Cold Weather Hiking Tips for People Who Hate Winter

Me in my typical winter hiking outfit -- shell jacket and waterproof pants.

When the days get shorter and the temperature drops, it can be temping to hide inside. Curling up with a hot cup of coffee and a warm blanket in front of a fireplace seems much more appealing than freezing your tail off to go outside and explore. But when the cabin fever sets in, winter hiking is a great way to cope. And you can even stay warm and dry if you follow my cold weather hiking tips!

I’ve hiked on 15-degree days in New England in December, crossed rivers that were iced over in January in Appalachia, and post-holed 12 km across a glacier in Nepal — in a snowstorm, in the dark. I’ve learned a thing or two about hiking in winter along the way.

Full disclosure: I HATE the cold. 70 degrees Fahrenheit is my lower limit for being “comfortable.” You’ll usually find me in flannel and hoodies until June — in North Carolina. But if I can drag myself out into the backcountry on frigid winter days, so can you. Read on to learn how!

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General Cold Weather Hiking Tips for Beginners

Many winter hiking guides will try to convince you that you can only hike in cold weather if you have all the right gear. Gear is important, but it’s not the end all-be all. You could go out and buy $1,200 in new gear and still be in trouble if you don’t follow these general winter safety tips.

1. Know your sunrise and sunset times

This hat and fleece are both part of my cold weather hiking gear setup.
In addition to hiking in the snow, shorter daylight hours are an issue with hitting the trails in winter.

In winter in the mountains, temperatures often swing 30+ degrees during the day. Where I live in Western North Carolina it can be 60 degrees during the day in January in a valley — but 10 degrees at night at a summit.

So if you’re going out for a winter hike, you’re probably going to want to limit your trip to daylight hours, when the sun can keep you relatively warm.

The problem? Daylight hours are shorter in winter.

Before you set out on a hike between November and April, double-check the local sunrise and sunset time to make sure you’ll be back before dark. In fact, you really want to be back before dusk in the mountains — once the sun dips below the peaks, it’s harder to see and it gets freezing very fast.

If you’re in the southern U.S., you can probably hike until around 5:00 pm. In more northern areas, you may need to be back by 4:00 pm or even earlier.

But being off the trail by sunset isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. If you’re in an area where overnight moisture is common, you also need to get home before it gets too cold at night. Otherwise, the roads could get dangerously icy as you’re driving home. Trust me — there is nothing worse than being stuck on a winding, mountainous, steep road that is completely coated in ice. It also might be a good idea to drive to the trailhead after sunrise, to ensure the ice has some time to melt in the morning.

2. Tell someone your itinerary — including when you’ll be back

This day involved a lot of snow hiking -- plus some icy river crossings.
In addition to picking the perfect hiking clothes for winter, follow other safety precautions like telling someone your itinerary.

One of the biggest risks of cold weather hiking is getting lost or injured and not making it back to your car before dark. If you have to spontaneously spend the night in the woods, you could face frostbite and hypothermia.

The best guard against these dangers is letting someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. And I don’t mean a general “I’ll be back today,” but more like “I’ll be back between 4 and 4:30 pm, and if you don’t hear from me by then call the Forest Service.” That way, if you don’t turn up on time, rescue teams can start looking for you before you’ve been stranded for a dangerously long time.

If you don’t have someone you can alert to your plans, or even if you do, you can write your itinerary on a piece of paper and leave it in your glovebox. Search and rescue teams know to look for it there. Include your planned trails, time you plan to return, and any details on campsites if you’re spending the night.

Of course, a hiking itinerary is only good if you actually stick to it. Tempting as it may be to go off and explore interesting sections of trail you pass, remember that it’ll make it harder for rescue teams to find you.

3. Choose your trail wisely

This wasn't exactly hiking in the winter -- it was the beginning of May -- but it's still snowy then in the Himalayas!
This trail in Nepal had poles to mark the route under the snow, so it was safe for cold weather hiking.

Winter is not the best time to push your limits. If you’re new to hiking in cold weather, stick with a trail you know well, that’s in your comfort zone. You can always branch out as you get more comfortable!

