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Getting ready for a winter hike

Hiking in winter is a treat for all who can bear it. Untouched snow, backcountry glacial views - the immeasurable stillness of winter is finally here for those who, like me, prefer cooler weather and wearing scarfs. For some hikers winter may mean less time on trail, but if cold air doesn’t keep you indoors, the right gear can sustainably keep you in the backcountry. 

Winter is inevitably getting colder, so how do you prepare for winter when you’re not sure what to expect? With cold weather nipping at our hiking boots, let’s get ready for the backcountry by considering the sustainable ways to pack our packs to get on trail this winter. 

Repair Your Outdoor Gear

Before you jump on trail with your winter gear, give them a thorough inspection for storage damage or repair needs. Keeping repair kits is almost an inside joke between my partner and I - but they have come in handy more than once in our outdoor experience. Having the capacity to easily patch a poked air pad or fix a frayed pack’s strap on your own reduces the need for more gear to be manufactured in the first place. Adding longevity to the life of your gear in turn adds to the longevity to the environment. The key to keeping your outdoor gear for many seasons is to properly care for, clean and store your gear. Instructions like taking care not to store your tent wet or leave your hammock out in direct sunlight can add years of reliable use to your gear.

Consider Used Gear

Your once-used tent from REI was great that one time with 6 people, but now it's time to move on and downsize. Many larger ticket items like tents can be bought and sold as used items online and at retailers like REI. If you’re just wanting to try out a new type of camping gear, buying used may be a great way to save a lot of money and help out the environment. Often, gear like winter hiking boots are even returned untouched due to canceled plans - that’s a used-bin score for you later.

Your First Step: A Plan

So what do you need to journey into the backcountry in the winter?

While winter is often when backcountry permits aren’t required to access some popular destinations, check with the local Forestry or Wilderness management offices for permits or passes that may be required before you venture out. Many backcountry trails are not accessible by forest service roads in the winter, so contact them early in your planning process to ensure your route will be open during your travel dates. Many state wilderness areas require wilderness permits to be filled out at the trailhead that connect you to your car in the event of an emergency. Leave itineraries with your emergency contacts and with all involved in your travel plans. If your vehicle will be parked at the trailhead, ensure your parking and any public lands passes are visible, and leave a copy of your itinerary in your car. 

Depending on where you’re hiking, a bear canister or pest-resistant food storage may still be required. Bears can still wander around in winter despite being in hibernation, but your primary goal is to keep all hungry critters out of your food. Remember to follow the Leave No Trace principles and keep these in mind while planning your backpacking trip. 

In Your Backpack

There’s an adage in hiking that I find helpful, “prepare for the last mile, not just the first.” What might be one of the worst feelings in the backcountry, many many miles from your car or cell service - is leaving something behind. Keeping lists for your own specific gear is the best way to ensure you have everything in your backpack, especially for Type-A backpackers. Consider the tenth or fiftieth mile of your hike and what you might need to accommodate changing trail or weather conditions. 

When I’m packing and haven’t thought to look through my hardcopy list, generally I think about my hike and the different events that I can anticipate happening. What do I know without a doubt will happen and how do I prepare for that? If there’s an 80% chance of rain, I should probably grab the raincoat and dry bags. If there are creek crossing or river portages, consider wearing the Gore-Tex boots. I walk through the process of setting up my perfect, ideal campsite in my head, adding gear to my pack as I need them in my mental map of camp.

After your pack is full of winter needs, consider your consumables like food and water, making sure to account for mileage and how much treatable water is available on trail. A rule of thumb for food is 2 lbs a day and a liter of water every two hours, so be sure your backpack can carry the extra water if water sources are scarce on your planned trail. Being familiar with the trail before you arrive is critical to a safe hike and to avoid dehydration. 

It is important to note that you want to avoid using “hollow fiber tube” filters (Sawyer Squeeze, for example) if you are unable to keep them from freezing with water inside them. Other options for filtering are available that may be better suited for your cold weather hiking like purification tablets. 

Layer up. Wool becomes your favorite material once you begin hiking. If someone finds out you liked wool socks, it's all you will get every again for a gift and you’ll be thankful for it. Layering up with thermal base layers, sweat-wicking particularly, are smart additions to cold-weather hiking outfits. Warmer clothes add weight to your backpack - choose your layers smartly by wearing clothes that are durable and made to withstand repeated wear. Finding the right combination of layers may take a few tries. If you’re new to hiking, try your layer options on a local day hike and see what adjustments should be made before going into the backcountry so your pack remains efficient and you stay warm. 

Most backpack weight comes from packing your fears. Hiking in the winter brings on a whole new set of fears to address on trail. What if you can’t get a fire going? I should bring four ways to start a fire. What if I get cold even with this down quilt AND thermals? Check for your fears in your backpack. Do you really need multiple methods for one task that you’ve always done in the past with no problem? Most likely you won’t. Review your gear and whether you believe you need to bring it or not. If you find yourself on the fence about gear - bring it, and decide while you’re on trail if it was worth it. As one outdoor retailer associate said to me, “wouldn’t you rather have it and not need it?” When I can’t decide if a piece of gear should go, I consider the weight of the item and if it’s worth the trade off in something else like nighttime socks or my 50mm lens that isn’t required to go. Usually I leave the gear in-question at home. 

Choose a raincoat that doesn’t frustrate you. Raincoats aren’t always high on the ‘splurge’ lists for backpacking, but if you’ve ever hiked in the rain with a raincoat you disliked, then you already know (and bought the other coat). The last thing you want while hiking a muddy backcountry trail in the rain is a coat that makes you uncomfortable or unhappy. If you want pit zips, get the pit zips. There are always compromises to make on trail - don’t make them with your raincoat!

If you’re in store, try on multiple types of jackets with different features and give them a lap or two around the outdoor center - find a comparable pack to yours in store and see how it fits under pack straps. Pay attention to things like sleeve snaps, where the coat tail would drip water or if the hood can accommodate your preferred hat choice, and over all, make sure the coat you buy is going to meet your expectations on trail. 

Rain coats, like hiking boots, are also some of the more ecologically intensive gear to make; choosing a good raincoat early on in your hiking journey is the more sustainable way to hike. My current NorthFace raincoat is starting its 5th rainy season and still performs like new.

Boots are a sore topic for some. Even my favorite hiking boots of many seasons will rub at least one of my toes raw after enough downhill miles. That said, the right combination of sock and boot will have your feet singing praises up every switchback. Hands down, I’ve made the most mistakes in gear with choosing my boots and how to properly wear them. It’s not recommended to break-in boots on a backpacking trip, which is the first mistake I made as I became more serious about hiking in the backcountry. Take time to wear your boots around the yard or on shorter walks and your toes will thank you later.  

Know how to lace your boots to prevent blisters? Read more


Have a positive mindset. Ultimately, the best way to enjoy the outdoors during the winter is to have the right frame of mind when you hit the trail. Very similar to hiking in the heat, being mentally prepared for discomfort, frustration and defeat is half the hike. Know when trail conditions are more than you are prepared for and be ready to turn around. Have other plans or alternate itineraries in case your scenario is too dangerous to proceed. It may be a bummer to miss out on seeing remote landscapes or summits, but being alive to tell about how you almost made it is better than not.

Photo credits
Amanda Pharis, Gifford Pinchot Nat'l Forest
Alessio Soggetti
Cameron Vaughan, Sierra Nat'l Forest