Hiking in winter is peaceful and beautiful, and sometimes dangerously cold. If you visit any specialty hiking shop, you’ll find a plethora of technical cold-weather gear for men. Not so much for women. While the industry has started to recognize an untapped source of profit from women adventurers, it seriously lags behind and doesn’t help the female hiker who wants to venture outside in the cold right now!
Your winter hiking goal is to enjoy snowy trails and vistas without freezing like the water. Right?
Well, from one Wander Woman to another, I’m going to share my tried-and-true tips on how to save your body heat and your bank account. I’ve hiked in single-digit temperatures without ever feeling cold or even chilled. A couple days I’ve taken off my coat because of the too-much layering and heat generated from wandering into wintry wonder.
Trust my advice. As I’m typing inside a warm room, I have cold fingers. If I’ve found a way to stay warm outside in winter, then it’s a miracle. 😛
Let’s start at the bottom. Your bottom, to be precise.
Wear moisture-wicking underwear and bra.
Why wicking? Simple. You’ll sweat in all seasons, and you want to wick the moisture away from your body. In the winter, you need warmth, and any bit of moisture will rob you of warmth at the very least. At the worst, you could succumb to hypothermia if you fall on the ice, break your leg, and spend the night in the woods. It can happen.
Furthermore, to be blunt, you don’t want bacterial growth and odor. Cotton underwear and bras will retain the moisture, and you’ll feel unhygienic. You want to feel dry and comfortable, with no chafing either as you hike.
As for what’s comfortable, you may have different ideas, but I prefer no tags, no wires, no constriction. I also prefer a price more comfortable for my wallet. The cost for underwear specifically designed for athletic women can range from $9 to $40 for a single pair, sports bra $6 to $80 (or more).
I couldn’t find reasonably priced hiking underwear at first and bought a pack of Reebok bikinis. However, I find all the behind material uncomfortable. I don’t like my bottom pinched. But recently I shopped Kohl’s after-Christmas sale and scored on three pair of Maidenform sport thongs and two Bali’s Comfort Revolution Confortflex Fit bras, although not labeled as a sports bra. I ❤ them and can’t even tell I’m wearing either on the trail. 🙂
Wear a moisture-wicking thermal base layer.
I tend to feel cold unless it’s over 70*F. Base layers keep me outside for longer periods of time and will keep all you Wander Women on the snowy trails. While you’ll find a lot of great recommendations for technical base layers, Smartwool, Merino wool, and the like, I’ve actually discovered my favorite base layer is a set of Cuddl Duds ClimateRight Plush Warmth (polyester-spandex blend, moisture wicking). They’re warmer than the fleece and the Omni-Heat pairs I’ve tried. Unlike wool, these can tumble in the dryer without shrinking, and you can find a pair for $9 instead of $100. I shouldn’t have to spend a fortune to take advantage of a free activity!
Wear an insulating middle layer.
Insulating middle layers range in thickness, but thicker/puffier equates to warmer, and any synthetic, fleece, wool, or down material will do to insulate you. For my insulating middle layer, I choose a thick fleece pullover to keep warm. Others may opt for a down jacket. Note: with fleece, you may need a wind stopper because of its high breathability (keeps you dry!). I found 2 of my fleece pullovers at Columbia’s Outlet Store. $25 bargains. 🙂
Wear wind/rain/snow protective outer layer
Here’s where I’ve learned from my winter hiking. I don’t need my heavy winter coat, except when the temperatures drop to single digits. My synthetic down jacket (which I unfortunately left at home and will have to grab when I visit soon) would probably work best on cold days and provide the water-resistance needed on snowfall hikes. Sometimes, when it’s not snowing, it’s snowing in the forest as wind blows snow from the treetops. 🙂
You’ll need to decide if you want a water-resistant or waterproof shell. Waterproof means you might sweat, and remember you could die of hypothermia if you’re wet and chilled. My rain jacket says breathable, but it’s not, and I ended up drenched on the inside while hiking in Denali National Park. Luckily I visited when the temperatures didn’t go below 50*F and my layers were moisture-wicking and dried quickly. Hence, another good thing about moisture-wicking fabrics.
On every snowy, cold hike, I’ve worn my snow pants, which are windproof, waterproof, and insulated. I wear my single base layer beneath and feel super warm. Now, if I sit on a snowy bench for long, I will feel the cold. But, hiking, best thing ever! Quite a few times I’ve slid down an incline, or kneeled for a picture. Definitely needed the snow pants. 🙂 Since I’m rather tiny, I lucked into finding a pair in Cabela’s boy’s section. The price is $20 cheaper than adult pairs. Score 1 for being short!