Choosing a cold weather hike presents a few challenges. First is the daylight hours. But you also probably don’t want to risk a high-water river crossing in January, or cross a waterfall when the rocks are frozen over, or pick a trail with significant snow accumulation if you don’t have snowshoes.

Plus, one unique challenge of hiking in the winter is navigation. If you’re in an area above the treeline, the trail may not be obvious — clear paths in summer are often snowed over in winter. Or you might find fallen leaves completely cover the path. When the trees don’t have their leaves, alternate “paths” can look like the right way to go.

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You’re unlikely to get hugely lost due to any of these issues, but you might have to spend more time staring at your map (which means standing still in the cold). So for your first few adventures hiking in the cold, choose trails you know well to save you the hassle.

Additionally, remember to check that you can access the trailhead in winter. Many Forest Service roads close when the weather gets bad, or a freak storm might block even major routes. Scenic drives like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Icefields Parkway close or become dangerous to travel in certain conditions.

If you’re planning a trip to the Carolina mountains in winter, these easy hikes near Asheville are a good place to start.

4. Is it hunting season?

Snowy trees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in winter.
Hunting season extends into winter in many places. Wear orange to protect yourself.

Across much of the U.S., hunting season for animals such as deer and bear extends into the winter. It’s always a good idea to check local hunting regulations before heading out.

Hunting is not allowed in national parks, but it is permitted in national forests and wilderness areas. You can’t hunt on Sundays on public lands but you can on private property. (And in remote areas, hunters may not know where the property lines are.)

If you will be hiking anywhere where you might encounter hunters, it is extremely important to wear bright orange or bright pink somewhere on the outside of your clothing. You can buy an orange safety vest for next to nothing on Amazon. (I usually go with a bright-pink outer layer instead.)

Also be forewarned that hunting season can bring out the worst in the trail community. If you’re hiking in an area that is unusually popular with hunters, watch out for nail traps placed by animal rights activists. I’m generally empathetic to ending hunting, but this is a super-uncool tactic.

5. Don’t go alone — at least not at first/not in extreme conditions

The days are shorter in the winter, so if you're backpacking, get back before sunset.
Not a good idea: backpacking solo in winter in the snow.

I am a huge believer that the warnings people — especially women — hear about hiking alone are mostly nonsense. If you know what you’re doing and stick to well-traveled areas, you’re probably safer in the woods than you are walking around your city.

However, winter hiking is no joke. You’ll face conditions that are much more extreme than in July. And the chances of a rescue team reaching you in time to save your life if the worst happens are far smaller.

So until you get very comfortable with winter hiking and have built up an arsenal of high-quality, reliable hiking gear, I would not recommend hiking alone in the winter. And if you’ll be crossing glaciers/avalanche territory/hiking in a blizzard/doing wet river crossings, it’s really not a good idea to solo hike no matter how experienced you are.

Winter hiking is especially dangerous because people experiencing hypothermia generally can’t tell for themselves that they’re in trouble. They rely on trail partners to recognize the symptoms, while they often feel fine. And as hypothermia sets in, you become less and less able to get yourself to help if you’re alone.

If you absolutely must solo-hike in winter, carry a sleeping bag and shelter with you. That way if unexpected snow rolls in or you fall and sprain an ankle, you can at least crawl into a warm, dry sleeping bag while you plot your next move or wait out the weather.

6. Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite

Snowy hike on Lake Louise.
Even the best cold weather hiking gear is limited in how much it can protect you if you get too cold or wet. Watch out for hypothermia.

This may be the single most important safety tip for winter hiking for beginners. Obviously it’s better to avoid hypothermia and frostbite. But if something goes wrong on your hike — or even if you think everything is going fine — you want to be able to identify the danger signs in yourself and your hiking buddies.

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees. It can be fatal if not treated quickly. Luckily, treatment is simply warming yourself up again.

A few of the symptoms of hypothermia include intense exhaustion, clumsiness, shivering, and a bizarre feeling of warmth when you should be cold. If you or your hiking partners exhibit these symptoms, you need to immediately get to a warmer place.

