I realize I may be the odd one out when I say winter hiking is the best season for hiking. But as the days get shorter, and the weather gets colder, it’s easy to lose the motivation to get outdoors.
It’s no longer a simple task of throwing on your shoes and grabbing a ball cap – you now have snow, freezing temperatures, and layers of clothes to contend with! That being said, if you’ve never hiked during the winter, you’re really missing out! Nothing compares to the beauty of the fresh snowy trails, the silence around you, and the crisp air.
Once you have a shift in mindset that winter hiking is actually awesome (it is!), hiking during the winter is a ton of fun and it’s definitely my favourite time of the year to head outdoors and help combat those winter blues by staying active and getting fresh air.
If you’re wearing the proper gear, you won’t notice the colder temperatures, and often trails are quieter so it’ll feel like you have the entire place to yourself!
So whether you’re looking for ways to stay active this season, or want to become more comfortable with hiking throughout the year, here’s your guide to how to stay safe and enjoy the trails this winter!
Hiking in the winter takes a bit more planning because you’ll need to take some extra safety precautions to combat the elements, especially if you’re out solo hiking. Here are some winter hiking tips to keep in mind!
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Is winter hiking dangerous?
Winter hiking is not without its dangers, even for the most seasoned of hikers due to weather conditions and terrain challenges, but with proper preparation and gear, winter hiking can be done safely and enjoyably.
How cold is too cold to hike?
This is a subjective question – of course we can take into account that anything below freezing is going to take some knowledge to prevent any serious health problems like frostbite and hypothermia. I’ve been out in -25 C weather and have been perfectly content – because I was wearing the right gear. With proper layering and equipment, winter hiking in freezing temperatures can be done safely.
Picking trails with some elevation changes also gets your blood pumping and will help to keep you warm.
Most people aren’t comfortable in the cold weather, which is understandable! I was too, until I fell in love with the crisp air and empty trails. Once I got through my first cold-weather hike, I fell in love with all the advantages of it, as well as the beauty.
Hike in the temperatures you’re comfortable with – and be prepared.
Hit the trail early to avoid being out in the dark
The days tend to get shorter and shorter up until the winter solstice. Sunset can be as early as 4:40 pm!
I’ll generally try to be at a trailhead just for the sunrise or just as the sun rises during the winter (which is much easier than trying to chase the sunrise during the summertime, let me tell you!). That way you’ll be guaranteed to get as much daylight as possible for your hikes, especially if you’re planning some long Bruce Trail hikes in Ontario!
If your aim is to catch the sunset, try to find some spots near a trailhead and pack some extra layers. Once the sun dips behind the horizon, temperatures drop rapidly!
Keep in mind that winter hiking will take you longer than the summer, since you’ll tend to move slower and encounter more obstacles along the way.
Bring a battery pack
Cold weather tends to drain our phone batteries faster – don’t rely on your full charge (unless of course you’re heading out for a quick hike). Battery packs are easy to carry in your bag and can give you that added peace of mind for keeping the lines of communication open while you’re out hiking. Portable charges are one of the most essential items you can carry on you while you’re out.
Try to keep your devices warm – I’ll wear mine in a sweater with an accessible pouch, since my phone is also my camera!
One common misconception about winter hiking is that you don’t need to drink water because you don’t feel thirsty because of the cooler weather. Hiking during the winter can be more physically demanding, and perception of thirst is different in cold weather. You don’t realize your body works harder and drains your reserves quicker. Plus, with the winter gear you’ll be donning, even the act of grabbing your water bottle is less appealing.
Consider adding an insulated water bottle to prevent your water from freezing on longer hikes, and add flavour enhancers, electrolytes, or herbal teas to entice you to drink more. In a pinch, wrapping your bottle in an extra beanie or socks will help insulate it from the cold temperatures. If you use a hydration pack, you can always add an insulated hose to keep your line from freezing during long-distance winter hikes.
