Winter hiking can be one of the most rewarding experiences.
Fewer crowds to battle, often calmer weather, and epic snowy landscapes are just a few of the advantages of grabbing your boots and braving the winter cold.
But, just like summer, winter camping provides its own unique set of challenges, one of which is (obviously) staying warm. It may seem counter-intuitive to walk to a place where you camp on top of snow, but trust me, it’s worth it.
If you’re looking to dabble in winter hiking, here’s a beginner’s guide to packing for a cold weather adventure, from what to wear to what to bring.
I’ve said it a million times before but it’s worth repeating: No cotton in the backcountry. And this includes your underwear too.
Cotton absorbs moisture, so when you sweat your clothes become heavy and wet and when the wind picks up, you’ll fast-track your way to freezing and hypothermia.
Wool, especially merino wool, is your friend.
I LOVE merino as a baselayer.
It wicks away moisture and helps regulate your body temperature, whether you’re hot or cold. This particular piece is lightweight and breathable and as a bonus, it’s designed in my beloved home of Wanaka, New Zealand.
I throw this layer on top of my baselayer when the temperatures drop. It’s light and packable but the polartec fleece traps heat and keeps you toasty warm.
These are the ultimate hiking leggings. They are built tough to handle most terrains and have reinforced knees and rear so they hold up, even when you’re sliding around rocky terrain.
For seriously cold weather, these are my go-to winter tights. The softshell fabric protects from rain and snow and the inside is lined with mid-weight thermal fleece.
When I was choosing an insulated jacket for my hikes, I chose to go featherless rather than down.
Down jackets are great. They pack down to nothing, they’re super light, and they keep you warm but as soon as the feathers get wet, it’s worthless. It completely loses its ability to retain heat.
I chose for a synthetic down like the Marmot Featherless Hoody instead. It packs down into its own pocket and is uber light. The synthetic fill is rated to be as warm as a 700 down fill jacket so you get the warmth you’d want from a down puffy but with the added bonus of being weather resistant.
While the featherless jacket is good, it’s not 100% waterproof so I always throw in this super packable rain jacket for the “just in case it pours” scenarios.
It packs down to the size of a sandwich bag and is one of the lightest rain jackets you can get on the market.
Don’t forget a beanie. Wool or synthetic will do.
You’ll want something on your head when you reach the top of the mountain where it’s windy. It might be warm when you leave but it’s important to be prepared for all scenarios.
Another small but crucial piece of your winter hiking wardrobe. Warm hands are essential when taking photos, setting up camp, cooking dinner, etc. These are wind resistant and lightweight.
When given the choice, I hardly ever choose to wear boots over lightweight trail runners but in winter, it’s a different story.
I look for shoes that are durable, have good grip in the snow and ice, and are weather proof. They need to stand up to the elements and keep me warm and dry.
These GoreTex boots are waterproof yet breathable and the mid stiff midsole ensures support for heavy backpack.
These sock are the bomb. They are super durable and if they ever fail you, Darn Tough will replace them, no questions asked. I use these for when I’m actively walking and then switch out to warm thick socks when I’m at camp
These are my go-to comfy winter socks, whether I’m at home or setting up camp. They are super thick and cozy and stay on my feet from the minute I get to camp to the minute I leave.
I admit these are a bit of a luxury but they are SO worth it. Warm, down booties keep your toes toasty warm while your at camp. Sure, you can get by with just socks but why bother when you can also have down pillows on your feet?
Bags and packs
If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of packs to choose from.
It can be tricky to navigate the internet to find something that’s best for you. You’ll want something that is supportive and comfortable but also durable and semi-lightweight. These are my best picks!
I cannot tell you how much I love my hyperlite bag. These bags are some of the lightest you can find on the market and when you’re hauling winter gear all up the mountain, you’ll want to save every ounce of weight you can. These bags used to be made in white only because any color dye would add to the overall weight. That’s serious dedication! Now they come in black and white. My 40L is big enough for a weekend mission and the added pockets on the outside are great for storage.
If you’re just doing a day mission, an 18L backpack will be perfect. This pack is smaller but still holds all the essentials: camera, food, water, layers. It has a hip belt to help distribute the weight of the pack so it’s not pulling on your shoulders.
I love to organize my pack with dry bags. When you have a top loading pack (like most of the bags used for hiking) it’s easy to lose things in the depths of the pack.
I usually separate my bag into various dry bags: one for clothes, one for food, one for sleeping accessories. It makes it easy to find your stuff in a hurry and also keeps the contents dry if it starts to rain.
If you’re going to be camping in a tent where the temperatures drop to near or below freezing, it’s essential to make sure you have adequately warm sleeping gear.
Tent sleeping is hard enough and if you can’t keep warm, you can say goodbye to getting a good night of rest.
Sleeping pads are not only crucial in making sure you don’t feel the rocks in the ground but also for keeping you warm. If you lay on the ground with no pad, you’ll quickly feel the cold of the snow so having a sleeping pad like this one that elevates you completely of the ground will be a life saver.