Mild frostbite is fairly harmless, but at more advanced stages it can require limbs to be amputated. Symptoms include numbness, white or gray skin, and an unusual waxy feeling on the affected area. Frostbite most commonly affects the extremities, so your best course of action to prevent it is wearing warm enough gloves and socks.

Staying warm while hiking in winter: It’s all about your layers

My favorite women's winter hiking clothes include smartwool beanies and shirts.
Wondering what to wear for winter hiking? The key is to avoid cotton and layer up!

The key to staying warm for cold-weather hiking is to dress in layers. Add layers when hiking downhill or stopping at a viewpoint so you don’t get chilly. Then, take them off when you climb as you work up a sweat.

The basic layering system of cold weather hiking clothes involves three parts:

  • Base layer
  • Insulation
  • Outer shell

You may need these layers on some or all parts of your body, depending on the climate you’re hiking in.

The number-one rule for all three layers of hiking clothes: no cotton! Cotton can’t repel water, so if you get wet, you stay wet. And when the temperature is in the 20’s or lower, that’s a recipe for hypothermia. Choose wool or synthetic fabrics instead.

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Base layer: Wool thermals

My pants for hiking in cold weather include merino leggings and shell pants.
It’s all about the base layer — it was about 30 degrees here but I was fine in the sun with my wool shirt.

Your base layer is the layer of clothing closest to your skin. It’s the layer you’ll keep on for your entire hike.

Wool is the ideal fabric for a base layer. It repels water and dries extremely quickly. And it has the magical ability to keep you warm when it’s cold out with minimal fabric — so you don’t have to wear anything super bulky as your base.

I always hike in a long-sleeved Smartwool top in winter. This layer is usually enough for me down to about 40 degrees, or 30 degrees if I’m on a difficult uphill segment of trail.

In very cold conditions, you may want a base layer on your legs too. These Merino leggings are lightweight and comfy. I usually break out the leggings when it’s around 20-25 degrees.

Insulation: Fleeces and puffy jackets

Hiking across a glacier in Nepal
The jacket I’m wearing here serves as both a mid layer and a shell if it’s in the high 20’s or low 30’s — and if I keep moving constantly. I wear a fleece underneath it.

Depending on how cold it is, you have a few options for your insulation layers for winter hiking.

If it’s in the 30-40 degree range, you can usually get away with a Smartwool fleece. These can be very lightweight, but amazingly warm. I prefer one that has a quarter-zip or half-zip, so I can unzip it a bit if it gets too warm.

For colder weather conditions, though, you really need a down jacket (or “puffy jacket”). These coats can keep you warm in sub-freezing temperatures, and they pack down small so they’re easy to carry. Even if you just throw it in your pack to put on at the summit/at your lunch stop, you’ll be glad to have it.

The catch? Down becomes useless as a mid layer when it gets wet. That’s why you need a shell layer.

Outer shell: Hiking pants, rain pants, rain coats

Icy river crossings are one of the dangers of winter hiking.
If you have to cross a river that looks like this, rain pants are a good idea.

The final step in any layering system is the outer shell. This is what will keep you dry if you get caught in a rain- or snowstorm, fall in a stream, or decide to build some snow angels along your winter hike.

The key is your shell layer needs to be 100% waterproof. Like, “can hold up to a tropical monsoon” waterproof. Remember, if you’re hiking in cold weather and you get wet, hypothermia can set in quickly.

I haven’t yet found the perfect shell jacket for my winter hiking adventures. Basically, none of the cheap ones quite work. But this one is what I am going to buy someday when I am ready to spend stupid amounts of money on outdoor gear. One huge reason it gets so much love from the outdoor community is that it’s not bulky, but it’ll still fit over the top of your down coat.

On day hikes, I don’t worry too much about waterproof pants. My hiking pants are water-resistant and keep my base layer dry when hiking in snow. But if I know I’m going to be post-holing for ages, if I need to do a river crossing on my hike, or if it’s one of those lovely Southern-Appalachia-in-January days where I’m going to hike through eight hours of rain, I’ll pack my rain pants.

Footwear: Wool socks and waterproof boots

Icy waterfall in Dupont State Forest
When I wanted to get a closer look at this icy waterfall, I was very glad I had waterproof socks.

