Embracing the Chill: A Guide to Winter Hiking in the Snow
Hiking in the snow is just a wonder.
But it is even better when you go fully prepared.
Mother Nature is no joke, so it’s better to avoid unwelcome surprises.
Our BUFF® team is full of adventurers, so check our guide before doing any winter hikes.
An Overview of Winter Hiking
Winter transforms familiar trails into serene, snow-covered landscapes, offering a unique and breathtaking experience for avid hikers.
However, venturing into the snowy wilderness requires careful consideration and preparation. Let’s delve into the essentials of winter hiking.
Consider the Time
When embarking on a winter hiking adventure, it is important to recognize that the journey may require more time compared to hikes undertaken in milder seasons.
The snowy terrain, ever-changing trail conditions, and potential obstacles all demand a more cautious and deliberate approach. Therefore, it is essential to plan ahead, especially considering the diminished hours of daylight and inclement weather that accompany the winter months. The stakes are higher in the winter.
Having a plan, A, B, and C can help you adjust your day as the weather, time, and your motivation changes. Setting a turn-around time and location can help avoid getting stuck outside.
For example, if you and your partner(s) reach the sub-peak after 10:00 AM, it’s time to turn around instead of pushing to the summit. This should be communicated before starting the hike and your team should have time to consider making sure it is realistic.
Dressing appropriately is crucial. Layering is your best friend, because you ensure you can regulate your body temperature on the go in case of weather changes.
A waterproof and windproof outer layer is essential to protect you against the elements, as is non-cotton base and sublayers.
Set Realistic Expectations
Winter hiking presents unique challenges.
Set realistic goals based on your experience level, trail conditions, and weather forecast. Be prepared for unexpected obstacles, such as ice, slippery stones, and deep snow. No one likes postholing, the action of hiking through deep snow where your feet punch through, creating a series of holes as footprints.
Sinking into the snow up to your knee or hip steals energy very quickly and creates unpleasant conditions for other trail users. It’s not nice to ski, snowshoe, or even hike, over old postholes.
Grab Extra Food and Clothes
Pack extra supplies, including high-energy snacks such as dried nuts, seeds, and chocolate and additional layers of clothing.
Not every climate requires a hefty down jacket, but it’s better to be overprepared. Merino base and mid-layers keep you warm even when wet from sweat or the elements and match nicely with BUFF® Merino neck and headwear.
Unforeseen circumstances can arise, and having surplus provisions can make all the difference.
Never Go Alone
Winter conditions can be unpredictable, and safety should be a top priority.
Always hike with a companion or a group, ensuring that someone is there to assist in case of emergencies.
Remember, if it takes you longer to hike a route in winter relative to summer, it will also take rescue longer to get to you should anything happen.
Microspikes for Different Trail Types
You should use microspikes to enhance traction if you’re hiking on hard pack and/or icy trails. While the added traction certainly boosts confidence, remember that there are limitations to pull-on microspikes. Mountainous and steep terrain may require more durable and reliable crampons.
Different types of trails may require additional specific gear, so choose accordingly to ensure a safer and more enjoyable hiking experience.
Best Safety Tips for Snow Hiking
We have more safety tips for you for your snow hiking:
- Use Sun Protection: The sun’s reflection on snow can be intense. Protect your skin with sunscreen, and don’t forget sunglasses to shield your eyes.
- Stay Hydrated: Cold air can be deceptively dehydrating. Drink water regularly to stay hydrated, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Eating snow doesn’t work!
- Bring High-Protein Snacks: Fuel your body with high-protein snacks to maintain energy levels during the hike.
- Set a Time for Return: Daylight is limited in winter, so set a turnaround time to ensure you return before dark.
- Know Avalanche Risks: Understand the avalanche risk in your chosen area and take appropriate precautions.
- Check for Hypothermia Signs: Learn the signs of hypothermia and be vigilant, especially in cold and wet conditions.
- Always Pack Essentials: Include a first aid kit, emergency shelter, navigation tools, and communication devices in your pack.
- Consider group dynamics: think about your partner(s), their goals for the day, as well as their physical and mental abilities. An interesting fact is that the overwhelming majority of avalanche fatalities are attributed to poor-decision making in a group setting.
What to do before the Hike
Thoughtful planning is what you need before heading to the trails.
Check the Weather
Stay updated on the weather forecast and be prepared for changing conditions. Dress and pack accordingly based on the forecasted temperatures and precipitation, but also keep in mind that the unexpected can happen
Studying a reputable weather forecast specific to your region and considering your objective for the day as it aligns with the forecast will keep your plans more achievable and happier. If you are in a mountainous environment, it is wise to consult the local avalanche bulletin.
Study the route
Thoroughly research and understand the trail you plan to hike. Know the terrain, potential hazards, and any specific considerations for winter conditions. Even if you have hiked it many times in the summer, the terrain will not look the same with it’s winter coat.
Inform Your Loved Ones
Just like in summer, always inform someone about your hiking plans. Share your route, expected return time, and any emergency information. This ensures that help can be dispatched as quickly and accurately as possible.
Pack Emergency Essentials
In addition to the essentials mentioned earlier, carry extra food, water, and clothing. A headlamp, multi-tool, survival blanket, and fire-starting materials are also valuable in case of unexpected situations. Carrying a handheld GPS tracking device with a rescue beacon function can also help you be located in case of an emergency.
During the Hike
While enjoying the beautiful landscape, we have more tips to tell you to keep you safe during your winter hike
Get to the Trail Early
Starting early maximizes daylight hours and allows for a more relaxed pace. It also provides a buffer in case your hike takes longer than anticipated. Snow conditions often deteriorate rapidly as the day progresses with increased temperatures and sun.
What may have been a walk in the park in the morning, as you scampered on top of the snow with your microspikes, can turn into a postholing nightmare through the warming snowpack back to your starting point. It is also wise to consider slope aspect and how this affects the warming and cooling of snow. Did we mention to check the avalanche forecast if you are in the mountains?
Use a Good GPS Device
A reliable GPS device is essential for navigation, especially in winter when trail markers may be obscured by snow. Ensure your device is fully charged and carry spare batteries. As mentioned, some GPS device models can double as emergency rescue beacons, so it is worth checking the features of your preferred device.
Basic Tips on Clothes for Winter Hiking
Reading this far, you understand it’s crucial to dress properly while hiking in the snow. Here are a few more tips:
- Avoid cotton: cotton retains moisture and can lead to hypothermia. Opt for moisture-wicking fabrics that keep sweat away from the skin.
- Have at least 1 insulating layer: insulating layers trap heat close to the body. Choose materials like fleece or wool for better insulation.
- Cover ears, head and neck: a warm hat that covers your ears, along with a neck gaiter, helps retain heat and protect against cold winds.
- Protect your eyes: snow can be blinding, and the sun’s reflection off the snow can cause snow blindness. Wear sunglasses or goggles with UV protection. This sneaks up on you, so don’t forget!
Essential BUFF® Garments for Winter Hiking
Last but not least, check all our options for your winter hikes.
A beanie or wool cap perform well for retaining heat, especially in windy conditions. Choose one that fully covers your ears.
A brimmed cap helps shield your face from the sun and snow, enhancing visibility and preventing glare.
Keep your neck and chin toasty. A neck warmer provides additional insulation for your neck and can be pulled up to cover your face in extremely cold conditions. Not warm enough? Try using two or more neck gaiters as part of your ultralight layering system.