Winter hikingYou’ve always been an adventurous soul. But now you’re embarking on an adventure you’ve never tried before: winter hiking.

Once you’ve laid eyes on beautiful winter trails, no one can blame you for ditching your three-season schedule.

But the trip isn’t as easy as stepping outside your front door. Hiking in the winter comes with risks and necessary preparations.

Don’t get stuck in the cold. Here are seven tips for a great hiking trip.

1. Start Small and Early

Yes, even if you’re an experienced hiker.

A twelve-mile trail in the summer is an entirely different beast from twelve miles in the winter, and not just because the cold affects you differently.

You’ll also have to contend with snow and ice on the trail, which makes the going harder. There’s also a real chance that access roads to your favorite trailheads are snowed-in, closed, and unplowed in the winter, adding up to major mileage to your trip.

You haven’t experienced frustration until you’ve waded through waist-deep snow for a mile. It’s not worth suffering on your first trip.

Instead, take it easy. Stick to a short, easy trail that you know you can conquer.

2. Dress Like an Onion

As in, layers. Lots and lots of layers.

In general, you should have three layers of clothes. The first is long underwear, either in synthetic fabric or merino wool to wick sweat.

The middle layer is for insulation (which is what keeps you warm). For this, you’ll want pants, a weighted fleece, and a jacket.

The third layer is what protects you against water and wind. A jacket that’s warm and thick but breathable will serve you well here.

Oh, and you’ll also want at least one layer of mittens, gloves, socks, and insulated shoes, preferably with extra socks just in case.

For a full breakdown of necessary clothes, try this article.

3. Invest in (and Bring) Safety Gear

It isn’t a casual walk in the summertime. Winter hiking demands a few extra gadgets to make sure you stay safe on the trail.

Besides basic hiking gear, you should also carry a map, a first aid kit, a compass, hand-warmers, and a headlamp. If you’re directionally challenged and can’t figure out maps, then use a GPS, but keep one in case of emergencies.

If you’re doing a day-hike, it’s a good idea to split gear among you. Some hikers recommend bringing extra in case you have to spend the night, like a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a down parka, and a cell phone.

Yes, it will make your packs heavier. But a heavier pack is always preferable to losing a toe to frostbite. Make like a Boy Scout and be prepared.

4. Check the Weather (and Heed Warnings)

It seems obvious, but with winter hiking, caution is the name of the game.

When checking the weather before a winter hike, don’t just look at the thermometer. You’re looking for a full picture of how the weather can affect your hike.

We’re talking precipitation, wind speed, wind chill, avalanche reports, and daylight hours. You should also be intimately familiar with how the winter changes the trail.

For example, you may face dramatically reduced visibility above the treeline–even whiteout conditions. And whatever you do, you should never take avalanche risks lightly.

Moral of the story: don’t play chicken with Mother Nature. You can seriously hurt yourself if you’re careless on the trail in winter.

5. Get Friendly with Crampons

Crampons are your best friend on the winter trails. Think of them as cleats for ice.

That said, misusing crampons can be just as dangerous as not using them at all (think sprained ankles and gashes on your legs).

If you’re unfamiliar with crampons, it’s important to take the time to read up on how to use them. Get familiar with the techniques–practice some in your backyard. You should also practice getting them on and off until it’s as natural as breathing.

And if your trail will have any hills, ask a more experienced friend to show you how to use your crampons to go uphill or downhill.

6. Don’t Hike Alone

Even if you’re an experienced hiker, never go it alone.

The best choice is to take an experienced friend with you. Specifically, a friend experienced in the world of winter hiking. Better yet, bring more than one.

Your experienced friends can teach you valuable lessons, from the basics of choosing your gear to how to identify dangerous conditions.

Bringing friends doesn’t just extend to the people who walk on the trail with you. You should have at least one friend or family member at home who knows where you’re going and when you should be back.

7. Know How to Set Up Camp

This goes back to our earlier discussion of gear. It doesn’t matter whether you’re planning on being home by night or if you were planning an overnight hike.

Either way, you should know how to set up camp in winter if you need to.

Some things to keep in mind include whether there’s a nearby water source, whether the location is safe, whether you have privacy from other hikers, and whether you’re out of the way of other hikers passing through.

For those who don’t want too much fuss, the simplest thing is to bring a mountaineering tent with you.

The more hardcore folks can build an igloo, but they should make sure the base is 2-3 feet thick and that there’s a ventilation hole in the roof. You don’t want to suffocate in your sleep.

Get Prepared for Your Winter Hiking Adventure

Ready to conquer the trails?

It’s all about being prepared.

Check out our blog for all kinds of tips to make your next hiking experience enjoyable, like our guide to finding the best hiking boots.

If you have a question we haven’t answered, get in touch! We’d love to answer it for you.

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