Your Essential Winter Hiking Checklist
What to bring, wear, and eat for those rewarding trips out into the snow.
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Hiking isn’t just for warm weather. Especially in the Hudson Valley, where vistas are treasures and well-protected forests can feel like untouched wonderlands, winter hiking is worthwhile.
“The sky is so blue, the leaves are off the trees, the views can be more pronounced, the environment in general is a lot more simplified,” says Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock & Snow, New Paltz’s outdoor gear and supplies store for more than 40 years.
And because people tend to avoid winter hiking — it’s too cold, ice is scary, folks lack the right gear — the trails are generally less crowded, but that means the wilderness is that much more special.
“It’s definitely so much quieter to hike during the winter,” says Heather Darley, communications assistant with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, which maintains more than 2,150 miles of trail across the Hudson Valley and surrounding areas. “And with all the snow, you feel like you’re on an entirely different planet.”
So, yes, there are reasons why you should be careful when hiking in the winter. But you shouldn’t avoid it. Instead, embrace it. Just be prepared and plan ahead.
The Trail Conference keeps a list of essential items folks should have when hiking, and they apply to all seasons. They include: athletic shoes or hiking boots, water, navigation, food, sunscreen and insect repellent, rain gear and extra clothing, a first-aid kit, headlamp or flashlight, matches or lighter, and tools, such as a knife or emergency blanket.
Wintry conditions mean changes to this list, whether you have to add an item or alter it to account for the weather. Let’s go over each item.
Athletic Shoes or Hiking Boots
Hiking boots are always better because they provide better traction. If you’re hiking on rocky ground, they make a world of difference. No matter what you wear, though, being out in the winter means you might meet some ice.
“If you fall on ice you’re gonna take off most of the time,” says Gottlieb, “especially if you don’t have a tree or branch to grab. So be very conscious of ice.”
Ice can be daunting, but that’s why there are mircrospikes and crampons. The former provide good traction on level ground coated with ice. The latter are designed more for steeper ice walking and bare rock coated with ice. If you’re starting out, microspikes are generally the preferred tool.
For those wanting to hike in deeper snow, think about a pair of snowshoes, which keep you from sinking far into the snow. But if you’re just looking for a good, one-time winter hike, don’t opt for purchasing them. Instead, try to avoid hiking in deep snow, but invest in microspikes, which can be found for less than $30.
It should be a no brainer to constantly hydrate when hiking, but winter hikers sometimes forget just how much sweat they’re releasing. For a five-mile hike that would take about three hours, 1.5 liters of water is about right. For three miles, bring a liter at least.
Worried about your water freezing? Fill up with hot tea!
Don’t rely on your cell phone’s GPS.
“The cold will drain your phone battery,” says Darley. “I bring a solar charger or battery pack with me.”
Bring your phone, because you may need it to make an emergency call, but more useful is a map and compass. Maps are available at any outdoor gear shop in the region, and some trailheads will have pocket maps, too. But chart out your route before you go, and let someone know where you’re going. Plus, snow and low visibility could make trail markers impossible to read, so know where you’re going and use your map and compass as a guide.
Always bring food. Who doesn’t want to eat after a good, long hike?
Great trail snacks include nuts, raisins, apples, berries, string cheese and jerky. Just remember to put all trash back in your bag.
Sunscreen and Insect Repellent
Yes, the sun can be a problem in the winter. Go with SPF 30 or higher. In fact, the bright winter sun can be pretty blinding, and more so with white snow on the ground. So pack a pair of sunglasses, too.
Also, there are insects on the trail, even in the winter. The Trail Conference has found ticks recently on the trail, so spray yourself before beginning your hike, and always check yourself afterward.
Rain Gear and Extra Clothing
This is definitely more important in the winter. Waterproof hiking pants (or rain pants), a breathable shirt and a wool fleece are solid starters, especially if the temperature is above freezing. But you’ll want to pack a jacket, because it could get colder, especially if you’re going up to a summit.
“I normally will have a soft-shell, puffy jacket that I’ll take on and off, and maybe have a smart wool underneath, so I can stick the jacket in my pack,” says Darley.
Also, always pack gloves or mittens, though mittens are warmer, and be sure to keep your ears, cheeks and neck warm. A thin winter hat, facemask and scarf are all fine choices, while Gottlieb recommends a new item called a buff, a stretchy piece of headwear that can be worn more than a dozen ways. You can find buffs for less than $30.
When it’s a little colder outside, you can’t go wrong with long underwear.
“Even if you’re wearing blue jeans, wearing a pair of long underwear is great,” says Gottlieb. He adds that for the feet, thick, wool socks are great, but leave a little toe room.
All hikers, regardless of season and experience, should pack a basic first-aid kit that includes medical tape, antiseptic wipes, bandages, butterfly closure strips, tweezers and gauze pads. Outdoor shops sell them for around $50, but you can also build one.
Headlamp or Flashlight
Especially if you’re setting out for more than three hours, it’s always a good idea to have battery-powered light available. Remember, you have less daylight in the winter, so this becomes much more important. One way to avoid getting stuck at night is to hike as soon as the sun comes up.
“It really depends on the length of the hike you’re looking to do,” says Darley. “If you’re looking to do something that’s five-plus miles, I’d recommend starting as soon as you can. If you’re really looking to do something that’s a two-miler around midday, as long as you’re back or at least closer to the trailhead toward sunset, you should be OK. But you never know what might happen on the trail.”
Matches or Lighter
It’s recommended all hikers know how to start a fire, in case they need to keep warm during an emergency. But if you’re a short or day hiker and prepare ahead of time, it’s likely you won’t need to do this.
Much like matches, tools like a knife are not typically used on short and day hikes. An emergency blanket is good to have in the cold, but again, it may not be needed if you’re day hiking. Gottlieb says one useful tool may be a foam pad, because generally it’s harder to find a place to sit in wintry environs. Pull out the pad, brush off some snow and sit down on the foam. You can find foam pads for under $20.
Finally, trekking poles are crucial, and for all seasons. Worried about balance? Trekking poles. Worried about terrain? Trekking poles. They immediately make walking easier and provide stability and assurance.
If you’re prepared and plan your hike, you should have no trouble being out on the trails this winter.
“What is old becomes new again,” says Gottlieb about hiking in the winter, especially for those who’ve done their fair share in warmer months. “The whole atmosphere changes, it’s a great time to take pictures, and it’s a great time to be with other people.”