How To Choose Winter Hiking Gear?

Isn’t winter the off season when it comes to hiking? No, but it requires some research and extra caution to choose the right trails that you can safely complete in winter. Also, it requires the right clothes and gear for winter hiking. So what to wear when hiking in winter? And what other accessories do you need? Your answer to these questions determine whether your hike will be a potentially dangerous struggle, or an exciting exploration in Winter Wonderland.

How to choose your winter hiking trail is an important topic, but also very long. If you’re a beginner, stick to the beaten track, start with popular, shorter winter hikes recommended by park rangers or locals. If you’re an experienced winter hiker, do your research about the area, the terrain and weather conditions, carry proper emergency gear, and follow advice from local hiking communities. People know their mountains. In any case, keep avalanche danger in mind – not only in winter, but in spring, too.

The most important rule for any winter hike

High Tatras, Slovakia

We all know the saying “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. In this post we’ll focus on choosing the right winter hiking clothes and accessories. The goal is: keep yourself dry and warm, in that order. Surprised? Well, being a little cold is unpleasant. But being wet is downright dangerous. Water conducts heat away from your body more quickly than cold air, so you’ll get very cold soon. And still wet. And even more cold. It can lead to hypothermia.

Okay, obvious, so let’s just stay dry. But in order to do that don’t forget to consider that snow, ice or rain is not the only way to get wet. The other way is sweating. Right, overdressing is just as bad as underdressing. Once you’re not physically active, your sweat will quickly chill you to the bone. So to prevent that let’s see the basics of the cold weather hiking layering system. Because here’s another important word you should never forget: layers! 😉

Cold weather hiking layering basics

Winter hiking in the Swiss Alps

Layering is important, because your activity level is not the same during the hike. You don’t need to be dressed as warm for a steep uphill climb as for a leisurely section, and you definitely need extra warmth when marvelling at the views from the peak or hiking on a ridge exposed to crazy wind. The point of layered clothing is to be able to adjust your layers to match your current needs so that you won’t become cold, neither overheated.

Also, you want to choose your winter hiking outfit in a way that it can be used in a wide range of temperatures, precipitation types or wind speeds. Layering is key in achieving this.

Base layer

Start with a base layer. It should be soft, cozy and moisture-wicking. The best materials are synthetics or merino wool as they wick away moisture, and the material to avoid is cotton as it takes a long time to dry.

Wear two base layers in extreme cold conditions.

Mid-layer

Then comes the mid-layer which provides insulation. There are lots of options: fleece jackets, pullovers, wool sweaters, vests or a light puffy jacket. Ideally, this layer should never get wet, so being waterproof is not a requirement. However, if you have a water-resistant mid-layer, you don’t need to put your waterproof shell on in case of light rain or snow. Waterproof shells are not good at breathability so many hikers avoid wearing them as long as they can.

Waterproof shell

The last layer is the outer shell, also called waterproof shell, hardshell jacket or technical shell jacket. It keeps wind and moisture out. It doesn’t have built-in insulation, but it shields you from wind, rain and snow and traps the heat to keep you warm. On a calm, sunny day, you might not need to wear it at all, but it’s important to have it with you all the time.

Make sure it has zipper vents to prevent overheating and an adjustable hood to protect your head. It should also be roomy enough to go over your base and mid-layer.

Hike to Niederbauen Chulm, Swiss Alps

Adjust your layers when you need to!

Once you have it all, there’s still an important thing to do: take off layers when you start to sweat, and put them on when you get cold. It can feel like a chore to stop and adjust your layers, especially if you hike on terrain with a lot of variation in elevation, and you need to do it frequently, but that’s the way to stay dry and comfortable. Just do it. 🙂

The essential winter day hiking gear list

From head to toe:

  • beanie
  • neck gaiter or scarf
  • base layer top
  • mid-layer top
  • waterproof outer shell / waterproof jacket
  • gloves / mittens
  • winter hiking pants: a base layer and an outer layer
  • wool socks
  • shoe gaiters
  • waterproof hiking boots
  • microspikes or crampons (if needed)

Useful accessories to pack:

  • polarized sunglasses so that the snow won’t blind you on a sunny day
  • sunscreen so that the sunlight reflecting from snow won’t burn your skin (it easily can!)
  • lip balm and lotion to protect your mouth and exposed skin
  • insulated water bottle so that your water won’t freeze – or your tea stays warm (forget the hydration systems for winter, their hoses freeze up)
  • trekking poles to help with balance, especially in the slippery snow
  • first aid kit
  • navigation tool: map, compass, GPS device etc.