Just like with the rest of your body, winter hiking requires you to use a layered system on your feet. It’s especially important to keep your feet warm and dry, since your whole body tends to feel cold when your feet are cold.

On nicer days in the winter, you can get away with a single layer of mid-weight Merino wool socks. But if it’s truly cold — or if you’re a wuss like me — you’ll double up. I usually hike with a lightweight base layer of socks. On top of that, I wear one of my most extravagant winter hiking gear pieces: thick mountaineering socks.

I’m telling you, these are the only socks you’ll ever spend $30 on and not regret it. They are AMAZING. I’ve never had to deal with cold feet on a hike when I was wearing them. I once wore them on a hike with four river crossings on a snowy, 15-degree day. I kept my shoes and socks on in the water and I still stayed warm. Plus, they add extra cushioning — your knees will never feel as good post-hike as they do when you’re wearing these.

It’s always worth sticking an extra layer of socks in your backpack in winter. If your feet get wet, you can change — pin the wet socks to the outside of your backpack with clothespins and they’ll dry in a matter of minutes.

If you’re hiking in conditions where you can use normal hiking boots instead of snowshoes, and your hiking boots are waterproof, you can wear them. These are the only hiking boots I will ever buy. They held up just fine during my trek across a glacier in Nepal.

Hats and gloves

Taking a break on a trek in Nepal
You lose a ton of heat through your head — if you’re going hiking in cold weather conditions, a warm hat is essential.

You lose an incredible amount of heat through your head. So when you’re going cold weather hiking, it’s always a good idea to wear a hat.

I always go for a simple wool beanie. When it gets too warm, you can roll it up above your ears.

Since I’m a massive baby in the cold, I sometimes double up layers on my head. I’ll wear a runner’s headband to cover my ears underneath the beanie. This is only really necessary if you’re unusually sensitive to low temperatures.

Keeping your hands warm is just as important as protecting your feet on the trails. My hands tend to get even colder, since they’re exposed to the wind when I grip my trekking poles. You may want to keep a variety of gloves on hand to correctly match the temperature.

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When it’s above 30 degrees, I use my Goretex mid-weight gloves. These are durable and waterproof, but they give my fingers enough mobility that I can grip rocks and tree roots if I encounter a scramble.

However, for extremely cold weather, those gloves aren’t good enough. Below 30 degrees I bring out the big guns: ski gloves. These two-layered gloves are bulky as hell, but they will keep you warm down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit for hours on end. If they get snowy or wet, the water never gets to the inner layer — you can’t even feel it!

Additional gear for winter hiking

You might need crampons if you'll encounter a lot of snow on your hike
If you’re in mountainous terrain with steep slopes or glaciers, crampons are a good idea.

Beyond your clothes, you need a couple other special pieces of gear for cold weather hiking. These items will help warm you up in an emergency, keep your balance on icy rock faces, and avoid tumbling over yourself on a snowy descent.

Trekking poles and crampons for balance

I always hike with trekking poles. They take more than 30% of the weight out of your knees. Plus, they give you an upper-body workout.

But in winter, I wouldn’t even consider hitting a trail without them. I can’t tell you how many times my poles have saved me from a painful icy slip, or helped me keep my balance on a stream crossing when I really didn’t want to get wet.

When choosing trekking poles, look for something lightweight that can fold up if you need it to. I like these ones from Black Diamond. They’re more durable than many of the cheaper poles on the market.

If you’ll be hiking in more treacherous terrain, you may want to consider crampons or microspikes. These are essential for glacier hiking (which requires a whole separate set of safety precautions and additional gear like ice axes), but I also really wished I’d had some in Nepal on a very steep snowy descent.

Water bottles with enough capacity for your hike

Normally, I hike with a 2-liter Camelbak water bladder, with an extra bottle on longer hikes. This allows me to drink gradually throughout my hike, without pausing every time I get thirsty.

Unfortunately, water bladders have a habit of freezing in cold temperatures. You don’t want to be on an eight-hour hike and discover an hour in that you can’t drink your water!

