Winter has arrived in the Midwest and, with it, cold, snow, ice, and wind. Time to batten down the hatches and hibernate until spring, right? HECK. NO. Winter also means no bugs, wide-open views, and less crowds on the trails.

To help you get seasonally prepared, we’ve compiled a list of hiking hacks to keep you warm, safe, and steady during the cold-weather months. So, grab that wool beanie and a pack of hand warmers. Let’s get outside!

  • Your body expends energy to keep itself warm, which means you’ll likely be burning more calories in colder temps. Carry extra food and eat more frequently. Stash snacks in warm-yet-accessible pockets, so you can get at them easily when you need to.
  • You won’t be perspiring as much as you would during spring or summer, and as a result, you won’t naturally drink as much water. To avoid dehydration, pre-hydrate and remember to drink more while on the trail.
  • Use wide-mouth bottles that you can easily pour hot water into before the hike. Store these bottles in insulated pockets or near insulating clothing inside your pack, so they don’t freeze. If you’re out in freezing temps, flip your water bottles upside-down, so the tops don’t freeze shut.
  • If you use a hydration bladder, insulate your reservoir tube and be sure to blow the water in the tube back into the reservoir between sips. This will prevent the tube from freezing and/or breaking.
  • Say NO to cotton! It’s become a mantra in the outdoor arena, but it’s even more important during winter months. If cotton gets wet, it stays wet, and wet and cold is a dangerous combination. Stick with a synthetic layering system to stay warm (and dry).
  • Use trekking poles for slippery conditions. They might seem unwieldy at first, but once you get the hang of using them, trekking poles will help keep you stable and upright.
  • Take multiple layers of gloves. Your hands may get sweaty, and having a secondary pair of gloves will keep them dry (and warm). No extra gloves? Wearing latex gloves inside fleece gloves will prevent the fleece from getting wet.
  • Waterproof footwear is a must in cold and/or snowy conditions, since wet feet are freezing feet. Double-check your protection before heading out. Plastic grocery bags worn inside your boots can provide waterproofing in a pinch, but a functional GoreTex membrane is much more breathable. 

Traction devices can help with traction on ice and frozen ground.

  • If there’s a chance for snow or ice anywhere along the trail, throw some lightweight traction devices in your packsack.
  • A multifunctional buff/neck gaiter will add an additional layer of warmth and repel that draft ripping through your jacket zipper.
  • Lithium batteries last longer in cold temperature than alkaline; switching them out in your devices to extend battery life.
  • Attach zip-ties to all jacket and backpack zippers to make them easier to grab with gloved hands.
  • Carry Thermacare patches and hand/foot warmers to heat your entire body. Stash them inside pockets to maximize warmth. 
  • Don’t forget sun protection: sunglasses, sunscreen, etc. And use them frequently. 
  • Also, wear a hat. Whether the “you lose 50 percent of your body heat from your head” mantra is true or not, an insulated hat will keep your noggin toasty.
  • Be extra vigilant about directions and your orientation in winter. Snowy conditions can hide trail signs and directional markers.
  • Stay off bodies of water, regardless of how thick you think the ice is. It’s not worth falling in.
  • It may go without saying, but in the winter, days are shorter. Plan accordingly and get back to your vehicle before dark.
  • There’s nothing like pulling off hiking boots while sipping on a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Prepare a thermos of warm beverages and stash it in your vehicle for an apres-hike warm-up.

Overnight Sensation
Considering camping on your hike? Here some tips specific to wintertime stays outside.

  • On colder days, the need for refrigeration isn’t an issue. Boil-in-bag meals (as opposed to freeze-dried) and other perishable items that typically require chilling are fair game.
  • Fuel canisters get bitter cold when in use. To avoid getting frostbite when firing up a stove, wrap duct tape around fuel bottles/canisters or use gloves.
  • For minimal additional weight, an extra closed-cell foam pad will add warmth to your sleep system. It also provides insulated seating for you and a friend.
  • Similarly, a simple sit pad will keep your bum toasty instead of sitting on that cold rock or the cold, wet ground.
  • Keep your electronics warm overnight and conserve battery life by placing them in a stuff sack at the bottom of your sleeping bag.

Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.