Last updated: November 19, 2023
I love hiking during the winter. There are fewer people on the trails, significantly fewer bugs, and the genuine possibility of snow, making everything more beautiful. Here, I’ll cover all the things you need to know about winter hiking for beginners in the PNW.
Winter hiking has many beautiful benefits and rewards, especially in the Pacific Northwest. But it also requires different skills and preparations compared to hiking in warmer seasons. It takes a little more planning ahead and preparation.
Winter Hiking for Beginners
Winter hiking offers a unique and breathtaking perspective on the outdoors. The rain cleansed air, snow-covered landscapes, and serene atmosphere can make for a truly magical experience.
How is winter hiking different than other seasons?
*You’ll most likely be hiking in the cold
*You may need micro spikes for winter hiking
*You’ll need to bring more gear
Winter Hiking Tips
Here are 27 suggestions for hiking in cold weather. It’s easy to learn winter hiking. It just requires a few extra considerations than summer hiking.
1. Choose the Right Trail
Selecting the right trail is essential for your own safety and for an enjoyable winter hike as well. Start with shorter, well-marked routes that are relatively easy.
As your experience grows, you can tackle more demanding terrains. Websites, guidebooks, local hiking clubs, and apps can provide valuable information on suitable winter trails in your area.
2. Check the Weather
Winter weather conditions can be unpredictable, significantly impacting your hiking experience. Before heading out, check the weather forecast, paying particular attention to temperature, wind speed, and precipitation.
Avoid hiking during extreme conditions, such as heavy snowstorms or freezing rain. No matter how long you’ve been planning your trip. I know, I’ve been there.
3. Notify Someone of Your Plans
Let a trusted friend or family member know your hiking plans, including your intended trail, estimated return time, and emergency contacts. This information can be vital in case you encounter difficulties during your hike.
4. Get the Right Permits
Check if your chosen trail requires any permits or passes for winter hiking. Some areas may restrict access during winter to protect the environment and ensure safety.
For instance, the route to Gold Creek Pond at Snoqualmie Pass requires a Sno-Park permit and is an extra mile or two longer during the winter.
Essential Winter Hiking Gear
Dressing tips for the cold that make a difference in how you feel and how you hike.
5. What to wear when hiking in cold weather
Proper clothing is the key to staying warm and comfortable during a winter hike. Dress in layers to regulate your body temperature.
Moisture-Wicking Thermal Underwear: Start with a moisture-wicking, insulating base layer to wick sweat away from your skin and provide warmth. Merino wool or synthetic materials work well, for both top and bottom. Icebreaker is my favorite go-to for thermal underwear.
Insulating Layer: Wear an insulating layer like a fleece pullover, down jacket, or both to trap heat and provide extra warmth. I wear both when it’s really cold or just my awesome jacket if it’s not too cold.
Waterproof and Windproof Jacket: Choose a waterproof and windproof jacket to protect against rain, snow, and wind. A breathable jacket with vents is ideal to regulate body temperature. I bring a raincoat even in winter, because it keeps the heat close to your body.
Waterproof Pants: Waterproof or insulated pants with good breathability are essential for keeping your lower body dry and warm. Look for pants with full-length zippers for easy on/off over boots.
Neck Gaiter or Scarf: Wear a neck gaiter or scarf to protect your neck and face from the cold wind.
Balaclava: In extremely cold conditions, a balaclava can provide full-face protection.
Insulated and Waterproof Boots: Invest in warm, insulated, waterproof hiking boots or snow boots designed for winter conditions. Ensure they have good traction to prevent slipping on ice or snow.
Wool Socks: Wear moisture-wicking and insulating wool socks. Consider using a liner sock for added warmth and to prevent blisters. I always bring an extra pair of socks, in case the first pair gets wet.
The key to staying warm in winter is layering. You can add or remove layers as needed to regulate your body temperature. Avoid cotton, as it retains moisture and can make you cold.
6. Insulated Gloves and Hat
Gaiters are protective coverings for your lower legs and boots, designed to keep snow out of your footwear. They are especially useful in deep snow conditions.
Depending on the terrain and snow conditions, you may need microspikes to provide traction and prevent slipping. They are ideal for icy or hard-packed snow. While not necessarily meant for mud, I use them to keep from slipping in muddy conditions too.
9. Trekking Poles
Trekking poles offer stability and support on uneven terrain. They can also help reduce the strain on your knees and improve balance.
