The Ultimate Guide to Hiking in Winter: 14 Winter Backpacking Tips and Winter Hiking Apparel

Many people stop hiking, backpacking, and camping when winter rolls around, but just because the first snow has fallen and temperatures have plummeted doesn’t mean that it’s time to put up your hiking boots. In fact, hiking in winter has its definite benefits. Much foliage has cleared off trees meaning that you can get some pretty incredible views that are obscured when trees have all their leaves, and trails aren’t nearly as crowded, allowing you to enjoy the landscapes around you without interruptions or distractions. Hiking is something that you can enjoy all year long, but like everything else in life, if you want a pleasant experience while hiking in winter, you need to prepare properly.

Winter Backpacking Tips

1. Start early in the morning and choose a trail that comfortably fits within your level of skill.

Sunrise on a snow covered mountain during winter hike

Hiking in winter is a lot different from warm weather hiking. Terrain changes during the winter and becomes more treacherous, especially when snow, strong winds, and ice are thrown into the equation. If you are a novice winter hiker, don’t try to make your first winter expedition one with intense rock climbing, ravine crossing, and other wild adventures. Instead, be reasonable about the difficulty and distance of the trail, and opt for something a bit milder until you get better acquainted with hiking in winter. Then, you can choose more extreme hikes.

Also, keep in mind that days are significantly shorter during the winter. Wake up early in the morning, and get your miles in so that you can be off the trail well before dark.

2. Be prepared to turn around.

Backpacking in winter

Winter hiking can be very dangerous. Fierce winds, avalanches, limited visibility, and whiteouts pose serious threats when hiking in winter. Before you set out, check the forecast to get a complete picture of the weather — precipitation, wind speeds, avalanche reports, and daylight hours — during your trip.

If conditions suddenly become dangerous mid-hike, put your pride to the side and turn around. In a competition between nature and man, nature will almost always win. Those mountains will be there tomorrow, God willing. You, on the other hand, are a lot more vincible.

3. Share your sleeping bag with your boots or boot liners.

Hiking boots, sleeping bag, and backpacks on rocks

If your boot or boot liner has gotten wet during the day and you happen to find yourself in a place where temperatures drop below freezing at night, you need to sleep with your boots and/or boot liners in your sleeping bag. If you don’t, they will freeze during the night, and you’ll have to wait for them to thaw out before you continue on your journey. To protect boot liners from getting wet due to sweaty feet, wear oven roasting bags under your socks.

4. Bring at least two stoves in case one fails.

Portable stove for backpacking in winter

Winter gas stoves can fail if you use dirty fuel or fail to clean them properly. Also, canister stoves can fail to work when temperatures become too cold for their fuel to vaporize. If you are winter backpacking in a group, have someone else carry a backup stove, preferably one that uses the same kind of fuel. White gas stoves are the best for hiking in winter.

5. Pack frozen food instead of dehydrated food.

Stockpot on grate above campfire

Dehydrated food is pretty crappy. But when you’re hiking in the cold, you can bring frozen meals instead, which usually taste way better. Boil the entire bag when you’re ready to eat.

6. Keep your drinking water in an insulated pouch.

wide mouth water bottle for hiking in winter

Imagine pulling out your water bottle after an arduous hike to the summit of Mount Washington only to find that the water is frozen. Avoid this by keeping your water bottle in an insulated pouch on the outside of your hiking backpack for easy access or tuck it inside, making sure that it’s well insulated. When hiking in winter, it’s best to use a wide-mouthed bottle so that you can fill it with melted snow in the morning. At night, though, put it in your sleeping bag so that it doesn’t freeze.

7. Use your backpack as added insulation.

backpacker hiking in winter

On exceptionally cold nights, you can empty the contents of your backpack and use it as added insulation. Wriggle into your sleeping bag, then slide your legs into the pack and pull it up around your knees for extra warmth during frigid nights.

8. Brush up on your winter navigation skills.

Mountain summit with snowscapes winter hiking

Snow changes terrain. Knowing how to navigate through snowscapes skillfully is essential if you’re hiking in the snow. Be aware of winter navigation hazards, and be sure to carry a trail map and compass at all times.

