Hiking season doesn’t have to end with the arrival of winter. With the right clothing, you can enjoy your favorite day hiking trails all year round! In this post, we share the gear that helped us embrace winter and fall in love with cold-weather hiking.
There’s a Scandinavian expression that captures the essence of winter hiking: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
For years, we felt we had to “get through” winter. It’s cold, dark, and miserable, so we would hunker down and wait for it to be over. Going for a short walk around the neighborhood, never mind going on an actual hike, was out of the question.
All that changed when we decided to invest in proper cold-weather hiking gear. It is no exaggeration to say having the right clothes reshaped our relationship with winter.
Now, with the right apparel, hiking in the winter has become its own unique outdoor experience we look forward to as much as summer hiking!
Pros of Winter Hiking:
- No crowds
- No bugs
- Good air quality / no wildfires
- Stay engaged in an outdoor activity all year long
- Experience your favorite trails from a different perspective
In this post, we’ll go over the basics of layering, tips to keep warm and dry, clear up a few misconceptions and offer our recommendations for our favorite cold-weather hiking gear.
The number one rule of winter hiking: Stay dry!
Most people think winter clothing should keep them warm. But that is only part of the equation. Good winter clothing needs to keep you warm AND DRY.
Being a little cold is one thing. But being cold and wet can become very dangerous, very quickly. Water conducts heat away from the body 25x faster than air.1 That rate of cooling can rapidly become unsustainable and deplete your core temperature within minutes. So the name of the game is to stay dry!
The good news is there are only two ways to get wet: from the outside and from the inside.
The external factors are pretty obvious. Rain, melting snow, stepping through the ice, or a slushy puddle. Basically, anything around you that is wet or can become wet if exposed to the heat of your body (i.e., snow & ice). You want to select clothing that will keep that water moisture out.
The less obvious factor is getting wet from the inside. Physical exertion will cause you to sweat. You might have a perfectly waterproof shell on the outside, but you’re still getting wet if you’re overheating and sweating under your layers. And once you stop moving, all that sweat will start cooling your core body temperature very quickly.
So the goal is to be comfortably warm but not so warm you sweat. Since hiking has variable levels of exertion (hiking uphill is more taxing than going downhill) you’ll need to be able to adjust your clothing accordingly. This brings us to our next point….
Layering for cold weather and winter hiking
This often misunderstood concept is the basis for how to dress for every winter outdoor activity.
You want to be able to adjust your layers to match your current level of exertion.
Start with a base layer, which traps a thin layer of heat against your body and wicks away any moisture if you do begin to sweat. Synthetics or Merino wool are ideal materials. Cotton needs to be avoided as it holds onto moisture.
Next is a mid-layer, which provides the bulk of your insulation, trapping your body heat to keep you warm. Common mid-layers are down or synthetic puffy jackets. You can also break your mid-layer into two parts: a fleece and a light puffy jacket. This will give you more layers to progressively scale through as your body temperature changes throughout your hike.
Finally, you should have a waterproof and windproof external shell. This will keep external moisture out and block the wind—wind rapidly accelerates cooling the same way water does (even more so if moisture is present). If it’s a calm, clear day, you might not need to wear it at all, but having it with you is always recommended.
The #1 layering tip everyone forgets: Keep Adjusting!
Layering isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it system! The moment you feel yourself getting a little too warm, you need to stop, open a zipper, push up your sleeves, or strip down a layer.
Conversely, the minute you start feeling a bit chilled, you should add a layer—it’s far easier to stay warm than it is to get warm.
This process should be easy, quick, and convenient. If you’re covering terrain with a lot of variation in elevation, you want to really make a habit of adjusting your layers frequently.
One commonly overlooked part of the layering system is having someplace convenient to put your layers when you don’t need them—which is why having a large daypack with you is so important.
If you don’t have enough room to store your layers, you’ll be tempted to keep them on and just push through. (We have been guilty of this in the past!)
What to wear for hiking in winter
Below, we’ll cover—from head to your toes—all the winter hiking apparel you want to consider before heading out into the cold.
Starting at the top
A good Merino wool or synthetic beanie is invaluable. We’re not sure exactly how much heat you lose through your head, but personally speaking, our feeling of warmth is directly correlated to wearing a cozy hat.
