A Winter Hiking Playbook
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Gear, tips, and lessons (updated as I learn them!)
Winter is probably tied for autumn as my favorite time to hike. I'm a relative newbie as I've only started hiking in the winter about five years ago. But I was immediately hooked by the challenge, the unique vistas, the quiet of the winter woods, and the scarcity of other hikers. Winter hiking in a remote area (such as the Adirondack High Peaks, where I do much of my hiking) must be considered a serious undertaking because normal hiking risks are compounded by chilling cold, challenging weather conditions, and the transformed winter landscape. I was fortunate to be slowly introduced to winter hiking by several patient friends. I later learned even more by participating in Adirondack Mountain Club chapter outings. The learning curve is steep and I learn a few lessons on every hike. I have taken lots of notes as I've gone on more trips and figured I'd post some of them here for my own reference and in the hopes that they might help others.
Winter hiking can be a dangerous activity. Find a mentor or a hiking buddy who knows what they are doing and start hiking with them. Hikes that were doable for you in the summer might be difficult or almost impossible in the winter depending on your ability and experience. This is a great reason to start small! Normal safety practices (hiking with a buddy, leaving information about your route, being willing to turn back) are doubly important in the winter. Finally, winter hikers have a range of strategies and approaches that help them enjoy the experience. The saying "hike your own hike" applies here more than ever. My suggestions may be worth trying but your mileage will vary.
Before You Go
I usually start planning a winter hike at least a few days in advance. I watch the weather forecast for specific mountains (try here and here) but also the general area. People have different preferences when it comes to weather but for me, there are a few red flags that will lead me to postpone a hike. Among these are freezing rain (or really any rain in winter) and extremely high winds. Warmer temperatures can mean sloppy conditions and challenging temperature regulation. I personally enjoy cold temperatures (around 10 degrees Fahrenheit) as I sweat easily and the cold allows me to regulate my temperature more easily. The weather often dictates changes to my gear. For example, an exceptionally cold day might mean that I wear toe warmers when I normally would not. It can also impact your choice of route. On a windy day, you might opt for a hike with minimal above-tree line exposure.
It's also important to understand the general conditions in the area you are hiking. DEC posts a weekly conditions report here. This is a great place to check for announcements, snow accumulation levels, and other general information about conditions in the park. Several groups on social media are excellent clearinghouses for up to date and highly specific information about trails (try "Adirondack Trail Conditions"). Knowing the conditions of the trails helps me plan my trip. Well-used (broken) trails with enough snow to cover obstacles like roots and rocks may mean it's possible to move faster even than in summer. These are good conditions for a long hike. Conversely, a recent snowfall can mean that trails are unbroken. Breaking trail is time-consuming and exhausting. While it's part of winter hiking fun, it can drastically shift your timetable. Other conditions can also be useful to know such as the conditions at stream crossings or the presence of treacherous ice on steep routes.
Winter hiking is safer with a partner or a group and talking through the details of a hike beforehand with your hiking buddies always leads to more successful hikes. Be honest with your companions about your comfort level with certain conditions and talk about contingencies should things not go according to plan. You should never feel pressure to continue on if you feel as though it isn't prudent or safe. As always, leave a detailed plan with someone and let them know when they should start to get worried. Since I use an inReach satellite device, I share my tracking information with my wife and setting up my preset messages is an important part of my pre-trip routine.
What I wear
Clothing might be one of the toughest aspects of winter hiking to nail down as people have a wide variety of preferences. To make matters more complicated, every individual should have a range of wardrobe items to choose from based on conditions. When a person discovers what works for them, they tend to be so excited about it that they become evangelicals (Snow pants! Timberland boots! Three pairs of socks!). Figuring out clothing for yourself might be one of the most compelling reasons to start with smaller hikes to learn what works well for you in different conditions. With all those caveats, what follows is my general approach in case others might find it useful.
My basic outfit for most hikes
Thermoregulation (or maintaining a comfortable temperature) is a formidable challenge when hiking in the winter. Being too cold is bad for obvious reasons, but being too hot can be just as dangerous; sweaty, wet clothes invite the specter of hypothermia. Because of this, most expert hikers are masterful layerers and may make subtle changes to their costumes countless times throughout a hike, often without breaking their strides. Layers are especially important if you sweat heavily like me.
