The Complete Guide to Winter Hiking
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Dear Outdoor Asian family
Winter is perhaps the most challenging season for many of us, indeed for most of life in the temperate regions of our little planet. Trees lose their flamboyance, in favor of a hardier form; animals burrow into a deep sleep, and those that remain vigilant engage in a brutal search for sustenance - a daily desperation in the face of nature's unflinching ways; and humans, well, we eat a lot and get a little chubbier!
On today's entry for the Outdoor Asian Blog, Daniel Kim (hiker, mountaineer, and exotic fish 🐠 collector pictured above) graces us with a tome of material covering the A-B-C's of hiking during the winter time: a welcome reminder that it is possible get out and active during the colder months. As always, please be vigilant of your area's specific regulations on venturing outside during the pandemic.
With that, pour yourself a steep brew of tea, and let's get to it!
❄️ ❄️ ❄️
The Complete Guide to Winter Hiking
Daniel Kim (he/him pronouns)
As nature blesses the landscape with life-giving rain in the Pacific Northwest during the winter months, many avid outdoor enthusiasts are also blessed with beautiful snowy landscapes, cooling winds, and smaller crowds on the trail. While hiking in the winter is not as easy as putting on a simple day pack and some shorts like the summer, an extra bit of preparedness goes a long way (which is why we are all here, right?)
Learn how to make hiking an all year round activity by wearing the appropriate clothing and footwear as well as bringing the necessary gear to have a safe trip. Topics covered in this guide are discussed in order as follows:
Accessories Packing List
The Rules of the Road
The type of clothing you wear is always essential whether hiking with a wide brimmed hat in the summer in shorts or bundled up in gore-tex and waterproof boots in the winter. While there may be slight variations between a rainy hike and a snowy hike, the gear needed is generally the same in the Pacific Northwest.
The most important aspects of clothes for winter hiking are knowing your comfort level and heat management. Usually, this requires multiple trips for experimentation and fine tuning your comfort level. Ask yourself, “Do you usually hike cold or hot?” This changes the thickness of clothes you require and your activity level depending on how much you sweat.
Proper material for clothes
The unfortunate fact is that there is not much in the market that is 100% breathable, waterproof, and dry. Cotton is a great material to wear on a dry, sunny day but it retains moisture and is unsuitable for wet and/or cold conditions. Down is also a high performance, lightweight material that can keep you warm, and it does not perform well when wet. Wear a rain shell when wearing down or manage your sweat by doing a low-exertion activity. Being warm and a little damp on the inside from sweat is much preferred over being soaked to the bone and cold. Here are a few materials for clothing to take into consideration.
Nylon and Polyester. These synthetic materials are found in most rain jackets and with their tight weave pattern and coatings, they act as a great barrier for rain. However, with heavy rain or long periods of decent rain, the material can let in some water.
PVC-coated Polyester. While amazing at keeping the rain from touching your body, it also does an amazing job of retaining the sweat from your body as well. PVC-coated polyester can be a good option if you tend to not sweat much during hikes or if you’re doing a low energy activity.
Gore-Tex. A patented material from the 70s, you can find this often on labels of outdoor clothing. While good, it is not as “breathable” as marketed. Gore-Tex is great at keeping wind away.
Unfortunately, there is not much in terms of sustainability for waterproof material. However a few outdoor companies have started using sustainably-harvested, natural rubber as a coating for rain equipment so look towards those. Another thing to look towards might be recycled nylon. But overall, follow the 3 R’s. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Look for second hand items (although they might require applying waterproofing sprays or waxes) and garage sales.
Suggest Packing List:
Depending on your cold resistance and length of hair, you may go from wearing a beanie to a buff. The current trend nowadays is a buff to cover the neck, bottom part of the face, and around the head. In addition, wearing a
waterproof baseball cap or waterproof sunhat gives maximum coverage around the face.
Protip: Attach your rain jacket hood to your cap brim with a binder clip. Never have to worry about the hood slipping off from your head!
With temperatures sometimes going down to 20F in the winter, even lower with windchill, you want to make sure to keep your core and legs warm. A long sleeved base layer and long underwear go a long way for those who hike cold. Our recommended material is either wool or polyester.
The most essential of rain equipment, make sure that you choose a rain jacket that is wind resistant and waterproof. However, there are times when the $1 rain poncho found everywhere can be used to prevent heavy rain from contacting the skin. Combine an umbrella with a windbreaker for ultimate breathability and bring a rain jacket in your backpack just in case the winds are too strong for the combination to work.
