Winter Hiking 101
Winter hiking provides unique conditions that require more planning and prep than spring, summer, and fall adventures. Learn the basics of winter hiking below so you’ll be comfortable, safe, and secure as you explore frozen waterfalls, snowy trails, and more this season.
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1. Dressing for Winter
One of the top questions we receive from adventurers preparing for winter hiking is: what should I wear? Followed quickly by, do I need to spend a ton of money on fancy winter gear (no!).
Layering 101: The top term you hear constantly for any cold weather activity is LAYERING. Many people assume that layering is all about wearing extra layers in the cold to stay warm, but equally important is the ability to de-layer when you start to heat up. We love to share stories of our lead guide Destiny hiking up Blackhead in the epic cold wearing nothing but a tank top—and why this is brilliant.
When you’re engaging in an outdoor activity that can get your heart rate up and your body releasing sweat, it is essential to de-layer as you warm up. Most people don’t know that you lose heat 25x faster when you’re wet. That’s 25 TIMES, not 25%! You won’t notice this while you’re taking on a difficult uphill stretch with your heart pumping, but this will cause major problems when you stop to rest at a windy, exposed, freezing cold summit. With your base layers soaking wet, you will lose all the heat you built up through exercise, and you may not have dry layers to change into (a reason we recommend always bringing a dry layer on a winter hike just in case). Our founder Dave almost got hypothermia on his first big winter hike 20 years ago when he was still a beginner after he sweated through all of his layers. It can happen to anyone, but it just takes a little knowledge to layer properly.
What clothes do you need exactly: These are our recommendations for a day hike in the winter.
What to wear for a winter hike
Base layer: This layer is designed to trap heat close to your body. Many stores sell base layers now at reasonable prices, such as Uniqlo, or you can invest in something that will last a long time from a brand like SmartWool. Either is perfectly fine for a day hike and most winter overnights in the Catskills.
Insulating layer: This layer is designed to keep the body heat you generate insulated around you, instead of being sucked away into the cold air. Many different types of materials at all different price points can work well for insulation—fleece or wool are the two most common choices. This is generally the thickest layer of your winter clothing.
Wind breaker: Most insulating layers only insulate—they won’t protect you from wind. You could be warm and cozy on trail in your base layer and insulating layer(s), but the second you step onto an exposed face and windy valley, the wind can steal all that nice heat that you’ve captured. A wind breaker completes your insulation system. For anyone looking to save a little money, most rain jackets are also fantastic windbreakers and don’t require you to buy any specialized gear.
Down jacket (optional): You may want to wear a down coat or winter coat at the trailhead, but you’re probably going to need to shed that layer as soon as you start any real hiking or snowshoeing. This is a great layer to keep in our backpack for a snack, lunch, or viewpoint break.
Thermal pants or leggings: It’s a good idea to wear at least one base layer on your legs for winter hiking. Excellent thermal layers can be purchased at a reasonable price (again, Uniqlo is a great brand). Some hikers like to wear hiking pants over thermal leggings, or just leggings. You may want to wear snow pants in particularly cold weather, but they are not essential for most day hikes in the Catskills.
Waterproof boots: Everyone has different preferences for trail shoes and boots, but in the winter, waterproofing is a must. Wet feet are a danger in very cold conditions, and melting snow on busy trails can seep into boots or sneakers quickly.
Hat, gloves, and good socks: A hat and gloves are essential winter hiking items. It’s worthwhile to invest in proper medium or heavyweight hiking socks for winter. You’re much more likely to get wet feet from thin socks not intended for hiking, which can lead to frostnip or frostbite.
Layering is an ongoing process throughout your hike: You should always feel comfortable stopping on a trail to take a layer off to avoid becoming sweaty or put one back on to stay warm. Common stops in the winter to stay comfortable are normal and actually mean you’re probably doing a great job listening to your body and staying safe. Everyone will find a different way to be comfortable in the outdoors.
Bonus, extra layers: It’s always a good idea to bring some extra “just in case” layers on a winter day hike: an extra base layer, an extra insulating layer, and two pairs of extra socks
Finally, remember that everyone will have a different system, and that’s okay. In one group of hikers, all on the same trail, all going the same pace, one person might have on a base layer, insulator, hat and gloves, while someone else is down to just a base layer. Only you can really know what is most comfortable for you!
2. Winter gear: What exactly is the difference between snowshoeing and hiking? What gear do I need in the winter specifically?
If you’ve ever tried to hike in 1+ ft of snow without snowshoes, you know how hard it is trying to hike even a short distance over flat ground. The main two differences in terrain that we encounter on trail during winter hiking season are ice and snow. We’ll start by talking about how to hike on snow.
Snow: Snowshoeing vs hiking: there is really no difference between hiking and snowshoeing. Snowshoeing is just hiking in deep snow, using snowshoes. In general, it’s a good idea to have snowshoes handy for 6+ inches of snow. One thing to keep in mind is that there is often more snow at higher elevation, so a trail may seem like it doesn’t have much snow at the trailhead until suddenly you encounter several feet of snow higher up a peak!
