Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t go hiking. We know for many people, once the snow flies, the natural inclination is to stay indoors more. Some of us enjoy hitting the slopes on skis or snowboard, but that of course requires a lift ticket or season pass…and sometimes really crowded conditions on the mountain. If exploring less-trafficked trails is more your speed and you enjoy hiking in the spring, summer and fall, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get out there in the winter too! But if you’re not used to hiking in colder temps and winter conditions, you may feel uncertain of how to prepare and where to start. Here are our best tips for getting the hang of this winter hiking thing.
Start Small & Keep it Local
Probably one of the most intimidating parts of winter hiking is choosing where to go. In most states, there are many trails to choose from and conditions will vary depending on what elevation you’re hiking at and whether or not the area has just received any fresh fallen snow. Unfortunately sometimes simply finding the time to research the best areas to go, as well as current conditions, can feel so daunting that people just don’t even go at all. That’s why we recommend keeping it local in the beginning. Start small and find some local trails close to your home and just go! You might find that the trails close to home may offer a whole different experience when hiked during the winter. Also keep in mind that winter driving conditions can be sketchy so staying local and avoiding a long drive to your hiking trail can definitely help you feel more comfortable. Here in Colorado, we love alpine hiking and backcountry trails, but in the winter, avalanches are a very real and dangerous threat. For those of us who live at lower elevations (for example here along Colorado’s Front Range) that likely means hiking in generally flatter terrain, which also usually equates to easier hiking. If however, trekking on flat terrain is a snore for you, even in the winter, you can elevate your experience by heading to hillier regions. Here in Colorado, that could be areas at the base of the foothills, such as Boulder, Fort Collins, Morrison and Golden or in and around the foothills communities of Evergreen, Conifer and Bailey. Any of these regions will give you slightly higher elevations and more of a challenge without having to drive deep into the mountains.
No, you don’t need to have top-of-the-line winter expedition gear to enjoy winter hiking. Rather than running out and dropping a bunch of moolah on brand-new high-end gear, just start with what you have—you’ll quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Okay, there are a few exceptions…hiking boots are definitely preferable to sneakers. If you don’t already own a pair of solid hiking boots, you’ll probably want to buy some first—waterproof boots are highly recommended. And if you do happen to already own a pair of micro spikes—it certainly wouldn’t hurt to bring those along. Micro spikes easily slip over your hiking shoes/boots and are especially useful for getting a grip on icy and hard, snow-packed trails. Brands we really like are Kahtoola and Yaktrax—both can be purchased at REI. Another item that is not a requirement but certainly helps is trekking poles. Even if you don’t normally hike with poles in the summer…they can be helpful in the winter because they help with stability and post holing (when your foot/leg sinks down into deeper areas of snow).
Layer, Layer, Layers
You’ve likely heard it a zillion times, but avoid wearing cotton and don’t opt for a heavy, thick coat. Your best bet, especially here in Colorado, is to dress in layers choosing moisture-wicking fabrics as your base layer and perhaps a fleece over that. Finally a waterproof and wind-proof jacket or insulated (but not too heavy) puffer jacket to finish will keep you warm and dry. (Do pack an extra layer in your backpack however as backup). Also be sure to bring gloves and a beanie to keep your hands and head warm.
Go Bigger With Your Backpack
Just as you want to be prepared for a long day-hike in the summer, you’ll definitely want to make sure you have a large enough pack to keep essentials for your winter hikes. Something that will hold extra socks and gloves, extra layers, an emergency blanket, hand warmers and micro spikes in addition to snacks, water and perhaps a warm beverage.
Bring snacks that you can eat while you hike. Stopping to eat will lower your body temperature and allows your sweat to cool so keep moving. Just as you would for summer hiking, snacks that are high in protein are best. It might be easy to think that you won’t get as thirsty hiking in the colder winter months, however you can especially work up a thirst and perhaps even more so during the winter as your body may be working harder to trek through the snow. So make sure to pack yourself plenty of water and possibly an electrolyte beverage to keep yourself hydrated. And while not essential, we highly recommend packing a thermos of a hot beverage for after your hike. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice hot apple cider or hot chocolate on a cold wintery day?
Check Forecast & Conditions
Finally before you head off to your winter hike, be sure to check the weather forecast for the region you’ll be hiking in. Remember, especially in winter, wind chill matters! And as always, let someone know where and when you are planning to hike.
As with most things in life—we learn by trial and error. So if your first time out hiking in the winter isn’t the most memorable, try adjusting your gear (and perhaps your mindset) and you’ll be on your way to becoming a more prepared and confident winter hiker. There’s no better time than the present to get outdoors and explore more! ~KM