How to Stay Warm: Tips for Hiking in Winter
Being diagnosed with Raynaud’s Syndrome (a debilitating circulatory response to cold) has taught me creative ways to stay warm while hiking in winter. I hope these tips will help you enjoy getting out during the colder months too.
Unable to cinch my crampons with ghostly white and purple fingers, I stared up at the steep narrow passage of Mt. Hood’s Pearly Gates that led to the summit. I’m never going to make it, the words clangor in my head. I’m too freaking cold! Salty tears poured down my frozen cheeks, not just from disappointment but from the bone-sawing pain in my hands and feet. Below-freezing alpine starts paired with my inability to handle the cold made Mt. Hood nearly impossible. It wasn’t until my 10th attempt that I summited via the Sunshine Route. I thought it was a suitable name, given I’d finally figured out how to stay warm.
Winter Doesn’t Need to Be Your off SeasonHas the cold held you back from winter hiking? Perhaps the toe-tingling thought of it makes you shudder? I don’t know about you, but when the days get colder and shorter, the winter blues set in. More time is spent indoors eating holiday candies while either planning my next summer expedition or reminiscing about past trips. For years I avoided winter hiking, and when I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s Syndrome, I figured it would be the end of my mountaineering too. After enough bouts of sharp spasms in the toes and fingers and unnerving skin discoloration, it made me want to swear off the whole season. As I advanced in mountaineering, I became better equipped for the cold—learning about proper layering, how to stay warm during rests, and supplementing heat with other sources like hand warmers or your trusty thermos. Today, winter hiking is the perfect antidote to those restless days. There’s nothing better for the body (or the mind) than crisp air, a lofty dose of vitamin D, and sweeping views from peaks capped in fresh powder. I realized that my adventures don’t have to end—in fact, they’re just getting started!—and hopefully these tips can help you enjoy winter hiking too.
Know Before You Go: Prepare for Your Winter HikeHiking in winter requires more planning than going in warm weather. Days are shorter and approaches are often longer because of closed or unmaintained back roads that lead to trailheads. After you’ve selected a suitable winter hiking trail, you need to secure a dry weather window (you don’t want to be wet in freezing temps). I like to check several different weather apps to get a comprehensive outlook. It’s also important to cross-reference temperature and windchill forecasts. A temperate 38 degree day can feel more like sub-zero with an intense wind chill. If the trail has some incline or there have been reports of heavy snow in the area, I always check the avalanche forecast. NOAA is a widely used app for weather and avalanche information. To travel safely in this terrain, consider taking an avalanche course to help you manage backcountry risk. Above all, winter hiking demands flexibility. While you don’t have to call off a trip if there’s a little precipitation, you need to know your limitations. If conditions worsen, be prepared to end a hike early or consider rescheduling.
Gear List: What to Wear Winter HikingStaying warm while winter hiking requires lots of clothing. With such a low tolerance to the cold, it’s nearly impossible for me to go ultralight (carrying the bare minimum). Instead, I gladly carry extra clothes, even if it means adding a couple pounds to my pack. When things feel too heavy, I like to remind myself that it’s strengthening my legs in preparation for big objectives, like climbing Kilimanjaro or the West Buttress of Denali.
Layering is keyThere are three main layers: base, middle, and outer. Sometimes conditions call for more than one piece of clothing per layer, so this is just a general rule. As a base layer, I wear a lightweight, moisture-wicking top and bottom. Remember to avoid cotton. It won’t keep you warm when it’s wet. For the upper body, I’ll put on two mid-layers: a lightweight fleece pullover and a lightweight down jacket. If it’s really cold, a light down vest goes on, too. Finally, I’ll don a waterproof or water resistant jacket and winter hiking pants, depending on the forecast. And for those times when I’m standing around (such as boiling water or taking a rest) I make sure to put on my gigantic 800-fill down jacket—remember, it’s easier to maintain the heat you’ve earned. Bonus tip: shoving it in its stuff sack can double as a pillow for overnight trips.
Don’t skimp on your extremitiesHave you ever noticed how our hands and feet seem to get cold first? That’s because when the body gets cold, our vital organs pull the much needed warmth away from our extremities–sorry phalanges. I like to wear liner socks underneath a thick pair of wool winter hiking socks to help keep my feet warm, dry and comfortable. If there will be snow, add gaiters; they’ll protect snow from getting inside your boot or up your pant leg. A neck covering and a beanie or knit headband are crucial for covering up as many exposed areas as possible. By doing so, it will help keep the cold air from nipping at the skin and losing body heat. Gloves have been the most critical yet trickiest of winter hiking gear to figure out. I’ve owned over twelve pairs, ranging from a last-minute purchase from Bi-Mart (surprisingly, not bad!) to a couple of hundred-dollar electric gloves. None of them worked. I’ve learned that the bulkier the glove, the less it keeps my hands warm. Mittens are okay, keeping fingers together to trap in more heat, but offer no dexterity. The best method I’ve found is to wear a liner glove followed by activated hand warmers, then a pair of mid-weight fleece. A shell will be added if it rains or I need to pitch a tent. But ironically, the more layers on my hands, the more they all fail to work—likely due to constriction. It might take time for you to dial in your own glove system too.
Other winter hiking gearYou should always be prepared when you set out on a hike, but this especially applies in unpredictable winter weather. Carrying the Ten Essentials are, well, essential! I make a habit of bringing the following:
- GPS device
- Sun protection (yes, even in winter)
- First aid kit
- Fire starter
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Additional clothing