What to Pack for a Winter Hike
What to pack for a winter hike? How will my packing list vary by my objective? In this blog I cover my usual list of items that I find in my bag and how to pack for a winter hike vs a hike during other times of the year. Keep in mind that what I will talk about is not necessary for EVERY winter hike and your final list will vary based on the weather, where you are hiking and the objective. This list below will not include things you should always pack like first aid kit, food and water etc.
What to Pack for Winter Hike: Clothing
Base Layers: Having various layers of clothing is always important while hiking but even more so in the winter when heat management & sweat management is vital to staying warm. Always layer with non-cotton, preferably wool or synthetic blend items. I like to wear layers that wick sweat, dry quickly and a bonus for not smelling. Once you start to sweat through layers you will never be able to shake the cold and this could turn dangerous.
Jackets: I always bring multiple jackets when hiking but in the winter I like my outer most layer to be more durable to handle snow, sleet or rain, high winds and prevent my inner layers from getting wet. I typically pack some sort of puffy jacket, lighter jacket that is waterproof and then in some scenarios an additional jacket made of Gore-Tex or nylon to keep me dry. I am not tied to one brand or specific jacket and tend to rotate depending on the weather for that day.
Pants: When packing for a winter hike, my pants are usually the same as the rest of the year since my body runs warm, but there are times when I will also put on a shell made of Gore-Tex or nylon to prevent my legs from getting wet with blowing snow or other weather. When splitboarding, I typically wear the same snowpants I wear at the resort which are the Burton Vent pants.
Gloves: Keeping your hands warm is arguably one of the most important aspects of winter hiking. There are so many stories of hikers not being prepared for cold weather and getting frostbite on their fingers. I tend to pack a pair of lighter (base layer) gloves and then either mittens or a leather pair of gloves depending on the day. If my hike will be using a mountain ax or require hand dexterity, gloves all day. For days when I am just trying to stay warm, I tend to wear mittens. When picking out a pair of gloves, shop for insulation ratings which will give you an idea as to what sort of temps your hand warmers can handle. Ultimately though a lot of this comes down to personal preference but be sure to have either hand covering covered in waterproof material.
What to Pack for Winter Hike: Footwear + Traction
Typically, when packing for a winter hike you have choices when it comes to your footwear. The obvious choice is a higher rise boot that has some sort of insulation, is waterproof and can prevent any snow from getting your feet wet. I have been using the Merrell Thermo Overlook for a number of years and they have worked out great. The newer model can be found here. This boot has a softer sole and wearing crampons is not an option but for a hike when you just need to keep your feet warm and dry – even perhaps wear some snowshoes, a boot like this is perfect.
However, if your hike will require crampons – it’s best to wear a boot with a hard sole – for me, that has been either the La Sportiva Trango Hiking Boots or for something even more technical, the La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX. Anytime you plan on wearing crampons, you need the boot to be stiff, have a high rise to it and of course be waterproof. Without this sort of sole, the boot will not accept the crampon in some cases and in all cases, prevent the crampon from doing its job of sticking into the snow or ice. There are loads of choices out there, but these are the two that I have been wearing for a number of years.
Gaiters: Gaiters are vital to keeping your feet dry and also protect your pants/leg if wearing a crampon. They come in different sizes, but I would recommend a longer pair like the Hillsound Armadillo in case you end up hiking in very deep snow. There is nothing worse then having snow go over your gaiter and into your boots!
Microspikes: Microspikes are something I recommend every hiker own, especially if you plan on hiking during the winter months. They are universally fitting to any boot or shoe and consist of metal chains/spikes on the bottom to help gain traction in snow. I have hiked many mountains in snowy conditions and have felt safe almost 100% of the time. Microspikes generally range in the $50-$60 range and are made by a handful of companies. In my opinion, microspikes are a great cheap, lightweight and easily portable piece of gear every hiker should own. The only negative about microspikes is that snow can sometimes ball up in them once it warms up and the amount of traction they provide does limit itself to certain slope angles and snow conditions (they will not work well on packed, steep snow/ice). I do highly recommend using microspikes with a mountain ax to help with traction and support in the snow. I am currently using this pair.