I will typically wear a light fleece cap on my head with a "Buff" around my neck. On my
torso, I wear two very thin synthetic wicking layers, one with a quarter length zipper. I wear a thick pair of spandex shorts (in my case, a pair of JL shorts from my rowing days) under synthetic hiking pants. On my feet are a single pair of wool socks with insulated hiking boots. Waterproof gaiters fully cover my boots and rise to just under my knees. As this ensemble has very little insulation on my torso, it's great for hiking hard or going uphill. But when there is less risk of "sweating out" my base layers, I often add an additional layer: a light wind resistant jacket with a hood. A pair of glove liners inside large insulated mittens complete my basic outfit. Since I suffer from chronically cold hands, a pair of hand warmers is almost always smoldering in my mittens.
This system offers many opportunities for small adjustments to help regulate temperature. The easiest way for me to cool off quickly (and slow sweating) is to remove my fleece hat which is small enough to be stuffed into my pants pocket. Next to go would be my Buff. Then I would lower the zipper on my outer base layer. Finally, I would remove my mittens, clipping them to my backpack's shoulder strap. Conversely, if more warmth is needed, I would reverse the above actions and pull on my wind resistant hooded jacket, also donning the hood if necessary.
As I'll share later, I have several more layers stowed in an easily accessible location. But briefly, if I start to feel cold, the first layer I would add would be a warmer hat (pulled over the existing fleece hat), then a hardy wind shell with a hood, and finally a large down hooded jacket (really only necessary for longer stops). I've learned the hard way that when adding layers, it's almost always better to just put a new layer on top of what you're already wearing, even if the order seems a bit incongruous. For example, if I had to stop near a windy summit and was already wearing my wind breaking jacket, I would simply pull my heavy down jacket over it (even though you typically wouldn't wear a wind breaking jacket under other layers). You want to avoid the significant heat loss that comes with switching out layers. The one exception to this could be if you have a very wet base layer. In that case, it may be necessary to swap it out. On a very cold day, almost any pause should trigger a layer addition. It's much easier to stay warm than it is to warm up after getting chilled.
If temperatures are forecast to be particularly cold (for me, a high temperature under 10 degrees), I may choose to adjust my basic outfit somewhat by adding toe warmers and swapping out my first light base layer with a slightly insulated version. I'd also likely wear a balaclava instead of the Buff. Although it's tempting to add another pair of socks when temperatures plummet, my experience has been that crowded toes equate to freezing toes and toe warmers are more effective at keeping my feet tolerably warm than additional socks. For windy exposed summits, I pack a windproof balaclava that covers my entire face. When temperatures are truly chilly (highs close to 0), I'll add a heavier weight Patagonia R1 pullover to my base layers.
In the Adirondacks, snowshoes are required when snow depth is 8 inches or greater. Snowshoes make travel over snow-covered terrain easier and prevent post-holing which can be annoying and even dangerous for other hikers. If you are planning on climbing mountains in the winter, snowshoes with built-in crampons will be needed. Heel elevators are also an excellent feature if you're planning on traveling uphill. This innovation saves your calf muscles and can make hiking up a steep grade like walking up a set of stairs.
When conditions are less snowy, microspikes can allow for safe travel over icy terrain. These are pulled on over your boots and have more formidable teeth than the "yak tracks" you may have seen your neighbor wearing when walking around the neighborhood. Debate rages over the best model of microspikes (Kahtoola and Hillsound manufacture most of the spikes I've seen). From what I've heard, both are generally reliable but can eventually fail. All the more reason to bring a small repair kit on your winter hikes (more on that later).
Finally, strap-on crampons can also be a valuable tool in the winter hiker's arsenal. These are like microspikes in that many models can be strapped onto your existing hiking boots. Their teeth are larger and sharper than those on spikes, making them very effective when the terrain is icy and steep. The crampons on my snowshoes are often sufficient to tackle some ice as long as there is decent snow cover. But if they hike I'm doing is known for steep sections or the ice is particularly prevalent, I will often pack crampons.
