Children of Terra

A new generation, for a better world.


10 Tips for Winter Hiking

Posted on November 19, 2018 at 1:50 PM

I know a lot of us Ohioans aren’t super thrilled about the weather lately. It’s been cold, rainy, snowy, and all around messy. While it may still be fall, we’ve had some pretty rough winter weather already, with plenty more on its way. Just because it might not look great outside your window doesn’t mean the snow hasn’t added an element of beauty to the natural world, though! Winter hiking, while challenging, can give way to some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful scenes you may experience in your lifetime. I’ve spent around a decade or so doing winter hikes for my photography, and have learned a lot both from experience and from talking to seasoned pros. Here, I’d like to share some tips for winter hiking to make the experience much more enjoyable!

-Layered up!

Dressing in layers is crucial to a comfortable winter hike. While you should generally stick to the theme of the inside layers for warmth, and to outside layers for waterproofing, you should also make sure that the inside layer can help control or wick away sweat. I usually dress for weather a bit colder than what I’m anticipating for two reasons, the first of which is simply that it’s better to be safe than sorry. The second reason is that you may encounter areas colder than expected on your hike. Being down in a gorge, along the shores of a pond or lake, or even just in an open field can influence the temperature and wind chill you’ll experience. The best part about dressing in layers, though? If you get too warm, you can just strip a layer or two off! Just be sure to keep the outside layer water-proofed!

-Don’t go off the beaten path

Ok, look….. I know we encourage exploration quite a bit, but it needs to be safe exploration. During the summer, even the popular off-trail sites can be hazardous. Just look at the near-yearly rescues required around popular off-trail swimming holes and hangouts. Now think about how dangerous those hazards can become when they are covered in ice, hidden by a blanket of snow, or both! A snowy surface that appears flat can have dips and holes hiding under the snow. A shallow-looking frozen stream may be hiding a raging river under the ice sheets. Unless you’re with an expert or guide, it’s best to just stay on the paths. Besides, it’s probably better for the fragile ecosystems surrounding most trails.

-Go big or go home isn’t the best idea during the winter.

A lot of us enjoy long summer hikes, completing 15-mile long loops or trails in a few hours with relative ease (excluding periods of extreme heat). During winter, however, things tend to take a bit longer. The snow covering the trails tends to slow us down. Beyond that, it takes a lot more physical effort to traverse trails covered in snow, rather than the clear paths we enjoy during the warmer months. Sometimes you may need to find somewhere to stop to warm up for a few minutes, or need to find an alternate route due to snow or ice blockages. Basically, start on easier and shorter trails and work your way up as you become more comfortable with winter hiking.

-Get an early start

We’ve already mentioned a few things about winter hiking that can slow you down or cause you to have to take a longer route, but the biggest thing to keep in mind is the shortness of the day. During the summer, you’ll have anywhere from 12-14 hours of daylight to hike in, depending on your location. During the winter, that window shrinks to about 8-10 hours. This window could be even smaller depending on whether conditions. As it gets darker, it becomes more difficult to see where you’re going and to be able to see hazards in your path. It’s not just the visibility issues, though! Temperatures usually drop at night without the warmth of the sun, and you may find yourself out in the dark and out in the cold! I like to start my winter hikes within an hour of the sun coming up. Not only will this give you plenty of time to adventure, but the early morning sun usually provides a beautiful glow along the snowy landscapes that just takes your breath away.

-Pack for “in case of emergency” situations.

Whether you are hiking in winter or summer, fair weather or bad, long trail or short, you should always be carrying some basics with you in case of an emergency. My bag always has at least a basic first aid kit, sharp pocket knife, trail maps specific to where I’m hiking as well as some surrounding areas, waterproof fire-starting supplies, a hand-crank light, and an emergency radio. In all honesty, the last few years and emergency cell phone charger (solar or mini-turbine) has also been a mainstay in my hiking pack. During the winter, there are a few more items that should be added to your pack. Make sure you have something to keep warm (emergency blankets, parkas, sleeping bags, etc.) should you end up in a situation where you must stay in the area overnight. I also recommend keeping emergency handwarmers and (if possible) a self-warming beverage in your pack, as they can both provide a good mental boost and bit of physical respite in a bad situation.

-Plan ahead

This seems pretty obvious, but you’d be amazed at how often people don’t plan their hikes before going off all willy-nilly and ending up in a bad situation. I know, because I’ve done it more times than I’d like to admit. Be sure to check the weather often before the trip, and one last time just before departing. And don’t just check the temperature or whether it’s going to snow or not. Wind chill and wind speed, precipitation amount and speed, avalanche risk, and visibility should all be taken seriously into account. Make sure you’re going to be properly dressed, equipped, and geared up ahead of time. If need be, make a checklist to go over while packing and again just before departing to be certain that you don’t leave anything important behind. Establish who in your group (if anyone) will be carrying what pieces of gear or equipment to avoid confusion later. While some unexpected situations may come up during your hike, planning as much as possible ahead can help you avoid bad or potentially dangerous situations.

-Be ready for the ice

While a lot of hiking shoes and boots are amazing for wet rocks, muddy trails, and slick paths, they may not be the best thing to cross a sheet of ice in. Make sure you have footwear designed for the ice and snow to help avoid injuring yourself slipping. If you decide to try crampons instead of specialized winter footwear, be sure you learn how to use them and take it slow. The ranger that first taught me how to use crampons told me treat them like they were ice skates once on. One misstep, and a serious injury could occur. Another accessory that might be worth looking into are hiking sticks. They will not only help distribute the effort of trudging through the snow more evenly on your body, but they are great to help stabilize you in slippery situations as well as to test potential hazards in your path.

-More fun with friends!

We really shouldn’t have to tell you this, but we will. Hiking with friends can not only make it more fun and help reduce some of the mental stress of the journey, but it helps provide more bodies to carry all of the gear, potentially lightening the load for everyone. Even better, there can be safety in numbers. If something goes wrong and you’re alone, who will help you or go get help? If you have any friends with more experience hiking in the winter, bring them along, too! Their knowledge may be a key part of a successful hike.

-Stay hydrated and bring some snacks!

This seems like a basic tip for any hike, but they are especially important in the winter. While a colder environment in and of itself doesn’t necessarily make you burn more calories and moisture, there are a few factors during the winter that will. Shivering will cause your body to use more energy, as will the weight of the extra clothing needed to keep warm. It’s important to keep a drink that is insulated against the cold, so it doesn’t freeze. It’s also important to keep at least a few snacks with you, such as protein or energy bars.

-Be aware of cold-related illness or injury

It’s extremely important to understand the extra risks involved with winter hiking. The two most prominent dangers are frost-bite and hypothermia. Be sure to study and develop a comprehensive understanding of these and other cold-related conditions and their symptoms before undertaking a winter hike. Knowing the difference between being cold and the beginning stages of hypothermia or frost bite can save your life and your limbs!

I could probably write a book about the many, many things I’ve learned from hiking in the winter, but these are really what I view as the ten most important, so long as you’re not taking on a massive journey or high-skilled trail. What tips do you have for winter hiking? What kinds of hazards have you encountered during your snowy adventures? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! The more knowledge we all have, the more we can all safely enjoy our winter hikes!

CJ w/ Children of Terra-NEO


Time and Date-Solstice

Astronomical Applications Department of the U.S. Naval Observatory-Daylight/Darkness Calculator

Active-Fueling for Cold Weather Excersize

Backpacker-Layering For Winter

Walking and Hiking-The Environmental Impact of Hiking

Mayo Clinic-Frostbite

Mayo Clinic-Hypothermia


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