9. Always bring a tent when hiking in winter, and plan for the worst.

hiking in winter tent in snow

A four-season tent is a necessity when backpacking in the winter unless you want to build one of those snow dens that Bear Grylls makes on his show (but in all seriousness, knowing how to build a winter shelter is essential in the event of an emergency). If you’re able to make a fire, you can keep your tent warm by heating up a large stone in the fire. Remove it after several hours, and let it cool until you’re able to handle it, but it’s still hot. Wrap a towel around the rock, and place it at the foot of your sleeping bag or the center of your tent.

10. Bring safety gear just in case.

Trail map and compass for winter hiking safety

Keen outdoorsman Frank Gibbons, who regularly hikes and backpacks through New Hampshire’s White Mountains warns that during winter, even day hikers should pack safety gear in case an emergency arises. Toss a trail map, hand warmers, first aid kit, a mylar emergency blanket, a multi-tool, a compass, and a headlamp into your backpack for good measure.

11. Have an experienced winter hiker join you.

People hiking in winter

Ecclesiastes 4:9-11 says: Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up…Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?

This is especially true when hiking in winter. An experienced friend can help you pick the right gear, teach you how to use crampons or snowshoes, and identify hazardous conditions. Many may also have extra hiking gear lying around that you can borrow.

12. Keep warm when hiking in winter by wearing three layers of clothing.

winter hiking apparel for backpackers

Staying warm and dry is the ultimate goal when winter backpacking. Do so by wearing three layers of clothing: a base layer, a middle layer, and an outer layer. The base layer is closest to your skin and should not be made of cotton since cotton dries slowly and loses its insulating qualities when wet. Instead, opt for a fabric that wicks moisture to the exterior layers, where it’s evaporated. A fleece or down pullover with an attached hood will help retain body heat and makes a great middle layer. Finally, a hardshell waterproof coat with an attached hood will keep you dry and warm.

When you start to get a little too warm, take layers off as necessary before you start to sweat. Avoid sweating since sweating can cause your clothes to become damp. The dampness will chill you whenever you stop moving.

13. But if necessary, hike in your wet clothes.

keep clothes dry when hiking in winter

Yes, this seems contradictory, but let me explain. If you get rained or snowed on and your clothes get wet, the first thing you’ll want to do is change into something dry when you make camp for the night. Go ahead and do that, but keep any damp clothes in your sleeping bag at night so that they don’t freeze (refer to number one on this list). And we promise this is the last thing we’ll ask you to keep in your sleeping bag.

When you wake up in the morning, change back into those (probably still) damp clothes. If you hike in the dry clothes that you slept in and it rains or snows again, you’ll have two sets of wet clothes and one recipe for hypothermia.

14. Get proper winter hiking apparel.

Man hiking across frozen lake in winter apparel

In the summer, you can just throw on a pair of shorts, Keens, and a t-shirt, and set off on your hike. In the winter, though, you’re going to want to put a little more effort into your hiking clothes. Solid winter hiking apparel is essential if you are to stay dry and warm.

Winter Hiking Apparel

Best Winter Hiking Boots

Protecting your feet while hiking is always a priority. After all, they got you onto the trail, and they’re the only ones that are going to get you off the trail. While some people prefer open-toed shoes when hiking during the summer and spring, boots are pretty much the way to go when hiking in the cold, especially if snow and ice are involved.

Winter hiking boots generally have more treading than tennis shoes or other types of trail shoes. The tread allows your shoes to grip uneven surfaces and prevent slippage. This is incredibly important when hiking in winter when trails could be icy and rockfaces exposed. Boots also provide your ankles with extra support and keep your feet safer from puddles and mud than would other types of hiking shoes.