On days when the temperatures aren’t in the freezing range, I wear my Kuhl’s Klash pants. They’re resistant to wind, water, and abrasions! Not to mention, ALL THE POCKETS!!! Funny, I shouldn’t be excited about 5 pockets in pants. 😛 And, yes, I splurged on these pants–$140. Sometimes I do pay for pockets, performance, and durability. I ❤ their streamlined look (zippers for ALL THE POCKETS) and the flexibility of the material, and they do provide warmth with or without a base layer. In addition, the bottom of the pant legs hook to your hiking boots so they won’t hike up while you hike.
The point of layering is you can remove or add layers as you hike, feel warm/cold, sweaty, etc. Carry a backpack to stuff your layers when not worn.
Gear your head, hands, and feet for warmth
I hit the trifecta jackpot when it comes to protecting my head, hands, and feet against frigidity and frostnip.
For my head, I wear three layers on the coldest days. I have an Omni-Heat wrap that fits snug against my ears, an Omni-Heat hat, and a wool face mask. I look like a forest gnome. 🙂 I also apply sunscreen and lip balm.
Never in my life have my fingers been warm in the winter until
I found my Cabela’s Gore-Tex Thinsulate Youth gloves. Even if I have frost-nippy fingers (because my old phone camera didn’t have voice activation and I kept taking my gloves off), I put these gloves on, and my fingers warm up quickly. I highly recommend you find a pair of the highest cold-weather rated gloves you can find. You can always pack thinner gloves if you feel too warm. When I feel too warm, I just clip the gloves together and hike without.
My feet too have never been warmer in the winter. I ❤ ❤ ❤ my Columbia snow hiking boots–the omni-heat technology warms my toes; the omni-grip tread technology keeps me on my toes!
You could strap on snow shoes or traction cleats, if you wish. I haven’t yet tried either. Have you?
Pair your boots with thick wool socks (yes, now I recommend wool too). You won’t find cheap wool hiking socks. But it’s important to keep your toes.
Hike with Trekking Poles
The trekking poles serve a dual purpose for me: protecting my hypermobile joints by taking the weight off while I hike and by preventing me from falling. I’ve not fallen (yet) on the snowy and icy trails, but I have slid a bit. I also use my poles to test the ground I cannot see, especially if I’ve gone off trail.
Carry Food, Water, Whistle, Compass, Hand/Feet Warmers, Emergency Blanket/Shelter, Inhaler, Medical Kit, Anything in Case of an Emergency.
You’re supposed to stay well hydrated, and people forget to drink in the winter because you’re not hot and sweaty (at least you don’t think you are). You need fuel, none-the-less, for the activity. Hiking in the snow requires more effort. Hiking in the snow may increase your chance of an accident because of the slippery surface, because you can’t see the jutting rocks or roots beneath. Therefore, you need to prepare for an accident. Hope one never happens but plan to survive if one does. Furthermore, snow covers the existing trail and you may wander off it. A compass and map will help you find your way. Luckily I’ve had cellular service while hiking in Moraine State Park and McConnell’s Mill State Park, and I can use my All Trails app to double-check my bearings if a trail isn’t well-marked with colorful blazes. Only encountered one poorly marked trail, and yes I wandered a bit off. 🙂 Don’t forget you can follow your footprints back the way you came, unless you went in circles.
ALWAYS inform someone of your hiking plans.
In case of an accident or you’ve become lost in the woods, you’ll rest assured someone will contact the rangers with your likely whereabouts. Search parties won’t have to scout the entire Allegheny if you told someone you planned on hiking the Rimrock trail. Giving someone plenty of detailed information will enhance your chances of being located.
Hike easy to moderate trails. Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule to abide by. You can challenge yourself as much you’d like, but if I know a trail is rated difficult in the summer, then I shy away from them in the winter. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. I prefer to err on the safe side.
Speaking of mileage, hike only the miles you can during daylight hours, preferably the warmest hours; turn around if you can’t complete a trail before dark. I tend to hike after lunch for two reasons: (1) I am aptly fueled and (2) the sun will have warmed the world a bit. A caveat aside, check the weather. Sometimes a cold front or storm can swoop in the afternoon, bringing colder temperatures than the morning. Cancel any hiking plans if your area will encounter dangerous wind chill.
That said, any trail that leads you uphill will amp your body temperature. So, if you’re cold, go up to warm up!
The silly tip: if you feel you’ll slide when you descend, sit on your bottom and scoot down. It’s better to lose face this way than if you fall.
When I first thought about cold and extreme cold weather hiking, I searched all the specialty shops for the right gear. Comparing what they offer men and offer women made me burn–it’s as if they want women warm in the kitchen and not outside. *grumble* I’m too small to fit into men’s clothing. The clothing I could find cost hundreds of dollars for less protection than men’s clothing. So, I ventured to find what would work for my budget and for the conditions, and believe I have discovered the Goldilocks of winter hiking wear and where! 🙂 Check out my previous blogs on my winter hikes!!
I hope my tips will help you stay warm and safe while hiking in winter. Now, excuse me while I go hike!