Hiking safely and comfortably during cold weather can require some careful advance planning.
In some areas, temperatures can drop quite noticeably at night or during seasonal storms. In other areas with more definitive seasons, late fall, winter and early spring can bring some memorably chilly weather!
This means the first step to ensuring you stay warm while hiking is to study up on the local weather history! From there, depending on the length of your trip and amenities at your destination, you can pack for warmth and safety.
Use these tips to stay warm while hiking during any time of year!
Aim for Three Layers
Learning how to dress appropriately for cold temperatures is an art form in itself! Seasoned hikers suggest layering for different reasons than you might expect.
Staying warm depends in part on staying dry. When you layer your clothing, even if your outermost layer gets wet, if you have a middle and then an inner layer, the layer closest to your body has a good shot at staying dry.
Choose a moisture wicking material for your innermost layer – thinsulate, synthetic or pure wool will all serve you well here.
Your middle layer will be the equivalent of insulation between your “walls” and so for this layer, look for something made with down or fleece.
Your outer layer is your protection against the elements and should be weather-resistant and water-proof as well as breathable. Lightweight laminates and polyurethane-based synthetics work well here.
Why not choose cotton? This is a great question! For so many years cotton was the fabric that could do no wrong.
Today, with much better understanding of what the skin needs to stay dry and healthy, experienced hikers avoid cotton clothing. Cotton soaks up moisture. It doesn’t have natural wicking ability (like wool does). It takes a long time to dry once it gets wet and can’t keep you warm until it does dry.
Choose Heated Clothing
Heated clothing – is there anything better for hiking outdoors in cold weather? While heated clothing like gloves, jackets, socks and even shoe insoles aren’t the norm in the casual hiking community, serious hikers understand the benefits of garments that can generate their own heat.
Many of these garments are battery-powered and operate with a little help from very fine filaments woven into the fabric that deliver heat. Often heated clothing offers several heat settings so you can adjust for comfort during your hikes.
If you do decide to use heated clothing, just be sure to pack extra batteries, since you will probably be changing them out daily.
Don’t Let Yourself Get Too Cold In Between Hikes
This can be a tough one to navigate at first. Part of the challenge of staying warm when you are out hiking in the cold season is not asking your body to work too hard to warm you all the way up again in between periods of exertion.
So you will need to think about how to stay warm during hiking breaks, midnight bathroom runs, while asleep in your tent, during meals and when changing clothes, socks and shoes.
Doing some light running or jumping in place – just enough to get your heart rate up but not enough to sweat – can help your body stay at a warmer temperature during breaks.
If your shoes or boots get soaked during a hike, bring them into your tent with you and put them in a waterproof bag at the bottom of your sleeping bag. Let your soaked socks dry out in your sleeping bag as well. This way you won’t be icing your feet in the morning when you get dressed again.
One neat tip to keep your socks dry – bag them! Slip your feet into your socks, then into a plastic bag, then into your shoes. This way, your feet will stay warmer and your socks will stay dry.
When you suit up in the morning, wear your wet clothes again rather than changing them out for dry clothes. This way, your dry things stay dry in case you need them in an emergency and your wet things have a fresh chance to dry out on the trail as you hike.
Bring the Right Foods
Another aspect of staying more consistently warm during and between hikes is making sure you are eating the right foods at the right times in the right quantities.
Winter camping can demand a lot of energy from your body both from the physical exertion, the extra weight from packing winter gear and the effort of keeping your body temperature up. As a general rule of thumb, double the number of calories you would normally take in during an average day at home and this will keep your body at break-even from day to day.
Rather than trying to stop for large prepared meals (save this for the evening), plan for small meals and snacks every two to three hours. This way you can keep moving and your body won’t have to work too hard to heat you up again.
Aim for high value foods with plenty of protein, healthy fats and loads of nutrients. Nuts and nut butters, portable protein like eggs, jerky and cheese cubes, fresh and dried fruits are all great choices you can consume on the go.
Bringing along an insulated thermos lets you prepare hot beverages and soups to take along on your hike as well. And at night, don’t go to bed hungry or your body will have to draw down your energy to stay warm during the night.
Drink Lots of Water
You might not fancy frequent bathroom breaks in the icy outback, but this is far preferable to a bout of dangerous dehydration far from civilization. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, remember that your body is using up water as fast as you can drink it to generate heat and keep you warm.
Using an insulated thermos (or even an old sock wrapped around your water bottle) guards against you having to munch on ice cubes instead of drinking your water. For less freeze-prone water, mix in some electrolyte powder or lemonade powder.
Keep Your Head Covered and Dry
This can be a particularly easy one to forget about as you are hiking along and start to warm up. Throwing off your hood gives you a bit more access to Vitamin D, this is true, but it also throws your body into high gear trying to replace the heat you are losing through your uncovered head.
You can also layer your head wear, choosing a thin, wicking cap and then adding a beanie or hoodie over that for extra warmth. Then if you want to take off the outer layer when it gets warmer, your head will still stay warm and dry.
Hike With the Friendly Sun
Cold weather hiking can get a lot colder quickly when the sun heads behind the clouds. As much as you are able, try to stick to trails that let any available sun through to do its little bit to keep you warm.