In early October, winter totally snuck up on me and A.C. We headed into the mountains above Leadville, Colo., without our winter hiking gear. As a result, we spent the day slipping around on icy trails and post-holing in snow up to our knees.
(Seriously, this happens every year. It’s like we never learn.)
So at least here in Colorado, it’s time to gear up for winter.
The good news is that putting together your winter hiking kit doesn’t have to be hugely expensive. For example, you can wear a lot of the same clothing you do in summer. Just be sure to layer it up.
But there are a few winter hiking gear essentials that will make your snow hikes exponentially warmer and safer that are probably worth investing in. So let’s take a look at five of my favorites.
Photos: Willis Lake via Willis Gulch Trailhead near Leadville, Colorado, Oct. 8, 2017.
1. Foot traction
Here’s how ancient I am: I remember winter hiking before Kahtoola Microspikes. And the memories are a bit traumatic.
Microspikes (and other foot traction devices) give you an extra margin of safety on icy trails and a bit of extra stability in snow. You can even use them in steep dirt slopes and gullies, though this tends to grind them down.
Traction devices are lightweight and slide easily over your boots. Starting around late September, I always hook mine to my pack (though I totally spaced it in the pictured hike).
Yak Trax and Stabilicers are cheaper alternatives to Kahtoola Microspikes. In my experience, they’re less durable, have poorer grip, and tend to fall off. But they might be an option for a casual hiker on a budget. You can check out some different foot traction systems here.
Gaiters are tight nylon sleeves that fit around your ankle and prevent snow from getting in your boots. They’re especially useful on hikes when your feet are punching deep into the snow (post-holing).
Here’s a pic of my gaiters since you won’t see them in the hiking photos (blushes). I totally dig the purple, but they also come in black if that’s too flash.
These gaiters are knee-high, which is ideal for snow. You can also buy shorty gaiters to keep dust and dirt out of your low-cut hiking shoes.
When I was a backpacking guide, we sometimes used to duct tape the clients’ pants to their boots to keep out snow. It doesn’t last long, but it works in a pinch.
If you just need something basic for occasional use, Amazon sells these off-brand gaiters in flashy colors.
3. Mountaineering-weight socks
Notice how many of these list items have to do with feet? Wet, cold feet just suck so hard.
One of the best ways to keep your feet warm is to upgrade to mountaineering-weight socks. They’re thicker and taller than your typical wool hiking sock for those days when you need some extra insulation.
Darn Tough, SmartWool, and REI all make mountaineering-weight socks. One warning: because these socks are so thick, they sometimes won’t fit in your regular hiking boots. So take your boots along while shopping. Many stores have sample socks you can try on.
I’m super prone to cold toes, so last year I started wearing Armaskin anti-blister liner socks under my mountaineering socks. Not only do they prevent hot spots, they also provide compression that improves circulation. So my feet stay warmer and also feel less sore after a big hike.
Unless it’s super cold out, you can probably get away with wearing two pairs of medium-weight socks.
4. Water bottle parkas
I love my Camelbak, and I try to use it as late into the season as I can. After taking a drink, I blow the water out of the hose to keep it from freezing. And I’ve also had some luck insulating the hose.
But eventually, it gets so cold that the Camelbak freezes up no matter what I do. That’s when it’s time to break out the water bottle parkas.
Parkas are little wet suits. You can find them for most common bottle brands (Nalgenes, etc.)
To keep my water handy, I use a carabiner to clip the parka to the chest or shoulder strap of my backpack. I also carry a spare bottle inside my pack (also in a parka).
A girl I used to hike with swore to god that if she put a ski sock inside her water bottle, the water wouldn’t freeze. This of course involves putting a ski sock in your water bottle.
5. Insulated jacket with hood
A hood is like a thermostat. Put it up for extra warmth when you take a break or the wind kicks up. Then when you start exerting, put it down again. (Just be sure to tuck it in when the snow starts.)
Hoods have a few advantages over hats. They’re always there when you need them — no need to stop and dig in your backpack. Also, it’s a lot harder to lose your hood because it blew away or you set it on the roof of the car.
Puffy jackets aren’t cheap, and hooded ones are even more expensive. Synthetic fill tends to be more affordable than down and also work better in wet or rainy climates.
Off-brand puffies from Amazon or Costco are a bit heavier and less durable but can work for casual hikers.
And there you have it.
You are officially geared up for winter hiking, and hopefully there’s still some money left in your wallet. Have fun and enjoy the snow.
What winter hiking gear do you recommend? Comment to share.