Winter hiking in Steamboat Springs, CO and my favorite things

Top Winter Hiking Tips to Stay Safe and Warm

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Have you ever considered hiking in the winter months? Snow and colder temperatures don’t have to signal the end to your hiking adventures.

Sure, you’re comfortable with hiking in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, and these are often considered to be the most popular hiking seasons of the year, but did you know it is possible to stay safe and warm while winter hiking as well?

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Winter Hiking Safety Tips

  1. Check the weather forecast prior to your departure.
  2. Start your hikes mid morning when temperatures begin to warm up and plan to be finished before the sun sets. For many mountain locations, sunset can be as early as 4:30 pm.
  3. Try to find winter hiking trails that keep you in the sunshine.
  4. Stay hydrated as you hike.
  5. Pack easy-to-eat food and be sure to pack out all of your trash.
  6. Wear the appropriate footwear.
  7. Dress in layers—invest in clothing layers that are designed for cooler temperatures and that wick the sweat away from your body.
  8. Pack quality winter hiking safety gear.
  9. Download maps to your cellphone.
  10. Tell someone where you will be hiking.
Winter hiking and snowshoeing

Winter Hiking and The “Ten Essentials”

In the 1930s, a group called the Mountaineers assembled a list of the Ten Essentials—required equipment for hikes and adventures to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. 

These Ten Essential Points outline a safety and packing system to prevent disasters and to have tools on hand in the event an emergency does occur, especially if you are winter hiking. If you had to spend the night in the wilderness, could you? 

Today, these Ten Essentials are still as applicable as they were in the 1930s. Moreso, if you are planning to undertake winter hiking adventures.

  1. Navigation
  2. Illumination
  3. Sun Protection
  4. First Aid
  5. Tools
  6. Fire
  7. Shelter
  8. Nutrition
  9. Hydration
  10. Clothing

Packing the “Ten Essentials” whenever you step into the backcountry, even on day hikes, is a good habit. True, on a routine trip you may use only a few of them or none at all. It’s when something goes awry that you’ll truly appreciate the value of carrying these items that could be essential to your survival… Back then, the list included a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife and extra food.

REI.com

The bonus for the 21st Century? The gear available to use today is truly remarkable as it is lightweight, compact, practical, and functional.

As you transition from your hikes in the summer months to the chillier weather conditions in the Fall, Winter, and Spring, you will add different supplies and items to your gear, but always the “Ten Essentials” should be covered.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the items you really need to carry with you for your winter hiking excursions. 

Essentials for day hiking

A great tip when you begin your winter hiking is to take a picture with your Phone [affiliate] of the map board before you set out on your winter hiking excursion. You’ll find these boards at most, if not all, trailheads within the United States National and State Park trail systems.

A picture of the map can help in a pinch as you are hiking and need help navigating, you forget to download your map prior to leaving, you lose cell service, or your phone battery dies.

Trailhead at East Inlet in RMNP

Along the trail you will also find markers showing the direction you should go and the distance of nearby hikes.

Trail marker at East Inlet in RMNP

Make sure that you bring a FULLY CHARGED Portable Charger to ensure that your phone has enough power for you to use downloaded maps to safely navigate the trail while winter hiking and then get you back to your vehicle.

Keep the portable charger and your phone as warm as possible while winter hiking by keeping them close to your body.

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You will find that the INIU Portable Charger [affiliate] is one of the 14 Genius Gadgets for Travel adventures as well.

Consider using the AllTrails App to find and map your winter hiking excursions. The app comes highly recommended with options for a free and a paid subscription. It offers the largest selection of detailed trail maps with reviews and suggestions that can be easily downloaded and followed offline.

Be sure to download the maps of your chosen hikes to your cell phone while you have cell service so you can stay on track while you are winter hiking.

GPS has revolutionized navigational abilities for hikes; it can accurately track a hiker’s location, elevation gain, and distance traveled.

For your information, the AllTrails App is $29.99 for 1 year or $60.00 for 3 years.

Find your new favorite trail: Wherever you might be, quickly find the perfect hike, bike ride, or trail run by length, rating, and difficulty level. Filter by dog or kid friendly trails, or find trails with great views.

Follow along on the trail: Turn your phone into a GPS tracker and follow your trail so you don’t get lost. Record your pace, distance, elevation, and max speed, and share your adventures with friends and family.

