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How To Start Hiking in the Winter (Without Freezing!)

Winter hiking can be intimidating. If you’ve never hiked on snowy trails, there are a few things you should know before you go. For example, how to get ready for colder days and how to choose winter hiking terrain.

Heading out in the snow, ice, and below-zero temperatures requires careful preparation to stay warm, safe, and comfortable.

A man and his Bernese Mountain Dog stand in a snowy open area in front of magnificent snow capped mountains
Thomas and his trusty Berner companion Bella – Chester Lake, Alberta

But here’s the good news: you don’t need to stop hiking when the snow arrives. Here are some winter hiking tips to get you started!

Here’s what to expect in this post:

I haven’t always been an avid winter hiker. In the past, my hiking boots went away when the snow arrived, and I wouldn’t return to the trails until spring.

But once I realized how fun winter hiking can be, I invested in proper gear and got ready to be out in the snow. I’m so glad I did.

Vertical photo of a huge frozen waterfall cascading from the top of a narrow canyon
Exploring Maligne Canyon, Jasper National Park, in winter

Over the past couple of years, I’ve enjoyed hiking several times each month. These excursions have been especially helpful during the pandemic.

Getting outside more in the cold, dark months has changed my view of winter, too. If you’ve never gone winter hiking, now is the time to give it a try.

This article is a guest post. Thomas Coldwell is a Canadian outdoor enthusiast and creator of Out and Across.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Thomas is now based in St. George, New Brunswick. He has lived in four provinces and has travelled to 13 different countries. Thomas can often be found hiking, paddling, biking, and camping.

The following post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale.

Why go winter hiking?

I understand the appeal of a warm fireplace with freezing-cold temperatures outside. But I’ve found regular winter hikes to be more helpful for my physical and mental health.

With shorter and colder days, a few hours outside each week can make us happier and healthier. After all, snow comes every year (in most parts of Canada), so we might as well find ways to embrace it.  

Winter hiking has also changed my view of Canada’s natural beauty. Snow dramatically changes familiar landscapes. I’ve been blown away by snow-covered mountains and blanketed white forests.

Have you ever walked through the forest after a fresh snowfall? Snow absorbs sound and sets the scene for a serene jaunt.

Also, frozen falls and impressive ice features can add to the scenic reward at the end of your hike. These are things you just won’t find in the summertime.

Snowy hiking trail through forest, with track visible in centre. The sky is coloured deep blue
Parlee Brook Trail, New Brunswick

How to get started

Ready to get started with winter hiking? First, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

When hiking in the winter, you’ll face freezing temperatures, snow-covered trails, and shorter days. Winter activity brings risks related to hypothermia, frostbite, avalanche, and dehydration.

Know before you go and prepare for any situation (even if you think it’s unlikely). Some summer hiking know-how can help you better understand yourself and your outdoor abilities, too.

I’d suggest starting your winter hiking adventure with a familiar trail. Many trails turn into hiking and snowshoeing tracks when the snow comes.

Plan to hike during daylight hours and bring a headlamp just in case. If you’re nervous about staying warm, choose a trail that will warm you up quickly (like an uphill trek).

Back view of hiker on snow covered trail leading across open area, which is surrounded by tall jagged mountains
Hiking the Chester Lake Trail, Alberta

Winter hiking gear essentials

Bring the same hiking essentials you’d carry in the summer: water, food, navigation (map, compass, GPS), first aid kit, flashlight, knife, matches, shelter, and appropriate clothing.

In bear country, I always bring bear spray and often a wildlife deterrent horn (not bear bells).

When the weather’s warm, I usually hike with my 18-litre day pack. But when the snow comes, I switch to a 30-litre pack to have more room for extra gear.

In the wintertime, I add more essential gear to my pack to be prepared for different scenarios. For example, additional warm clothing is important in case of injury when waiting for a rescue.

I typically bring an extra down jacket, down mittens, extra base layers, gaiters (for deep snow), and my Jetboil camp stove to boil water or snow. I always bring a merino wool face mask and an extra hat.

Further, I never hike in the winter without bringing trail crampons (even if I don’t think I’ll need them). Trekking poles can also be extremely useful. 

Carrying a larger pack also provides space to bring camera equipment and strap my snowshoes on the outside of the bag (depending on the amount of snow).

Read Next: The 10 Essentials for Exploring the Backcountry

First person perspective, looking down on shoes standing on snow. There are red Hillsound pull-on trail spikes over the snows
Hillsound trail crampons/spikes (similar to these)

How to dress for winter hiking

Dress appropriately for current and possible weather conditions. In the winter, layers are our best friend.

Wear clothing that is going to keep you warm and dry. Be prepared for changing weather situations (check weather reports before heading out).

Layering

Staying warm is crucial but being too warm can make you sweat too much. Cold sweat can be very uncomfortable. Layering allows you to add and subtract clothing as needed. 

So how does layering work?

  • Base layers come in direct contact with your skin and wick moisture away from the body
  • Mid layers trap body heat and provide insulation and warmth
  • Outer layers or shells help hold heat and protect from the elements—including brisk wind and rain

Wear a base layer, mid layer, and outer layer to regulate your body temperature and stay warm and safe.

For instance, I typically wear a merino wool short-sleeve/long-sleeve, fleece or synthetic mid layer, and my favourite Arc’teryx Beta shell.