Smartwool Merino Beanie
This beanie is perfect for active winter hiking. It’s thin and lightweight, which means you won’t break into a sweat the moment you put it on. Merino wool fabric is moisture-wicking, breathable, and anti-odor. Plus it comes in really fun color blocking!
Earmuffs or Headband
If your beanie doesn’t cover your ears, or if you wear your hair in a ponytail and want to forgo the full beanie, then earmuffs or a headband can be a good option to have as well.
Smartwool Merino 250 Headband
This headband is super cozy, and since it’s not very bulky, it fits nicely under a hood if additional warmth is needed. This is a perfect solution if you want to keep your ears warm, but don’t want to trap a bunch of heat in a beanie.
Neck Gaiter, Buff, or Scarf
A wool or synthetic gaiter is a great way to trap warmth from escaping up your collar. You can also pull it up over your mouth and nose to cut down on the wind.
Buff Lightweight Wool Gaiter
A lightweight neck gaiter will help keep heat from escaping through the neck of your shirt and can be pulled up to cover your face if it’s windy. If you’re hiking in particularly cold weather, opt for a thicker version.
A bluebird day might be great for a winter hike, but bright white snow can quickly become blinding. Polarized sunglasses do a great job of cutting down the glare. Snug-fitting goggles might be a good option if it’s particularly cold and windy.
Sunski Treeline Sunglasses
We can’t say enough good things about Sunski sunglasses. They have great products, a real deal lifetime warranty, and are very reasonably priced. This model is called the Treeline and comes with polarized lenses and detachable side sun blinders to keep light from leaking in from the periphery.
Balms, salves, and sunscreen
The dry winter air can wreak havoc on your skin and as always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure, so make sure to apply (and reapply) chapstick and lotion to exposed skin. Also, sunscreen! Sunlight reflecting off snow can burn your skin quicker than on a hot day on the beach. So stash these in your day pack and apply them regularly!
Winter Hiking Jackets, Shells, and Base Layers
Base Layer Top
A base layer top traps heat close to your body and wicks moisture away, but it should also be something that’s soft, cozy, and flexible. Merino wool or synthetic are ideal materials as they are both moisture-wicking. Wool is known for its anti-microbial & odor-preventing ability, while synthetics dry out faster.
Patagonia Midweight Capilene Base Layer Top
These midweight baselayer tops are a great option. Made from recycled polyester, we’ve had Patagonia Capilene base layers last for years of hiking and backpacking. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly synthetic base layer, REI Co-op’s midweight crew is a good option.
Smartwool 250 Quarter-Zip Top
This quarter-zip wool baselayer top from Smartwool allows you to open it up a little to regulate your body temperature. It can go from being as open as a polo shirt to as snug as a turtle neck just by adjusting the zipper.
Choose a sports bra that contains zero cotton. Everyone has different needs for a sports bra and should choose accordingly. I personally like the Patagonia Barely Sports Bra.
Your mid-layer is where the bulk of your insulation will come from. The most common forms of insulation are down and synthetic (usually PrimaLoft). They both have their pros and cons, but it basically boils down to this: Down weighs less but will stop insulating if wet, and synthetics weigh more but will (kinda) continue insulating if they get wet. Again, ideally speaking, this layer should never get wet.
Here are a few of our go-to mid-layers for different conditions.
Patagonia Better Sweater
This quarter-zip pullover sweater is our lightest and most casual mid-layer for winter hiking. We use this a lot for hikes on milder days. When paired with a vest (below) it can be comfortable down to the low 40s.
REI 650 Down Vest
A sweater & vest combination is a great flexible option for a winter hiking mid-layer. A puffy vest ensures that you’ll be able to keep your core warm, and the sweater gives a little something for your arms. This setup offers a little more flexibility while reducing the overall bulk of your outfit.
Patagonia Nano Puff
Patagonia’s Nano Puff Jacket is a great mid-layer option with synthetic PrimaLoft insulation. I like that it’s not as puffy as a down jacket, so it fits better under other layers and packs away easily when you’re not wearing it.