Best Winter Hiking Boots for Women

Columbia Women’s Bugaboot Plus III Omni Cold-Weather Hiking Boot Merrell Women’s Snowbound Mid Waterproof Winter Boot 
best winter hiking boots for women by Columbia best winter hiking boots for women by Merrell
Keep your toes warm when hiking in the snow with these winter hiking boots by Columbia. Columbia’s Bugaboot Plus III has an insulated 7″ shaft with lace-up vamp with a padded tongue for warmth and comfort. With 200 grams of insulation, thermal reflective liners rated at -25 degrees Fahrenheit, and weighing only 19.1 ounces, you’ll wish you could stomp snowmen every day! 200 grams of insulation, synthetic coated leather, and a mesh TPU waterproof shell ensure that your toes are cozy while on the trail. From heel to base, this winter hiking boot has an eight-inch shaft, lace-up vamp, and pull-on loop at the shaft. They are warm, lightweight, and have a comfort range down to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Keen Women’s Hoodoo III Winter Hiking Boot Timberland Women’s Keele Ridge WP Leather Mid Winter Hiking Boot
best winter hiking boots for women by Keen best winter hiking boots for women by Timberland
Available in two stylish designs, this quilted waterproof boot featuring a faux-fur collar and lace-up vamp is sure to keep you warm when hiking in the cold. From the arch, the shaft measures approximately 8.5″ for maximum warmth, comfort, and support. These boots provide excellent traction on ice, have a warm rating of -25 degrees Fahrenheit, and are exceptionally roomy, making them the perfect winter hiking boot for wide feet.

If you prefer a little less calve coverage, this is the winter hiking boot for you! Uniquely designed by Timberland, this winter hiking boot for women has a 4.5″ shaft from the arch, providing just the right amount of ankle support and protection. These boots are entirely waterproof and lightweight, allowing you to hike through snow, ice, creeks, and streams without getting your feet wet (you’ll need to use gaiters in deep snow, though).

Best Winter Hiking Boots for Men

Columbia Men’s Bugaboot Plus III Omni Heat Winter Hiking Boot Merrell Men’s Moab Polar Waterproof Winter Boot 
best winter hiking boots for men by Columbia best winter hiking boots for men by Merrell
These waterproof boots keep your feet warm when hiking in the snow and provide excellent traction on ice. Columbia’s Bugaboot Plus III for men has an insulated 7″ shaft with lace-up vamp and a padded tongue for warmth and comfort. The boot is made from leather and textile, and the soles are rubber. With 200 grams of insulation, thermal reflective liners rated at -25 degrees Fahrenheit, and weighing only 19.1 ounces, Columbia’s Bugaboot Plus III for men is stylish yet functional!

If you need a boot that can keep your feet warm and dry in temperatures well below freezing, this is it. The waterproof uppers are made of breathable suede and a thick front toe cap provides extra protection for your toes. The Moab Polar’s dual density soles have good traction on snow and mixed conditions, but if you plan to walk on ice, get some boot attachments for extra traction.

Be sure to check out Section Hiker’s incredibly detailed gear review on the Moab Polar winter hiking boots for more information.

Sorel Men’s Conquest Winter Hiking Boot  Salomon Men’s X Ultra Winter CS Waterproof Performance Boot 
best winter hiking boots for men by Sorel  best winter hiking boots for men by Salomon

These rugged cold-weather boots have 400 grams of Thinsulate Ultra insulation and are cold-weather rated to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The shaft measures a little less than eight inches from the arch and has a built-in gaiter bootie with drawstring and a barrel lock snow collar. The leather and fabric upper is waterproof, ensuring dry feet throughout your hike.

With 200 grams of Thinsulate multi-loft insulation, this cold-weather hiking boot combines a light and supportive advanced chassis midsole with full waterproof protection. The gusseted tongue and protective rubber toe and heel caps help to ensure that your feet stay dry and warm while hiking. A pair is four ounces shy of three pounds, making them a relatively lightweight winter hiking boot

Additional Winter Hiking Apparel

Clothing layering tips for winter backpacking

A good pair of hiking boots is just one of the items that you’ll have on your winter hiking apparel checklist. In addition to boots, you’ll want to have the winter hiking clothes listed below.

For your feet:

  • warm socks
  • high gaiters

For your head:

  • lightweight and heavyweight wool or fleece hat

For your hands:

  • lightweight fleece or wool gloves
  • waterproof shell gloves with insulated liners

For your body:

  • insulated hardshell coat with attached hood
  • waterproof and windproof jacket with attached hood
  • hardshell windproof and waterproof pants
  • fleece jacket, pullover, or insulated vest
  • long sleeve jersey
  • long underwear

What are some of your favorite winter backpacking hacks? Is there any hiking gear that you simply cannot do without in the winter? Let me know in the comments below.

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