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Improve Your Winter Hiking Experience

Check out some tips on how to give your winter hiking packing list a refresh and a few things to keep in mind when packing or hiking to help make your time on trail more enjoyable.

Winter can often be an underappreciated hiking season. Yes, it’s colder and wetter, but there is something almost magical about hiking in the off-season. There is the quiet pitter-patter of rain bouncing off the forest canopy overhead. The sneaky views of snow-capped peaks through the bare branches. The quiet crunch of fallen leaves underfoot.

Two hikers having fun throwing snow in the air on the Skyline Lake trail. Photo by Iris Zacarias.
Winter hiking can be fun, but — unsurprisingly — cold and wet as well. Photo by Iris Zacarias.

What to pack for a fun winter hike

One way to make these cold-weather hikes a bit more enjoyable is to give your packing list a bit of a refresh. Adding in extra cold-weather gear and a few just-for-fun treats is a surefire way to have a great time.

Here are a few extras we like to bring along in the winter, along with a few things we like to keep in mind as we're hiking in cold winter conditions. 

Good Layers

Maintaining a comfortable body temperature can be tricky while hiking in the cold — you’ll warm up quickly while you’re moving, but start shivering as soon as you stop. A wool or synthetic baselayer is a great start to your layering system, along with a cozy mid-layer and protective outer layer. If you plan on taking an extended break at a viewpoint, consider bringing some extras like a foam sit pad to perch on and a packable blanket to wrap yourself up in.

Traction

Taking a tumble in the mud is not the way you want to start a hike. Rain and snow can create slick trails, so you might want to add additional traction to your hiking shoes. Depending on the conditions, traction devices might help. Trekking poles can also help keep you balanced.

Sun protection

Yes, you can get sunburnt in the wintertime. In fact, you can get more sunburnt in winter! Sunlight reflects off the snow, which means on a sunny snow hike, you’ll be getting lots of sun exposure from both above and below. Make sure to pack sunscreen and apply it not only to the typical places like on your ears and face, but also places the sun could hit you from below, like the inside of your nose and bottom of your chin.

And pack a pair of sunglasses or ski goggles if it’s very sunny and you’ll be out for a while — the sun reflecting off the snow can be blinding (and could even sunburn your eyes!), and you’ll want to be able to enjoy the view.

Extra Batteries

Low temps will zap your batteries fast, even if you're just out for the day. If you use a phone for photos or navigation, pack an external power bank and cord. Extra headlamp batteries are a good idea too. Keeping your electronics close by — like in your chest pocket — will help them stay a bit warmer while you hike.

Extra Fuel

Planning to use your stove? Pack some extra fuel, since cold temperatures will likely require more fuel to boil water. Plus, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan if you rely on your water filter in very cold temperatures, and a stove will allow you to melt snow and sanitize it at the same time. 

A toasty Drink

Bring something yummy to sip on that will warm you from the inside out, like coffee, tea or cocoa. Or take a page our of WTA's playbook and pack a thermos of hot broth — it provides a nice bit of savory flavor while packing some much-needed electrolytes.

A journal

Trails see a fraction of their usual visitors in the winter, so it's easy to find solitude if you seek it. If you enjoy sketching, writing or watercoloring, pack along a journal and take advantage of those quiet trails.

Hiker (Niki Frumkin - Drawn to High Places) making watercolor art while eating food out of a pot. Photo by Sarina Clark.
Grab the journal, art supplies, canvas — you'll likely find some quiet time for art or writing while on the trail in winter. Photo by Sarina Clark.

Treats

This can't be emphasized enough. Gummy bears, peanut butter cups, a Taco Bell quesadilla — whatever you love eating, pack it! It will make the summit so much sweeter if you know you have a treat waiting for you in your bag. 

4 things to consider for safe, comfortable winter hikes

And make sure to keep these things in mind while you're out winter hiking too!

Falling objects

Don’t forget to look up! As snow and ice accumulate on tree branches, you could be the unlucky victim of a cold and soaking-wet head. And, even worse, branches weighed down by snow could break off a tree, especially dead trees, which could cause serious injury. Make sure you’ve got an eye on what’s above you, even if you’re admiring the snowy landscape. 

Frozen Drinking water

If the temperature is below freezing, don’t underestimate how quickly your water reserves can freeze, especially if you’re at higher elevations. Narrower parts of your water reserve system, like bottlenecks or bladder hoses, can freeze even more quickly. Residual water in the threads of your bottleneck could freeze, causing the cap to be impossible to twist open. In any of these cases, you won’t be able to reach your water, which is clearly not a good thing. 

Even if you choose to forgo the toasty drink we mentioned above, it may be worth it to bring an insulated bottle of hot or warm water. You can drink that if your water does freeze, or you can use it to thaw out your frozen bottleneck or bladder hose. You can also consider bringing water bottles with wider mouths, so it’s less likely the opening will freeze.

Broken water filters or bottles

As you may know, water expands when it freezes. If your water bottle is completely full in freezing weather, there’s a possibility it could crack your water bottle (and will likely freeze the cap onto the bottle). 

Many water filters will break entirely if they ever freeze because the water trapped inside expands to crack filter filaments, which means that even though you can’t see the damage, you’ll need to replace your filter. Keep your water filter close to your body if you’re hiking in near-freezing temperatures, and sleep with it in your sleeping bag if you’re camping.

Spotty Satellite signal

Winter is rife with gloomy gray clouds in the Pacific Northwest, which can block the transmission of satellite signals. Satellite communication devices often require a clear view of the sky to send out messages, so be aware that if you’re planning to communicate with the outside world using your satellite device, it can take much longer to send out messages via your device depending on how heavy the cloud cover is.