Depending on weather conditions, gloves in the winter are essential for preventing rain or snow from touching your hands and sapping precious heat. With the various types of gloves available, it can be quite confusing to choose the best glove. For starters, we recommend carrying an extra glove in your backpack just in case the ones you wear become wet. Preventing moisture from touching your hands and fingers is key to preventing frostbite in cold conditions.
Similarly to other clothes, aim for a merino wool or polyester-based glove. From our experiences, bringing 2 liner gloves and 1 mitten or thicker, waterproof glove does the trick. Wear the liner gloves in normal conditions and when the weather turns for the rain or snow, put on the thicker pair of gloves.
Upper Body Layer Management
Depending on your level of activity and sweat, add or remove layers between the base layer and rain jacket. For people who hike cold, some choose to bring a fleece or synthetic material vest to keep their core warm. From our experiences, a polyester base layer and rain jacket is sufficient for the level of activity and comfort. Always try new clothing combinations when out in the rain and eventually, you too will find the perfect fit for your needs.
There are two primary types of legwear for hiking in the rain. Nylon and polyester are the two most common materials when selecting hiking pants. For the rain, most experts recommend polyester over nylon for that extra water resistance. But if it starts pouring, simply putting on thicker rain pants is preferable. For standard hikes, many wear regular hiking pants and put on rain pants over the initial layer when the rain starts to get heavier.
The other option is leggings. Leggings are absolutely versatile and can be surprisingly warm and breathable. People either choose leggings or a long polyester base layer and then regular hiking pants in the winter, the perfect combination of breathability, warmth, and rain protection.
This is the one of the most essential parts of being comfortable in the rain.
No one likes soggy socks and with the increase of heat, abrasion, and dampness that can come with hiking in the winter, your feet are more prone to blistering. There are four main items when it comes to the feet when hiking in wetter and colder conditions: socks, footwear, traction, and gaiters.
A thick merino wool sock and a thin, polyester sock liner is my go to combination for socks. The merino wool sock will act as a nice, heat retaining cushion while hiking and the sock liner allows for sweat and water to wick away from the feet. After utilizing the thin sock liner, my feet that would usually blister every time I go on a hike, whether it be summer or winter, stopped blistering. They’re essential for any enthusiastic hiker.
This is an area of high debate. The heavy boot or the light trailrunner? While my go to are boots, trailrunners do have advantages as well.
When carrying heavier packs and requiring more warmth, boots are most people’s default choice. From my experiences with the two sock system, a waterproof boot brings the most comfort when hiking in the rainy cold. With the extra support, crossing obstacles such as wet wood or rocks provide little challenge. The thickness of the material also allows for warmer feet, which is essential for winter hiking.
On the other side, trailrunners are much lighter, give a closer connection to the ground, and require very little break-in time. But the main disadvantage with trailrunners is their lack of insulation, resulting in colder feet. So while people do enjoy trailrunners most of the time, boots provide that extra security with the two sock system to prevent potential hypothermia and frostbite. But if you are in an area where it is rainy but not as cold, then by all means, go out in those runners!
While not necessary in lower elevation, traction can be worth their weight in gold when needing to cross a snow
bridge or icy conditions. There are a few styles of traction for hikers: Yaktrax, pullover ice cleats, microspikes. For overall safety and reliability, microspikes are generally the usual choice.
Yaktrax are lightweight, cheap, and good for city walking and softer snow. However, they are useless against ice, which you may encounter in higher altitude or colder conditions. With their lack of a bite on ice, they are not as versatile as the other options.
Pullover ice cleats are the next step up when it comes to traction for cold weather. They have the teeth that can provide some security when walking on ice. They are also light and allow for easy walking on rocky conditions. They are a nice medium between the Yaktrax and microspikes.
Microspikes are the most reliable in more extreme conditions where snow and ice make up the majority of the trail or when ice is prominent on the path. With bigger spikes that go all around the edges and center of the feet, they provide the bite and stability required to walk on snow and ice effectively. However, they do have the downside of being cumbersome in rocky paths and thus, require removal of the equipment when encountering longer stretches of exposed rock.
A gaiter is a piece of material that is worn to cover part of the upper part of the shoe and lower parts of the leg to prevent rocks, snow, or rain from going into the shoe itself. They greatly decrease the amount of moisture entering the feet and can increase the enjoyability of the hiking experience. There are different types of gaiters: Ankle or full length. For basic winter hikes with little snow and rainy conditions, full length gaiters are my recommendation.
Ankle/trail running gaiters are basic gaiters that are a few inches long and cover the minimum amount of space to prevent rocks and mud from getting into your shoes. While they do provide some protection against the rain, they are not optimal for winter hiking but can be useful when combined with rain pants. These can be paired well with trailrunners.