To make longer hikes safer and more comfortable:

  • insulated food jar so that you can carry soups, stews or any kind of hot meal
  • hand and toe warmers to give you extra warmth for about 8 hours
  • extra pair of socks and gloves
  • headlamp with extra batteries in case your hike takes longer and darkness falls (use lithium batteries, they are resistant to cold temperatures)
  • emergency shelter – emergency bivvy or sleeping bag – in order to prevent hypothermia if you are immobilized (especially if you hike alone)
  • fire starting materials

To carry everything: a day pack

Beanies

A warm beanie adds to your feeling of warmth, but choose a lightweight one which won’t make you sweat either.

Minus33 Merino Wool Ridge Cuff Wool Beanie

Merino wool is a great material for the outdoors, because it’s soft, extremely comfortable and breathable, but also keeps you warm. This Minus33 beanie is 100% merino wool, machine washable, unisex and a one size fits (almost) all. It’s available in a range of colors.

Columbia Whirlibird Watch Cap Beanie

This one is a 100% acrylic, hand wash only beanie. Acrylic has the advantage of keeping its shape and color, and being resistant to wrinkles. Wool definitely beats it when it comes to breathability, but it’s extremely lightweight. It’s also a great option for people who are allergic to wool or have very sensitive skin. This Columbia Whirlibird Watch Cap Beanie is minimalistic and unisex, and keeps your head toasty on cold days.

Neck gaiters

Wool or synthetic materials are the best for neck gaiters or scarves, as well. You can also use them to protect your face in harsh wind.

BUFF Adult Lightweight Merino Wool Multifunctional Headwear and Face Mask

This hand wash only, 100% merino wool piece is wearable in 10+ different ways, including a neck gaiter, a face mask, a beanie or balaclava. It’s lightweight, and you can use it in any season.

Original Turtle Fur Fleece Heavyweight Neck Warmer

If you prefer a more heavyweight neck gaiter that you can also use for skiing or snowboarding, or just in extreme cold, this machine washable, fleece neck warmer from the Turtle Fur Store is a bestelling item for a reason. It does its job well, keeping you warm and cozy. It might not be very fashionable, but below certain temperatures, there are more important things than style.

Base layer tops

Long sleeve jerseys are the most typical, made of wool or synthetic materials. But you might prefer long underwear, just make sure it’s not cotton.

Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer Crew for Women

This 100% merino wool base layer is breathable, soft and odor-resistant, and Colorado-based Smartwool is known for quality products and expertise in outdoors clothing.

Thermajane Women’s Long Johns

We don’t really like long underwear, but prefer base layer tops and leggings. But it’s that: a personal preference. This poly-spandex thermal underwear set is moisture-wicking, breathable, stretchy and loved by many. It’s perfect to wear as a base layer in case you won’t need to take your next layer off – but even if you do, they don’t look like pyjamas. 🙂 So it’s really up to you.

Smartwool Men’s Merino 250 Pattern Crew Base Layer

This is the men’s version of the 100% merino wool Smartwool base layer. It regulates body temperature and resists odor, and it’s a useful piece for your winter wardrobe in general.

Thermajohn Men’s Long Johns

Thermajohn’s poly-spandex thermal underwear set is the men’s version for long underwear, and it’s a popular choice not just for hiking, but for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing or just everyday winter wear. The material is moisture-wicking, breathable and stretchy, so it’s comfortable and allows free movement.

Mid-layer tops

There are many options – like fleece jackets, wool sweaters, pullovers, softshell jackets or down jackets. Which one works best for you depends on your preference, hiking habits and also the weather on that particular day. A lightweight fleece might be enough on a warmer, calm day, but you better have a down jacket for extreme cold.

Should your mid-layer have a hood or not? Again, it depends. If you wear it with an outer layer that has a hood, anyway, two hoods might be too cumbersome. But if you often wear it as an outer layer, you might prefer having a hood for extra protection.

Women’s fleece jacket: Columbia Benton Springs

A simple, soft, budget-friendly option from a tried-and-true brand. Not enough in extreme cold weather, but can be great for the average cold weather day hike.

Women’s synthetic jacket: The North Face Thermoball

A durable, packable, warm synthetic jacket. It can’t compete with a high-quality down jacket, but it imitates it well enough, both for look and feel. The ThermoBall technology uses small round clusters of PrimaLoft thermal fibers to trap heat within small air pockets to retain warmth.

Women’s down jacket: Mountain Hardwear Women’s Ghost Whisperer/2

This 800-fill power down jacket from Mountain Hardwear is one of the most lightweight down jackets. It has a great warmth-to-weight ratio and it’s easily packable. You can use it as a standalone jacket on dry days, and it even offers some wind and water resistance. But you definitely need an outer shell for protection in heavy rain or snow.

