8 essential tips for a safe and warm winter hike

There are many reasons to go hiking in winter. It’s a magical season on the trail when the leaves have fallen and scenery normally unseen on your favorite hike suddenly surrounds you, and with a light dusting of snow the trail is still and quiet, likely a new experience for your meaning .

Winter is an amazing season for hiking, but you have to be prepared for it. It can either be a magical experience or a misery. Here are eight tips, in no particular order of importance, to keep you safe and warm on your winter hikes.

Although this list is primarily intended for day hiking, many of these tips can also be used for winter night hiking; just remember that there is a lot more to know before going on a winter night hike. That’s a list for another day.

Dressing properly in layers is one of the most important things you can do to have a safe and warm winter hike.

Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj

1. Dress in layers

Some people call it “dressing like an onion”. This is exactly what it means to dress in layers and is probably the most important tip for winter hiking.

As you walk the trail the temperatures vary greatly. Layering allows you to remove or add a layer to help regulate your body temperature.

You should wear three layers: the base layer that wicks sweat away from your body, the mid or insulating layer that retains body heat, and the outer layer that protects you from wind and rain. These basic categories can be broken down into the different types of weather you may experience, from cold, wet days to sunny, warm, almost spring-like days. A good reference for these layering subcategories can be found on the REI Layering Basics website.

Clothing is not the place to try to cut costs. Don’t skimp on the quality of the clothes you wear. It makes a huge difference.

2. Bring other necessities

We can’t forget your extremities. Your toes and feet are always the first to be affected by the cold. Always wear thick winter hiking socks. Take two pairs of gloves with you (one set can get wet, especially in the snow.) And don’t forget to wear a winter hat.

The hiking shoes you wear are just as important as the socks. Boots should be insulated and waterproof. Make sure the boots say “waterproof” on the box. Some will be labeled “water resistant”. They are not the same. The best boots for winter have rubberized or synthetic uppers. These are guaranteed not to absorb water.

Some manufacturers provide temperature ratings for boots, but in reality there really is no sure way to estimate this; it’s subjective. Every person is different – their activity level, health, weight, etc. Nonetheless, the ratings are a reasonable estimate of a boot’s relative warmth.

Finally, if you are hiking in the snow, wear these sunglasses or goggles. Even the smallest amount of snow can cause vision problems.

Two men walking in a snow storm

Pay attention to the hourly forecast so you don’t get caught in bad weather.

Photo credit: Dmitry Kochergin / Shutterstock.com

3. Pay attention to the weather

Weather forecasts have become very reliable. Before heading to the trailhead, get the latest forecast from the National Weather Service or reliable online weather services like Weather Channel, AccuWeather, or local media for the area you plan to hike.

When you check the weather, don’t just look at the forecast for the whole day. Explore hourly forecasts. A daily forecast might say there is a 50% chance of rain, but it might only happen at certain times of the day.

Also consider wind speed and direction to dress accordingly as well as sunrise and sunset times. It’s easy to forget that the sun sets earlier in winter and you don’t want to be caught on the trail after dark.

group hikers

Whatever the season, never walk alone. This is especially true on winter hikes.

Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj

4. Never hike alone

This is a touchy subject for some people. They love to hike solo, but it’s really not a good idea at any time of the year, especially in winter. It’s definitely more fun hiking with friends, but more importantly, it’s all about safety.

If you suffer an injury, hypothermia, or any number of injuries or health issues, your hiking partner can help you get off the trail and get timely help.

hiking trail

If there is a log at the trailhead, sign up so rescuers know you are on the trail in case of an emergency.

Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj

And speaking of safety, it’s always a good idea to let someone outside of your hiking party know of your plans. Let them know where you plan to hike and when you can expect to return home. If there is a log at the trailhead, be sure to fill it out so in an emergency the park rangers will know you are on the trail.

A hiking GPS

It’s best to carry a GPS on your hike, but carry extra batteries. Cold weather quickly depletes energy.

Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj

5. Bring the hiking essentials

Map, Compass, GPS

It’s always a good idea to bring a GPS to track your movements and locate you, but remember that winter weather drains batteries quickly. Pack extras.

Don’t rely on phones for GPS tracking on the trail. You never know where you’ll lose signal and again, and the batteries can drain quickly.

You should carry a paper map and compass as backup and know how to use them. It’s called orienteering and can be a hiker’s best friend.

Water and purification method

We’ll talk about how it’s even more important to stay hydrated on a winter hike in a bit. Just be sure to pack plenty of water and a method to filter the water if you need it from streams and lakes.


Winter hiking causes your body to burn thousands more calories than hiking in milder temperatures. Making sure you have enough to eat on the trail is important not only for energy, but also to keep you warm.

Bring lunches and snacks high in protein, fat and calories. Trail mixes and granola bars are best for snacking. Nuts, dried fruits and oats cover all your needs.

And don’t be shy. Bring that sealed thermos or that cup of hot soup, tea, or cocoa.

Matches and fire starters

In an emergency, a small fire can be invaluable. Bring the waterproof matches and a store-bought or homemade fire starter to start that fire so you don’t try to rub wet sticks together.

First aid kit

A basic first aid kit is essential no matter what time of year you’re hiking. You don’t need a fancy store-bought kit. You can assemble one yourself by simply having a basic knowledge of how to use what you bring with you. Remember to add a small waterproof first aid guide to your kit.

Knife or multi-tool

You’ll be surprised how many times a small knife or multi-tool is used on the trail for emergencies and non-emergencies. This packet of trail mix may state that it has an “easy-open sachet”, that is, until you try to open it.


The sun can be brutal in the winter, especially if you’re hiking in the snow. Wear sunglasses and don’t forget sunscreen.

Spatial coverage

Small and inexpensive, space blankets can be the difference between life and death if you get stuck on the trail for any reason. They can provide extra warmth or be used as shelter from the rain.

6. Stay hydrated

I mentioned earlier the need to drink plenty of water when hiking, especially in the winter. During the winter months, your body has to work very hard to keep your core temperature high.

The general rule is two cups per hour of hiking for adults, and one to two cups for children. But that’s the basics. Increase the amount accordingly. If you hike near streams, creeks, or lakes, take a water filter or other purification method with you so you can get clean water from these sources and lighten the load. that you wear.

7. Learn the warning signs of hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when your body is exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time. But freezing temperatures need not be able to cause hypothermia. In fact, it can happen at temperatures above 40 degrees if you’re cold from rain or sweat.

Get off the trail as quickly as possible and ask for help if you see any of these warning signs:

  • Chills
  • Memory loss
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Speech disorders
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • clumsy hands

For more information on treating someone with hypothermia, visit the CDC’s Hypothermia website.

A flower covered in snow

A winter hike is magical.

Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj

8. Start small, start early and know when to stop

The best advice for having a safe and warm winter hike is to hike shorter than you normally would on a nice spring day. Start early in the morning and know when to stop.

It’s easy to find yourself enjoying the hike and then realizing that it’s extremely cold or it’s late in the day and the sun is going to set soon.

Keep an eye on the time and listen to what your body is telling you and know when it’s time to go home.

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