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Dressing For Hiking In Cold Temperatures

July 27, 2021

Heading out into the wilderness and shaking off the pressures of the modern world, is there anything quite like it?

It doesn’t get better than discovering the peace and quiet of that untouched piece of natural paradise to remind you of why you how vast the world truly is.

Rambling and hiking are great activities for your physical, emotional and mental well-being; getting out and about in the fresh air clears out the cobwebs and lend us a new perspective.

But if you’re thinking of mixing things up a little bit and heading out during the winter or you’re looking to experience the thrill of hiking in cold climates, then it’s crucial to be prepared.

In this blog, we’re going to look at precisely what you’ll need to ensure you’re protecting yourself from the cold to ensure a satisfying and enjoyable experience.

The Fundamentals

When bracing yourself for a cold weather hiking excursion, you’ll need clothing, footwear and traction assists that can be utilized in a wide range of scenarios where temperatures, wind speeds, rainfall, sunlight and surface conditions may vary, which is why you need to be prepared for the following:

  • Temperatures – Prepare from as high as 40° to as low as 20 below freezing.
  • Wind Speed – Up to 50mph
  • Rainfall – Hale, snow, heavy rain, freezing rain, sleet, and fog.
  • Sunlight – Prepare for bright snow glare sunshine, thick clouds and canopy cover.
  • Surface Conditions – You could be traveling through anything from deep snow and thick ice, to muddy ground and water.

Layering

Being prepared also means dressing for an array of exertion levels, such as generating body heat during rigorous activity or when you’re at rest when you need to preserve your body heat.

The recommended approach for cold weather hiking is quite simple – add layers when you’re cold and remove them when you begin to sweat. Concentrate on how your body reacts to different scenarios – if you start to sweat the cold temperatures will cause a chill when you stop moving. This is why wearing cotton is a big no-no on the trail; if you do begin to sweat, cotton will absorb the moisture very quickly.

Assembling layers correctly could spell the difference between staying warm and content or being very cold and miserable. Layering up a few thinner layers of clothing is far more effective at holding heat against the body than just using one thick layer.

Checklist

Cold weather hiking is, of course, a completely different ball game to hiking in warmer climates. The following checklist has everything you need to make a success of hiking, whether you’re doing so below treeline ( usually forested warmer routes) or the more technically challenging above-treeline hikes (on exposed mountains and ridgelines).

Footwear 

Headwear

  • Lightweight wool hat
  • Heavyweight wool hat

Hand Wear 

  • Lightweight wool gloves
  • Water resistant mittens with insulation liners

Outer Wear 

  • Insulated puffer jacket with hood
  • Rain and windproof jacket with hood

Trousers

  • Robust rain and windproof tactical trousers with full-length zips

Mid-Layer 

  • Fleece jacket, insulated vest or pullover.

Base-Layer 

  • Long sleeve thermal jersey
  • Long underwear

Spares 

  • Jersey
  • Underwear
  • Socks
  • Mid-layer

Traction Assists 

  • Microspikes
  • Snow boots

Hydration 

  • Two or three wide-mouth water bottles
  • Water bottle insulation to avoid freezing

Backpack 

  • 35-45 liter backpack with straps for attaching shoes and microspikes
  • Any extra webbing needed to affix more gear

Essentials 

  • Map
  • Compass
  • Headlamps with extra batteries
  • Whistle
  • First aid kit
  • Multi-tool or camping knife
  • Sunglasses and sun cream

Overnight Gear 

These items may not turn out to be essential but may well come in handy if you’re forced to make camp for the night.

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pads
  • The lightweight tent with poles
  • Gas fire stove and pot

Buying Guide: Top Gear

Feet

Insulated Snow Boots

Snow boots need to be rated for 20 below freezing or colder. Single layer insulation will be fine for below treeline hiking, but some treks may require an insulated mountaineering boot for long days or above-treeline hiking.

It’s useful to purchase boots at a half or full size bigger than usual given the need to accommodate larger socks and sock liners.

Hiking Socks

It’s advisable to wear a heavier sock in colder climates than you would during other times of the year, but it’s just a matter of personal preference. But, remember it’s always better to be over prepared than under when you’re experimenting with what works for you. Sock liners are optional, but whatever combination you use to keep your feet warm, ensure that you have the room to move your toes to increase circulation and warmth.

Gaiters

High gaiters will help to keep snow and water from getting into your boots and soaking your socks. Steer clear of those which use zips to tighten around your legs as these are liable to breaking off, purchase Velcro gaiters instead.

