While hiking is a simple activity, it becomes more difficult to hike in winter due to low temperatures and potentially hazardous conditions on the trek. Nevertheless, if you take some precautions, winter hiking can be a great experience.
However, if you are new to hiking, hitting the trails in the midst of winter might not be the best idea – depending on the conditions and weather. Hiking on snowy trails doesn’t only require a better fitness level, but also additional gear which is typically expensive. Furthermore, if you are planning to walk at higher altitudes, you will also need mountaineering skills to use crampons and an ice axe properly.
Check the weather conditions
Weather in winter can get bad (snow, strong winds, low visibility etc.) and therefore you always need to study the weather forecast before going on a hike. In case of bad weather, you should postpone the hike, especially if you have little or no experience with winter hiking. Checking the weather forecast will also allow you to layer up correctly according to the forecasted temperatures and wind speed.
It’s also vital to check route conditions so that you know what gear to bring.
Bring additional equipment
If the route is covered with snow and ice, you might have to bring extra gear such as gaiters, crampons, ice axe. They might make a world of difference when it comes to your comfort and security.
Gaiters are very useful for hiking on snowy trails because they prevent snow from entering your boots. Firm and icy snow require you to wear crampons for traction. Whenever you are hiking on icy terrain, you should always also use an ice axe because you will need it to arrest a potential fall.
For winter hiking, you should layer your upper body clothing to be able to regulate your body temperature (by stripping off or adding garments). We recommend wearing a base layer, a fleece jacket (insulating mid layer) and a down jacket or jacket with synthetic insulation (insulating and protective outer layer). All garments should be quick-drying as wet clothes conduct heat much faster than dry clothes. Therefore, you quickly get cold if your clothes are wet. The insulation layer should also be light for the warmth it provides (weight-to-warmth ratio) because heavy clothing puts extra strain on your muscles and thus slows you down. For the lower body, wearing softshell pants because they provide insulation as well as protection against wind and snow. You should also wear a hat, gloves and a pair of warm socks.
Wear proper footwear
Winter hiking requires different footwear. In this season you should wear a pair of high-cut waterproof/breathable boots which will prevent snow from entering and keep your feet dry and warm. If the trip requires crampons, the hiking boots should also have semi-rigid soles so that the tool doesn’t get detached by accident.
Winter hiking navigation is tricky
Several factors make navigation in winter much more difficult than in other seasons:
Paths are covered with snow and thus less visible
The batteries of electronic navigation devices get drained faster due to low temperatures
While you will probably bring a GPS device (handheld GPS device, GPS watch or merely a Smartphone), especially if you are hiking in unfamiliar areas, we do not recommend relying on it solely. As a lightweight backup option, you should bring a compass and an appropriate map – and of course also know how to use them.
Don’t forget to hydrate
While you might need less water in winter due to the lower temperature and consequently lower sweat rate, it’s vital that you are sufficiently hydrated. Researches estimate that if one loses 5% of his body weight in fluid, the performance is reduced by no less than 30%. In winter weather it might not be pleasant to drink cold water, and it is therefore recommended to bring some warm tea in a flask.
You might have to turn around
Due to several reasons, you might have to turn around:
The weather worsens
You get exhausted
You don’t have the right gear
The weather can change very quickly, and if you encounter snowfall, low visibility or strong winds, it might be smart to turn around – especially if you didn’t anticipate such conditions. It’s smarter to turn around than continue – keep in mind that getting to the top is just half the journey. Even though you checked the conditions on the trail before going, they might have changed since. It might feel stupid to turn around but remember that it is even sillier and potentially dangerous to continue without appropriate gear in harsh winter conditions.