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Be Prepared to Enjoy Nature in Cold and Snow!

Tips to make your winter outing safer and more fun

Author hiking on a cold, snowy day

Having fun, despite the below zero temperatures. Dressing right makes the difference!

A speaker whose name I unfortunately don’t recall once mentioned that outdoor enthusiasts are, in general, tough people who are perfectly willing to endure being uncomfortable. I think there is some truth to that statement, but I can also say that being an outdoors enthusiast and getting out often is a lot easier and a whole lot more fun, when one feels reasonably comfortable, whatever the weather.

As someone who gets cold quite easily, with fingers that turn numb and white at the slightest chill, I usually have to argue myself into getting outdoors on cold or windy days. Through many outdoor adventures, and misadventures, I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that wearing (and packing) high quality clothing and gear can make all the difference between being miserable or enjoying a wonderful experience. I have dragged myself outside in the coldest conditions, including midwinter skis at minus 30°F in Alaska, as well as forays out in icy 40 knot winds in Antarctica, to mention two decidedly cold situations I am glad to have experienced. Truthfully, I have never ventured out in winter, properly prepared anyway, and not been glad to have done so. However, I must admit, I still have to force myself to get out there when the weather is cold.  And I sometimes still make the mistake of not dressing quite warmly enough.

If you have spent much time exploring outdoors in winter, or maybe any season, you likely won’t find anything particularly valuable about my advice here as you no doubt already know how to be prepared.  But in my years of work as a naturalist guide, I worked with many people who weren’t able to enjoy the amazing places they were visiting simply because they were not dressed properly.  So, for those who are new to exploring wild areas, and those who haven’t yet enjoyed any of their winter outings due to being uncomfortably cold, I hope the following suggestions about what to wear and put in your daypack might help you have a lot more fun, and stay safer, during your upcoming cold weather expeditions. I think you will find that if you dress and prepare properly, getting out in winter, even on extremely cold days, can deliver some incredible experiences.

Clothing:

The best approach is to cover up head to toe and wear lots of layers, so you can add or subtract as conditions change. Choose how many layers to start out wearing (and which to pack) depending on the cold and wind, how easily you get chilled, and how active you plan to be.  The more active you plan to be, the fewer layers you may need to wear,  But always put some of the extra items you decide not to wear in your pack, just in case conditions worsen, or you start getting chilled at some point during your adventure.

At a minimum, be sure to always have the ❄️ snowflake flagged items below in your pack if you aren’t wearing them when you set out!  The weather can, and usually does, change during every outing.

Protect Your Head, Hands & Feet

Head

❄️ Wool Hat

You may have heard that you lose the most body heat through your head. Apparently there is some debate about the truth of that statement, but in my experience wearing a thick wool hat that covers my ears is invaluable. I never, ever go out in winter without one!

Balaclava, Neck Warmer/Gaiter, or Scarf

Any of these can make a big difference in how comfortable you feel, especially on a windy day. Each can be pulled up to cover your mouth and nose, if the cold or wind are too biting cold. Put this item in your pack even if you don’t need it at the trail head. I prefer a lightweight version as I am more likely to wear it, but I have a thicker Turtlefur gaiter I bring along for the coldest conditions.

Hands

❄️ Warm Gloves and Mittens

In the coldest Alaska winters, I wore a light, thin pair of gloves, inside a heavier pair of gloves, inside a pair of double-layered wool mittens–and sometimes wore a pair of army-surplus windshell mitts over those. Those measures were needed for the extreme temperatures I sometimes encountered there.  In the more temperate region where I now live, I don’t even have all those hand coverings anymore.  But I always make sure to have one pair of warm gloves in my pack and another pair either on my hands or in my jacket pockets.  If I know the temperatures are going to be particularly cold (below zero), then I stick my heavy, double-layer wool mittens in my pack, too.

Hand Warmers

I have never liked the waste of resources and trash created by disposable hand warmers, so I was happy to find that rechargeable hand warmers are now available. I gave a Celestron version to my husband for his use on his trips to Antarctica.  He gave this a thumbs up! I have a couple of a different brand on order for myself now. I’ll add more information here once I have tested them sufficiently to report whether they work well for me.

Feet

Wool socks

I usually wear a pair of thin wool socks, and add a second heavier pair if outdoor temperatures are below 10-15° F.  My current favorites are Smart Wool inner socks combined with Wolverine brand thick wool socks, but there are lots of great brands out there to choose from.  I think a lot of comfort is in finding the brand that fits your feet and calf shape best.  I prefer socks that aren’t too tight, but tight enough they stay in place when I am hiking in my big boots.