My winter getup wouldn't be complete with a few other items. Eye protection is important for me as the cold and wind tend to irritate my eyes. I have a pair of transition lens that I can wear even at night as well as goggles for especially windy conditions. I usually bring both on any winter hike. A watch is important as winter days are short and it's good to be off of more technical trails before sundown. I use a Garmin Instinct watch which also shows me mileage and elevation. I already mentioned my inReach satellite device. This allows my family to track my location and I can use it to send canned messages to them. The device would also allow me to call for help if cell phone services were unavailable. The device brings me and my family some peace of mind and it's good to know I could summon help if I came across someone in trouble. Finally, the sun and wind can be especially harsh in winter. I put sunscreen on my nose and face in the morning and apply Vaseline to my lips and under my nose before I start a hike.
Eating and drinking
Winter hiking is hard work and certain conditions can burn an alarming number of calories. I try to choose food that is high-calorie and freeze-proof. Many popular bars, like Clif bars, freeze up so solidly that they become inedible. If you're not sure about a certain snack, put it in your freezer overnight and see if you can still bite it in the morning. Efficiency is another factor when choosing food. Stops in winter tend to be short and my hands can usually only stand a minute or two without my warm mittens. For that reason, I usually lean towards foods such as trail mix, peanut butter filled pretzels, and chocolate. I almost always bring a thermos of soup as well. I bought a thermos that I can easily drink from while wearing my mittens and I use a blender to liquify the soup the night before so that it is easy to sip. Adding some extra oil and bouillon to the soup can further enhance its nutritional value.
Cold-weather hiking can be quite dehydrating as the air is often dry and you sweat more than you realize. I take three liters of water on most hikes, each in its own insulated container. I start with hot (almost boiling) water and store the bottles caps down so that if they do start to freeze, I will still be able to drink them. I try to start the day very well-hydrated and drink much of my water earlier in the day. Warm water is much more appealing than the icy slush it will become by the afternoon. I usually add a drink mix of some kind to each bottle. I have an electrolyte mix I like and a sports drink can also be a good way to take in some extra calories.
A final note on hydration. If you're well-hydrated, you'll likely feel the need for many nature breaks. It's best not to put these off because there's no sense in making your body devote energy to warming a full bladder.
A higher percentage of my pack weight is dedicated to emergency gear in the winter than when hiking in other seasons. Some items are prudent in all seasons: a good first aid kit, a fire-starting kit, compass, whistle, etc. My winter repair kit is robust, with an assortment of zipties, wire, and duct tape (I've repaired several backcountry breakdowns with zipties). I pack two headlamps and extra batteries. In addition to these safety essentials, you should be prepared to shelter in place for a lengthy period (or even overnight) if needed. For that purpose, I bring a small tarp (it's actually a ground cloth for a two-person tent), paracord, and a sturdy bivy sack on all winter hikes. I also bring a fixed blade knife, something I wouldn't normally bring on a non-winter hike. This tool could be useful in a winter survival situation, say for shelter-building or processing kindling.
A dry bag in the bottom of my pack includes an assortment of extra clothing, including a pair of insulated leggings, a warm shirt, an insulated pull-over, extra socks, and a fleece balaclava. These items could be essential if I ever got extremely wet, had to stop for a long period of time, or needed to lend clothing to another hiker in need.
My winter pack-list has intentional redundancies that I wouldn't necessarily bring on a summer hike. I've learned from experience that an extra garment or layer can mean the difference between misery and comfort. Among the most important extras I pack are a second set of liner gloves and a warm hat. Both these items are susceptible to getting wet (and subsequently frozen) in damp, snowy, or sweaty conditions and I've used my back ups on several occasions.
Tour of my pack
The pack I use in winter was actually designed for backpacking. It is a heavy pack that no longer works for the lightweight style of backpacking I prefer. But for winter hiking, I appreciate its burliness and abundant zippered pockets. Quick accessibility is key in winter where stops longer than a few minutes can be uncomfortable and this principle guides my pack organization.