So what exactly IS snowshoeing? There are different snowshoes designed for different body types, sizes, and conditions, but a basic rental pair will work for most people on most Catskill trails (we also have a few different size shoes on hand at DBA if you require a different size). Snowshoes attach simply to boots by strapping onto the outside. No other specialized footwear is required.
The point of snowshoes is to increase the surface area of your foot to distribute your weight. Wearing boots, you’ll sink into the snow and have to struggle through dense snow with each step (also called post-holing), but snowshoes allow you to “float” on top of the snow making it much easier.
Fun fact: Snowshoes are one of the easiest hiking tools to use! In fact, snowshoeing is often easier than hiking when you have to worry about roots and rocks. The exception to the rule is breaking trail, which means walking on trail that hasn’t been tamped down yet by other hikers. We like to say that if you can walk, you can (generally) snowshoe. People with smaller hips sometimes find it cumbersome to get into a rhythm with the wider snowshoes, but this only takes a little bit of practice. Hiking poles make a big difference with snowshoeing as well. If you don’t use hiking poles in warmer weather, you still may want to consider them for snowshoeing.
Ice: Ice is the other major challenge on trail in the winter. For minor ice conditions—think lower elevation with little snow—a good pair of microspikes is usually sufficient. Our favorite brand is Hillsounds. Miscospikes come in different sizes depending on your boot size. Some spikes slip over your boot and others strap on for a more secure fit. Miscrospike have small fairly blunt “blades” on the bottom that give you extra traction on ice. Microspikes are also handy to have for walks in the urban and suburban wilderness. We often wear our microspikes when we walk our adventure dog Winnie during the winter. Please note that spikes intended for at-home use, like Yaktraks will NOT be sufficient for trail use.
Crampons: Typically reserved for true mountaineering, hiking on glaciers, and extreme conditions, it is rare that you will need crampons in the Catskills. We generally only find they are necessary at high elevation over particularly gnarly patches of pure ice. Crampons require a little more technical skill as they have extremely sharp blades. (Imagine how sharp your spikes would need to be to walk on a glacier of pure ice.)
Do I really need to buy microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons to hike this winter?! Absolutely not! Destination Backcountry provides all the required gear our hikers need depending on the trail conditions. Sometimes that includes both microspikes and snowshoes. If you’re planning a hike on your own, many rental options are available throughout the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
3. What do eat in winter and the important of hydration
You need more calories during winter hiking, hands down. In the winter, not only are you burning calories to fuel your activity hiking, backpacking, or cross-country skiing, but you also need to replenish the calories your body is using to stay warm. In fact, winter activity is a great way to get in shape over the colder months. Your metabolism will skyrocket while outside in the cold and stays elevated even in the days after your outdoor activity.
Eating in the winter can be a challenge. Your body may not feel hungry, until you bonk. The first signs of needing calories are feeling disoriented or lightheaded and feeling cold even though you’re active. We always pack extra high calorie treats on winter hikes that we generally avoid during the warmer months, like candy bars. An instant hit of sugar can bring you back quickly if you realize you’re in a dangerous state. Of course, healthy foods with electrolytes like cheese are great for winter adventure. Plan to pack cheese, sausage, and crackers; trail mix; and your other favorite trail treats.
As a special treat we love to serve a hot lunch during winter hikes: warm soup with bread and cheese. A warm cup of soup on a cold winter day revitalizes the soul, warms your body, and gives you the calories you need. For an easier treat, pack warm miso soup in a thermos for your hike.
Water can also be a challenge on winter hikes. Dry air dehydrates us more quickly than we realize in the winter, and we often don’t feel the need to drink water the way we do during the warmer months. We actually need MORE water in the winter months. Sometimes a thermos of warm herbal tea can help you remember to drink enough water.
Bonus tip: in extremely cold conditions, water bottles kept on the outside of packs can sometimes freeze, as can water in hydration packs. Keep your water bottle insulated and inside your pack to avoid this problem.
4. Winter weather and medical considerations
Shorter days and colder temperatures mean a smaller margin for error in poor conditions. It is easy to forgot the impact of shorter days on your hiking planning. For example, for trips leaving from NYC, we wait to schedule winter hikes on big and challenging peaks like Wittenberg until late winter, because we have to factor in drive time (and often additional drive time in winter conditions) plus slower hiking in deep snow, which means it’s easy to get caught descending a peak in the dark. Headlamps are essential gear for any day hike, but especially in the winter for “just-in-case” scenarios
The other big consideration for winter weather is the risk of hypothermia. Many people don’t realize that the most dangerous hiking conditions are ~30 degrees and raining. As we mentioned above, getting wet significantly increases your risk of hypothermia, so snowy weather at colder temps is actually safer than rain.
This also means the risk of hypothermia in case of an emergency is a bigger consideration. Always follow proper hiking protocols, especially in the winter: make sure you share your route and estimated arrival and departure time with a friend or family member, pack a survival kit, and don't push yourself in conditions are more challenging than you expected. See below for an in-depth article on medical considerations for winter.
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