Winter Hiking by Alton Eckel

Winter: when daylight is limited, temperatures are dangerously frigid, conditions are unpredictable, and some trailheads are not as accessible. It sounds more challenging, and in some ways is, but it’s my favorite season and worth the extra gear and preparation.


Winter conditions often begin in October and end in May, so proper research and packing are useful several months of the year. Most regions have a website for trail conditions and social media forums often have recent updates, as well. Knowing which roads are closed and require additional miles to walk/cross country ski, how high river crossings are, and which pieces of gear to bring aid in safety and reduce stress. 


In the winter I leave these items in my pack because they’re used often or for precautionary measures:


Extra Batteries (they drain faster in the cold)


Bivy/Space Blanket

Down Jacket


Extra Socks

Extra Mittens


Beyond the staples in my pack are things I plan for each individual hike. If I know a trail is well packed and does not have thick, consistent ice I generally will leave my snowshoes and crampons in my car. The only disclaimer here is if a region requires snowshoes by law such as in the Adirondack High Peaks. While I prefer Hillsound microspikes many people like the Kahtoola brand. Either microspike can often bite into most ice and without snow to break they work great for traction during a fast descent.


I hike ultralite year round whether I’m thru hiking or doing a 50 mile winter day. Personally, I am comfortable with the “less is more” mentality and this has come from trial and error hikes over the past few years where I determined a system that works best for me personally. I will describe what I do and then give some recommendations for safer alternatives, as well.


Clothing: I pack an extra base layer and wear a thin one to start. I have a lightweight hoodie I put over the base layer and then a midweight jacket for additional wind protection as needed. I typically don’t require more than this until the summit and have a hard or soft shell for the summit depending on temperatures and wind.  I wear two sets of leggings: a base layer that is Nike or Under Armour cold gear and then a colorful pair on top of that. For socks I double up on wool or Darn Tough mid calf height.


Footwear: I wear trail runners year round, although I do not recommend this.  While my LaSportiva Crossover GTX have a built in gaiter they are not completely waterproof and this can make one wrong move on a water crossing or deep trail breaking for several miles uncomfortable. I prefer this style, but also have Salomon Tundras for days that are -20 F. I find they’re easy to walk in and keep my feet dry and warm.


Face-wear: While I rarely wear goggles I do pack them for days with sustained winds over 40 mph when I will be exposed consistently. Generally I find sunglasses are enough for most winter days and help with sun-glare. I also pack a neck warmer and face mask for most hikes on frigid days. I usually wear hats in the winter to trap in the most heat, but sometimes even a thick headband works. I find that between a hat and putting my hood up I can remain warm (and also cannot hear a word my hiking partner says).


Hands: My hands are always cold. Even in summer I sometimes wear gloves, so this is where my style goes from minimal to overkill. I always have hand warmers with me and typically use them from the start of a hike. While Outdoor Research and a few other brands make heated gloves I find that hand warmers are the best at producing consistent and high heat to maintain dexterity. I use a cheap liner (even Walmart has $1 gloves that work) and then wear mittens so all of my fingers can feel the heat from the hand warmers. My two favorite pairs are currently Gordini and Herstra brand. Most people can wear just liners or thicker gloves for the entire hike, but I’m a wimp when it comes to my hands.


Pack:  My winter pack of choice is the Ultimate Direction fastpack 20 L. I am able to throw my keys in a zipped up pocket, a snack and sunglasses in the front, and some snacks in the side pockets which I can access while walking. The large compartment houses my layers well and folds down easily while on trail. Personally, the more pockets the less I can pack; I like one large compartment and then a spot for food. Simple, easy peasy.


Food and Hydration: I use a bladder all winter and  yes, it often freezes. I don’t use an insulated tube for it and instead blowback consistently after taking a sip and stick it down my shirt if the mouthpiece freezes. I find that if I don’t have a bladder I rarely drink and this can lead to a headache. The mouthpiece usually thaws within 2-5 minutes and even on -30 F days I have not had an issue. Other friends like to use bottles and sometimes put them upside down to prevent them from freezing on the mouthpiece. I also recommend wrapping them in a down jacket for extra insulation on cold days. In winter I don’t like to bring protein or meal bars because they’re often very hard to chew. I usually pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pretzels, Reeses, or a recent favorite: Skittles in a fun size pack (dump them all in your mouth and let them slowly become chewable for .1 mile).


Winter hiking is absolutely amazing! There are less people on the trails, you don’t roll your ankle on roots and rocks, the views are crisp, there aren’t any bugs, and it’s fun to be outdoors when it feels “dangerous”. With some research and trial and error your kit can be dialed in and you’re ready to take on any challenge out there. Happy hiking!


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