Many hikers prefer to venture out in the milder months but there is something to be said for accepting the challenge of year round hiking. The winter months shouldn’t be out of bounds – so long as you prepare yourself and your gear correctly.
Winter hiking requires more preparation, especially if you intend to hike areas which have seen fresh snowfall or at an altitude where snowy conditions are the norm. New to hiking in the snow? Here are our top tips:
Never go alone
If it’s your first time hiking in winter, choose somewhere you know well or even better go with an experienced guide. There is safety in numbers so never go alone. At the very least you’ll have no-one to share the memories with!
What you wear will make or break your day so layer up for the most effective way to keep warm.
Avoid cotton (it holds moisture and will make you cold when wet) and stick to wool or synthetics for your base layer. A fleece is the ideal mid-layer whilst a waterproof and breathable shell jacket will protect you from bad weather. If you need more insulation, a lightweight gilet, worn between the fleece and shell, will provide extra insulation if needed.
On your legs layer base layer thermals under synthetic walking trouser (lined if possible) with waterproof over trousers. If you know temperatures are going to be sub-zero you might consider a pair waterproof ski salopettes.
Frostbite is a real danger in sub-zero temperatures and is most likely to affect fingers, toes and face so covering the extremities is vital. You might consider two pairs of gloves- a warm liner and a waterproof outer pair (possibly opt for waterproof ski gloves for greater insulation). A good quality hat, preferably one with thinsulate, and a neck gaiter or balaclava will help keep you warm.
Think about your feet
What you wear on your feet is of utmost importance; your lightweight summer trekking boots won’t cut it! A boot with a much sturdier sole, designed for tougher conditions, are a must. Chances are you will need to wear either crampons or snowshoes at some point so choose a pair of boots that are compatible.
The correct sock choice is also paramount. Merino wool is a good choice as it is supremely warm. Whilst silk sock liners might seem a luxury they are really inexpensive and will provide that much needed extra warmth without the bulk. Make sure you have sufficient room in your boots to move your toes around.
Seasoned winter walkers will tell you: “take sufficient gear that you would need to overnight in the wilderness,” so you are prepared for any eventuality. A compact sleeping bag, roll mat and emergency shelter should be top of the list.
Always pack more water and food than you think you’ll need so you have enough for emergency rations. Boil in the bag food is ideal as is soup and hot chocolate to keep you warm. You will also need something to cook on, fuel for the stove, head torch, flare(s), hand / feet warmers, first aid kit, pocket knife or multi-tool, a compass and map of the local area.
Naturally, you need to ensure you have a bag large enough to carry all this gear. A 55-65 litre bag will give you sufficient space to carry this and extra layers when you aren’t wearing them. Make sure your bag has external pockets to store items you might need quickly, and also somewhere to stow rope and axes if you are using them.
Communication is key
Always let someone at home and, if staying locally, someone at the accommodation know where you are going. This is true whatever time of year you choose to hike but is even more important in winter where weather can change suddenly. Ensure your mobile is fully charged and you are able to make calls (carry backup power too). Make sure you know how to contact mountain rescue and that you have the means to attract attention if you need to be found.
Watch the weather
For a week prior to your trip keep an eye on what the weather has been like at your destination and check what the predicted weather is for the next 48 hours. Knowing what the conditions are like before you arrive will help you adequately prepare. Never be afraid to cut your day short or even cancel if conditions are so bad you are not confident to go ahead.
Start early and finish early
Sunlight hours are limited in winter so travel whilst the sun is rising so you can make best use of the available daylight. Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day as ice and snow can make trails much trickier. A realistic target is 2 to 2.5 miles an hour where a heavy sodden trail might be 3 miles per hour.
Pack for all eventualities
Take everything with you, if you leave something back in the carpark or at the hotel it won’t help you out on the trail!
Use walking poles
If you’ve never used walking poles now’s the time to start! Not only will the extra contact points help steady you but they are useful for finding snow banks and holes in the path that can become hidden.
Take eye protection
Sunglasses with UV400 protection or goggles are essential for winter walking as snow glare can be seriously hazardous. If a blizzard kicks up too you won’t be able to keep your eyes open and will get into trouble very quickly. Equally important is lip balm to protect your lips from wind chill.
Be wary of natural hazards
Frozen rivers covered over with snow and ice can be very dangerous. Always have your wits about you and know where you are and where the hazards are. Watch out for overhangs and bluffs which could shed snow and cause avalanches. If possible, stay below the treeline as this will give a natural protection barrier and reduce risk of being caught out.
Learn how to use an ice axe
An ice axe is a very useful tool in winter hiking. It can be used for support whilst ascending, cutting steps into hard packed snow and ice with the back of the axe or arresting your descent should you fall.
Learn how to ascend and descend in snow
Going uphill, take short steps and “kick in” to the snow bank. Try not to use kicked steps from previous days’ travellers, they may be very icy. If traversing a slope, make sure you have your ice axe on the rise side for support.
Going downhill, learn a technique known as plunge stepping. In a nutshell, it is a gravity assisted step down, not forward. Don’t lock out your leg otherwise you may and up jarring your knee. Keep your ice axe angled in front of you for self-arresting if you lose your footing.
Know when to use crampons and snowshoes
Crampons should only be used on hard packed snow or ice, there jagged teeth are designed to bite into the surface and give you good purchase. Using them on loose or fresh snow will increase the likelihood of slipping and injuring yourself. Learn how to put on and take off your crampons before you need to use them!
Snowshoes are used in situations where snow is not heavily packed down. They help to evenly distribute your weight over a larger surface area so that you do not sink into the snow, making traversing the terrain easier. Snowshoes should only be used on relatively flat areas as they offer little in the way of grip. As with crampons, learn how the wear them correctly prior to needing them.