Hiking in the winter is a fun way to continue to get outside even during the colder months, but it takes more preparation than the summer. You can go out in the summer for a hike with minimal gear for the most part, but having the right gear for winter hiking and proper winter hiking clothes are key this time of year.
My winter hikes in Washington article quickly became popular as my readers got excited that there were hikes they could still do. However, the main question I kept getting on private messages was what do they wear? I’ve slowly built up my winter hiking gear over the years and finally have everything I need.
Based on that, I put together this comprehensive list of cold weather hiking gear so you know what to bring on your next hike. I’ve also provided helpful safety tips to consider first, so take your time reading this article to properly prepare yourself and enjoy your hike!
Tips for Cold Weather Hiking
Winter hiking is a beautiful way to experience nature when there’s hardly anyone on the trail as the snow falls around you. However, you will need to take a lot more precautions before going.
Plan for it to take longer – Just because you know you can cover seven miles in a certain amount of time in the summer doesn’t mean it’ll be the same in winter. I recommend starting with shorter hikes first to understand how you do when you have to hike in deep snow.
Check the trail conditions – No matter what time of year I go hiking, I always read trail reports first. In Washington, you can find these on the WTA’s website. If someone’s written a good report, you’ll be able to see if the drive to the trailhead is tricky, if there’s anything to be aware of on the trail, and even see recent pictures of what the hike looks like.
Always look at the weather first – Check for any incoming storms in your area before you go on your hike. You don’t want to get stuck in a blizzard, where it’ll be extremely hard to find the trail. You should also be aware that going after a heavy snowfall can present avalanche danger. It’s okay to cancel a hike if it doesn’t look safe – I’ve done it plenty of times and never regretted it.
Rent if you can’t buy – I know that it can be expensive to build up your winter hiking gear list initially. For the first few years, I was able to borrow or rent items like snowshoes until I knew I would be using them enough to justify the cost.
Buy waterproof – Waterproof is key when you’re looking for winter hiking clothes. Even if the snow seems dry, it will eventually melt when it touches the warmth of your body, so you don’t want to be stuck with wet, soggy clothes. You’ll want to invest in good snow hiking gear.
Have a change of clothes in the car – Even though the winter hiking gear I’m about to recommend are designed to keep you as warm and dry as possible, sometimes you get stuck in a rainstorm and get soaked. Knowing you have dry clothes for the drive home is a game-changer.
Winter Hiking Clothes You Need This Season
First, let’s cover the basics of winter hiking – wearing the appropriate clothes.
When I think about planning out my winter hiking outfit, I start from the core and go outward. I always wear merino wool base layers, as they’ll keep you warm and dry during your whole day. You’ll want a base layer top and a base layer bottom.
Originally, I didn’t want to invest in these and kept wearing cheap base layers. However, I will never turn back now that I’ve seen the difference. I consider these essential cold weather hiking clothes.
Merino Wool Socks
The same goes for these – merino wool socks are essential winter hiking clothes because who wants wet, soggy socks after an hour of hiking? I recommend bringing two pairs – one for your hike and one after so you can change into warm, dry socks. After spending a long Mount Rainier day trip snowshoeing, I was glad to have multiple dry pairs waiting for me.
After I have my base layer on, I put on my fleece jacket as my mid-layer. This provides an extra layer of warmth which is essential on really cold days or when you first get started. You can always take this off as you get warmer during your hike, but it’s one of the top warm hiking clothes.
What pants you’ll get depend on if you wear a base layer underneath, meaning you won’t want skintight pants if you’re layering clothes for winter hiking. I love KUHL pants in general because they tend to have a little room and are always comfortable.
A lightweight, waterproof jacket is my top layer during my winter hikes and part of the warm hiking clothes I always bring. I don’t personally recommend a heavy jacket if you already have a base layer and mid-layer because you’re going to overheat quickly. The last thing you’ll want is to have to carry an oversized jacket for the rest of your hike.
Sometimes I take this top layer off if it’s a nice day out and it’s not snowing or raining, as the fleece will be enough once I warm up. I do recommend buying a jacket that has a hood so it’ll be quick to put up in case the snow or rain starts. A waterproof jacket is also nice to have if you go on waterfall hikes in Washington.
Waterproof Hiking Boots
If you buy one thing waterproof, make sure it’s your hiking boots. Having wet shoes will instantly ruin your hike and shorten your day (I learned this the hard way many years ago). These are an investment, as they’ll last you for years to come, so don’t feel tempted to buy the cheapest brand you see.
I personally love the KEEN brand and have been wearing their hiking boots for years. My feet are wide and I have a hard time fitting into shoes sometimes, but these have always been comfortable. Merrell is also a reputable brand that I’ve tried in the past that I can recommend.
Gaiters aren’t always going to be necessary, but they’ll help when you’re hiking in deep snow. There’s no point in spending money on waterproof boots only to have snow fall in the top part of your boot, so gaiters typically go up your whole lower leg to keep them dry.
