Our Stories

6 Tips for Winter Hiking and Safety

Categories: Hiking Tips & Tutorials, Safety
Hikers snowshoe on the Trail near Petoskey, MI. Photo by Dove Day

Hiking in the winter can be a beautiful experience. Walking on top a blanket of snow, seeing the animal tracks ahead of you, and viewing frozen rivers and waterfalls all present memorable experiences.

Winter Hiking Tips
Matt Davis, Harlan Liljequist, and Carter Hedeen hike the Milton Lake Esker segment of the NCT in the Chippewa National Forest near Remer, MN in -10F degree weather! photo by Bruce Johnson

Winter hiking also presents its own set of challenges. Before you head out on the Trail, be sure to think ahead and prepare for unexpected conditions. We’ve rounded up some tips and other helpful articles to help you stay safe on the Trail.

1. Never go out alone and make sure someone knows where you are going

Let a family member or friend know when you’ll be out on the Trail and when you expect to return. Also give them your planned route.

2. Beware of reduced visibility

Visibility can be reduced during winter due to shorter daylight hours as well as blowing snow. Be sure to take a light, such as a headlamp. Always carry a map and navigation tools. Not only is the Trail often covered in snow, blazes might be covered too.

Bruce Johnson snowshoes on a beautiful, snowy day in Minnesota. Photo by Matt Davis.

3. Carry the Ten Essentials

The 10 essentials are a must for every season. Remember that hiking through snow and ice can take considerably longer than usual and plan accordingly.

4. Wear proper footwear

Be sure to wear proper waterproof footwear with good tread. Wear snowshoes if the snow is deep. Invest in some extra traction devices for your feet when the trails are icy such as Yaktrax or Stabil Icers. Remember that even if it’s not icy at home, a heavily used area of trail can get packed down and be icy. (Bonus, sign up for the Hike 100 Challenge before January 31 and you’ll be entered in a drawing that includes a set of Stabil Icers!) Use trekking poles with carbide tips to enhance your stability on icy trails. Or consider waiting until the ice clears to hike.

5. Beware of hypothermia 

The best remedy is dressing in layers and having extra dry, warm clothes in your backpack.  Sweating from exertion and getting wet is a danger in cold temps. Matt Davis, our Regional Trail Coordinator in Minnesota and North Dakota says, “For me, it’s better to hike cold (wearing less clothes than are needed to stay warm) but then quickly putting warm stuff on when I stop.  It’s also a good idea to carry a space blanket, extra food, and a thermos of warm beverage (e.g. hot cocoa or cider).” View the National Park Service’s Safety Tailgate Series information on hypothermia.

6. Stay hydrated

When you’re cold, it’s tempting to not drink as much, or only drink coffee and hot chocolate. But you’re still sweating under all those layers, and your body still needs water and electrolytes. Be sure to take sips of water when you stop, and still follow these hydration tips. Prevent your water from freezing by carrying it close to your body (maybe inside your coat), mixing it with a bit of sports drink, or putting your bottle inside a wool sock. Insulated bottles also help prevent freezing, and wide mouth bottles work better than narrow mouths.

Check out these links filled with great resources and tips for winter hiking and camping:

Winter Camping and Backpacking Tips from REI

Winter Hiking Safety Tips from Section Hiker

Andrew Skurka’s Gear List for Ultralight in the Nation’s Icebox

Winter Camping Tips from the Lightweight Backpacker at backpacker.net

Essential Winter Gear for Northeastern Hikes

Check out our own Ian Young’s Winter Warmer Series–What’s in my Daypack? video:

And a fun video from New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and Unboring Exploring!
Winter Hiking Tips with the “Unprepared Hiker.”