5 Winter Hiking Tips for Your First Time Out & So You’ll Want to Go Back

Trail on Slide Mountain at about 3,950'
Average read time 5 min

Hiking in the winter is a dazzling way to experience the backcountry. Besides there being fewer people, you’ll encounter a beauty that you obviously can’t find in the other seasons. However, for the first-time winter back-country traveler, it can be daunting. Compared to other seasons, your margin for error in winter is less, meaning the mistakes you make are magnified due to the harsh conditions. A few basic tips will help make your first trip safe, fun and leaving you with a thirst for more.

Winter Hiking on Graham Mountain North Face
Winter Hiking on Graham Mountain North Face

1- Get knowledge

Before you head out in the winter, understand what you are doing. Sounds simple, right? A couple of years ago, my son and I were descending from Slide Mountain in the Catskills when temperatures were in the teens with the windchill below zero on the summit. On top, there were “whiteout” conditions due to snow and high winds. At the trailhead, you would have never known how harsh summit conditions were as it was relatively warm and sunny! On our way down at about 3,600’, four young guys passed us dressed in blue jeans, light jackets, sneakers, and only one had a backpack. As the saying goes, “the mountain spares most fools.” We hoped for these four guys that saying held true.

There are plenty of ways to gain the knowledge you’ll need to do winter hiking. There are several great books on winter hiking and camping. Even trail guides will have some tips, as do local mountain clubs or conservation websites, but they don’t always include exhaustive information on the topic. In fact, this article cannot take on this entire subject. You can also make your first or first few hikes with more experienced people or maybe a group outing with a local hiking club. If you are so inclined, take some lessons such as cross-country skiing. Ask lots of questions by calling rangers in your area.

The rangers I know would rather talk to you beforehand than have to rescue or recover you later! 

In the beginning, always go with someone more experienced than you!

2 – Get real

Winter hiking, simply put, is harder than hiking in the other seasons. The harsher environment is more taxing. You’ll be carrying more weight. The snow or ice makes moving slower, so time to destinations is longer. Being “real” or realistic about your goal is important for your first time out. Maybe your first time should not be a 15 mile round trip to some high summit, but rather a 4 – 5 mile round trip to another worthy destination that makes for a great day in a winter wonderland! Understand that the fitness you have maybe okay for the other three seasons, but you may need to improve it to do similar hikes in winter. Read about the physiology of cold weather hiking.

3 – Get gear & clothes

Layering clothes in winter
Chris adding layers on a minus 5-degree day while taking a break

Wait! Don’t run out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on winter gear. Trust me; it can add up real fast. There are some ways to get the stuff you’ll need. First, remember, layers! Dress like an onion, starting with a wicking base layer and working to an insulating layer, then a shell. But you’ll need more and need to carry heavier insulation when you stop for extended periods of time. Add and remove layers as you go to control body temperature. There are times I hike with my base layer shirt and no fleece or shell. You’ll want to start your hike with a bit of a chill as even in the winter, you’ll warm-up quick, resist starting with all your layers on. Polypro/wool is the way to go. It’s a shame many folks have left wool home these days; it’s warm and works well even when very wet, but it is heavier. If you don’t have good insulating polypro or wool layers and are on a budget, don’t worry; shop thrifty.

Visit a local thrift shop; it’s amazing what you’ll find. I got a North Face fleece at a church tag sale for $20.00 ($150.00 retail). You never know. You’ll need water/windproof, breathable gear, even on clear days. Trees are covered in snow, and it will wet you as you move through it; also, the wind will blow snow on you from everywhere on some days. My own personal thoughts are that good socks and boots are the items where your money should be spent; your summer boot will not cut it. Warm feet keep you moving. You’ll need to have extra changes of base layers, socks, gloves, face cover, and hats. It’s amazing how fast these items get wet.

Most of all… no cotton as when it get wet it no longer has insulating value.

Plan to stay out overnight. In winter, on longer outings, I always carry a sleeping bag and emergency bivy sac. As far as snowshoes, crampons, ski poles, and/or ice axes, you can rent or borrow these items for your first trip or two until you see if you really like the fourth season out in the backwoods. Some people don’t. Read more on clothing here.

4 – Get ready

Winter hiking is harder than hiking in the warmer seasons. It’s colder; days are shorter, snow and ice can slow you down (at times, snow can make it easier). The dry cold air in winter can dehydrate you fast. You’ll lose a lot of moisture by simply exhaling into the dry winter air. For the casual summer hiker, their fitness levels may not be adequate for the demands of winter. So refer back to tip number 2, “Get Real.” Plan everything! From the time you leave your home to the time you come back. Simple things like your car, is it ready for winter? Are the road condition okay? Will you be using seasonal roads? And what about trailhead conditions, is it plowed?

Obviously, you’ll need to check weather and current trail conditions. Keep in mind something as simple as if you go out after a snowfall; this may have a tremendous impact; you may be breaking trail! Use a checklist; there are many out there, and they are easy to find. However, get one from a credible source. Make sure you have all you need and packed the night before you leave. Check everything twice. Don’t be packing the day of your trip. ALWAYS leave your trip plan with someone who you can count on.

5 – Get fed

As energy expenditure is as much as 50% higher on winter hikes, you’ll need more energy-dense foods. Remember, stuff can freeze in the winter. Bring items pre-cut. Remember, lunch starts after breakfast and ends when you finish your hike. In other words, eat/drink often; every break. Items such as chocolate bars, dried fruits, crackers, high-energy GORP, cubed cheese, and meats are good choices. Bring water, but also bring tea or hot cocoa, or if you like a stove, to brew it out in the field. Bring enough food & drink for one extra night. Carry some food in a pocket as you hike as this will make sure it will not freeze; replace it as you go. More on winter nutrition here.

Winter hiking is exciting. If the “bug bites you,” you’ll be looking longingly out your window for the first snowflake each season! Winter hikers are a hardy bunch who get chilled and wet, windswept and snowed upon. Winter hikers are known to start in the dark and end in the dark. Most of all, winter hikers generally have a whale of a great time!

Hope to see you in the snow.