The "brain" of my pack contains layering items I am likely to need at some point (balaclava, warm hat, extra pair of liner gloves, goggles). The hidden under-pocket of the "brain" is where I stow a small dry bag that I'm unlikely to open during the hike. Car keys, ID, phone, USB battery pack, and extra headlamp go here. I keep both my wind breaker jacket and my summit jacket strapped under the "brain" where I can grab either one of them quickly.
The large side pockets of my pack hold food and emergency items. I mark one of the zippers with an orange ziptie so I know which is which. A small front pocket is where I stow extra hand and toe warmers, toilet paper, and my small trowel.
Inside my pack, water bottles and my soup thermos sit close to my back. The large down jacket, a dry base layer, and my wind pants/summit jacket are also jammed in there. The separate, zippered sleeping bag compartment of my pack holds a large dry bag with my emergency clothes and shelter items.
On some hikes, it's nice to be able to strap snowshoes to the outside of the pack (if for example, you are using microspikes or crampons for part of the trail). I've seen a variety of methods for doing this but my favorite is using these adjustable Velcro straps that come in different sizes. I use a few of these to keep my snowshoes securely attached to my pack if I'm not using them.
My particular pack has a Nalgene-sized water bottle holster on one side which holds whatever bottle I'm currently drinking out of. I keep the bottle's insulated sleeve clipped to my pack so it can't get loose. A mesh side pocket on the other side of the pack holds my satellite device and my map. Finally, a large section of an old Thermarest foam pad is rolled up and strapped to the bottom of my pack. I sit on this when stopped for any length of time. It would also be essential to keep a person off of the cold ground in an emergency.
There are numerous hiking challenges in the Adirondacks. At their best, these peak lists invite us to explore new places and can provide motivation to get outside even when life gets busy. Although some of the challenges are quite new, others have a long history: the first 46ers (Herb Clark together with the Marshall brothers) finished in 1925. The history of the mountains and the people who have cherished them has always appealed to me. Groups like the 46ers celebrate the characters and lore that have always been integral to the story of the Adirondacks.
I've heard people argue that hiking challenges, together with widespread use of social media, have brought too many people to the wilderness and encourage hikers to endanger themselves by taking on hikes they aren't ready for. In general, I believe that more people enjoying the mountains is a good thing and the issues that are created by increased interest should be addressed with infrastructure investment and education. The propagation of new hiking lists that aren't focused on the high peaks has led people to explore corners of the Adirondacks that have wonderful natural beauty but are less crowded.
Most hiking challenges have corresponding "winter" challenges and the "winter 46er" is probably the best well known. It is telling that the first winter 46er finished in 1962, almost forty years after the challenge was first completed in the non-winter months. To me, the winter 46er patch signifies a great deal of persistence, adventure, and likely some hardship. As a friend of mine put it, anyone who has hiked the 46 high peaks in winter has probably had some "interesting" days and likely has some rich stories to tell. At the time of this writing, I have completed 33 of the high peaks and I grow more respectful of the challenge with each trip. Here are a few of the reasons that winter hiking challenges can take so much longer than their non-winter versions:
Weather and conditions can be a greater factor than in other months. I've canceled many planned winter hikes because the conditions were not safe or well-suited for the trip I had in mind.
I like to hike with a partner or a group in the winter. Planning hikes and coordinating schedules can be more complicated than just striking out on my own (as I might on a summer hike).
Conditions can make it more difficult to string together groups of mountains. For example, a set of mountains that are commonly hiked together in summer may need to be broken up into separate trips if the trails are not broken out or conditions are challenging.
"Bagging" a peak should never take precedence over safety, but the margin for risk is even thinner in the winter. Most winter hikers have abandoned a planned objective due to unexpected conditions (myself included).
If you decide to take on a winter hiking list, appreciate and embrace the unique challenge. Don't rush yourself, make smart decisions, and enjoy the journey!
If you're interested in getting into winter hiking, there is no shortage of great resources available. I believe the best way to get started is to do some shorter hikes with knowledgeable people. But these two articles from the Adirondack Mountain Club, here and here, are a good place to start if you'd like some further reading.