The pad efficiently insulates and reflects heat back to your body to keep the cold ground from sucking away all your precious warmth.
Crawling into the Lithium Sleeping Bag is like curling up next to a raging fireplace.
It’s rated to 0 F (-18c) and has 800 fill down insulation. The zippers allow you to poke your feet out, which is great if you’re standing around and want to wear your sleeping bag as a coat, which I often do.
Liners are a great investment.
Not only can they add that extra layer of warmth to your bag, but they also help extend the life of your sleeping pad tremendously. Think how often you wash your sheets. Because sleeping bags are usually down, you probably won’t wash the actual bag that often but a sleeping liner can be washed over and over again keeping your bag stink free.
It took me a long time to buy a camp pillow.
I’ve always opted to stuff my jacket into a ball and make do with that but this year, I finally decided as an adult who enjoys camping, I could finally justify buying an inflatable pillow. The pillow stuffs down to the size of a kiwi and inflates in just a few breaths.
It’s seriously a great investment for sleep comfort.
Definitely not as fun to shop for but a crucial part of packing for winter hikes around the world – everything you need for cooking up a nice hot meal to stay warm.
Jet Boil stoves are a reigning champion when it comes to camp stoves and for good reason.
In most conditions, it boils water in 3 minutes or less and with a built-in ignitor, you don’t have to worry about forgetting matches. The cup is insulated, keeping your contents warmer longer and the easy pour spout makes it easy to pour water into your dehydrated meals or cup of tea.
I must have coffee when I camp. It’s non-negotiable.
I’ve always used instant coffee while camping which is not delicious but very functional but last year, I got the Jet Boil Coffee Press which fits into you jet boil and makes a great cup of coffee. It adds practically no bulk or weight to your pack and allows you to have your coffee in the outdoors.
These collapsable cups and bowls are so handy to have in your camp repertoire. They fold down completely flat so you don’t compromise pack space with them. My recommended contents: Coffee or wine.
There’s nothing worse than cooking your meal and realizing you have nothing to eat with.
I’ve been there. I’ve tried to improvise with the inner cardboard from toilet paper rolls, pieces of bark, even funneling it straight into my mouth. Get a set of these and leave them in your pack so you never have to stoop to my level.
For a day trip, you can’t do much better than a Hydro Flask 18oz bottle. The insulated walls keep your beverage temperature constant so whether you’ve put tea or water in your bottle, it won’t lose heat or freeze in cold temperatures.
While not really a problem in New Zealand, this is a good investment for those who hike in the presence of wildlife or near farmland. This straw allows you to drink from any water source safely, without the fear of getting giardia.
If you’re not on the water bladder train yet, it’s time to hop aboard! Gone are the days of having to take your pack off to get a drink of water. Or having your buddy grab and put back your bottle from the side pockets. Hydration reservoirs are great because you can sip constantly while walking, ensuring you stay hydrated while being active.
For most occasions, a 3 season tent will get you by just fine. I love the Hubba Hubba because it’s durable and lightweight. It can easily fit two people and even three if you don’t mind being shoulder to shoulder with your buddies. The set up is quick and easy and it hold up well in most weather.
2-Person 4-Season: For serious winter campers, you’ll want a 4 season tent. These are a little bit heavier but they are basically bombproof. They hold up well to high winds and hard rains and will be sure to keep you dry when the weather turns.
When the temps drop, so does your battery performance.
Batteries hate being cold and just a few minutes in the freezing air will cause you to lose battery life quickly. This is a problem for those of us who take photos on our phone. I carry a portable charger with me to give me a bit more juice when the phone starts to go. I use my phone not only for photos but also for GPS maps so it’s crucial it doesn’t die on me.
This is a great headlamp for winter hiking. It works well with the luminosity of the snow and the battery life is great.
Hear me out on this. Gaiters are NOT just for your grandad anymore.
They are actually super practical when walking in snow. Laugh all you want but when you step in snow up to your knee, these babies will make sure no snow goes in your shoes meaning your feet stay warm and dry.
Navigation and survival
I always carry a bit of medical supplies with me in case of emergencies. A bit of tape for blisters, some gauze and antibacterial cream for bleeding, and some bandaids for wounds. You don’t need much but a carrying a few essentials is always a good idea.
Personal Locator Beacons are a smart choice when headed into the backcountry.
If for some reason you get into serious trouble, activated the beacon will alert authorities which then results in a search and rescue mission. In some cases, this could be the difference between life and death. They are expensive but well worth the money.
These little balls of fire are perfect in emergency fire starting or even in just regular fire starting. Often we arrive at a hut to find only wet wood which is difficult to use to start a fire.
These cubes burn for ages and make starting a fire super simple so you can spend more time drinking hut wine than tending to your flames.
There you go, I think I’ve covered all the basics for you of what you will need to pack on a basic winter hiking trip.
Winter is a great time to explore nature and get outside, and it can be super fun as long as you pack and prepare accordingly.
How did I do? What did I miss? Have any winter hiking essentials you want to share? Spill!