When the temperatures began to drop and snow caps formed on the mountains, I thought our hiking would enter an off-season. However, Ryan and I both quickly realized that winter hiking provides even more enjoyment, challenge, and breath-taking views.
Even if you don’t live near mountains, you can find hiking trails in your area. So don’t stay inside all winter—take advantage of local trails to try winter hiking.
Be also practice caution and safety when hiking in winter. Avalanches, frostbite, and ice pose serious threats. Do not hike in severe weather, dress appropriately, and be aware of trail conditions.
Winter Exercise is Good for Your Physical and Mental Health
Opting outside in winter can help alleviate seasonal affect disorder, boost your immune system, and prevent that cooped inside anxious feeling that comes with winter. Spending time with your friends and family while reaping the benefits of fresh air and exercise also provides a healthier alternative to binge-watching Netflix all weekend long. Hiking is fun for the whole family (including your pets), so bundle up, grab your gear, and head for the trails!
You Stop Perceiving Winter as a Negative
Up until this year, I hated winter (you know you’re from the Midwest when…). Winter meant snow, cold, and ice, and I focused on those negatives rather than enjoying the season. Winter hiking has taught me that snow can be fun, the right clothes can overcome the biting cold, and that focusing on the positives makes the bad parts of winter more bearable.
You Enjoy a Winter Wonderland of Natural Scenery
Snow transforms a beautiful forest or mountain top into an ethereal wonderland. A peaceful and picturesque view of the woods or a lake covered in snow is worth miles of hiking through deep powder.
I think pictures convey more meaning than words, so here’s a recent favorite winter hiking photo to demonstrate just how gorgeous the scenery can be on winter hikes. (for more, follow me on Instagram!).
Winter Hiking is Gentler on Your Body
Sometimes hiking leaves me feeling fatigued and sore. The pounding against rocky terrains for hours will cause my feet to ache and my legs to quack. The soft surface of snow (even compacted snow) provides more cushion for your body; it’s like running on a soft dirt trail versus running on hard concrete. Winter hiking thus provides a great way to build your hiking fitness without the same soreness as on-season hiking, which means that you’ll be ready to hike farther and higher when the snow melts.
Hot Food and Warm Drinks Taste Even Better after a Cold Hike
Whether you opt for hot chocolate, hot buttered rum, or mulled wine (my personal favorite), a hot drink after hours of hiking in the snow is possibly one of the most satifying gastronomical experiences. The only comparison I can make is how good a burger and fries taste after a hard race.
So now that you’re convinced to hike outside in winter, how do you safely and enjoyably do so?
Dress Appropriately for the Conditions
As you climb higher, the temperatures drop, so you need to be prepared for temperatures at least 10 degrees colder than at the trailhead. However, don’t discount how insulating snow can be and how much the exertion can raise your core temperature! Layers, especially merino wool, technical layers, and down vests and jackets, will help you stay warm without overheating.
Be prepared to adjust: I usually wear two technical layers and a vest for hiking, and stash a down jacket and extra gloves in my backpack. We stop at least twice a hike to change our layers, but it’s better than sweating (which can then cause you to chill) or shivering.
In addition to gear such as gloves and a hat, sunglasses are a must-have for winter hikes! The sun can reflected off the snow so brightly that you struggle to see clearly, and it is vital for safe hiking to be able to see everything in your path.
For more tips, reference my guide on what to wear for hiking in cold weather.
Invest in or Rent Crampons or Snowshoes
Even compacted snow is slippery and requires traction beyond that of hiking boots or trail shoes. Crampons will provide extra tractions on your feet to help you safely navigate across the snow without slipping. Affordable options include Yaktrax Pro traction cleats (affiliate link), which slip over your hiking shoes and can also be used for winter running.
However, if you hike frequently, consider investing in more durable microspikes, such as Kahtoola Microspikes(affiliate link), or snowshoes. Both of these will provide more traction and withstand the wear and tear of winter hiking. Snowshoes in particular are beneficial for hiking through deep and powdery snow and venturing off-trail. Microspikes are ideal for hiking in compacted snow; you can wear them in deep snow, but (as we found out this weekend), you will probably still sink into the powder occasionally.
Pack Plenty of Water and Snacks
Despite the cold weather, you still need to hydrate well while hiking. Many hikers opt for bladders that slip inside their backpacks (similar to Camelbacks for running) so that they don’t need to stop, retrieve their water bottle from their bag, and overall make hydration more difficult. Trust me when I say that hydration bladders make hiking ten times more enjoyable and easier.
Hiking also burns a significant amount of calories, especially in cold weather. Eating during a hike will not only keep you feeling energized, but it will also keep you feeling warm as your body. PB&Js are my favorite hiking meal, especially since they are simple to pack, easy to eat while hiking, and the fat in the peanut butter is so satisfying.
Great hiking snacks including natural granola or nut and seed bars, nuts, organic jerky, or healthy cookies like fig newtons or homemade oatmeal cookies. Pack more snacks than you will think you need, as the combination of the cold weather and increased exertion from moving in the snow will increase your appetite.
Hiking is not a race. Be careful, plan your steps based on the terrain, and maintain your balance at all times, especially on steep or slippery segments. Slowing down will also help you enjoy the scenery!
What’s your favorite way to stay active outdoors in winter?
What’s your favorite warm winter drink?