Winter Hiking Tips

Winter HikingThe weather outside is frightful, but the trails are so delightful… and since we’re all geared up to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

Hike through the winter months and enjoy crowd and bug-free trails, crisp fresh air to ward off the winter blahs… plus there’s no need to “get back into hiking shape” when spring rolls around.

*Snow Forecast and Snow Depth Maps for New Jersey and the Northeast are now on their own page*

Dress in layers

This is really the key to being outside in cold weather; add and remove pieces as needed. Don’t overlook packing a hat and gloves even in shoulder-seasons – they offer an easy way to control temperature.

Depending on the conditions, use these layers:

  • Bottom: moisture-wicking breathable shirt or thermal layer
  • Mid: insulating layer like a fleece jacket
  • Outer: water/wind proof layer
  • Hat and gloves
  • Good socks; waterproof boots

Various layering items we use (not necessarily all at once!):

Resist the temptation to dress too warmly. When you are shivering at the trailhead, you may think you need heavier stuff than you really do. You may be chilly for the first 15 minutes, but once you get moving you will warm up quickly. And if you will be doing a lot of uphill, you will heat up more than level hiking.

If you heat up too much and start sweating, you can risk hypothermia. It can be tough to get the balance right but adjust your temp by adding/removing hat and gloves, and opening/closing pit zips or other clothing vents. With layers, you can remove a piece to cool down and dry out some, then put it back on.

Another way to mitigate sweating is to slow your speed, or at least taper your speed down as you approach a stopping point. [See, “Don’t Sweat: An Impossible Piece of Winter Advice” from AMC]

  • Tip for chilly starts: If you tend to run cold and always find yourself shivering for the first 15 minutes of a hike… try jogging in place for a few seconds at the trail head, or do a couple of jumping jacks to kick start your body a bit. Yes, you’ll look stupid. But you won’t be cold.
Windstopper HatWindstopper Hat
Comfy, lightweight but warm fleece hat from Mountain Hardware. Covers the ears to really keep the chill out. Bonus: looks good and comes in many colors.
Buff“Buff” Headwear
Versatile tube of fabric allows hat, scarf, balaclava configurations – depending on the temperature. This short Polar Buff video demo explains how it’s used.

Under ArmourUnder Armour ColdGear
ColdGear tops and bottoms help keep winter at bay. We find the fit is tight enough to layer, turning our regular hiking shirts and pants into all-season gear.

Traction Aids/Winter Gear

  • YakTrax or MICROspikes can be helpful for traction in the snow. (YakTrax Pro with the strap over the foot is better; we had the original model which slips off sometimes). For a comparison of the two, check out our review of Hiking Traction Devices.
  • Snowshoes can be used for deeper snowy conditions; Crampons may be better in very icy conditions.
  • Gaiters can be worn around your lower leg and over your boot to keep deeper snow out and your pants from getting wet. Ones for snow are water repellant and usually go up above the calf. There are other lower models that are meant more for sandy/desert conditions.
  • Trekking Poles add stability in slippery conditions. Even if you don’t normally use them, you may want them for hiking in snow or ice. Very helpful with snowshoes.
  • Bonus uses for winter gear (in case you need to justify the purchase!): YakTrax: great for dog walking and snow shoveling. Gaiters: For deep snowfalls, we wear our gaiters to shovel out the driveway. Our neighbors are jealous of our snazzy leg gear (…or think we are crazy…it’s a toss up…)
YakTrax ProYAKTRAX Pro
Metallic coils add grip on icy or snowy conditions. Slips over any boot or shoe. Also great for shoveling driveways or walking the dog in winter.
MicrospikesKahtoola MICROspikes
Small metal spikes grip snow and ice; slips over any boot or shoe. More rugged than YAKTRAX, meant more for hiking than general use. Love these; have changed our winter hiking.
Trekking PolesTrekking Poles
Helpful going both up and down hills, crossing streams… and can reduce knee pain in general. We prefer Black Diamond, with shocks, and flicklock instead of twist-tighten.

Snowshoe Resources

It’s important to get the proper snowshoe for your weight, use, and for women to get a woman-specific model (gals and guys have different gaits). Some excellent resources:

Other winter hiking considerations/tips:

  • Petzl Headlamp Daylight hours are limited; know when sunset is. Start early and pack a headlamp in case you get caught out in darkness. A small, lightweight one can be had for around $20 and is easier to hike with than a flashlight. We have a little Petzl Headlamp that barely weighs anything.
  • Know and watch for signs of hypothermia.
  • Tip: in under 20 degree weather try breathing in through your nose, out through your mouth to warm up the air before it gets into your system. More tips: Stay Comfortable in Cold Weather [Backpacker Mag, Oct 2009]
  • Tips for Avoiding Frostbite

Winter Hiking with Dogs

Keep your furry friend safe and comfortable in the snow. Cold temperatures, snow stuck to fur, salt and de-icers irritating paw pads… what’s a dog to do! Check out the resources below to find out about doggie jackets and boots plus tips to keep your pup happy on winter trails:

Dog JacketDog Jacket
Wind and water resistant jacket to keep your dog warm while enjoying the trail with you.
Dog Booties
Dog Booties

Protect your dog’s paws from injury and irritation from snow buildup, salt and de-icer. Or try Musher’s Secret cream.

Dog OvercoatDog Overcoat
Insulated dog coat for extreme cold or inclement weather. Abrasion/snag resistant and reflective.

Winter Hiking in New Jersey

New Jersey gets varying amounts of snowfall… Northern Jersey usually gets the most and may have deeper snow and more ice than central or southern NJ.

Keep that in mind when choosing where to hike in the winter. Central NJ may have no snow on the ground for weeks, or not have gotten any snowfall… but we’ve headed north to a park only to find several inches of compacted, icy snow we weren’t prepared for.

Now we always chuck our MICROspikes in our winter get-out-and-go duffel, just in case. If it’s snowed a lot and we don’t feel like tramping through it, we head to south Jersey where they usually have less or no snow.

Trail surface is a consideration as well. Northern New Jersey is rockier, with more elevation changes to negotiate in snowy or icy conditions. For experienced hikers looking for a challenge, this is where you’ll want to go. For easier trails, head to southern New Jersey and especially the Pine Barrens. The flat, easy trails there are fantastic for winter hiking or snowshoeing. Bonus: the pinelands stay green year round and can be a welcome change to the leafless brown trees elsewhere.