommended.
When you get to the tree line or even on the way up, really low temps (I’m thinking below 10 f) mean you want to have a complete head cover that will include your face. This holds the heat in and protects against frostbite and other winter ills.
This is an item I never took seriously when I was younger. However, the warmth a neck gaiter provides and the added protection is impressive. I recommend a long tube, that can easily be pulled up over your ears and nose. Merino Wool is ideal for warmth and vapor regulation.
This will be what you wear most of the hike. They are just enough warmth to keep hands comfy. Also, if you are going with a light glove system these along with shells are all you’ll have. You may want to consider a second pair because your hands will get wet.
Ski gloves or your more traditional winter type gloves or mittens. If you are going with a single glove system this is all you will have. If you are only using insulated gloves, bring two pair because they will get wet and once wet your fingers will chill easily and that can lead to frostbite.
These won’t provide insulation or warmth as much as they create a warm air pocket on the inside and keep the wind, ice, and cold on the outside. If you are only going with liners you should have a shell for deep cold or exposure to wind.
Waterproof, sturdy, good ankle support, and preferably 400 weight insulation. A quality Vibram tread is nice for when you aren’t hiking with spikes. Goretex is fine for the uppers and most boots labeled as winter boots are 200 weight for insulation. That is fine, but the bigger the number the warmer your feet will stay. Any footwear you have should have a comfortably wide toe box that allows your feet to spread naturally. Any trips over 3 miles in cramped boots can damage toes and toenails, it can also generate friction blisters. If you get new boots for a winter trip you should try to get 3-4 days hiking on them or at least 10 miles of trail time to help break them and your feet in.
These are not critical but will keep snow and ice out of your boots and provide another layer of protection. For winter adventures a good pair of gaiters should become second nature.
Wool Socks (2 pair)
100% Merino wool. I only recommend Darn Tough for winter hiking; this is one of the few pieces of gear that I only have one recommendation. I’d suggest hiker or heavier weight, the expedition weight is incredibly warm. If you get sweaty feet and/or are prone to blisters, bring two pairs to switch out. This will keep your feet dry and reduce the risk of blisters.
Traction is important. Kahtoola is the best, simply put. You want at least the Exo spikes as Nanos are going to be a bit too light for the environments you are likely to encounter on a winter trail.
If you have every broken trail, you know how exhausting it can be to push your way through fresh snow. Snowshoes keep you on top of the snow and make it much easier to travel. Not a required winter item, but if you spend hours in the woods, they can be very helpful.
The big brother of the Microspike. They are specialty traction devices. But, when you are spending time on exposed ridgelines, time above the tree line, or hard icy stretches or climbs; these are traction device you want. For most winter adventures you will not need these but as you get serious about your expeditions adding these to your kit is a smart choice.
Whether they are used as an extra point of contact, a probe testing snow depth, an anchor while climbing, or even just a way to distribute your weight on the down climb. Trekking poles are a valuable tool that can assist in both the up and down climb in the winter. They are not required, but if you are comfortable hiking with them, I recommend you take them.
When you spending your day above the tree line working your way across exposed crusted pack ice and snow. Or, working your way up a summit an ice axe in your hand is a valuable tool. You need to learn how to use it and make sure it is the proper length, but if and when you transition into mountaineering the ice axe will become part of your kit.
The days are short and when you find yourself in a valley day light may last only a hour or two. This coupled with the added time it takes to hike in the winter and you should always have a fully powered headlamp with you.
Insulated water bottle
There is debate over bottles and bladders. For winter use I recommend bottles because you can get insulated (two or three walled) bottles that aren’t going to freeze in frigid conditions. A bladder isn’t likely to freeze, but if the hose freezes or the connector does you are now carrying 60 ounces of water you can’t easily access. Even if a bottle starts to freeze, it isn’t going to freeze solid. I had two 32 oz bottles in -17 f weather for 4 hours and they both remained liquid. Lastly, water bottles can be stored upside down. Ice forms at the top of the bottle first, which would be the bottom of the bottle if upside-down.
This is the personal stuff, lip balm, sunscreen, toiletries, feminine products… all those things that are a good idea to have on you to make things a bit more comfortable. Winter air is dry and winds are harsh, make sure you have those little things that can make your journey enjoyable.
A small first aid kit, a compass, fire starter, a knife, mole skins, blister pads, emergency blanket. None of these are required, if you are hiking with me, I’ll have them all. But, since you aren’t likely hiking with me all the time, maybe it is time to practice being a boy scout. Be prepared, carry emergency items!
Post Hike Clothing
This is the least thought of, yet one of the most important items on this list. A fresh change of clothes after a long day on the trail can be a game changer. Swapping out to warm, dry clothes, socks, and shoes make the after hours celebration far more pleasant.
Winter hiking can be very rewarding, quiet trails, uninterrupted views, hot coco after the hike. I think everyone should get out there and experience the winter outdoors, but be sure you are safe. If you are new to winter hiking, look online for a group near you where more experienced hikers can mentor and support you. This is my hiking group TagAlong Outdoors, if you are in New England and looking for people to hike with join us on our next adventure.
So, how did I do? Did I forget anything that should be on the list? Do you have any product recommendations? Leave a comment or email me directly firstname.lastname@example.org
This shirt is even more cute in real life than it looks on screen. It’s a really comfy nice quality…