Heated Socks?

I hadn’t even heard of these before my sister mentioned she wanted to get a pair.  They sure sound like they could be a good idea, but so far the cost and my inability to decide on which brand to try out has prevented me from experimenting.  I am thinking about testing some out eventually though, as I do still get cold toes which can limit how far I can go and how long I can stay out.  Let me know in the comments, or send me an email, if you have any experience hiking in any of these!

Boots

Regular summer hiking boots with two pairs of wool socks work fine, if you are not going to be walking through much snow. When there is any snow or wet ground, I prefer to wear my Muck boots. They not only keep my feet warm and dry, but also protect my lower legs from getting wet or cold. They work great for wading through shallow water, too! There are lots of other great boot options available and the best type depends upon whether you will be hiking in wet snow or extreme cold, dry snow conditions.  In mid-winter in Fairbanks, Alaska my favorite boots were Norwegian Lobben felted wool boots, but those are ill-suited for the wetter snow and warmer temperatures I encounter here in Colorado.

MICROspikes® Ice Cleats

These are a new addition to my gear  About one year ago, I slipped on the ice (in a parking lot—not a trail) and broke my arm. That painful ordeal taught me to be extremely cautious about walking on any ice. My sister, who does lots more winter adventuring than me, recommended, and gifted me a pair of MICROspikes®. Wow! I really love putting these on now whenever I encounter an icy trail. They stretch on fairly easily over my muck boots, stay in place perfectly, and make walking an icy trail not only feasible, but much safer. I just keep these in my winter pack now, so I can dig them out whenever a trail is icy.

Maintain Your Core Body Temperature with Layers

Upper Body Clothing Layers

Base Layer / Long Underwear

Long underwear top.  Silk, bamboo, and capilene versions are all options, but after trying out merino wool long underwear, I much prefer it. Merino wool is soft, warm, and expensive, but if you can afford it, I think it is well worth the cost in terms of comfort if you are going to get out much.  You can find great options available from brands: Patagonia, IceBreaker, and SmartWool.

Lightweight t-shirt or Longsleeve Pullover

Great to be able to strip down to one of these underlayers when the sun comes out, the wind dies down, and winter offers a temporary respite on an otherwise cold day.  Choose a bamboo, silk, or capilene version, not cotton.

Wool Sweater

Norwegians know how to make clothing for winter! I have had a lot of sweaters over the years, but the 100% wool sweaters I purchased in Norway are without question the warmest sweaters I have owned. These sweaters are heavy and more than needed on a warm winter day at a low elevation in Colorado, but oh so comfortable on a really cold day at higher elevations. I only wear or pack mine if air temperatures are below 0°F due to the weight and bulkiness.

❄️ Down Vest

I often wear a down vest instead of my heavy sweater when I want an extra layer for warmth, but expect to be moving a lot.  It is easier to put on and take off and I can squish it down into a small space in my pack–which is where i always put it if I am not wearing it (winter or summer)!

❄️ Insulated Jacket  – Light weight down or Polarfill jacket

These days, as I get cold even more easily than when I was younger, I usually wear a polarfill jacket and pack a second lightweight down jacket. I put that second jacket on over top the first one if I start feeling chilled. It makes a huge difference for me, but might be overkill for someone who can stay warm more easily than me.

❄️ Wind/Rain Jacket

Often times, the wind is what makes a cold day into a bitter cold day. If your parka is windproof and waterproof already, you won’t need this extra jacket, but many jackets are not wind and waterproof to make them more breathable so you don’t get soaked in sweat when you are exerting yourself on a hike, ski, or snowshoe expedition.  So, if you have a regular down or polarfill jacket not specifically designed as a wind/rain jacket, adding a wind jacket to your gear can make the difference between being comfortable or miserable on a windy or wet day. Pulling up a good wind jacket hood over the top of my wool hat has changed my mood about being outdoors on more than one chilly day.

Lower Body Clothing

Base Layer / Long Underwear

Long underwear bottoms.  Silk, bamboo, and capilene versions are all options, but after trying out merino wool long underwear, I much prefer it. Merino wool is soft, warm, and expensive, but if you can afford it, I think it is well worth the cost in terms of comfort if you are going to get out much.  You can find great options available from brands: Patagonia, IceBreaker, and SmartWool.

Warm Pants

I used to wear German army wool pants—they were toasty warm, but a bit too heavy. My current favorite winter pants are Sherpa brand that unfortunately the company no longer sells. Wool pants are the warmest in my opinion, but there are some comfortably warm synthetic fabrics available too. Avoid blue jeans or any pants made of cotton fabric though  These are NOT a good choice as cotton offers little insulation, gets wet and damp easily, and takes forever to dry.  You will be freezing cold in the meantime.  Wool and some synthetic fabrics dry much more quickly and will keep you warm even if your pants get damp or wet.