Men’s fleece jacket: Columbia Steens Mountain

Probably the most budget-friendly mid-layer option is this simple Columbia Steens Mountain fleece jacket. There are better quality, more durable or more technical mid-layers, but very often the everyday winter hiker won’t need them. Made of 100% polyester, this fleece is soft, relatively warm and offered in many sizes and colors.

Men’s softshell jacket: Arc’teryx Gamma LT Jacket Men’s

Arc’teryx is a quality brand, but an expensive one, too. This weather resistant, stretchy softshell jacket offers a versatile usage and a balance between breathability and warmth. With that said, it’s not very warm, it’s the best for more intensive hiking days. But when temperatures are not in the extreme, it can function well as a standalone jacket, thanks to its water resistance.

Men’s down jacket: Mountain Hardwear Men’s Ghost Whisperer/2

The 800-fill power Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 is similar to the women’s version in features. It offers incredible warmth for the weight, it’s lightweight and easy to pack. It even offers a limited water and wind resistance, but this is not the strength of down jackets, so it’s not suitable as a standalone wear in truly wet weather.

Waterproof shells

Now comes the third layer: the winter hiking jacket, right? Uhm, not really. This third layer is actually a 4-season hardshell jacket. It’s highly waterproof, windproof and durable to give you protection against the harshest conditions any time of the year. It doesn’t provide insulation, and it shouldn’t, that’s the layer below. It’s really the outermost protective layer to keep moisture out and block wind. With that said, a hood is a requirement here.

Year-round Gore-Tex Shell for Men &Women: Mountain Hardwear Women’s Exposure/2 & Mountain Hardwear Men’s Exposure/2

Gore-tex technology is a rare treasure as the Gore-tex membrane is both waterproof and breathable which is the best combination for a rain jacket. It keeps you dry from the outside and the inside. The Mountain Hardwear Exposure/2 Gore-tex jacket is lightweight, affordable, suitable for alpine conditions and can be used all year.

It comes with an integrated adjustable hood and two zip pockets. The latter is especially useful in winter so that you can easily pack away your gloves or beanie when not needed. Cuffs are adjustable with velcro.

Premium Year-round Gore-Tex Shell for Men & Women: Arc’teryx Beta AR (women | men)

Arc’teryx is an expensive brand, but their jackets perform and fit well. Beta AR is a great year-round jacket, it withstands alpine conditions, and it’s suitable even for winter backcountry hiking. It’s excellent – a good choice if you’re an avid hiker, but maybe too much, if you usually do quick, short hikes.

Gloves and mittens

Are you team Gloves, or team Mittens? Gloves are more comfortable when you need to use your hands, but mittens provide more warmth. The good news is that there’s a hybrid approach: a thin glove liner with a waterproof, windproof mitten shell.

Waterproof winter mittens

It’s weatherproof and designed for winter outdoor sport activities. It comes with wrist securing straps and an adjustable wrist buckle.

Outdoor Research Men’s Arete Gloves

GORE-TEX, waterproof, insulated – this is a proper winter glove, suitable for the harshest conditions. GORE-TEX is famous for excellent water protection, and the 100-weight fleece insulation provides warmth and functions as a removable liner for milder days.

Black Diamond Windweight Fleece Convertible Mittens

If you don’t want a separate pair of liners and a pair of mittens to take care of, these convertible mittens could be a great choice for you. The downside? When you don’t use it as a mitten, it’s a fingerless glove. If your hands get cold easily (like mine), you won’t like them.

Winter hiking pants

Okay, so let’s talk about layering again. There’s the base layer, insulation layer and the waterproof outer shell, and we all know how important it is to adjust layers when needed. However, this system of three doesn’t work that well for your legs and butt. They’re in motion, so you usually get overheated in so many layers.

A layering system of two often works better: a base layer that can be running thighs, hiking leggings or long underwear, and an outer layer that can vary depending on the weather. Insulated pants or snow pants are great in extreme cold, hardshell pants with full-side zips are best in wet and windy weather and softshell pants offer more breathability on milder days. Check out our detailed guide to winter hiking pants to find the pair that fits you the best!

Base layer leggings: Icebreaker Merino Comet Tights

Merino wool is a popular material among outdoor lovers, and also among outdoor brands. It’s warm and breathable, and it’s even odor-resistant. This soft, stretchy merino wool-polyester-lycra legging performs well in chilly weather, and it can function as a heavyweight baselayer in extreme cold weather.