Head

Hats

Two hats are required for every low-temperature hike – a lightweight synthetic option for high energy activities and a warm, heavy duty hat you’ll need to wear when temperatures begin to drop.

Torso & Hands

Gloves

Two pairs of gloves are the minimum requirement, although some hikers may bring three or four pairs in different materials if their hands sweat when hiking or they get too cold during periods of decreased activity.

You’ll require one pair off with an outer waterproof layer with a warm, insulating interior. And another insulating glove which can be worn underneath a waterproof mitt to improve dexterity.

Packing multiple pairs of liner gloves means you can switch them out as they start getting damp and cold as well.

Insulated Puffer Jacket

Hiking is a difficult undertaking at the best of times, let alone during winter, which is why regular breaks are needed. Once you’ve stopped to do so, your body will begin to rapidly cool – this is not what you want, which is why it’s imperative to carry a hooded insulated puffer jacket.

It should be sufficiently warm enough for you to be able to wear it for a few hours without feeling the cold.

Water and Windproof Jacket

It’s also wise to carry a wind and waterproof jacket with an adjustable hood that can be tightened during high winds.

These kinds of technical jackets do not have any insulation built-in. Otherwise, you’d be far too warm. What they do instead, is protect you from the high winds and constant rainfall, while trapping the hot air within your middle layer of clothing.

Jackets with at least two or three exterior pockets are ideal for easy access to gloves and headwear, while pit zips offer breathability and venting.

Mid-Layer

There is a multitude of different options when it comes to middle layer insulation, but again it’s just about experimenting with what you feel most comfortable in.

Fleece jackets and pullovers are good, cheaper options, but if you’re willing to spend a little bit more, a wool fleece is a good option, as it will keep you warm and wick moisture away from your torso and base layers of clothing.

Whatever you choose, choose only one at a time, since any more will be unnecessary weight in your bag.

Bottom Layer

Most cold weather hiking aficionados prefer to wear some kind of synthetic base layer which consists of a long sleeve jersey, long underwear and regular underwear under that.

It’s essential that all of your bottom layers are wool or synthetics as they will wick the moisture away onto the next layer of clothing.

Legs

Trousers

Tactical trousers need to be thoroughly water and windproof. Many seasoned hikers find it handy to purchase trousers with full zips along the length of the trouser to help vent excess heat and remove their boots without taking off the trousers.

Backpack

You’ll need a 35-45 liter backpack for a cold or winter day, as you’re carrying more clothes, food and emergency supplies than you would be during the summer.

Any backpack you purchase must have a selection of attachment points and compression straps that you can affix your gear to as you walk such boots, spikes, snacks, and water bottles.

Extra Clothing

It’s essential to bring extra clothing like socks and base layers, in case they get wet. This is quite common during cold weather hiking, where you could encounter snow, wind, and rain at frequent intervals.

It’s also nice to have a change of clothes, so you’re not resting in wet clothing.

Traction Assists

The traction aids, if any, that you choose to pack will depend on the weather and if you’re hiking in a popular area or heading off the beaten track. But if you’ve your research correctly, understanding what you need should come down to a bit of common sense and preparing ahead.

Hydration

Hydration kits with hoses will freeze at the click of a finger in cold climates, so it’s advised that you carry two or three 1-liter wide-mouth bottles but be sure to pack a few insulated sleeves if you’re planning to carry your bottles on the exterior of your pack.

The Backpack Essentials

The list of essentials we previously mentioned is not optional. They are probably more important during cold and winter hikes than any other time of year.

Map & Compass

A map and a compass are essential – it’s very easy to lose your way, particularly during snowfall, where tracks are covered, and everything looks the same.

Whistle

Plastic whistles are by far a better option than metal ones, and this is because there is the potential for a metal one to freeze to your mouth.

Headlamp with Batteries

You should invest in lithium batteries for your headlight or any other kind of electronics you choose to take with you due to their resistance to cold temperatures.

First Aid Kit

While you could purchase first aid and fire starting kits, you could just as easily make up your own at home.

Multi-Tool or Camping Knife

It’s a big help to bring along a multi-tool or camping knife; there are countless scenarios where having a knife on your person may make things easier and could even give you a helping hand in a potentially dangerous situation.

Sunglasses & Sun Cream

Sun protection, even in the snow and cold conditions, is still a requirement. Once the light reflects off the snow, it’s very easy to get burnt.

Taking to the great outdoors in colder temperatures has numerous health benefits; not only are you getting great exercise, but you’re also enjoying the vitamins and minerals from nature which can prevent bugs and colds.

But whether you’re hiking above the tree-line or below, it’s absolutely crucial you do your research and prepare for whatever nature may throw your way.

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