Choose a backpack suitable for carrying your winter gear, including extra clothing, food, water, and safety equipment. Ensure it has a hydration system or a way to carry water bottles.
11. Navigation Tools
Carry a map and compass, or a GPS device, and know how to use them. Winter landscapes can look significantly different from their summer counterparts, making navigation challenging.
12. Headlamp and Extra Batteries
Daylight hours are shorter in winter, so be prepared with a headlamp and spare batteries. It’s crucial to have a reliable light source in case your hike takes longer than expected.
13. Emergency Kit
Pack a basic emergency kit, including a first-aid kit, fire-starting materials, a multi-tool, and a whistle. You never know when you might need them.
14. High-energy Snacks and Water
Winter hiking requires more energy and can be dehydrating. Drink water regularly and snack on high-energy foods to maintain your stamina. All carbs are not created equal.
Stay nourished and hydrated throughout your hike by bringing high-energy snacks like granola bars, nuts, and dried fruits. Carry a thermos with a warm beverage to keep you warm and hydrated.
15. Wear Sunscreen
You should wear SPF protection regardless of the season or the weather, to keep your skin protected from sun exposure and possible skin cancer.
Winter Hiking Techniques
Wondering how to learn winter hiking? It’s not all that difficult; it helps to keep the following practical tips in mind. Here’s what I learned from hiking in Alaska, where I grew up.
16. Walk Carefully
Walking on snow and ice requires a slightly different technique than hiking on dry trails. Take shorter steps and maintain a wide stance to improve balance. If you’re using trekking poles, use them to test the stability of the ground in front of you.
17. Watch Your Step
Be cautious of hidden hazards beneath the snow, such as rocks, roots, or streams. Test the ground with your trekking poles or feet before putting your total weight on it.
18. Uphill and Downhill Techniques
When hiking uphill, lean slightly forward to avoid slipping backward. Use your toes and the front of your boots for better traction. When descending, keep your weight back to prevent falling forward. Take it slow and use trekking poles for stability.
19. Be Avalanche Aware
Suppose you plan to hike in areas prone to avalanches. In that case, educating yourself about avalanche safety is essential. Understand the avalanche forecast, carry essential gear (beacon, shovel, and probe), and take an avalanche safety course.
20. Travel in a Group
Hiking with a group is safer than walking alone, especially in winter. Having others around can be a lifesaver if someone gets injured or lost.
21. Monitor Your Body
Pay attention to your body’s signals. If you start feeling too cold, tired, or disoriented, it’s time to turn back or seek shelter.
22. Know When to Turn Back
Don’t let your determination override safety. If conditions worsen or you encounter unexpected challenges, abandoning your hike and returning another day is okay.
23. Stay Informed
Check trail conditions, weather updates, and any advisories before and during your hike. Conditions can change rapidly in winter, and being informed is essential.
24. Leave No Trace
Respect the environment by adhering to Leave No Trace principles. Minimize your impact on the fragile winter ecosystem by packing out all trash, staying on designated trails, and avoiding wildlife disturbance.
Always take care of your gear following a hike, to lengthen its life as much as possible. If you can’t find the energy to do it the same day, make sure you do it the following day.
25. Dry Your Gear
After your hike, it’s crucial to dry your gear thoroughly to prevent damage and odors. Remove wet clothing and let it air out. Wipe down your equipment before storing it.
26. Reflect and Learn
Take time to reflect on your winter hiking experience. Consider what went well and what could be improved. Each hike is a learning opportunity to become a better winter hiker. Regardless of how much experience you have.
27. Share Your Experience
Share your winter hiking adventures with others and emphasize safety. Encourage friends and family to join you in this exciting outdoor activity while ensuring they are adequately prepared.
Why hike in winter?
Hiking during the winter season offers a unique and rewarding outdoor experience, and it comes with several advantages.
Winter landscapes can be breathtakingly beautiful, with snow-covered trees, frozen lakes, and glistening ice formations. The serene and peaceful environment can starkly contrast with the bustling trails of other seasons.
Hiking in the winter allows you to avoid the sweltering heat of summer. Cooler temperatures can make the physical exertion of walking more comfortable and reduce the risk of overheating.
Less Crowded Trails
Winter hiking tends to be less popular than hiking during the warmer months, which means fewer crowds on the trails. You can enjoy a more solitary and peaceful experience in nature.