They’re fairly inexpensive and very light, so I recommend just putting them in your backpack as part of your winter hiking gear in case you need them.
Wearing a beanie is another important item to add to your winter hiking outfit. Keeping your head warm will keep your entire body toasty, so this another must for cold weather hiking clothes.
Alternatively, you can also wear a headband if you don’t like beanies covering your whole hair or messing with your ponytail. This won’t be quite as warm but will still cover your ears to provide protection as part of your winter hiking clothes.
I always wear gloves when I hike because my hands get cold quickly, so they’re winter hiking gear essentials for me. If it’s dry outside, I usually just wear liner gloves and find they give enough protection. I’m also able to hold onto my poles or grab my phone easily enough.
When it’s really cold or raining, I’ll put on insulated gloves over these. You can also add hand warmers to your winter hiking gear list if you’re prone to getting cold.
Necessary Gear for Winter Hiking
Here are some of the top cold weather hiking gear I recommend getting before you hit the trail. While these are mainly winter hiking clothes for women, almost all the brands I suggest have a similar item for men.
When you are dealing with tons of snow, snowshoes are a lifesaver. The first time I tried to do the Scenic Hot Springs hike, I couldn’t get farther than 10 feet because I kept sinking in my hiking boots. The next time I went back, I easily glided over all the snow with my snowshoes on.
While MSR snowshoes are my recommended brand if you’re going to buy your own, you can also rent snowshoes for the day at places like REI if you’re not ready to buy them.
Microspikes are the newest item on my winter hiking gear list and I’m glad I finally invested in them. They’re lightweight and easily strap onto your regular shoes, so you can keep them in your backpack for when you need this gear for winter hiking.
Microspikes are most helpful when you have to walk on ice on flatter hikes. I recommend putting them on once you feel you’ve lost traction with your boots. Put these on your winter day hike checklist so you’ll know you can get across icy areas.
I don’t always love using hiking poles, but they’re necessary for the winter. Hiking poles are cold weather hiking gear that will help provide stability when you’re in deep snow or icy terrain.
There are a variety of poles to buy, with the lightest ones being the most expensive, but you’ll do fine with a mid-range one for most hikes. I do recommend getting ones that fold up so you can easily put them away and using the snow baskets that come most of them.
This is also an inexpensive gift for outdoor lovers that they probably haven’t thought of. I thought it was unnecessary until the first time I used one on a rainy day. You’ll want to sit down during your hike and the last thing you need is your winter hiking clothes getting soaked.
There are several different types – some people prefer the ones that are already inflated, but I personally use a blow-up seating pad since it takes up hardly any space in my backpack. You’ll wish you had this on your winter backpacking checklist sooner once you once it.
There are many good backpacks out there, but the main thing you’ll want to look at is the size (which will be measured in liters, or L). When you’re just going on a day hike, you can get away with a 20 L backpack unless you’re bringing tons of winter hiking equipment.
If you plan on an overnight trip, you’ll want to invest in a larger backpack such as a 40 L pack. Osprey is my favorite brand because it comfortably fits my shoulders, back, and hips. However, the most important thing is to make sure whatever pack you buy is comfortable when you walk around.
Make sure to buy a rain cover as well if your pack doesn’t come with one so you can protect your items in case of a storm.
My emergency blanket is another new item I recently added to my winter hiking packing list, and I don’t know why I went so long without it. They deflect wind and water and traps your body heat to keep you warm. While you hopefully go on your hike with no issues, you never know when there might be a sudden blizzard or you have to camp out overnight.
These are worse case scenarios, so I’m not saying this to scare you. However, when an emergency blanket rolls up smaller than a can and costs less than $20, there’s no reason not to add this to your cold weather hiking gear.
If you want to be as prepared as possible, I suggest investing in a navigation device for a life-saving winter hiking equipment. These are expensive and to be honest, they’re not necessary for easier day hikes. I do recommend ones like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ for overnight trips or going into the backcountry.
Not only can you get GPS from satellite if you get lost, but you can also send pre-programmed messages to family and friends. These can include “I’m okay but running late” if the hike is taking longer or “call for help” with a ping to your location. If you can afford it, I would add it to your winter hiking packing list.
I’ll be honest – a JetBoil isn’t necessary, but this snow hiking equipment will greatly enhance your experience. You’re able to boil water in a matter of minutes so you can have hot chocolate, soup, or any other type of warm meal during your trip.
If you do an overnight trip, you’ll want to put it on your winter backpacking checklist. Nothing is better than a hot cup of coffee after waking up on a cold morning.
Staying in a cozy cabin after a day of winter hiking is a fun way to end the day, so check out the best Airbnb cabins in Washington if you want to extend your trip.
Now that you have a full list of winter hiking clothes and cold weather hiking gear, you should feel much more prepared. It’s time to go out and enjoy the beauty that is winter hiking!