AllTrails App

Sound advice: stay on the trail on your hikes.

If you are using the AllTrails Pro App, it will alert you if you begin to go off-course.

If you do go off-course, remember that the thicker red line on the app will be the marked trail; the narrow red line will be the path you take away from the trail. Stay on the trail.

AllTrails map of East Inlet hike

Illumination 

As noted above, it is wise to begin and end your winter hiking adventures during daylight hours.

You may start your winter “day hikes” in the light of day and never have the intention of needing any type of light source. As a general rule, that is true, BUT, it is also better to be safe than sorry.

Carrying a lightweight LED Headlamp (and spare batteries) or even a small Flashlight [affiliates] is a great idea. A headlamp would give the advantage of allowing you to go “hands free” if needed.

Sun Protection

You only have one chance to take care of your skin.

Wearing sunscreen while you are winter hiking is essential. PCA Skin Active Broad Spectrum SPF 45 sunscreen [affiliate] is a great brand that is long-lasting, lightweight, and sweat resistant.

Wear sunglasses when you go winter hiking

Along with sunscreen, it is recommended that you also wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare and reflection of the sun off the snow.

First Aid

Hiking mishaps of twisted ankles, scrapes, bruises, and blisters are inevitable. There are a variety of lightweight First Aid Kits available to purchase, or you can assemble your own kit. 

Your first aid kit is only as good as your ability to use it so familiarize yourself with some basic first aid skills.

At a minimum, you first aid kit should include:

Fire 

In case of an emergency, being able to start a fire is important. The simple options here include a lighter or small pack of Waterproof Matches [affiliates]. Store these in a small Ziploc and check that the lighter works throughout your winter hiking season.

Mills Lake as a destination for winter hiking

Tools

It is recommended that you always carry a Leatherman, Swiss Army Knife, or Multi-tool [affiliate] that include a knife and a variety of small tools. You may even want to include some duct tape in your gear.

You don’t need to pack the whole roll of duct tape; you can just cut off a section and wrap it around your lighter. It could come in handy for repairing a broken walking pole or mending a hole in your puffy jacket. 

Shelter

You don’t set off on winter hiking trip for the day thinking you may need some shelter along the way.

An easy solution to follow the advice of the Mountaineers would be to pack an Emergency Blanket [affiliate]. It is not meant to provide comfort, but should be lightweight and offer some protection from the elements. A large black garbage bag could also work in a pinch.

Hydration

One of the must-haves for a winter hiking excursion, (and even on your vacations), is a Camelbak 3.0 Liter Hydration Pack Reservoir [affiliates] with a high flow, self-sealing, bite valve. That may sound weird and strange.

Adding the reservoir to The North Face Recon Backpack, with its padded laptop section, is perfect for a day trip pack. You can also fill the backpack with your lunch, snacks, the Camelbak bladder, and extra water bottles. The laptop section is padded enough to keep the water in the reservoir cool and minimizes any leaks to other sections of the backpack. (It shouldn’t be a concern to keep the water cold for your winter hiking excursions.)

You can also buy the 3.0 Liter CamelBak Pack which includes the hydration pack if you prefer. This pack offers enough room to still add your nine other hiking essentials.

You do really have to like the people you travel with to use this method. You all drink from the same bite valve!

If you are traveling solo, or with people you’d rather not share with, consider investing in a smaller sized 2.0 L CamelBak Hydration Reservoir to add to your backpack or the complete 2.0 Liter CamelBak BackPack with the included Hydration Reservoir [affiliates].

Fill the CamelBak reservoir with water the night before your hikes and put it in the fridge or freezer overnight (if you put it in the freezer, only fill the reservoir half way and fill the rest of the way with water in the morning). If no fridge or freezer is available, you can add ice to the pack and fill it with water before your hiking adventure. The chilled water keeps the lunch items cool as you hike, and fortunately, the pack gets lighter as the water is consumed. (Again, keeping things cool for winter hiking is not usually a concern.)

Also tuck a couple of cold bottles of water into the external side pockets of your backpack. When you are hiking for hours, water is essential.

You can add Electrolytes, Zipfizz, or Crystal Lite [affiliates] single serve packs to the water for a little extra energy or flavor boost.

