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How to Dress for Winter Hikes

Gear Up for Winter Hikes with the Proper Clothing

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How to Dress for Winter Hikes

Most people think of winter as the off-season for hiking but by preparing for weather conditions with the right clothing, you can get out and experience beautiful landscapes.

Photo © Matt Jaffe, 2011

For anyone who lives in a warm climate, hiking in winter is ideal: mild weather, more verdant conditions, and the opportunity to hike in areas that would simply be too dangerous to explore in the heat of summer.

For hikers in colder climates, winter is typically the off-season. Frigid temperatures and snow make the idea of getting out on the trail seem far less appealing than at other times of the year. The fact is that you’re less likely to hit the trail in Maine or the Grand Tetons during the winter.

That said, there’s no reason why you can’t be a four-season hiker. By hiking at different times of the year, you’ll develop a much fuller sense of the natural cycles of your area and a deeper appreciation of the local environment. And you can continue to get exercise and stay in shape for the start of your prime hiking season.

So you'll want to ready for those occasional clear, crisp winter days that are perfect for hiking.

The key? Dressing for the season and having the right clothing items for colder conditions. That’s true both in northern parts of the country and also areas with some elevation. Visitors often think of such national parks as Zion and the Grand Canyon as having warm weather but they can get surprisingly cold in winter.

Dressing in Layers

Bigger is not better when you’re hiking. A heavy coat leaves you little opportunity to adjust to changes in weather conditions or your level of exertion. For the maximum versatility and comfort, you’ll want to dress in layers.

Base Layer. The key function of this layer is to keep you dry by transporting moisture away from your skin. Be sure to avoid cotton as your base layer because it holds moisture and will leave you clammy once you begin perspiring. Look for shirts made from light merino wool or synthetic fibers.

Insulation Layer. This middle layer is essential for maintaining your body heat. Once again, you want to avoid cotton and instead go for vests, jackets, or shirts made of polyester fleece, which is warm, dries quickly, and comes in different weights. Soft wools that aren’t itchy and goose down also works but the down can lose its insulating qualities if it becomes wet.

Outer Shell. A waterproof or water-resistant shell provides a critical outer defense against the elements, including snow, rain, and wind. Breathability is a key factor. You want a shell that’s lightweight and that preserves your body heat while also preventing a build-up of condensation that will keep you wet and create a chill. A shell with zippers and vents is best because it gives you more opportunities to regulate your body temperature.

Head and Face Protection.

As we’ve all heard since we were kids, you lose most of your body heat through your head, so in winter, a hat is essential.

The truth is that keeping your face covered while hiking isn’t particularly comfortable. But if winds pick up and temperatures drop, you’ll want to limit direct skin exposure. Balaclavas are a good option because they cover your head, neck, and ears and allow you to raise the fabric to protect your nose and face as needed. Balaclavas can also be worn under hats or hoods as an additional layer of protection.

Hands

You’ll definitely want to have gloves or mittens to prevent chapping to your hands and reduce the risk of frostbite. I prefer gloves because you’ll be able to maintain greater dexterity and not have to leave your hands exposed when you perform tasks.

Feet

Socks. If the rest of your body likes layering, so will your feet. A thin, tight-fitting sock against your skin that wicks away moisture is essential for keeping your feet dry and warm. Your outer sock should be made from merino wool or synthetic materials and not be so thick that your foot fits too tightly in the boot and circulation is reduced.

Boots. If you anticipate walking through snow or muddy areas, an insulated, waterproof boot may be heavier but also can help protect your feet. Leather can freeze, so you should look for boots made from a blend of plastic and rubber. If you don’t want to make the additional investment in a separate boot for winter, a pair of gaiters, which will cover part of your boots and prevent snow from entering from the top, can add a measure of protection.

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