So when I’m hiking in the cold, I always bring two liters’ worth of water bottles. I carry them upside down in my backpack (since water freezes from the top down — so I can still drink the top layer if the bottom freezes).

It’s super tempting to drink less when it’s very cold out. But that’s a recipe for dehydration. Make sure you’re carrying at least a liter for every two hours you’ll be outside.

If you really don’t want to give up your water bladder, one way you can prevent it from freezing is by mixing some electrolytes in with your water. (Gatorade powder works well for this.) It’s not failsafe, but the water won’t freeze as quickly with that mixed in. However, it’ll make the tube pretty gross if you don’t clean it immediately.

Some nice-to-have extras

If you hate winter as much as I do, you might appreciate these extra incentives to get outside.

First, if your feet or hands tend to get super cold, try throwing a couple of handwarmers in your backpack. When you get uncomfortable, stick them inside your socks/gloves — problem solved!

Second, invest in a really good thermos or coffee mug. The kind that can keep drinks hot for 8+ hours. Fill it with coffee, tea, hot cocoa, or soup before you leave home. Then, when you get super-cold on the trail, you can have a nice treat!

A few final cold weather hiking tips

Don't forget to enjoy the incredible nature when you go outside in winter!
Remember to take lots of photos!
  • Don’t forget to wear sunscreen! The sun is powerful at elevation, even when it’s freezing out.
  • Cold weather wears down batteries extra-fast. Keep an eye on your phone and camera batteries.
  • In some areas, you may need to be mindful of avalanches. Learn about avalanche safety if you think there’s even a small chance of needing to know what to do in an avalanche.
  • On that note, don’t rely on your phone for navigation. Always bring a paper map and compass (and know how to use them).
  • Want to level up your winter hiking game? Try cold-weather backpacking! Just make sure you  choose an appropriate sleeping bag (hydrophobic down gives you the best warmth-to-weight ratio) and a 4-season tent if you’ll face alpine conditions.
  • Take fewer, shorter breaks so you don’t have a chance to get cold when you’re stopped.
  • Bring food that you can eat while walking — like nuts and granola bars. If you must stop for lunch, try to keep it quick.
  • On that note — Snickers bars freeze (speaking from a very disappointing experience!). Peanut M&M’s make a much better winter hiking treat, with a similar blend of protein and carbs.
  • Most importantly: Take lots of photos, get your heart rate up, enjoy the solitude of the forest in winter, keep an eye out for wildlife, or do whatever else makes you enjoy the trail.

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Ready to go hiking in winter? These cold weather hiking tips will help you prepare! From the best winter hiking gear for women to safety advice, I'll help you get ready for your first winter hiking adventure! #hiking #travel

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Arabela
2 years ago

This post is so thorough and taught me so many new things about hiking in the cold. I really wish I had seen this before hiking in Fairy Meadows last month!

Krista
2 years ago

I should probably remember to layer up when I go outside in the winter, I always find myself too cold to do anything!

Rachel Hall
2 years ago

Thanks for the tips, I love hiking but I am always scared of the cold! I love the tip about sunscreen, I always forget! It is more important than ever to get outside and I will be following this!!

Emma
2 years ago

Such great tips. I have done so much hiking this year and want to continue even though winter is almost here. Hunting season never crossed my mind until my fall hiking adventure and I heard a gun shot. So that’s really good advice to watch out for

Josy A
2 years ago

Great post Carrie!

I am like you, I get very cold so I didn’t think I would like hiking in winter…but I actually reeeeally love it.

I guess my extra tips would be:

  1. “be bold, start cold” We try not to wear too much at the start of a hike on a cold day as you sweat, and then find it hard to stay warm later.
  2. As well as sunscreen, if you’re near snow, bring sunglasses. Your eyes can really start to ache if you don’t protect them from the sun/snow reflections…
Shany
2 years ago

Amazing tips! I definitely not a huge fan of winter but love hiking. Going to do apply some of them in this coming winter

Shelbs
2 years ago

I love this list! We love hiking in the winter!

Farrah
2 years ago

haha, I feel like this post was written for me. 😛 (I wander around in blankets/hoodies if the house is lower than 70 degrees.) These are all super helpful tips! <3

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