Some animals are more active in the winter, making it an excellent time for wildlife enthusiasts to spot creatures like deer, elk, and various bird species.
This is perhaps the best part of hiking in the winter for me. There aren’t nearly as many bugs to bother you in the winter, especially in areas where snow is plentiful.
Excellent Photography Opportunities
Winter’s soft, diffused light can create stunning photo opportunities, especially during sunrise and sunset. The snow-covered landscapes can add an enchanting quality to your pictures.
Hiking in the winter can be more physically demanding due to slippery trails, deeper snow, and colder conditions. This increased challenge can make the experience more rewarding and satisfying.
Mental Health Benefits
Spending time in nature, even in winter, has positively affected mental health. The solitude, fresh air, and beautiful scenery can help reduce stress and boost your mood.
Winter hiking can teach valuable skills such as navigation in snow and ice, cold weather survival, and avalanche awareness, which can be helpful for other outdoor adventures.
Lastly, hiking throughout the year means you can quickly get into shape for summer hiking or that you will have no need to because you already are.
Winter in the Pacific Northwest
Winter weather is relative to where you’re hiking. The Pacific Northwest, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and sometimes the southwest portion of Canada, experiences relatively mild winter temperatures compared to many other parts of the United States.
The PNW is known mainly for its wet winters. This region receives a significant amount of precipitation during the winter months. This precipitation often falls in coastal areas as rain, while it can come as snow in higher elevations and inland regions.
While the PNW is not typically associated with heavy snowfall, some areas, particularly in the Cascades and other mountain ranges, regularly receive substantial winter snowfall. The snow can vary yearly; some areas are more snow-prone than others.
Coastal areas tend to have milder and more moderate winters due to the ocean’s moderating effect on temperatures. However, coastal areas are more prone to rain and drizzle during winter.
Compared to many other regions in the U.S., the Pacific Northwest experiences fewer extreme cold snaps and deep freezes during the winter. However, temperatures can still drop below freezing, especially in the interior and higher elevations.
Due to the relatively mild winters, many areas are more prepared for heavy snowfall than other regions throughout the state. As a result, snow and ice events can significantly impact transportation and infrastructure in the area.
Where to hike in Washington in winter
There are many easy winter hikes in Washington, from trails in Olympic National Park to the Snoqualmie Pass area. Even the North Cascades and Gifford Pinchot National Forest have something to offer outdoor adventurers.
Check with WTA or Alltrails and join Facebook groups for first-hand opinions and experiences. Here are several ideas on the best winter hikes in Washington state in my experience.
Are there any resources or apps that can help me find suitable winter hiking trails for beginners?
For beginner-friendly winter hiking trails in Washington State, also consider using resources like the Washington Trails Association (WTA) website or app, offering trail descriptions, difficulty ratings, and user reviews.
Apps such as AllTrails provide a comprehensive database of trails with filters for difficulty and user ratings. The official state park websites also offer valuable information on trail conditions.
How cold is too cold for hiking?
What temperature is too cold to hike in is a personal decision. The temperature at which it becomes “too cold” for hiking can vary depending on several factors, including your comfort, experience, the type of hiking you’re doing, and gear.
However, there are some general guidelines to consider.
Personal Tolerance: Everyone has different tolerance levels for cold temperatures. Some hikers are comfortable in colder conditions, while others may feel uncomfortable and at risk in milder cold. Knowing your body and how it responds to cold is essential.
Wind Chill: Wind can make cold temperatures feel even colder. Pay attention to the wind chill factor, as it can significantly affect your comfort and safety. Wind can increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
Type of Hike: The type of hiking you plan to do matters. You can tolerate colder temperatures for shorter, less strenuous hikes than for longer, more challenging ones. Also, consider the elevation and terrain; higher elevations are often colder.
Gear and Clothing: Proper clothing and equipment play a crucial role. With the right cold-weather gear, you can comfortably hike below freezing. Conversely, inadequate gear can make even mildly cold temperatures uncomfortable or dangerous.
Risk of Cold-Related Injuries: Be aware of cold-related injuries, such as frostbite and hypothermia, which can occur more readily in icy conditions. Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of these conditions.
What are the signs of hypothermia, and how can it be prevented?
Signs of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, and numbness.
To prevent hypothermia during winter hiking, wear layered clothing for insulation, stay dry by avoiding sweat and precipitation, and bring windproof and waterproof outer layers.
