Hiking in the summer is easy. You throw some snacks and a water bottle in a daypack, bring an extra layer and some sunscreen and hit the trail. It’s warm, sunny, there are plenty of other people on the trail (pros and cons to this, read on friends), and the only thing you really need to watch out for are the afternoon storms. Camping, likewise, doesn’t require too much more than a tent – you can even get away with just sleeping in a hammock if you’re feeling adventurous!

Hiking during the winter months takes a bit of extra effort, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite season to explore.

winter hiking in the rocky mountain national park

Frozen Sky Pond in the Rocky Mountain National Park

winter hiking in the rocky mountain national park

That time I forgot snowshoes but hiked anyway – heading to Odessa Lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park

winter hiking in boulder colorado

Spring snow in Boulder, Colorado

Reasons to Hike In The Winter

  1. With fewer people on the trails it can feel like it’s just you and the mountain! But this also means if you get stuck or injured, it’ll be a while before someone comes along to help.
  2. You can hike the same trail a hundred times during the summer, and it’ll look completely different under a blanket of snow.
  3. No bugs!
  4. With the right equipment, it’s easy to go off the beaten path and explore some new places.
  5. You’ll experience a new kind of quiet, and with less-crowded trails, you’re more likely to run into wildlife near the trail.
  6. Taking a break to make coffee or hot chocolate is so satisfying.
  7. You’ll expend about the same amount of energy, but with the colder temps your body may actually burn more calories!

Of course, with snow-packed trails and freezing temperatures, you’ll need some different gear to make winter hiking enjoyable. Here are a few of my favorites:

Winter Hiking Gear Essentials

1. LAYERS! I can’t stress layering for winter hiking enough. Even if you feel ok at the trailhead with just your winter coat, the temperatures drop quickly as you gain elevation, and the winds can pickup out of nowhere. Start with a tight base layer, add a thicker mid-layer (fleece is warm and cozy – bonus points if it has a high neck and a hood), then a puffy down or synthetic jacket and finally a hard shell as a wind/waterproof layer. I’m always cold, so I’ll wear multiple mid-layers – you can always take them off if you get too warm!

This Columbia fleece is perfect, and only $35!

Columbia Fleece gear for winter hiking essentials

My absolute favorite mid-layer for winter hiking and camping is a bit of a splurge at $250, but so worth it – this Black Diamond hoodie is so comfortable, the fabric is breathable, and the hood fits tightly around your face keeping you nice and warm.

Black Diamond hoodie gear for winter hiking essentials

Waterproof pants are also a really good idea, especially if it’s snowed recently. Snow pants definitely work, but are a bit bulky, so I love these Patagonia pants – they stuff into the left pocket, making them the perfect size to toss into your daypack!

Patagonia waterproof hiking pants gear for winter hiking essentials

2. Thick Socks & Waterproof Boots

Smartwool socks are super warm and comfortable, and these over-the-calf winter hiking socks are made with merino wool and have extra cushion for longer hikes.

smartwool winter hiking socks gear for winter hiking essentials

And these heated socks from The Warming Store might be my favorite purchase for hiking and camping in the winter. Even when we’re only able to get a small fire started in the snow, my feet are toasty warm all night.

best heated socks gear for winter hiking essentials

I’m a big fan of these waterproof hiking boots from Keen! They’re over-the-ankle, which is great for snowshoeing, are rated for -40°F and provide great stability.

best waterproof winter hiking boots gear for winter hiking essentials

3. Warm Beanie – as most of your body heat escapes through your head, having a warm winter beanie is essential! I love this merino wool thermal beanie from Colorado-based Voormi. It’s warm and light, packs down small, and fits under hoods and helmets easily. They also have a wonderful thermal neck gaiter which is great to keep your neck and face warm.

voormi thermal beanie gear for winter hiking essentials

voormi thermal neck gaiter gear for winter hiking essentials

4. Winter Traction like Crampons/Spikes – even if I’m planning to snowshoe, sometimes the snow is packed down on the trail and snowshoes aren’t necessary! I never go hiking in the winter without clipping a pair of crampons to my bag.

winter traction devices crampons or spikes gear for winter hiking essentials

5. Safety Whistle – my daypack has a whistle on it, but it’s important to plan for a worst case scenario, like falling and getting separated from your pack! So I also keep one clipped to the zipper of my mid layer. A metal whistle is great because it can’t break if you fall, but plastic whistle is won’t stick to your lips in the freezing winter weather.

plastic safety whistle for hiking gear for winter hiking essentials

metal safety whistle for hiking gear for winter hiking essentials


6. Food, Water & Hand Warmers – pack your favorite snacks and bring plenty of water! Since I’m always cold, I bring extra hand warmers and will keep one near my chest underneath my base layer when it’s really chilly. If you’re using a hydration pack, like a Camelbak, it’s a good idea to get an insulated tube so the water doesn’t freeze! Or, just be sure to clear the tube by blowing the water back into the reservoir.

camelbak insulated tube gear for winter hiking essentials

7. Fire Stater – again, planning for a worst case scenario, if you do get stuck and need to wait a while for help to arrive, you may need to get a small fire going to stay warm. To make sure it starts, bring some matches (regular lighters don’t work well in higher elevations) and fire starter that will always work. WetFire is a phenomenal product that will work even if it’s raining! For a DIY option, coat cotton balls in vaseline and keep them in a zip-top bag or old prescription bottle – watch this video to learn how.

building a fire on snow winter hiking gear essentials

WetFire in action

wetfire fire starter gear for winter hiking essentials

8. Emergency Shelter – just in case you get stuck! An emergency bivy is waterproof and windproof, lightweight and packs down small. They’re also bright orange, so it’ll help people find you in in a snowstorm.

emergency bivy gear for winter hiking essentials

9. Hot Water & Coffee/Hot Chocolate – so this isn’t exactly an “essential” but when you’re at the top of a snow-covered mountain, or resting beside an icy alpine lake, sipping on something warm will be like a cup of heaven. Alpine Start is a Colorado-based company that makes delicious instant coffee in single-use packets, perfect for tossing in your bag.