Full length gaiters are the classic length gaiters that go up to the calves and provide a great amount of protection against the elements. For full lengths, boots are usually required for proper fitting. Full length are usually waterproof or at the very least, water resistant. The less water that ends up in the shoe, the better!
Accessories Pack List
Bring these items to enhance the experience by bringing in new comforts and ease of mind.
Space/mylar/emergency blanket. Lightweight, extremely cheap, and compact, these blankets are excellent for repelling water, retaining heat, and increasing your visibility if a stranding were to occur.
Backpack rain cover. Prevents the inner contents from becoming wet.
Matches and a lighter. While flint and steel is a fun accessory to carry, the reliability of a match or lighter cannot be overstated.
Hand warmers. Great to stash in your pocket for extra warmth. They stop working when wet though, so take care in drying your hands before grasping them.
Umbrella. Great for those less windy conditions. Prevents the majority of precipitation hitting you while giving you the breathability needed for comfort.
Powerbank. Most navigation is done on the phone. With the reliability of GPS, I have stopped relying on paper maps and compasses, especially in the winter where it can get cumbersome taking out and putting in paper maps, especially in whiteout conditions.
Gaia and AllTrails are both excellent navigation apps
Sunglasses and sunscreen. Especially useful in snowy conditions.
Headlamp. Winter brings shorter days. You do not want to be on the trail without light.
Trekking poles with snow baskets. The extra traction and stability that trekking poles provide are second to none. A necessity for any hike.
Food and water. I aim for at least 2L of water and depending on the length of the hike, a lunch and some snacks, or multiple meals. For simplicity, a sandwich and some trail mix will work. But with a portable pocket stove, fuel, a pot, and some water, ramen noodles are the ultimate food item. Rich in sodium, calories, heat, and low in weight, nothing brings greater joy than slurping up warm food at the top next to some snow.
The Rules of the Road
1. Tell others!
Always make sure that there are others who know about your location and activities.
It can be as simple as “Hey, I’m going to Mt Si on Saturday from 10AM to 4PM! If I’m not back by 10PM, give a call. I will call you once I gain reception again.”
This way if you do happen to be stranded, it will not be long before help arrives.
Make sure that you remember to call them afterwards so that they do not worry.
2. Fill up on gas before heading off to the woods
Fueling up for extra mileage can always be useful. Also, the extra fuel can help during a potential stranding. A full tank is an eased mind.
3. Prepare a kit for potential stranding.
Here is the scenario. You are driving on a forest road to go to a mountain lake hike that you have been waiting all year to have snow accumulate. All of a sudden, there is ice hidden beneath the snow and you tumble down the hill into the forest. While very rare, you might make a wrong turn and find yourself trapped in some snow with no one around. Far from civilization, your casual hike became a survival situation! While we in the PNW are blessed to be in areas where hiking is more accessible and popular (giving more chances for another person to come along and help), do not catch yourself stranded without a plan. We have to hunker down to raise our odds of survival. Luckily for you, you read this guide and are much more prepared than you would have been otherwise. Stashed in the car is your winter survival kit. What’s inside? Here is the list:
a) Car Rescue kit
Shovel to create a path in the snow for the wheels
Kitty Litter. Provides traction for your tires. (Remember to turn off traction control!)
Snow Chains. Know how to put these on your tires before heading out.
b) High calorie and expire-resistant food
Granola bars, beef jerky, chocolate, instant oatmeal, ramen packs (you can eat these uncooked by pouring the seasoning in, crushing the noodles, and shaking the bag), Trail mix
c) Heat Sources
Hand Warmers. I like to keep at least 3 packs in my car just in case. Make sure not to get them wet or else they stop working
Turning on your car engine every hour for 10 minutes can help stave off the cold. (This is one of the main reasons why we fuel up before going). Always remember to keep the exhaust clear. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur otherwise.
d) Warm Clothes
Put on immediately once you know that you are stranded. Conserve your heat.
Beanie and scarf/gaiter
Puffy down jacket or fleece
Leggings or long underwear
Thick, Merino wool socks
A warm blanket
Sleeping bag and pad. I usually carry these in my car in case I need to spend a night in the car.
Water: It is always good to store at least 1 Gallon of water in your car for emergencies.
While these subjects can go very in depth, this is a general guideline to taking your hiking experience to the next level and transforming that summer hobby to a year round adventure. Winter brings chills but also beauty and excitement on the trails. Stay safe and enjoy your next steps!