Waterproof hardshell pants: MARMOT Precip Waterproof Full-zip Pant (men | women)

This lightweight, waterproof and windproof shell is a great addition to your collection of cold weather hiking pants, but it’s even more: an essential for hiking in poor weather year-round. Breathability is not its strength, but it also means that it provides some warmth even without insulation. It excels in wet conditions in any season, and folds up easily so that you can stash it into your day pack for any hike.

An outer shell like this should come with full-width side zippers, because you want to pull them on without taking your shoes off when needed. Check.

Insulated snow pants: Columbia Bugaboo IV Pants (men | women)

This is a warm, affordable pair of winter pants that can be used for many outdoor activities. It’s waterproof, and it has built-in insulation and gaiters. Its breathability is not the best, but it’s comfortable and ideal for extreme cold when paired with a cozy base layer.

Wool socks

Do you think a pair of socks is just a pair of socks, what’s the big deal? I do, too, but not when it comes to hiking. I’m picky about my hiking socks, and it’s quite reasonable. You walk a lot, you feel the difference. For winter footwear make sure that there’s plenty of space in your boots, because a bit of movement with your toes increases blood circulation, and helps keep your feet warm.

Darn tough socks

Looking for the best AND cutest hiking socks? We found it for you. 🙂 This lightweight, comfy pair of Merino wool-nylon cushioned hiking socks are extremely comfortable and come with a lifetime guarantee. Oh, yes, and you can choose from cute patterns.

Shoe gaiters

You need them if you hike through deep snow, and their job is to keep the snow out of your boots. They should be waterproof, and if you buy them for the winter, it’s good if they have some insulation, too, to give extra warmth to your leg below your knee.

Outdoor Research Men’s Crocodile Gaiters (women | men)

An expensive, but bullet-proof pair of gaiters. 100% nylon, waterproof, windproof, breathable, abrasion-resistant. Hike through snow or snowmelt, cross icy rivers, and you don’t need to worry. It does the job, and excellently. The downside? Pricey.

Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Low Gaiters

A more lightweight and affordable version from Outdoor Research. This gaiter is abrasion- and water-resistant, and suitable for any outdoor sport activity.

Waterproof hiking boots

Do you actually need winter hiking boots? Not necessarily. Especially if you are about to start winter hiking and need to invest in a number of gears, you can save a bit (a lot, actually!) on the boots. All you need is waterproof hiking boots, and you can use the same pair year-round, with a thicker pair of socks in winter.

Of course, winter hiking boots offer more. They’re insulated, and their material doesn’t harden at low temperatures. The higher you hike, the pricier your suitable pair of winter boots get. 🙂 But winter means different conditions based on your location. 200-gram insulation is enough down to about 0°C (about 30 Fahrenheit), but you need at least 400-gram insulation below -15°C (about 0 Fahrenheit).

Choosing the right winter hiking boots is a large topic by itself that would deserve its own article. Here, we simply highlight a few options for regular and extreme cold temperatures.

Best budget-friendly winter boots: Kamik Women’s Momentum 3 & Kamik Men’s Nationplus

If you want a proper pair of winter hiking boots, but don’t want to spend a fortune on them, these Kamik boots for both men and women are good options. They have 200g, removable Thinsulate insulation which is reasonably warm, and you can make it even warmer with thick socks. The material is a leather and thick rubber combination for the men’s version (NationPlus), and a nylon upper and rubber for the women’s model (Momentum) – waterproof in both cases.

It doesn’t stand out in any category, but it’s sufficient in each, especially for this affordable price.

For hiking in extreme cold: The North Face Chilkat Insulated Boot (women | men)

These are great waterproof winter boots, suitable for quite cold winters with 400 g PrimaLoft Silver Insulation. They provide good traction, comfort and warmth for quite a good price. You can consider sizing up, but they’re heavily padded and insulated on the inside, so you don’t really need thick socks.

Colorado, Midwest, Saskatchewan or Alaska winter hiking? Check, check, check, check. It might not keep your feet toasty when standing still for hours, but it does what it’s made for: keep your feet cozy while hiking.

Microspikes, crampons or snowshoes

Again, you might not need them. But you need to be able to decide whether you do and which one, so let’s talk a bit about that first.

The goal in each case is to give you good traction and prevent slips on snow or ice. Well, snowshoes are a bit of an exception, since they’re not really traction gear, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Because each of these three gears are meant for specific conditions.

Microspikes

Microspikes are somewhat like snow chains for your tyres. They’re chains with small spikes and should be placed around your existing footwear. They’re meant for relatively flat or low-angle icy surfaces or packed snow.

