Complete Winter Hiking Guide for Restless Backpackers
October 25, 2019

Hiking is an activity enjoyed by many throughout the year. Whilst the vast majority are fair weather hikers, choosing their days carefully to avoid any adverse weather, some are enticed by the wonders and majesty of winter hiking. The reduction in hiking traffic is a massive pull, as is the transformation in the surroundings, we all love a winter wonderland, right?

Winter landscapes are often scenes of sparkling beauty. A layer of frost or even snow under a golden sun can transform the scenery into something magical, even the sounds are different; muffled in the snow, the slow drip of thawing ice. However, hiking in the snow can be a different experience entirely, and one that is not to be taken lightly.

Walking during the icy cold weather can be hard work and dangerous. Surfaces can be slippery, and snow, as well as being harder terrain to walk through, can also hide any number of treacherous obstacles beneath a seemingly unblemished surface. So, here are some top tips to help you prepare for hiking in winter.

Hiking in Cold Weather
and what to consider

Before going out on any winter hike, you need to be aware that the landscape and environment is going to be different than in milder seasons, which can bring with it all sorts of additional problems and unseen dangers. Before leaving, its wise to check the weather forecast and pack gear accordingly, or even avoiding going out in such adverse conditions.

Its important that you consider with great care which route you will be tackling. If it is your first time out in winter conditions, then do not take on too long a journey. Even if it is a route that you have taken on many times before, winter conditions can be strenuous and ice and snow can seriously alter your route’s terrain and may even lead to diversions.

Bare in mind that daylight hours are shorter during winter, so any diversions could add hours that you don’t have onto your journey. Its best to start as early as you can, with the aim of returning at the earliest time too, allowing ample time for unseen events or mistakes.

One of the first things to consider before setting off on a winter hike is “Are you going to be warm enough?” What clothes are you wearing, and what clothes are you carrying as a back up?

When out in the winter, especially if you are hiking up into the heights of a mountain, there is going to be a rapid change in temperatures. Its important that as well as dressing warm, you should also carry additional layers to pop on if you stop or if the weather changes. A down jacket will pack up really small into your backpack but will make all the difference when needed but its also important to consider what you wear to start with.

Layer Up
cause it’s not optional

The first places that you will feel the cold are your head, hands and feet – so a warm hat, gloves and thick winter socks are winter hiking essentials and help to regulate your body temperature. Wool or light fleece are ideal materials to search for. Frostbite is a serious issue, and in extreme cases can lead to losing the odd digit too. Also pack extra gloves and socks to change into should they get wet.

It’s advised to wear thermal underwear, or some kind of base layer, which will add another layer of warmth beneath your clothes. However, it is best to avoid cotton. Cotton, when wet, holds water (even just through your own perspiration) and then provides no insulation whatsoever, and is more likely to make you cold. In fact, it can also increase the chance of hypothermia, even in temperatures above freezing.

It’s best that you are aware of the tell tale signs of Hypothermia kicking in – shivering, becoming clumsy and a little vague and dreamy can be early warning signs. If you notice this, try and find some cover, and get that person warm. If the signs persist, then its best to turn back and head for home.

Wicking fabrics and breathable technical base layers are designed to move moisture away from the skin, and are much more ideal to wear during winter hiking.

Make sure that the boots that you wear are water proof, and also wear gaiters. Wet feet will soon become cold feet, and this will make the rest of your walk uncomfortable and unsafe.

Snow hiking
is fun but tricky

Snow hiking offer s a great sence of adventure, and whilst it may seem like good fun, it is far from harmless. Snow may be soft, but the dangers involved in hiking dramatically increase with snow fall. I would consider going with someone else on your first outing, and preferably someone who is experienced in winter hiking. It decreases any chance of risks when you are in company, and someone with experience can pass on their knowledge to you as you go.

Deep snow can also slow you down considerably, and add hours to a walk, so again, plan your route according to this, allow for the additional time and the shorter winter hours. Try to keep to well trodden tracks if you can.

Snow can transform a landscape, so it is important that you are aware of what the ground beneath should look like. Signs, or cairns can easily be buried beneath snow drifts, and sometimes there are hollow areas beneath the snow, which if you fall into can trap you!

Other dangers may be cornices, which may look like part of the land, but could very well be unsupported, overhanging the edge of a considerable fall. There could be a body of water beneath you, and ice can give way, but is also very slippery, and could cause injury. Its important to carry a map and compass and to keep a close eye on where you are walking.

Ice in genereal is a massive factor in winter walking, and in extreme cases, snow shoes are not going to be as effective as crampons. Make sure you are aware of the conditions and terrain you are set to walk in and prepare accordingly.

Also, know when to turn back – don’t be foolish enough to put yourself or others into danger just for the chance to reach the summit of a mountain. Its more important that you get down safely than get up to the top. If the conditions, or indeed the terrain look even in the slight bit dangerous, then it’s best to call it a day. You will need all your strength for getting back down.

If all goes to plan, you will complete your walk without a hitch – but what if you did fall foul of any injury, and had to spend a night on the mountainside in winter conditions? Always err on the side of caution.

If up in the mountains, then the risk of avalanche is also a large possiblity. Its advised that you should avoid hiking on warm and sunny days, especially after a heavy snow fall as the rise in temperature may cause the snow to melt and shift. Many national parks and mountain ranges will shut certain areas off during avalanche seasons, so it is worth taking note of where you can go, and to not stray into closed off areas.

Fail to Prepare
and Prepare to Fail

Pack more food and water than you need, dehydrated or boil in the bag meals can give you both sustenance and warmth. Make sure that you have something to cook it on.

If you are going up to any great height and will be facing snow and any hard weather then you need to bring even more gear

Pack a shelter, sleeping bag or bivvy, especially if you are exploring any mountains. You may get caught out and have to spend the night. It may seem like over kill but then safety is paramount.

Winter Hiking Essentials
Essential Gear for Winter Hiking

As with any hiking or outdoors expeditions its always wise to bring plenty of safety gear on your trip, making sure that you are equipped for every possible outcome. In the winter its even more important.


Essential Safety Gear for Winter Hiking

  • Map and Compass
  • Headlamp with Spare batteries
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency blanket
  • Small multi-function knife
  • Whistle
  • High Energy Food
  • Walking poles
  • Cooking Stove
  • Mobile phone
  • Wide mouth Water bottles

Essential Gear for Snow Hiking

  • Snow shoes
  • Crampons
  • Face mask
  • Ice Axe
  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Shelter


So, if you are going to hike out into the bleak winter conditions for a spot of adventure, do take care. It may be a beautiful time of year, but it fraught with hazards and is not to be taken lightly. There’s no need to risk your own life or the life of others when a little preparation, knowledge of the area and conditions, and packing the right gear can greatly improve your chances of a safe and enjoyable outing.

Trev Lewis


About the Author

"I am so glad that I found walking and would recommend it to anyone who is in need of a little direction."

Read More

Always be prepared!

Get access to all our exclusive checklists to pack efficiently before your every adventure!