How to Hike in Winter

How to Hike in Winter

Posted by Danielle Maxey on Dec 18th 2019

Don't let the snow get you down this winter. Even with a lot of it, you can still get outside and enjoy all the hiking winter has to offer. And even better? It's less crowded so you'll be able to enjoy those winter wonderland views all by yourself.



When starting off in winter hiking, how to properly layer can be one of the most confusing parts. You want enough layers to keep you warm in the colder temperatures and protected from the elements, but you also want to stay dry when you start working up a sweat. Finding a good base layer, mid layer, and outer layer is key to dressing for winter hiking.

BASE LAYER: You want to be sure that your base layers wick moisture well and moves it away from your skin, keeping you dry when you sweat. This helps to avoid hypothermia when you stop moving. There are different types of thickness which can help on colder days with less movement. SmartWool is known for their base layers, which aren't just for hiking. Many using them for other winter activities like climbing and skiing as well.

MID LAYER: Your mid layers are your insulating pieces that keep you warm. There are a few different types, but the most common are fleeces, insulated jackets (which can be down or synthetic), and vests. If it is colder, you may choose to double up on your mid layer or choose a thicker one.

OUTER LAYER: The outer layer is your protecting layer. This layer protects you from the elements: rain, wind, snow. Rain shells, hard shells, wind shells, and soft shells fall into this category. The outer layer keeps the elements from penetrating the jacket and keeps you dry while still maintaining breath-ability.

What layering pieces you bring will heavily depend on where you are hiking, your activity level, the length, the weather and temperature, and the time of day. If you aren't sure where to start, check out our guide on how to layer properly for the outdoors.

Once you have your layers dialed in, you should also be prepared with a hat, neck gaiter or balaclava, gloves, and socks. All of these will provide different warmth based on the piece, and again, will change depending on conditions. Bringing thicker mittens with a liner can help keep your hands warm if you tend to suffer from the cold. Like your layers, socks should also be made of wool or synthetic materials and should avoid cotton or cotton blends. If you find your feet getting cold, try using a thicker sock or wearing a sock liner underneath. Doubling up on two pairs of thick socks can actually cut off circulation, leading to colder feet. A thick hat paired with a neck gaiter or a balaclava will help shield your face and head from the wind and snow.


Just as important as your layers, finding the right footwear is key to keeping your feet warm and dry when hiking. You want to make sure you have a waterproof boot. Finding a boot that is higher is beneficial when going through deeper snow. If you find snow frequently coming in through the tops of your boots, a pair of gaiters helps to keep the snow out.

Some hiking boots are insulated and better for longer days on the trail, or if you get cold feet easily. A pair of non-insulated boots will work throughout the year, which can be a big draw when buying hiking boots. This all depends on what you are planning to do, weather, and personal preference. 

Read up about our top winter hikers for men and women if you are having trouble deciding on insulated hiking boots.

Traction and Flotation

When it comes to traction and flotation, there are quite a few different options out there. Each has their own purpose and may be suited more to some hikes than others. For most hikers starting out in winter, Yaktrax, Microspikes, and snowshoes will be the most common devices.

1. Yaktrax - Small traction devices such as Yaktrax have been gaining popularity recently. These devices are better for shorter hikes on flatter terrain. When it is a good mixture of light snow and ice, these traction devices help give you that grip your normal hiking boots may be lacking. They are lightweight and pack easy into coat pockets. They also do well in urban environments, making them multi-purpose.

2. Microspikes - When it starts getting really icy, on hard snow pack, Microspikes excel where Yaktrax fail. The small spikes at the bottom help for hikes that are harder. The spikes at the bottom help maintain grip on ice going uphill and downhill, keeping you on your feet. They slip on easily over your boots and are lightweight as well.

3. Crampons - For more extreme hikes, crampons help with extreme ice. Climbing couloirs, glacier travel, and vertical ice climbing are a few different activities that require crampons. Thick spikes help maintain balance and grip during ice travel. For the most part, crampon usage starts where hiking ends and mountaineering begins. They can also be used on steep slopes, when Microspikes start failing. Crampons are extremely useful when climbing the Colorado 14ers in winter and spring.

Image by <a href="">adege</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>

4. Snowshoes - When hiking in snow, snowshoes help to keep you afloat. If you find yourself hiking in soft snow that is over a foot deep, you may find yourself sinking into the snow with every step. Besides being extremely tiring, post-holing can be dangerous. Snowshoes spread out the weight balance and keep you on top of soft snow.

Image by adege from Pixabay

5. Skis - Another way of staying on top of soft snow, cross country skis or alpine touring skis both provide a fun way to travel. Many people enjoy cross country skiing lower angle slopes in the winter. Unlike snowshoes, skis do take a good bit of practice to use.

No matter which of these you use for winter hiking, a pair of trekking poles helps maintain stability on icy parts of the trail. If you are heading into an area with deep snow, find a trekking pole with a powder basket to keep it from sinking.

Coming to Colorado and don't want to buy snowshoes or crampons? We rent them as well! Be sure to check out our rental page for winter traction and flotation.


Depending on the size of your backpack, you may not need to invest in another pack. You can usually get away with a pack that is around 25 liters in the winter if you have you gear dialed down. That size allows for the essentials and for packable layers. Packs in the 30L to 40L range allow for more diverse trips, where you may need to carry extra layers or gear.

Make sure to keep your water on the inside of your pack on cold days so it doesn't freeze. If your preferred method of hydration is a water bladder,  find a pack that comes with an insulated sleeve for the hose or use an insulated hose.


Eye Protection

Even on a cloudy day, having eye protection in the mountains is crucial.

There are different types of lenses to choose from, ranging from blizzard conditions to bright, blue bird days. On snowier days, a pair of goggles will keep your eyes safe from the wind and snow, while still protecting from harmful UV rays. On days that it is sunny, both sunglasses and goggles work; just be sure that the sunglasses wrap around, protecting your eyes from the glare coming off the snow. The darker colored lens, the better it will be for sunnier conditions. The lighter the lens, the better it will preform in snow. There are transitional lenses that change the amount of light let it as it gets brighter and darker. Some sunglasses and goggles also come with interchangeable lenses to keep you prepared for those quick storm changes.

Staying Safe

As with any outdoor activity, you should always be prepared with the 10 essentials for any winter hiking adventure, whether it is for a couple hours or all day. And despite it being in winter, the 10 essentials stay the same.

The same rule also still applies that you should let someone know where you are headed and your plans for returning. With that person, come up with a set time to call Search and Rescue when you are overdue.

You should also always check the weather forecast before heading out as well. You may need to also know about avalanches, depending where you are planning on hiking. If venturing into the mountains on steeper terrain (or below steeper terrain), you need to be equipped with avalanche gear and need to know how to use it. You will also need to know how to read potentially dangerous terrain, both on a map and during the hike. Avoid hiking in areas with the potential for avalanches and know how to check your local avalanche websites to see which areas are affected.

Hiking in the winter can be a lot of fun as long as you are prepared! If you are nervous, try joining a local hiking group to help you get out there. Any questions? Stop in store to ask about our favorite local winter hikes or to learn about the gear you need to get outside this winter!