Although it’s tempting to stay indoors during colder conditions, winter walking can be hugely rewarding if you are properly prepared. But what clothing do you need, and what gear should you take when cold weather hiking?
So stop making excuses to stay indoors, and get outside to experience mother nature at her best. The great outdoors is stunningly beautiful in the winter, the light is different the air pure creating the best views you’ll see all year.
Winter walking is a wonderful way of getting out and enjoying these views, as well as learning to appreciate nature and the frozen ground under your feet. It’s also a great way of keeping fit and active during the cold season.
But cold weather hiking is a little different from the walks that you’re used to completing in the summer and you need to prepare for them accordingly. Staying warm and dry is your first priority, as lower temperatures can cause problems. The second thing to consider is being prepared in case something goes wrong.
Cold weather hiking: Clothing
The main difference between summer and winter walking is the weather. So you need to be prepared for colder, wetter, windier and more difficult underfoot.
Invest in a quality breathable, windproof and waterproof jacket and it’ll last you many years. A shell jacket is best as it gives you more flexibility to layer underneath.
Waterproof and windproof overtrousers are also a good idea as they’ll keep off icy rain and driving wind. It is less important that these are breathable as you probably won’t wear them all day, but this depends on the conditions you will encounter during your cold weather hiking.
Waterproof and breathability ratings of 20,000 or higher will keep you dry in even if hiking all day in rain. But if you’re likely to only do fair weather winter walking a lower rating will do, although I would recommend at least 10,000 waterproof and breathable as winter is not a time to take chances.
In addition to your waterproofs, a hat is a vital piece of winter walking clothing as it’s an easy way to regulate your temperature. Gloves are also recommended, these should be waterproof if you will be using your hands during scrambling or walking with poles.
Under your outer weatherproof clothing build up lighter ‘base layers’ and thicker mid layers to trap the heat. Arguably the baselayer closest to your skin is the most important it should be wicking to take sweat away from your body as moisture kept close will soon lead to you feeling cold.
Merino wool is a popular material for baselayers, but man made fibres used in sport clothing can do just as good a job. Avoid wearing anything cotton close to the skin as this traps moisture reducing your core body temperature.
Fleece makes a great midlayer as it is lightweight, breathable and efficient at trapping heat, if you layer up a thin one and a thicker one it will do a great job. In colder conditions many people choose to wear a technical midlayer – this is essentially an insulated windproof jacket with a low level of water resistance.
When winter walking you’ll be dropping layers as you heat up and putting them back on when you stop. This is where technical midlayers come into their own as they provide huge amounts of warmth for their weight, and make it easy to regulate temperature even in the toughest conditions.
The right footwear can make all the difference during a winter walk and it’s important to think long and hard before investing. It’s likely that you’ll encounter icy ground or snow and often muddy slippery conditions. Look for boots proving grip, stability and waterproofing.
For the maximum protection from the weather look to add a pair of gaiters – these keep the snow and water off. Choosing between leather and synthetic boots is a matter of personal preference: either will do the job.
Arguably the most important thing to consider when choosing footwear is fit. It doesn’t matter how waterproof they are, if they don’t fit properly you’ll be in trouble within a few miles. Be sure to wear them in before embarking on any serious cold weather hiking.
Winter walking: Gear and supplies
If things go wrong when enjoying the outdoors in winter it can very quickly become a life or death situation. So it is important to be prepared for the worst case scenario, this will of course vary depending on the type of winter walking you are planning.
So you need to put together a basic survivor pack in case of emergency, such as being stranded or suffering a fall. While the chances of this happening are low, it is slightly more likely during cold weather hiking due to ice, mud and bad weather.
Food and drink
Take plenty of high-energy snack bars, water and a flask of tea/coffee on any walk. As a rule of thumb take what you would need for twice as long as your expected hike duration, plus extra emergency snacks to get you through a night. Make sure to stop for snack breaks regularly to keep your energy levels high.
Flasks don’t need to be the tartan capped monsters of old. These days there are plenty of smaller pocket flasks and insulated bottles that’ll keep fluids warm for 24 hrs.
When hiking away from civilisation, at any time of the year, you should always have a first aid kit and survival blanket. But for cold weather hiking you should also take an emergency shelter, a waterproof mat, a fire making kit and a small torch.
If something goes wrong your mobile is a quick way to call for help, it can also be used to help find your way if lost. So, you should always set off on any hike with a fully-charged mobile phone. Take an additional battery pack if your battery tends to drain quickly.
For cold weather hiking you need to plan your route a little more carefully to considering what would happen if the weather deteriorates or light starts to fade. It’s also worth leaving a map/route plan with someone in order to help track you down should you get lost.
Enjoy cold weather hiking
Winter walking is undoubtedly a little more complicated than during the summer months. You need more specialist gear, have to carry more equipment, and there are also more safety procedures that need to be observed.
But although hiking in cold weather requires more motivation, it can also be more rewarding than summer hikes. Reaching the top in winter to see the clear winter landscape is a magical moment. The air is clearer and you can see for miles plus you will probably have the trail all to yourself.
If this guide to winter walking has you ready to hit the trail then take a look at our hiking discounts as you may be able to save some money.