Fill an insulated thermos with hot tea, coffee, or cocoa to have on your car ride home to help warm you up and replenish your hydration levels.
Tip: try to pre-hydrated before a winter hike, whether you choose to start your day with a glass of water, tea or coffee, and sipping liquids on the way to start your hike. This will cause you to pee more, however, you’ll stay ahead of the dehydration curve and will help keep your focus. Remember, if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Crampons are a must
Winter hiking is amazing – from the fresh, snowy, quiet trails and crisp air that is, until you slip on a patch of ice. It wasn’t until my first wipe out that I thought – yeah, I’m not doing this again without microspikes.
By bringing crampons/microspikes/ice cleats with you on your hike, it’ll give you an added peace of mind that your chances of wiping out on an icy trail. They provide the traction needed to stabilize you on slippery surfaces, especially here on some of Niagara’s hiking trails!
They easily fit into a daypack and they easily pop over your boots on the trail. I don’t go on any winter hikes without them now.
Bring hiking poles
Bringing and using a good set of hiking poles during the winter will add stability to your footing and share some of the workload. It’s also proven that hiking poles lessen the strain on your knees, hips and ankles and will cause you to exert less energy. Hiking in snow can become exhausting, so having some support is always helpful!
Choose hiking poles with a cork handle for added comfort. Many will also come with snow baskets to allow for easy use in the snow.
Pack extra layers and wear the appropriate attire
The tip is to stay warm AND dry, because if you start sweating and you’re wearing the wrong material, you’re going to get cold and wet. Now, I learned this the hard way by buying the warmest winter jacket except, I can only wear a really thin layer underneath because it makes me sweat so much! You definitely want to layer so you can peel them or add more as necessary.
You’ll want to wear a base layer, an insulating layer, and a shell. If you start getting warm, it’s easier to peel off a thin layer than to take off an entire jacket and freeze. Avoid cotton and opt for synthetic layers that are moisture-wicking and quick drying.
Everyone will have different opinions on what to wear for bottoms, but I really love Old Navy’s Go Dry leggings which are warm, comfortable, and affordable! Many wear a base layer and a waterproof layer on top (smart for all those snowy hikes!).
One of the most important pieces of clothing to wear while hiking during the winter is a hat! You lose most of your body heat through the top of your head. Even if you don’t think you’ll need one, it’s small enough (and smart!) to throw a beanie in your daypack.
Winter hiking boots are also very important; they’ll give you solid traction and stability. Investing in a good pair of winter hiking boots will keep your feet warm and dry. I love Mountain Warehouse’s Ultra Iceberg Grip boots. They keep my feet warm and provide the necessary traction and confidence that I won’t wipe out!
You can also opt for a pair of hiking gaiters to keep your ankles protected from any snow that might make its way into your boots.
Have a Safety Plan
Safety while hiking is always a priority, but with the winter elements it’s even more crucial to plan ahead so everyone can have a good time with fewer worries. This can be as as simple as:
- Always telling someone about your plan, and even leaving your location on with some of your contacts until you’re safely back home. You can also invest in a GPS tracker in the event of poor service.
- Check the weather conditions before heading out. The last thing you want is to get caught in snow squalls or stuck driving in poor road conditions to or from a trailhead.
- Pack the essential hiking gear
- Ensure your vehicle is road safe for the winter. Pack some key items like an emergency blanket, a shovel/kitty litter, and battery cables in the event of a breakdown. Consider getting a CAA or Roadside Assistance membership for added peace of mind for any tire changes or breakdown assistance.
More Winter Hiking Tips
- Add an inexpensive bag cover to keep your pack dry from the elements.
- Add a fire starter kit or matches to your pack for longer hikes.
- Know the signs of hypothermia.
- Start small – especially if you’re not familiar with winter hiking. Taking a shorter trail will allow you to become comfortable with hiking during cold and snowy conditions (and will likely make you fall in love with it, and crave more!)
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