Winter Hiking Tips

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Winter hiking tips, clothing and gear, snowshoe resources, and hiking with dogs.

The 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.

This page covers the basics of “layering”, traction aids, winter gear and snowshoes, winter hiking with dogs, winter hiking tips, and a few specifics regarding winter hiking in New Jersey. 

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

Six Mile Run

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 hoody, fleece jacket, or soft shell.
  • Outer: Water/wind proof layer.
  • Hat and gloves.
  • Good socks; waterproof boots.

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

  • Bottom: Long-sleeved wicking tee base layer.
  • Bottom: Under Armour long-sleeve and bottoms.
  • Mid: Heavyweight 1/4 zip long-sleeved shirt.
  • Mid: Fleece jacket; like Kuhl’s Interceptr.
  • Outer: Packable wind/rain shells.
  • Outer: Soft shell jacket w/ “pit zips” – zippered openings under arms to vent heat without needing to remove the jacket.
  • Outer: Heavier jacket, w/zip-out lining.
  • Gloves: Basic lightweight ones, and heavier for really cold weather. Touchscreen capable is nice.
  • Hat: Lightweight fleece beanie hat; heavier knit hat / Peruvian-style (wool with ear flaps).
  • Polar Buff headwear (configure into hat, neck gaiter, balaclava…)
  • Socks: We lean towards Darn Tough, Smartwool, Wright Socks.
  • Gaiters; for snowshoeing.
  • Boots: Mid-cut Oboz. See Hiking Footwear.

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.

We generally only wear a heavier coat when it’s very frigid or snowing, or it’s cold and we’re on an easier hike where we’re not exerting as much.


Hypothermia.

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 temperature 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.

Traction Aids/Winter Gear

MICROspikes or YakTrax

Super helpful for traction on ice and compacted snow, these upped our winter hiking a LOT when we started using them years ago. 

In very icy conditions Crampons may be better.

For a comparison of MICROspikes and YakTrax, check out our review of Hiking Traction Devices

Snowshoes

Snowshoeing is a fun way for the whole family to explore outside in the winter. Unlike other snow sports that require a certain amount of skill, nearly everyone can snowshoe.

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

Not ready to buy? Some gear shops, ski areas, and local parks offer rentals.

Check out our snowshoe buying guide that includes a review of the MSR Lightning Snowshoes.

Gaiters

Can be worn around the lower leg and over boots to keep deeper snow out and 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

These 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.

See our review of our Black Diamond Trail Shocks, plus some things to consider when buying trekking poles.

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 ours to shovel out the driveway. Our neighbors are jealous of our snazzy leg gear (…or think we are crazy…it’s a toss up…)

Snowshoeing

Tips:

Pack a headlamp. Daylight hours are limited; know when sunset is. Start early and pack a headlamp in case you get caught out in darkness. 

Headlamps are inexpensive and are hands-free unlike a flashlight. A smartphone as a flashlight works but don’t rely on it.

We pack Petzl Headlamps that barely weigh anything.

Hypothermia Know and watch for signs in yourself as well as hiking companions.

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. [Source: Backpacker Magazine]

Dog wearing fleece coat in the snow

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! 

Dog Jackets Insulated and/or water resistant coats to keep your dog comfortable while enjoying the trail with you. Abrasion/snag resistant and reflective.

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

Be sure to bring water and snacks for your pup. If it’s hunting season, have something blaze orange on them as well.

Snowshoer on snowy trail surrounded by pine trees

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. (Regions loosely based on dividing the state in thirds).

The Northwest corner – Sussex and often Warren counties – generally gets the deepest snow. The higher areas of North Central (like West Milford) tend to get more as well.

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.

Usually. There have been occasions where South Jersey is sitting under a bunch of snow and there’s not a snowflake on the ground in the North.

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.

Central New Jersey trails often incorporate field edges which makes them a good choice for snowy hiking or snowshoeing – but those open areas aren’t ideal in windy conditions.

For easier trails, head to southern New Jersey and especially the Pinelands. The flat 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.

Jersey Tip: Check the New Jersey State Park’s open restroom list – this shows locations and hours for facilities that are available in winter.


For more, check out everything on the site tagged with winter hiking