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.
This post was written in partnership with REI. If you’re picking up new equipment to get started with winter hiking, check out their Used Gear shop! It’s a great place to pick up gently used gear at a discount.
↠ Layering basics
↠ What to wear for hiking in the winter
↠ Winter hats and gaiters
↠ Base layer tops
↠ Insulating mid layer tops
↠ Outer shell layer
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 if you’re overheating and sweating under your layers, you’re still getting wet. 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 that water does (even more so if there is moisture present). If it’s a calm clear day, you might not need to wear it at all, but it’s always recommended to have it with you.
The #1 layering tip everyone forgets: The day pack
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 it’s so important to have a daypack with you.
If you don’t have anywhere to put your layers, you’ll be tempted to keep them on and just push through. (We have been guilty of this in the past!)
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.
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.
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.
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. After 2020, I’m pretty sure we are all pretty familiar with these things. Oy vey!
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. If it’s particularly cold and windy, snug-fitting goggles might be good options instead.
We can’t say enough good things about Sunski sunglasses. Great products, a real deal lifetime warranty, and 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 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.
I personally like a midweight baselayer top like this 185 weight top from REI. The merino wool traps a lot of heat close to my body and wicks away any moisture that develops. These are super versatile long-sleeved shirts that are great for around the house or as a base layer on a hike.
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: Down weighs less but will stop insulating if wet, synthetics weigh more but will (kinda) continue insulating if it gets wet. Again, ideally speaking, this layer should never get wet.
This quarter-zip pullover sweater is our lightest and most casual mid-layer for winter hiking. We use this a lot of around-town hikes on milder days. On its own, it is great for temperatures in the 40’s F, and when paired with a vest (below) and it can be good down to the low 30’s.
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.
This is another one of our go-to puffy jackets. 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.
Are you cold all the time during the winter? Then the Magma 850 down hoodie is the jacket for you! With 850 fill power goose down, it’s the warmest jacket on this list. It features water-resistant down, abrasion-resistant Pertex ripstop nylon, ergonomic shoulder seams for carrying a pack, and zip pockets positioned to be compatible with a backpack’s hip belt. Best of all, it compresses down and can be packed inside its own pocket!
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.
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.
When it comes to rain jackets, there is always a delicate balance between waterproof and breathable. But if you ever find yourself caught in the freezing rain, you’re going to want a jacket that is actually waterproof. And the Patagonia Torrentshell is actually waterproof. It also features storm flaps, a 2-way adjustable hood, and pit zips.
Gloves / Mittens
There is a big divide between glove people and mitten people, but we think the best solution is a hybrid approach: glove liners + mitten shell. A thin glove liner is great for maximum dexterity when you come to a stop. But when you’re hiking and don’t need your hands, mitten shells offer water and wind protection.
These gloves are perfect if you want something more substantial than a liner but not as bulky as a pair of mittens. Designed with touch-screen compatibility, you’ll have no trouble using your phone to navigate or take a quick picture out on the trail.
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.
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.
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.
Insulated Water bottle
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.
We like to fill insulated water bottles with lukewarm water, which is perfect when it’s really cold outside. As a special treat, we also like to bring along an insulated bottle of coffee, hot chocolate, or tea.
We have a variety of Hydro Flask insulated bottles that are perfect for winter hiking. Water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate. So long as it’s not frozen, we’re into it!
Hydro Flask also makes a wide-mouthed insulated food jar. This can be great for soups & stews, chili mac, or any other warm meal you want to enjoy on the trail.
Winter Hiking Pants and Baselayers
Base Layer Pants
Depending on the temperature, you may want some 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.
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.
While mid-layer bottoms are technically a thing, it’s more common for downhill skiers and snowboarders. There are options out there if you are interested, but our legs never get that cold and we think it’s far too cumbersome for hiking in.
If it’s really cold out, we’ll wear our ski pants with wool base layer bottoms. 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.
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).
I hiked the JMT in a pair of prAna pants and I still think they’re fantastic. The fabric in these Stretch Zion pants is incredible. Water-repellent, 4-way stretch, UPF 50+, and abrasion-resistant – all while feeling incredibly soft against the skin. The pants are also loaded with a lot of subtle technical features but still look sharp enough to wear around town. They come in an expanded range of sizes, too. Awesome pants, really recommend them.
These are my first pair of Kuhl pants and I’ve been really happy with them so far. The ripstop soft-shell Reflex fabric is really durable yet flexible and has a water repellent (DWR) finish to fend off light snow/rain. The ergonomic construction and stretch fabric allow for a great range of motion. They are fast becoming my go-to winter pants.
PS: I was initially concerned about all these pants because of the snap button waist. (A feature on all Kuhl pants.) I didn’t want something flimsy that would pop open every time I bent over. But thankfully the snap is really heavy-duty, with a lot of positive resistance when closed. It hasn’t accidentally opened on me once.
Winter Hiking Boots and Footwear
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.
If your feet are chronically cold while hiking 1.) consider sizing up your boots—this will allow you to wear thicker socks while maintaining good circulation. 2.) consider using toe warmers.
These single-use toe warmers come in a flat pad that fits under the ball of your foot. They take about 5 minutes to activate then remain warm for upwards of 6-8 hours.
If you’re going to be trekking through deep snow or powder, it’s worth considering a pair of shoe gaiters to keep snow out of your boots. For winter hiking, you are looking for something waterproof and potentially insulated (unlike lightweight hiking/trail running gaiters).
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.
A good pair of winter boots can make cold-weather hikes feel like a walk in the park! These insulated, waterproof hiking boots by Oboz have been a crowd favorite for years. While we don’t personally own these boots (yet!), our friends do, and they’ve nothing but great things to say about them!
→ View all top-rated waterproof hiking boots
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 fool-proof as actually buying waterproof boots, but it will work!
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 treads, 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. Unwalkable sections of the trail suddenly become a stroll in the park.
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.
MSR’s EVO snowshoes are a crowd favorite and are consistently one of REI’s top-selling snowshoes year after year. They are compatible with shoe sizes as small as 6 women’s (4.5 men’s) and as large as 15 men’s. If you’re interested in learning more about snowshoeing, REI has a great Snowshoeing 101 guide you should check out.
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 microspikes, if trail conditions require them
- Shoe gaiters (optional)
- Insulated water 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