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Backpacking 101: Winter Hiking Guide

On the summit of a snowy Mt. Ellinor in Olympic National Forest

On the summit of a snowy Mt. Ellinor in Olympic National Forest

Usually during the winter months I have the urge to retreat into the coziness of my apartment, but there is something about a snow-covered landscape that brings me such joy and so, even though I’d like to stay in, I head out! In past years I’ve gone on a skiing or winter camping trip about once a month, but this year I’ve made a determined effort to go on as many winter hikes as the weather allows. I’ve been able to spend most of the weekends of 2019 outside either photographing, skiing, or hiking. I’ve shared all of these experiences on Instagram and each time I’ve gotten many interested responses, inquiring where to even begin planning outdoor winter activities. I will be the first to admit that winter hiking is intimidating, even the planning process can be frustrating. I always have to check road conditions, I wonder if I’ll even be able to make it to the trailhead, and I have to decide which gear I should bring—microspikes, crampons, skis, showshoes? I’m by no means an expert when it comes to winter hiking, but I thought it would be helpful to share what I’ve learned in this addition to my Backpacking 101 series!


- THE 10 ESSENTIALS -

The first thing I put into my pack, regardless of the season, are the 10 Essentials. These are: Navigation (physical map and a GPS route in my phone), headlamp, sun protection, first aid kit, knife, fire starter, shelter (we bring 2 space blankets), extra food, extra water, and extra clothing (I always have an extra pair of socks in my bag). In addition to these essentials we also carry a Garmin InReach.


Snowshoeing/skiing in the Paradise area of Mt. Rainier National Park

Snowshoeing/skiing in the Paradise area of Mt. Rainier National Park

- CLOTHING AND LAYERING -

Being outside in the winter means dressing in layers and carrying what seems like an absurd amount of clothing in your pack. I usually start my hikes wearing my base layer, fleece jacket, fleece gloves, and knit hat on top. Despite how cold I may be at the trailhead, I try to follow the motto of “be bold, start cold” and leave my down jacket in my pack. As I hike I will layer and delayer as necessary. It is important that you regulate your body temperature while hiking in the winter and try not to sweat too much, because if you sweat your clothes get wet and if your clothes get wet they get cold. Cold, wet clothes can be dangerous in the winter and put you at risk for hypothermia.

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1. Base Layer Top - I usually wear a mid- or heavyweight merino wool base layer on top (this winter I’ve been using the Icebreaker 250 Vertex and I love it). Merino wool is impossibly soft, wicks moisture, and dries quickly, making it a great fabric for hiking. If you are allergic or opposed to wool you can choose a synthetic alternative such as this version from REI.

2. Columbia “Luminary” Leggings - In the summer I wear hiking pants, but they just don’t keep me quite warm enough in the cold winter months so when the temperature drops I reach for my thick Columbia leggings. A bonus is that they have a phone pocket!

3. Patagonia R2 Fleece Jacket - Over my base layer I will wear my Patagonia Fleece. It’s the perfect weight to keep me warm without making me overheat.

4. Marmot Down Jacket - I carry this jacket in an easy-to-access pouch in my backpack and use it to warm up on breaks. Sometimes if it’s frigid out I will begin the hike wearing it on top to help me warm up, but I try to avoid this as I’ve noticed I overheat quickly, start sweating, and have to take a break to delayer.

5. Fleece Gloves - I like to hike in fleece gloves, they’re more lightweight than ski gloves and give me more dexterity to use my camera.

6. Gore-Tex Gloves - I always have a heavy duty, waterproof pair of gloves in my backpack as well, just in case of unexpected inclement weather.

7. Sunglasses - Snow is bright and reflective! Always make sure you bring sunglasses to protect your eyes, even if it’s an overcast day.

8. Patagonia Powder Bowl Jacket - I typically don’t go on winter hikes when there is precipitation in the forecast, but I always bring along a waterproof hard shell just in case.

9. Buff - A Buff is perfect for keeping your neck warm and protecting your lower face from the sun and wind.

10. Waterproof Hiking Boots - While in the summer you can get away with trail runners or lightweight, low hiking boots, in the winter you should look for a pair of boots that are waterproof (because they will be getting very wet in the snow) and insulated so they can keep your feet extra warm.

11. Knit Hat - Keep my head nice and toasty!

12. Snow Gaiters - Snow gaiters are necessary for keeping snow out of your boots while you hike and they add a noticeable amount of warmth to your legs!

13. Wool Socks


Mt Baker Winter Camping-22.jpg

- MICROSPIKES, CRAMPONS, SNOWSHOES? -

Getting around on mountain trails in the winter usually requires some sort of traction device, and the snow conditions will determine what that device is. In some instances a trail may be so well-traveled and level that you can get by with just hiking boots, but that usually isn’t the case. Below are the most likely pieces of gear you will need when heading off into the mountains in the winter.

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Microspikes - Microspikes are the perfect piece of gear for when the snow is heavily packed down on a relatively gradual trail. As the snow gets more compacted it will start to get slick and it will be difficult to maintain your footing, this is where microspikes come in. They easily slip on over your hiking boots and give you a little extra grip on a slick trail. To the right (or above, if you are on mobile) is an example of a trail that is perfect for microspikes. The snow has been compacted to the point where it is slippery, but the snow is nowhere near deep enough for snowshoes.