Crampons: If you want to get into some more serious winter or spring hiking/climbing, crampons quickly become a “must have” in your bag. Crampons come in a few different types (strap-on, step-in and hybrid.) Crampons all do the same thing: give you the best possible traction that you can provide for your boots. Speaking of hiking boots, crampons do require a special boot to wear. Since the crampon is not flexible like a pair of YakTraxs or microspikes would be, the sole of your boot must be firm in order to support the crampon. In some cases, crampons must be equipped with mountaineering boots, which can add a huge expense to this piece of gear. Crampons range from $100-$200+ and are made by 4-5 different companies. Crampons are best used on steep couloir climbs, mixed climbing (aka mixing between ice, snow and rock) and ice climbing. Crampons can be helpful in snow, but are typically not necessary unless the snow is firm or the snow angle is above 35 degrees or so. Some crampons do not come with a carrying bag, which can be an extra expense. Crampons are almost always used with additional traction in the form of an ice or mountain ax.
Snowshoes: Snowshoes are the only piece of gear that I have covered today that help you stay on top of the snow. Snowshoes fit with any pair of shoes or boots, but I do recommend wearing a high hiking boot or pair of gaiters to keep your feet dry. Although snowshoes do provide some traction in snow or ice, that is not their specialty. Snowshoes are best used in fresh snow or warming snow to keep you from sinking into it. The biggest cons with snowshoes are their weight and how they affect your walking stride. Similar to wearing a flipper in the water, snowshoes force you to be extra careful when walking backwards, sideways or over any obstacle. Snowshoes are also the heaviest and most difficult to transport piece of footwear accessory. Price-wise, Snowshoes range from $75-$250+ depending on the pair. The main differences in price are the features you get: type of metal used, binding system, length of the shoe etc. Snowshoes come in various sizes and all you need to know – the longer the shoe, the deeper the snow you can “float” in. Snowshoes are a great piece of gear to have, but I often find myself carrying them on hikes and not using them.
What to Pack for Winter Hike: Hardgoods
Backpack: While it’s not necessary to have a backpack dedicated to winter hiking, I do like to use one for a few reasons. Typically, winter backpacks have special storage pockets for items like goggles, your avi kit (more on that later) and of course attachments on the outside to help carry mountain axes, snowshoes and skis/splitboard. I also like to keep a lot of the gear in this backpack when it’s not winter so that my packing has already started and I don’t have to potentially forget an important item for my list. I have used a few backpacks over the years, but right now I am using the Ortovox Haute Route 40.
Mountain Axe: Anytime you are wearing crampons, the next logical step is to pack a mountain axe or ice tool. These come in a variety of different sizes, lengths and angles for your specific need. The summary of mountain axes would be this: the longer the axe – the more you will use it for things like walking up a mellow snow slope or self arresting. As the tools get shorter and have more bend to them, you will like be using them for steeper and more technical terrain. Petzl makes some great products and the Summit EVO has been my go to for most snow climbs. Another very common one for beginners is the Black Diamond Raven.
Hiking Poles: Same thing you would pack in the summer months just add a gasket to the bottom to ensure proper flotation in deeper snow. I have been using a handful of different Black Diamond models over the years.
Helmet: A necessary item if you plan on traveling anywhere where rock or ice fall could be an issue or on steep terrain where taking a fall is a possibility. If you are skiing or splitboarding down your objective, I would also highly recommend one of these. I use the same helmet during the winter as other months
Beacon, Probe and Shovel: If your winter hiking trip takes you into avalanche terrain, BE SURE to have an avalanche kit consisting of a beacon, probe and shovel. More important than owning this kit, know how to use it and practice often. Avalanche education is one of the most important aspects of winter hiking.
Optional items: Depending on your weather, you might also want to pack things like goggles, face buff, face mask and extra insulation for any of your electronics which run off batteries. For me with filming, one of the biggest challenges I am constantly facing is keeping my batteries warm. You can build these optional items as you gain more experience with winter hiking.
Winter hiking is tough and what to pack for a winter hike can take years to really dial in. I just listed thousands of dollars worth of gear so before you get overwhelmed or go out and spend money on things you don’t need – start with the basics: good layers, microspikes and hiking poles. You can easily hike in the winter with minimal additional hiking gear and build your kit as your objectives change and grow. When shopping for any gear, find the things that fit your budget, needs and skill level. I always recommend researching how to use gear properly before hiking with it so that you are not just carrying around a bunch of extra weight for no reason. Did I forget something you always bring on winter hikes? Let me know in the comments below!
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