REI 650 Down Jacket
As far as down jackets are concerned, the REI Co-op 650 is an incredible value. It’s filled with 650 RDS-certified down so it’s warm and insulating, but it comes with a lower price tag than many other down jackets on the market.
Patagonia Down Sweater
This is another one of our go-to puffy jackets for colder days. It features 800-fill traceable down, recycled ripstop polyester, and comfortable elastic cuffs. But my favorite feature is the interior pocket that doubles as a zippered stuff sack. This makes it super easy to put into a day pack.
Outer Layer Shell Jacket
A weatherproof shell is designed to keep all external moisture (and wind) out. Look for synthetic materials with a waterproof membrane, stretch fabric, zipper vents, adjustable hoods. Your shell also needs to be large enough to go over your mid-layer, so you might want to consider sizing up.
REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket
Waterproof, windproof, and breathable, the REI Co-Op Rainer Jacket is technically a rain jacket but it’s designed to repel any type of precipitation. Pit zips allow you to vent out excess heat, the 3-way stretch fabric offers excellent flexibility, and a 3-point adjustable hood keeps your beanie dry.
Gloves / Mittens
You will absolutely want a pair of gloves when hiking in the cold!
REI Co-Op Polartec Power Stretch Gloves
These Polartec fleece gloves are fairly warm and aren’t bulky, so you retain a fair amount of dexterity when wearing them–and they are touchscreen-compatible.
REI-Co Op Minimalist GTX Mittens
These are waterproof and windproof outer shells for your gloves. You may not need them, but if the weather turns, you’ll be thankful you have them.
The day pack is the MVP of the whole layering system! You want a pack that is large enough to hold all your layers, in case you need to strip down, plus snacks and water. Depending on your size and how many layers you’re carrying, you want something roughly between 20-40 liters. There are a lot of options to choose from.
Deuter Speed Lite
This is a great pack for winter hiking. The large top-loading zippered pouch makes it really easy to stuff layers into, while the top and bottom compressions straps allow you to cinch it down into a compact unit. We also love all the ergonomic features like adjustable shoulder and hip straps.
REI Co-op Trail 40
The more layers you bring with you, the larger your day pack needs to be. This 40-liter pack by REI is a great option for colder winter hikes. It has plenty of room for extra layers, food, water (and even some of your hiking partner’s stuff!) It features one large interior compartment, an adjustable hip belt, hiking pole straps, and a waterproof rain shell.
Water Bottle / Hydration System
Even though you shouldn’t be sweating, winter air can be very dry and you’ll lose a lot of moisture through your breath. So you will want to bring water with you to stay hydrated. Whether you bring a bottle or a reservoir, you’ll want to make sure that your water doesn’t freeze, so opt for insulated versions.
HydraPak Insulated Water Reservoir
This insulated water reservoir also features an insulated hose, giving you added protection against your water freezing. Using a reservoir and hose system like this usually means you’re more likely to drink as you hike (since you don’t have to stop to grab a water bottle out of your pack).
Winter Hiking Pants and Baselayers
Base Layer Pants
Depending on the temperature, you may want to wear base layer bottoms. Most are designed to be worn without underwear. This is good because most underwear is cotton-based, which you don’t want to be wearing.
Smartwool 250 Base Layer Bottom
These are my new favorite base layer, which I wear throughout winter even when I’m not hiking. Just like my Smartwool top, these bottoms are super comfy while providing a thin layer of warmth close to my legs. On a really cold day, wearing a bottom base layer really takes the edge off.
REI Midweight Base Layer Bottoms
This is a more affordable synthetic version of a bottom base layer from REI. It’s the same concept but a different fabric.
Mid-layer bottoms are more common for downhill skiers and snowboarders, but they can come in handy for hiking and snowshoeing, too.
If it’s really cold out, we’ll wear our ski pants with wool base layer bottoms, or these Insulated pants from REI. And if it’s really really cold out, we’ll stay home and play checkers.
Winter Hiking Pants
A good pair of winter hiking pants should be, at a minimum, water and wind-resistant. Pants with a DWR (durable water repellent) coating on the fabric means that water will bead off, though in a downpour waterproof pants would be a safer choice–or pack a pair of rain pants to put over your hiking pants if you encounter rain.