If you usually hike on not too steep, busier trails in winter, you’re good with microspikes. You often don’t even need microspikes. If the trail is well-worn and not too icy, you might be good in your boots. Microspikes definitely add weight to your feet, so wear them only if you feel the need. Otherwise, just have them with you, they’re small and easy to carry.

Kahtoola MICROspikes

These Kahtoola microspikes are good quality and easy to use. You’ll have twelve stainless-steel spikes per foot – eight at the forefoot, four at the heel to ensure good traction on icy terrain.

Crampons

Originally, crampons were designed for ice climbing. They’re foot frames that are also fastened to existing footwear, but their spikes are larger than the microspikes. They’re meant to be used on steep, icy slopes and for technical mountaineering or ice climbing, of course.

Some crampons require special boots, but many can be attached to any regular hiking boots.

Hillsound Trail Crampon

The Hillsound Trail Crampons have eleven carbon steel 2/3 inch spikes to be able to grip into ice or packed snow. You can put them on to your running shoes, hiking boots or insulated boots with an elastomer harness. They give much better traction than microspikes but are not as heavyweight as other crampons meant for more technical use.

Snowshoes

Snowshoes are a bit like skis. They don’t give you traction, rather help you float on the snow. They’re meant to be used in powdery or deep snow on relatively flat terrain. If you hike on less traveled trails or after a heavy snowfall, a pair of snowshoes is your friend. Also, there are many trails that are specifically dedicated for snowshoeing. For this reason, we won’t write more about it here. Strictly speaking, it’s not hiking, but another kind of winter activity, though the boundaries are sometimes not so obvious.

Check out a variety of them here!

How to choose your winter day pack?

Finally, you need a backpack where all your layers, snacks and water can fit. The size depends on the length of your hike, but even a typical, 4-6 hours long day hike requires a 20-30 litres backpack as winter layers take up space. However, be careful not to choose a backpack that’s too large for your needs, because we noticed that we tend to fill the space and pack any backpack full. 😀

It’s good to have external attachment points, too, to attach microspikes, crampons or snacks.

Deuter Speed Lite Unisex Hiking Backpack

Deuter is a popular brand for a reason. Their backpacks are practical and ergonomic, and this 20 l unisex backpack is ideal for the average winter day hike. It’s easy to use even with gloves, and compression straps allow you to make this lightweight pack even more compact.

6 smart tips for a smoother winter hike

Simple and useful, these tips make your winter mountain hiking safer and more pleasant.

  1. This might sound ridiculous, but: eat and drink enough. If it’s cold and windy outside, and you’re not tempted to stop and sit down for a picnic, you can easily forget about it. It’s practical to keep your snacks and water within easy reach, so you can have a few bites on the way.
  2. With that said, put your bottles in your backpack rather than into exterior pockets so that they will be insulated from the cold – or buy an insulated bottle carrier.
  3. Avoid wearing clothes that are too tight. They cause poor circulation, and you’ll get cold more easily.
  4. We all know that it’s easier to stay warm than to get warm. Adjust your layers so that you’re comfortable any time.
  5. Protect your skin. Extreme cold and chilly winds can cause frostbites, so cover your fingers, ears, cheeks and nose.
  6. To treat a mild frostbite, warm the affected area slowly, then cover the exposed skin. Avoid hot water or rubbing the injured skin. Hand and toe warmers can be effective though.

Do you still need encouragement to go for a winter hike?

Swiss Alps

Packing the proper clothes and adjusting your layers might not sound that exciting, and I understand that. I enjoy summer, too, when all I need is a light pair of pants and a T-shirt. (Already not true, at least not in the high mountains.) But winter has some advantages. Like no crowds on the trails. No bugs. And magical snowy landscapes. What are you waiting for?

Disclosure: Please note that affiliate links are used in this post, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. If you are ready to book your trip and would like to support this website in some way, here’s your chance. Thank you! 🙂


200+ Travel Tips For Hungary

Get our free e-book and join the community!

Want to find a place for travel in your life? Want to find your happy places – and happy trails? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter where we share insider tips, updates and more. Get our e-book with all the tips you need before visiting Hungary as a first gift.

 

Travel tips and resources
It takes effort and careful planning to get the most out of your vacation days each year. We help you with complete travel itineraries, based on our own experiences. See them here! Give travel experiences as a gift with Tinggly.
Traveling with kids?
We believe that travel is not only possible, but it’s fun with a kid, and helps strengthen our bonds through experiences and challenges that we get through together. Read our family travel tips and destination specific guides here!

By Beata Urmos

Bea is the co-founder of Our Wanders. She’s the writer and the trip organizer, and she’d love to help you plan your own amazing trips! She likes hiking, good novels and chocolate, as well. Her motto is: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” (John A. Shedd)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.