For my lower half, I usually wear a merino base layer and fleece-lined pants.

While I typically prefer -10 to -20°C for winter hiking, this layering system can keep you warm in -30°C (depending on your layers).

Choose clothing that will keep you warm when wet (i.e. merino wool, fleece, and synthetic material). Never wear cotton.

Footwear and accessories

For most winter conditions, I’d recommend insulated and waterproof hiking boots. I also wear merino wool socks that keep my feet warm (even if they get sweaty and wet…)

Warm gloves, a hat, neck warmer, and a face mask can also be necessary. Frostbite can become a concern, especially with a serious windchill.

If you notice frostbite, protect exposed skin and warm up the effected area immediately (but do not rub).

Read More: What to Wear in Canada in Winter

Thomas Coldwell selfie with winter background featuring trees and snowy ground. Thomas is wearing a blue insulated jacket, sunglasses and a red toque
Layering is a key part of staying warm while winter hiking

Bring extra food and water

Have you packed enough food and water? Now pack some more.

Dehydration and fatigue can happen anytime, so it’s important to bring enough fuel for the adventure. I usually hike with at least 2 litres of drinking water and can collect extra if needed (either filtration or stove).

If you bring a water bladder, just know that the hose will freeze in colder temperatures. I find blowing the water back into the bag stops ice build-up. You could also invest in an insulated tube.

Where and when to go winter hiking

Looking out between trees to a winter scene with snow covered trees and mountains below
Moose Mountain, Alberta

One great thing about living in Canada: there’s no shortage of winter hiking options! 

When I lived in Calgary, I’d often head out to Kananaskis or Banff for winter trails. Some of my favourites include Chester Lake, Rawson Lake, and Tunnel Mountain.

Other popular options like Johnston Canyon or the ice walk at Maligne Canyon can make a great outing. 

Now living in New Brunswick, I’ve been exploring coastal trails such as Barnaby Head and Sam Orr Pond.

Recently, I discovered the Parlee Brook Amphitheatre which has been called the best winter hike in New Brunswick—with an impressive ice valley! You’ll want your camera for this one. 

So when should you visit the trails? Well, that depends on the trail. Is it a popular hike that will likely be packed down by keen snowshoers? Or will you need to trudge through deep snow?

If you don’t want to use snowshoes, I’d recommend waiting at least a week after a significant snowfall before visiting the trails.

Please use snowshoes when breaking trails so others have a nice surface to walk on. Prepare to take more time when trudging through deep snow.

Looking up an incredible ice valley, with trees visible at the very top
Parlee Brook Amphitheatre, New Brunswick

Winter hiking safety tips

As I’ve mentioned, winter hiking brings different risks when compared to hiking in the summer. Remember to wear the right clothing and bring essential hiking gear (plus extra).

When you’re moving, it’s easier to stay warm and comfortable. But if you need to sit for a long period (i.e. if you’re injured and waiting for rescue), extra warm clothes can make all the difference.

Further, if you’re hiking in avalanche terrain, always know possible risks or avoid avalanche areas altogether. Check out Avalanche Canada to learn more. 

Always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. If your plans change, be sure to communicate if you can.

I’d recommend carrying a satellite communications device in case of an emergency on the trail. In the winter, these devices can be helpful if you go off-road and need a tow, or if your car won’t start at the trailhead.

If you’re relying on your phone, keep it warm in your pocket and bring a portable charger (but know that many trails do not have cell service).

Read Next: How to Stay Safe in the Outdoors

Snowy footprints on hiking trail, lined with snow covered trees
Edworthy Falls Trail, Alberta

Winter hiking with dogs

I love hiking with my dog all year round. She’s an 8-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog (Bella) and thrives outside in winter. But not all canine companions love hiking as much as we do (especially when it’s freezing…). 

Get to know what your dog can handle and what they’re comfortable with.

For example, my pooch loves jumping in deep snow, but she’s had some leg trouble in the past. So if I need to snowshoe through deep snow for long periods, I’ll likely leave her at home.

For the most part, she’s on the trails if it’s not colder than -20°C. In freezing temperatures, frostbite can become an issue for humans and dogs alike. I’d recommend dog booties to protect their paws.

Always pick up after your pet and pack it out. I bring a smell-proof bag to pack out Bella’s business. Please don’t leave it on the trail.

Winter hiking can make the coldest months of the year much more enjoyable. Remember to do your research and take precautions to stay warm and safe outdoors. Now have fun on those winter trails!

Close up of Bella the Bernese Mountain Dog's face. Snowflakes are scattered across her black fur
Bella the Bernese Mountain Dog

Other winter posts you may find helpful:

What to Wear in Canada in Winter: A Complete Guide

Snowshoeing 101: A Beginner’s Guide

65 Cool Things to Do Across Canada in Winter

How to Buy the Best Snowshoes: A Complete Guide

The Complete Guide to Travelling Canada in Winter

Essential Travel Tips for a Winter Road Trip in Canada

Winter hiking can be intimidating. Heading out in the snow, ice, and below-zero temperatures requires careful preparation to stay warm, safe, and comfortable. But here’s the good news: you don’t need to stop hiking when the snow arrives. Here are some winter hiking tips to get you started! offtracktravel.ca

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