It is also great suggestion to take Water Purifying Tablets on your hikes just in case. That’s what we are planning for right? Those “just in case” moments.

Deer Mountain winter hiking in Colorado at RMNP

Nutrition

Here’s a common sense guideline for packing food: Bring food that you like to eat!

The food you bring may depend on the time of day when you start your hike. On a typical hiking day, you may wish to buy some sandwiches on our way to the trailhead. Add some carrot sticks, apple slices, a salty snack, and something sweet and you are good to go.

Make sure to carry out all of your garbage. 

If you leave later in the day, you can eat your lunch at the trailhead before setting out and simply pack snacks and drinks for your hike.

Pack more food and snacks than you think you will need.

Let’s talk about snacks—especially if your kids go on hikes with you.

Most kids like Goldfish Crackers and some types of gummy treats that come in single-serve or small packs. You could also include individual packs of Peanut M&Ms, Built Bars, Trail Mix, Nuts, and those ingenious Applesauce Pouches [affiliates].

We have tried a variety of power bars, and no doubt, whichever kind we pack, we are pretty sick of them after awhile. But when you need food, and that is what is available, the whining is minimal…never mind, the whining still happens.

We haven’t reached that point with Built Bars [affiliate]. Seriously, the double chocolate mousse bar is fantastic.

Bonus * Use Code SJTRAVELS at checkout for 10% off your Built Bar purchase.

Other options? Pack Clif BLOKS Energy Chews and Jelly Belly Sport Beans.

Clothing

In the colder weather, this is the fantastic look you might sport for your winter hiking adventures.

Winter hiking to Loch Lake

Be sure to check the weather before you leave for your hikes, but even then, it is a good idea to be prepared. Consider packing an extra Puffy Jacket [affiliate] in the cooler months.

Two great pieces of advice:

  1. Layer your clothing
  2. Invest in quality clothing and shoes

Dressing for Winter Hiking

Top Base Layer

Start with a moisture wicking shirt. You may be surprised how much you will sweat in 10° weather. Drawing that sweat away from your skin and staying warm is essential. Also, consider your underwear layer as these are closest to your skin.

Women: Hanes Sport Women’s Cool DRI Performance Long Sleeve Tee

Men: Hanes Sport Cool DRI Performance T-shirt

Top Mid Layer

This should be an insulating layer that helps you to retain body heat and to protect you from the cold on your hikes. A long sleeve fleece will meet your needs quite well.

Women: Full Zip Fleece Jacket

Men: Full Zip Fleece Jacket

Top Outer Layer

Invest in an outer layer that will protect you from the cold, wind, and snow (or rain). Many winter jackets are designed to be less bulky with a reflective thermal lining that traps your body heat for warmth. Having the hood makes such a difference on a cold and windy day.

Women: Columbia White Out II Omni Heat Hooded Jacket

Men: Columbia White Out II Omni Heat Hooded Jacket

Bottom Base Layer Options

Start with a moisture wicking legging or bottom. Again, consider your underwear layer as these are closest to your skin.

Women: Heathyoga Leggings

Men: Hanes Men’s Thermowool Pant

Take note * Cotton is NOT a moisture wicking material and NOT a good option to wear. This includes jeans.

Thermal Tights

Have you checked the options for fleece-lined leggings or pants? They are an option for men and women. Don’t make the mistake of wearing only thin leggings if you are wearing a non-fleece lined snow pant.

Women: Fleece-lined Thermal Tights (affiliate)

Men: Fleece-lined Insulated Pants (affiliate)

Bottom Outer Layer – Snow Pants

It is kind of funny when you look at Chris and I because he needs tall sizes in his pants and I need short or petite sizes. I don’t know how many hikes I have gone on wearing rolled-up snow pants. This year Chris bought me my first pair of petite snow pants. I am sure he was secretly embarrassed to be seen with me scruffing around in too-long pants! They make a difference, so invest in snow pants that are available in short, regular, and tall lengths.

Women: Arctix Insulated Snow Pants

Men: Columbia Bugaboo II Snow Pants

Footwear

Hiking boots are awesome for the warmth and support they provide, often keeping you from inadvertently twisting your ankle.