❄️ Wind/Snow Pants

I find that a pair of waterproof wind pants over the top of my Sherpa pants and long underwear are sufficient in the coldest weather I have encountered recently. I find these easier to get around in than insulated snow pants, but insulated snow pants or bib overalls are essential if you are planning to tramp around for long, or sit in one location, when air temperatures are below 0°F.  Pants with full zippers on the side are easier to get on and off. Many brands have velcro closures which may seem handy, but I now try to avoid velcro as much as possible, because it is a magnet for weed seeds. I don’t like to be an inadvertant vector transporting invasive from one place to another. and it can be almost impossible to clean the trapped seeds out of velcro closures.

Extras in My Pack

As already mentioned, I always put some of the layers of winter clothing that I’m not wearing into my pack, so I can put them on if I get cold.  I also want to be able to put on a dry pair of gloves or socks if I get the ones I’m wearing wet somehow.  I also stick a few things in my pack to make my outing safer and more fun.

Food and Drinks:

  • Thermos of hot tea or cocoa
  • ❄️ Thermos of water
  • Bar of Dark Chocolate (a definite essential in my mind!)
  • ❄️ Two or more Powerbars

I find that planning to make a snack stop at some point on every outing (even a short two hour trip) helps me remember to stop somewhere along the way.  Sitting down for a bit while I enjoy my hot drink and snack allow me to observe the surrounding area much more carefully than I might otherwise manage.  Of course, if I plan a longer outing, I also pack a good lunch.  Hiking in the cold burns a lot of calories, so it pays to pack a few high energy snacks for possible emergency use too.

15 inch square of Insulite padding

A piece just large enough to sit on. When I have this along, I almost always use it. Pulling this out to sit on when the ground or a convenient rock is icy cold or snow-covered can make the difference between a pleasant, warm stop and one that ends up causing a wet seat and an unwelcome chill.  (Truthfully, I must admit that I often forget to put this in and end up sitting on my pack, wishing I had remembered my insulite pad.)

Extra Hand & Foot warmers

I have used disposable hand and foot warmers on rare occasions, but don’t like the waste generated.  I do stash a few in my pack for possible emergency use however.

Just to Be on the Safe Side

Many places that I hike, these precautions seem like overkill, but staying safe should always be a consideration.  I just keep a few things in my pack at all times so wherever I go, they are there if I ever need them.

  • Basic First Aid kit
  • Emergency Thermal (Mylar) Blanket
  • Fire starter (If you ever read To Build a Fire by Jack London, you’ll know why this is in my pack!)
  • Map of the terrain and trail (Be doubly sure to stick this in your pack if you are visiting a new or unfamiliar area).
  • Whistle (to draw attention or call for help)
  • Compass (good to have in a blizzard!)
  • Headlamp (in case getting back takes longer than expected–darkness falls quickly in winter)
  • Cell phone (Good to have, but don’t count on yours working if you are hiking in a remote area–cell coverage may be non-existent.)

Before You Start Off

Exploring nature is always safer with a friend rather than going out alone.  In any case, let someone who isn’t coming along know where you are going and what time you expect to return.

Backup Items To Leave in Your Vehicle

An extra hat, a warm pair of socks, a dry shirt and ski pants, an extra pair of gloves, plus another thermos of hot tea will offer a nice welcome back when you return to your vehicle.  If needed, you can easily change out of any wet gear and have a lot more comfortable drive home.

Be Aware of Winter Dangers

Proper clothing and preparation are not just to ensure you have a good time outdoors, both are also critically important for staying safe in winter.  Hypothermia and frostbite are serious dangers. Numb fingers and toes are uncomfortable for a reason–they offer a warning that your body is getting too cold–don’t try to be tough and ignore what they are telling you.  If you don’t already know how to recognize symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite, take a few moments to review this information provided by the National Safety Council.

All of my suggestions here are about what to wear and pack for a winter day hike of one to five miles for the primary purpose of enjoying the scenery, looking for wildlife, and taking photos. If you are planning a more intense outing—like a long distance snowshoe or cross-country ski in the mountains, or even more adventuresome, an overnight camping trip in winter, then please refer to additional information from people who are experienced getting out to enjoy winter conditions for extended periods of time.

Resources:

Avalanche Safety

Don’t ignore learning about avalanche dangers and how to be prepared if you plan to hike (snowshoe, ski, or do anything else) in snow-covered mountains!

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