Keep active to maintain body heat, stay well-nourished, and stay vigilant for signs of cold-related stress in yourself and fellow hikers.
Carry emergency supplies like a space blanket and a thermos with a warm drink. If symptoms arise, seek shelter, change into dry clothes, and warm up gradually.
Daylight Hours: In very cold conditions, daylight hours are limited, and the nights can be freezing. Plan your hike accordingly, ensuring enough daylight to complete your walk and set up camp if necessary.
Most hikers can comfortably and safely hike above freezing with the proper clothing and gear. As temperatures drop below freezing (32°F or 0°C), taking extra precautions, such as dressing in layers, insulating yourself properly, and being mindful of the wind chill, is essential.
Below zero Fahrenheit (-18°C) or extremely cold conditions, hiking becomes much more challenging and potentially dangerous, especially if you’re not adequately prepared. It’s also not quite as much fun.
Ultimately, whether it’s too cold to hike should be based on your comfort level, experience, and the conditions you anticipate encountering.
Always check the weather forecast, be prepared with appropriate clothing and gear, and consider the potential risks of cold weather when planning a winter hike. If you have doubts about the conditions or your readiness for cold-weather hiking, postpone your hike or choose a different time.
How do I plan a winter hike?
When planning a winter hike, check weather forecasts for temperature, precipitation, and wind conditions. Choose appropriate clothing layers and gear accordingly.
Consider shorter daylight hours, planning a route that allows ample time for hiking and return before dark. Inform someone of your itinerary, including the planned trail and expected return time.
Carry essentials like a map, compass, and extra supplies. Be flexible and ready to adjust plans based on weather changes. Prioritize safety, and choose well-marked trails suitable for winter conditions.
Stay informed and prepared to ensure a safe and enjoyable winter hiking experience.
Winter hiking is different from snowshoeing
Winter hiking and snowshoeing are similar outdoor activities that both take place in snowy and cold conditions, but they are not the same.
- Winter hiking involves walking on established trails or off-trail in snow-covered terrain during the winter months. Hikers wear insulated boots warm clothing, and use hiking poles for stability.
- Depending on the trail and weather conditions, they may encounter various snow conditions, including packed snow, fresh powder, or icy patches.
- Winter hikers may use specialized gear such as crampons or microspikes for added traction in icy conditions, but they do not necessarily require snowshoes.
Snowshoeing involves strapping on snowshoes to your regular winter boots. Snowshoes are designed to distribute your weight over a larger surface area, allowing you to walk on top of deep snow without sinking in.
- Snowshoeing is suitable for exploring areas with deep snow, such as forests, backcountry trails, or mountainous terrain.
- Snowshoers may choose to follow established snowshoe trails or venture into areas where there are no trails, depending on their experience and skill level.
- Snowshoes provide improved flotation and stability in deep snow, making it easier to traverse snowy landscapes.
In summary, while winter hiking and snowshoeing are both good exercise and involve outdoor activities in snowy conditions, snowshoeing requires snowshoes to navigate deep snow. In contrast, winter hiking is a broader term encompassing hiking in winter without snowshoes.
The two choices depend on the terrain, snow depth, and personal preferences. There’s no need to choose, however, as you can do both throughout the winter if you live in the northwest region of the United States.
FAQs on Winter Hiking for Beginners
For beginners, a hike should typically be short, around 1 to 3 miles, and take no more than 1 to 2 hours to complete. Start with easy, well-marked trails with minimal elevation gain to build confidence and stamina before tackling longer, more challenging hikes.
Hiking in winter can be safe with proper preparation. Dressing warmly, having appropriate gear, checking weather conditions, and choosing suitable trails are essential. Winter hiking presents unique challenges like cold and ice, so beginners should gain experience gradually and consider guided hikes in unfamiliar terrain.
To learn winter hiking, research cold-weather gear, dress in layers, and understand winter-specific hazards. Begin with shorter, more accessible winter hikes on well-marked trails, gradually increasing difficulty. Consider hiking with experienced friends or guides and take courses or workshops to build essential winter hiking skills and knowledge.
Final Thoughts on Winter Hiking for Beginners
Winter hiking can be a wonderfully memorable experience for beginners and seasoned hikers. Following the tips and guidelines in this guide will make you well-equipped to enjoy your outdoor adventure, wherever you choose to go.