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Here’s what you need in your winter hiking pack —plus winter hiking tips

Here’s what you need in your winter hiking pack —plus winter hiking tips

9 Photos
Make sure your boots are waterproof. Also consider steel traction cleats help to prevent injuries caused by falling.
Make sure your boots are waterproof. Also consider steel traction cleats help to prevent injuries caused by falling. (Photos by Photo Gallery

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Now that snow is finally dumping around the country, it’s important to know what items should be brought along for a winter hike. While many items are needed year-round, some can be especially helpful during the colder months of the year.

Here’s a list of winter hiking gear essentials, along with some additional winter hiking tips:

Winter hiking gear

Shoe traction: Bringing along microspikes or hiking boot crampons is a great move when it comes to navigating slick terrain. While you might not need the extra traction every time, this is one of those gear items that’s better to have and not need than to need and not have.

Ski goggles: If ski goggles are good enough for alpine skiing, they’re probably good enough for hiking. Goggles can be a great option for eyewear on a snowy day, providing shade and protection from the intense sun and harsh winds.

Mountaineering ax: From being a great self-arrest tool on slick terrain to helping with balance in deep snow, a mountaineering ax can be a great tool for the winter pack. While an ax won’t be needed on most beginner or intermediate hikes, it is a must-have for those traveling steeper terrain.

Hiking poles: In flatter terrain where an ax might be overkill, hiking poles or ski poles can be a great balance aid. Many opt for hiking poles that are collapsible so that they can be stowed away when not in use.

Extra socks: If your socks get wet, it’s nice to have a replacement pair. Extra socks can also be used to double-up on layering if your toes get cold.

Extra gloves: Just like socks, gloves can also get wet. Having a replacement pair can be crucial when snow melts inside of the glove or the glove gets too sweaty. An extra pair of gloves is also helpful should a glove get lost — perhaps blown away by the wind.

Hand warmers: Whether you’re using hand warmers to keep your extremities toasty or to keep your cell phone battery warm (more on that below), having a few hand warmers in the backpack is never a bad idea.

Extra layers: Hiking in the winter can be a careful balance between staying warm and not getting too warm, thus sweating too much. One way of finding and maintaining this balance is to have multiple layers of clothing that can be interchanged. Having multiple layers can also be important if wet layers need to be replaced. Generally, a thin moisture-wicking base layer, an insulating mid-layer, and some sort of waterproof and windproof external shell are recommended. A trial-by-fire method is a good way of slowly landing on the perfect layering combination for a given day.

Sunscreen: The sun is powerful, and it can be even more damaging to skin when it’s also reflecting off the snow. Always bring sunblock and apply it regularly to prevent severe burns. Even if a small amount of skin is exposed during a winter hike, that skin is still worth protecting. ChapStick can be essential, too.

Shoe Gaiters: Seal the gap between the pant and the shoe with a gaiter. This can help keep snow out of your shoes and can help keep socks dry.

Waterproof boots: Having a pair of boots that can stay dry and warm while stomping through the snow can be key to winter hiking success. Many boot brands sell winterized options, including Danner and its Mountain 600 Insulated style.

Snowshoes: If you’re traveling in fresh powder, snowshoes can make the experience much more enjoyable. Snowshoes come in a wide variety of options, with durability and weight being two defining factors. Some opt to go with a more typical option, like those sold by MSR, while others opt for a snowshoe that caters to a different experience, like the all-foam Crescent Moon Evas.

GPS communication device: Another “better safe than sorry” item, a GPS communication device ensures that your line of communication stays open while in the backcountry. With the increased risk that comes with winter hiking, bringing a GPS device along is the most responsible choice. Using one that also allows one to follow his or her path back to the trailhead in limited visibility via route tracking, like the Garmin inReach, is the best bet.

In addition to all of this winter-specific gear, you’ll also want to bring along hiking essentials such as a map and extra food.


Water can be tricky: Store water bottles upside down to prevent freezing at the mouth of the bottle. The water touching the air bubble in the bottle is typically the first water to freeze, which can make water inaccessible when kept upright. It’s also important to be aware that Camelbak hoses can freeze, too. Some backpacks, like the USWE Pow packs, offer insulation for plastic tubing.

Snowy tracks are quickly covered: Even on a day when fresh snow isn’t falling, don’t expect to be able to follow your tracks back to where you came from. Blowing snow can quickly hide footsteps, making it crucial to understand how to follow a trail when the trail can’t be seen. Tracking oneself with a GPS system, like the Garmin inReach, so that a return route can be easily found can be a literal lifesaver.

Avalanche risk applies to hikers, too: You don’t have to be charging down a mountain on skis or a snowmobile to start an avalanche. If you’re hiking in the backcountry during winter, it’s crucial to know how to avoid avalanche terrain. Even though you may be on a flat path, you could trigger an avalanche elsewhere on the mountain that could hurt you or someone else. An avalanche safety course is recommended.

Always be aware of the forecast: It’s important to know what the forecast is for your destination, as well as what weather has been like in the area over recent days. This will help you know if you’ll be breaking through new snow or walking on packed trails when you’re building out your hiking pack. Check sites like the National Weather Service and OpenSnow for forecast and avalanche risk information.

Ice can be extremely dangerous: If you’re around ice, it’s important to fully understand ice safety. Remember — no ice encountered in the backcountry is 100 percent safe.

Hand warmers can help keep batteries warm: Tired of your cellphone battery dying on a hike? Tossing a couple hand warmers into a pocket with your phone can help keep the battery warm, thus keeping the cold from draining it quickly. When doing this, you’ll also want to monitor your phone to make sure it’s not getting too hot.

Wool is a great winter insulation option: Not only is wool water-resistant, lightweight and durable; it’s also filled with air pockets that help to create a natural insulation. For the layers included in your outfit for the purpose of keeping you warm, wool can be a good call.


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