Last updated on March 10th, 2019
When the snow falls, it doesn’t mean you have to stay inside. The hiking trails you loved in summer and fall are still there, just waiting there under the cover of a layer of snow. The world on the trail in winter is a different experience altogether. The forest is quieter and sound travels further. And animal tracks can be found everywhere! But before you head out, make sure you prepare. Otherwise, it can spell disaster. Here are my top tips for winter hiking the whole family can use.
7 Tips for Winter Hiking with the Family
1. Start Small
Winter Hiking, you may not be able to go as far as in the summer. With additional challenges like deep snow and ice, you might find yourself spending double the time on the trail. Consider starting on a smaller hike the first time out. This way you’ll have a good gauge at how long hiking under these conditions takes. If the trail is icy and has been packed down, you’ll be in uneven terrain.
2. Stay on the Trail
This should be a no-brainer, but getting lost in the woods is always dangerous. Adding winter in the mix and it’s a recipe for frostbite, hypothermia and so much worse. That’s why you should always have a map on you. Try to pick locations with well-marked hiking trails. I like to stick to State Parks and other places that have well-defined hiking routes with markers.
3. Stay Hydrated & Have Snacks
Hiking in the cold messes with your mind. When you aren’t dripping sweat or under the hot sun, you forget that you are losing water and need to re-hydrate. By neglecting hydration, you can set yourself up for a bad hiking experience. I recently forgot this and after only going a couple of miles I was depleted, with a headache and completely miserable.
To fix this make sure you bring a water bottle or thermoses with you. If you are hiking in below freezing temperatures, consider wearing a hydration pack that is closer to your body or putting your water in a thermos so it doesn’t freeze on you.
Also, bring a few trail snacks to keep your energy levels up. A good hiking snack, like nuts, trail mix and carbs will keep you on track and is a good reason to take a break.
4. Know the Park and the Rules
Each park has its own rules and when winter comes around, a lot of trails transition into groomed trails for Cross Country Skiing or snowshoeing. Some allow hikers while others want to preserve the snow for other uses. Depending on the time of the year and weather, the park rangers may not be at the park. We found this out on a trip to Lake Maria State Park. The rangers will be back when there is enough snow to rent snowshoes and skis.
When you aren’t sure of the conditions, give the park a call the day before. Most of the time the rangers answering the phone have been on the trail recently and will give you some pointers. They can also tell you the hours of operation and if there is ice on the trail to watch out for.
5. Check the Weather Before You Leave
Winter is a climate where you always want to stay on top of the weather. Being stuck in a blizzard can mean death. Even with the snow, knowing if it’s wet snow, dry snow and what the wind conditions will be like can drastically alter how you travel.
6. Have the Right Gear
Making sure you are dressed properly before you leave is crucial to having a good trip. Here is what to wear for hiking in Winter.
Start with a good boot. Chances are your current hiking boots will work just fine as long as they are waterproof. If you have ventilation or if they are water style boot, you’ll want to invest in a better boot. TRUST ME. For more on what to look for in a winter boot.
If you purchased a pair of winter boots that don’t have support, consider leaving them at home. I made that mistake on my first attempt at winter hiking and paid dearly for it with aches and pains everywhere. If you don’t have a good boot, consider bringing a pair of tennis shoes with a good wool sock and traction spikes.
In winter, having an extra layer of traction is always a good idea. You don’t need a crampon or anything too hard-core, just some microspikes that will give you a little extra traction on ice and frozen ground. Make sure to check out the 10 Best Ice Cleats for Hiking You Need This Winter.
Hiking poles are not always necessary when hiking but when you are in an unstable terrain, having the extra pole to give some extra stabilization is better. With winter, the trekking poles can give you extra security as well as testing out the ground in front of you. Allowing you to gather important information about how deep the snow is in front of you and if it’s solid ice you are about to stand on.
I’m starting to sound like your mom, but trust me on this. Having your head covered necessary to keep the rest of your body warm. Pick up wool or synthetic materials. If it’s not snowing, a cotton hat will also work fine. For women, they also make hats that have slits in the back for ponytails. It’s a lifesaver for those with longer hair.
Bring gloves or mittens with you. If it’s below 30 degrees, make sure you have a fleece or some sort of wind resistant element to your glove for added warmth. If you are planning to do a longer hike, consider bringing some glove warmers to give you a little boost.
The buff is one of the most versatile hiking accessories. But my favorite use for them in winter is as an extra layer to protect your face. They can also be put around your head, used as a headband or hair tie or just about anything else. After getting one, I won’t hike without them.
7. Dress in Layers for Winter Hiking
I cannot stress this enough, you need layers. The best part about layers is that they can be removed and easily unzipped if you get too hot.
Base Layer (Tighter Fitting), that can wick sweat. Stay away from cotton because they hold in the moisture. And during winter, staying dry is very important.
Insulation (warmer) – this layer is intended to trap the air inside and keep you warm. Wools, downs, and fleeces are all a good alternative.
Shell (Water Resistance)- The last layer is needed for water resistance. If it decides to rain, sleet or snow, you want something that will keep it out. But it should also be breathable to keep you dry underneath. If your outer layer has down or something inside, you may or not may need an installation layer.
Stick with two layers. Think of a tighter layer underneath that is breathable. Then add a secondary layer on top, like a fleece or snow pant depending. If it’s going to be wet out, you’ll need the snow pant. Otherwise, fleece will do too. In a pinch, a pair of jeans with a tighter pant underneath will work. But make sure you stay upright because if your jeans get wet, they will freeze and be cold.
Are you ready to hike?
Hiking should be fun and not a chore. These tips for winter hiking will help to make sure you have a great time. Make sure you select a location that has something interesting, some of the best locations are those with waterfalls and other oddities that you don’t normally see. Go out after a fresh frost, or when the trees appear frozen. For some inspiration on where to hike, check out the Minnesota State Parks.