REI Activator Soft Shell Pants
I wanted a pair of winter hiking pants that would be water and wind-resistant, have a bit of stretch, be roomy enough to wear base layers under, and cost under $100. These REI Activator Pants checked all those boxes (and offer 50 UPF protection).
Eddie Bauer Guide Pro Lined Pants
Eddie Bauer’s Guide Pro pants are one of our favorite hiking pants, and this fleece-lined version is perfect for winter hikes. The outer shell features their Storm Repel DWR finish to shed rain and snow, and the fleece lining gives these pants extra warmth.
Winter Hiking Boots and Footwear
If your hike will take you through any amount of snow, it’s essential to have waterproof boots. Snow might not seem wet, but before long the heat from your feet will melt it. So it’s essential to have some type of waterproof system.
Merrell Thermo Chill Mid Waterproof Boots
With a waterproof membrane, low-volume insulation, and deep rubber tread–these are great all-around winter boots.
Oboz Bridger Insulated Waterproof Boots
These insulated, waterproof hiking boots by Oboz have been a crowd favorite for years. While we don’t personally own these boots, our friends do, and they’ve nothing but great things to say about them!
→ View all top-rated waterproof hiking boots at REI
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to spring for a pair of winter boots, you can Scotchgard your summer hiking shoes the night before your hike to keep moisture out. It’s not as foolproof as actually buying waterproof boots, but it will work in a pinch!
Resist the urge to wear super thick hiking socks! Those might be fine around the house, but putting thick socks into already snug-fitting boots is a recipe for loss of circulation. Your feet will stay warmer if there’s a little bit of space in your boots. You may want to pack an extra pair of socks to switch into if your first pair gets wet.
Darn Tough Mountaineering Socks
Darn Tough makes our favorite socks for year-round hiking. In most seasons, their crew-length socks are great, but for winter hiking, you may want to choose their taller Mountaineering socks.
Outdoor Research Gaiters
If you will be trekking through deep snow or powder, it’s worth considering a pair of gaiters. These go over your pants and boots to keep snow from sneaking in through the top of your boots.
Microspikes or crampons
Slipping on a patch of ice is one of the fastest ways to turn a pleasant winter hike into a trip to the emergency room. You might think your boots have good tread, but once you’ve worn microspikes you’ll have a whole new appreciation for good traction. In slippery, icy conditions they are absolute game-changers.
Hillsound Trail Crampons
These are the trail crampons we own and are a solid choice for hiking on packed snow or ice. One of the features we like is the over-the-shoe Velcro strap, which helps the fit feel very secure. We keep them in our car and throw them in our packs on all our hikes during the winter and never regret having them with us. (NB: These are not as beefy as mountaineering crampons, but they do have larger teeth than other hiking-level traction devices.)
We haven’t used these personally, but these microspikes are another choice that is popular with PCT thru-hikers for the snowy Sierra sections. They are a bit lighter than the Hillsound crampons.
If you live in an area where there is a lot of deep snow cover during the winter, snowshoes might be the only reasonable way to “hike.”
Choosing a pair of snowshoes is worthy of its own separate guide, but there are lots of options to choose from if you’re looking to get started.
Winter hiking gear checklist
- Beanie or headband
- Neck gaiter
- Polarized sunglasses
- Gloves or mittens
- Synthetic underwear/sports bra
- Base layer top: wool or synthetic
- Base layer bottoms: wool or synthetic
- Insulating mid-layer: down or synthetic jacket or fleece
- Waterproof outer shell or rain jacket
- Waterproof or water-resistant shell pants
- Wool socks
- Waterproof boots
- Crampons or micro spikes, if trail conditions require them
- Shoe gaiters (optional)
- Insulated water reservoir/bottle
- SPF Chapstick
- SPF Sunscreen
- Toe or hand warmers (optional)
- 10 Essentials: In addition to your winter hiking clothes, you will want to pack your hiking 10 essentials, which include:
Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger
Headlamp: plus extra batteries
Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen
First aid kit: including foot care
Knife: plus a gear repair kit
Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation
Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation
Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectationfrom REI.com