Crampons - A big step up from microspikes are mountaineering crampons. The points on crampons are much longer and sharper than they are on microspikes, allowing them to really bite into the snow or ice to give you leverage and stability on steep, icy surfaces. Crampons are more for mountaineering than hiking and most winter hikes won’t require them. However, I wanted to include them in this section because they are an important piece of gear for certain winter “hikes”, such as climbing Mt. St. Helens (below). You can see that Alex is on a pretty steep, icy slope and he needs those crampons on his boots to help him dig into the icy snow and move upward.

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Snowshoes - Snowshoes are useful in deep (>1’) snow. They allow you to stay on the surface and conserve energy by preventing you from postholing up to your thigh with every step. There are different types of snowshoes for different terrain. For example, flat terrain will require a different type of snowshoe than mountain terrain. REI put together a pretty useful post about choosing the right snowshoe (check it out HERE). I personally like these MSR Evo snowshoes that are made for “rolling terrain” and seem to be a pretty good all-around snowshoe.

Alpine Touring Skis - My personal favorite mode of winter transportation! Skis are another “flotation” device, like snowshoes. The awesome, added benefit of using skis is that you can whiz down the hill/mountain after you reach the top!

- OTHER NECESSARY GEAR -

Trekking Poles with Snow Baskets - Trekking poles are useful year-round to take a little pressure of your legs and joints but in the winter you’ll need to make sure you add their snow baskets! If you don’t then the poles will sink right into the snow and you won’t gain any leverage.

Shovel - A shovel is something that you should always bring in your pack in the winter. It is absolutely necessary to carry one when traveling in avalanche terrain, and it can also help dig a snow cave or shelter if you find yourself in (you guessed it) unexpected, inclement weather.

Avalanche Beacon and Probe - In addition to a shovel, an avalanche beacon and probe absolutely must be carried in any avalanche terrain. I will address avalanches in the following section.


- WINTER SAFETY -

Quite possibly the most important investment you can make before heading out into the backcountry in the winter is an avalanche course. If you are going to be heading out into avalanche terrain, that is slopes that are between 30 and 45 degrees, you should consider taking an AIARE 1 course. Know Before You Go and the Utah Avalanche Center offer free online, interactive Avalanche courses HERE, NWAC also offers avalanche courses for snowshoers and many of them are free (you can see the schedule HERE) and finally, YouTube videos can also be very informative.

In addition to taking a class, you should check Avalanche.org before heading out on any winter trip to stay informed about any avalanche problems in the forecast.


Mt Ellinor Sunrise.jpg

- FINDING AND FOLLOWING TRAILS -

How do you find hikes to do in the winter? My favorite websites for finding hikes (whether in winter or summer) are WTA, The Outbound, and AllTrails. Each of those websites contain a wealth of information on hikes including route descriptions, trip reports (which are crucial in the winter), and recommended hiking lists. WTA even has a list of the best snowshoeing hikes for each skill level. Check it out HERE and get out there!

How do you follow a trail in the winter? One of the more intimidating aspects of winter hiking is the fact that the trails disappear under feet of snow, leaving the threat of getting lost seem much more imminent. However, I have found that many popular trails see regular foot traffic and are easy to follow. That being said, sometimes people don’t know where they’re going and we can’t just be lemmings blindly following each other! I recommend always bringing a map and downloading a GPS route of the trail online before heading out. Gaia ($20/year) and AllTrails ($29.99/year) are two awesome apps that allow you to download a GPS route and follow it while offline.

How do you know the conditions of the trail ahead of time? Trip reports! As I mentioned above, trip reports are crucial for winter hikes. AllTrails and WTA usually have relatively recent trip reports for any popular trails. Those reports will give you a better idea of what to expect. But, sometimes conditions change quickly and a trip report that is only a two days old can suddenly be out-of-date. For this reason, I always recommend over-preparing. It’s perfectly fine to get through a whole hike with your snowshoes strapped to your back (I’ve done it), completely unused. Just think of it as extra training weight for that next hike! But, having to turn around half way through a hike because you keep breaking through the snow and postholing is a huge bummer.


Mt. Hood National Forest

Mt. Hood National Forest

- ROAD CONDITIONS -

Another tricky part of winter trip planning is figuring out if there are road closures where you are hoping to go. I try to stick to plowed roads, but, if you find yourself wanting to head up a forest road it’s always good to know conditions before you head out. One of the ways to do this is by checking trip reports, which I mentioned in the last section of this post. The second way is by checking directly with the national forest service or DOT. If you aren’t able to find what you are looking for online, you can make a quick call to the local ranger station!

It’s also important to be prepared for winter driving conditions by either having a vehicle with 4WD/AWD or carrying tire chains. Alex and I have a sedan, so in the winter we always carry tire chains. They aren’t too much of an issue to put on and they make driving in icy conditions much easier and safer. You can also get a ticket for going to places like Mt. Rainier and not carrying them, even on sunny days!



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