Women: Oboz Juniper Hiking Shoe

Men: Merrell Moab 2 Hiking Boot

Additional Winter Hiking Gear

Using crampons to hike in the snow

Crampons – Crazy word right? But Crampon Snow Grips [affiliate] make such a difference in being able to walk effectively in snow and to avoid slipping and sliding on the trail. Crampons are unisex but do come in varying sizes, so be sure to check for your size when ordering.

Socks – Invest in some Wool Socks [affiliate] and keep your feet toasty warm as you hike.

Umbrella – You may tuck a small Travel-size Umbrella into your pack in the summer months, but it can come in handy for your winter hiking too.

Backpack cover – If you have ever had a rain-soaked backpack, you will understand why you should add a waterproof lightweight Backpack Cover to your pack to keep your stuff dry if it happens to snow during your winter hiking. Especially if you hike with expensive camera gear such as a Canon 6d Mark II [affiliate].

Camera – Are you inclined to take pictures along the way? Cell phone cameras these days are pretty sophisticated and lightweight, particularly if you enjoy taking photos while you are winter hiking.

Prepare to capture your best hiking season with 15 Popular Photography Gadgets.

Check out the Hiking and Cold Weather Gear section on My Favorite Travel Things page.

You’ll find Gloves, Gaiters, Balaclavas, Hiking Poles and Fleece Ear Warmers [affiliates]. You will be covered from head to toe!

Winter Hiking Trails to Try in Colorado

  • East Inlet
  • Mills Lake
  • Alberta Falls
  • Bear Lake
  • Loch Vale
  • Mount Margaret Trail
  • Rabbit Ears Pass West Summit 1A
  • Deer Mountain Trail

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winterhikingtips4pics

Final Thoughts on The Top Winter Hiking Tips to Stay Safe and Warm

You don’t have to put your hikes on hold just because of a little bit of snow and cold weather. Gear up for safe and warm winter hiking adventures.

Make smart choices with the items you carry. Bringing along the “Ten Essentials” will ensure that you are covered in the event of an emergency.

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19 Comments
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Megan
4 months ago

We love to take the kids snowshoeing in winter, but a few of them freeze! It’s funny you mention the Merrell Moab, because that’s the boot my son had and he was the only not complaining about cold toes!

Intan
4 months ago

A fully charged portable charger is definitely essential. My husband’s crappy phone always die before we can do anything useful, I am always the one navigating :’)

Linda (LD Holland)
4 months ago

Living in Canada, unless we hibernate we spend some time doing winter hiking. Although I would probably say “hiking light”. The best hiking gear that we added in recent years was good hiking poles. Now that it is snowy and slippery on all surfaces, they give me a lot of confidence to head out.

Hannah
4 months ago

A great guide to the best things to keep hikers warm and safe – thank you! I may have to get me some Merrell books 😉

Brittany
4 months ago

These are really helpful tips! As someone who lives in Phoenix, AZ, and is used to having to use safety precautions for hiking in extremely warm weather, this post was really interesting to me! I’ll definitely be saving if I ever do winter hiking. Thanks for sharing!

Stefan (BerkeleySqB)
4 months ago

Useful post. Thanks for sharing. I’ve just registered for a winter skills mountaineering course next month and started to read up on winter hiking tips a few weeks ago. However, I still found lots of new ideas in your post such as first aid kit items, waterproof matches, swiss army knife, duct tape, emergency blanket and electrolytes.

Melissa
Melissa
4 months ago

Great tips! I’ve never done a winter hike before but want to try one, maybe this winter ❄️

Amy Aed
4 months ago

Dressing in layers is definitely the most important thing!

Corine
Corine
4 months ago

Very useful tips. I will definitely come back to your article when I am leaving for Norway. 🙂

Jeanine
4 months ago

What a great list.. seems to be an original packing list, we don’t do snow hikes but winter here is cold wet and slippery underfoot… thanks for the tips…

Evie
3 months ago

Such an awesome guide! I second always wearing layers and ensuring others know where you are when hiking in the winter. And definitely sunscreen! Seems unnecessary but it is an absolutely must (sunglasses too!).

We just bought our first thermal jacket and I love it! It truly is amazing and keeps me so warm when out with scoutings in the winter.

Micheon
3 months ago

Wow very informative!

mihaela |https://theworldisanoyster.com/

Reading this, I just remembered how I used to climb mountains in the winter and sleep in refuges. Lovely times. Now I miss proper winters!