OK, it's mid December and the Winter has set in. In many parts of the world that means colder temperatures, frost, snow and all sorts of other seasonal weather hazards to deal with.
With that in mind I wanted to get together a detailed list of the top ten essential gear items you need to have for Winter hiking.
Please note that in this list I am not referring to hiking over glaciers or deeply packed heavy snow. Hiking in more extreme winter conditions over that kind of terrain needs specialized guidance and or training.
For that, while you will still need all the gear items listed below, you also need very specialized kit like crampons, snow shoes, safety ropes, etc.
This post refers to hiking on trails mixed with a bit of hiking, where safe and appropriate, over open mountain. As always use common sense when choosing your hiking route, don't go anywhere that will be too challenging for your skill and experience level.
Winter is a beautiful time to get out hiking on the trail but you need to prepare yourself appropriately. While I do also list some optional items at the end of this post, the first ten items listed below are not optional and are a must to keep you safe and warm.
1. Waterproof Hiking Boots
Top of the list is a proper of hiking boots suitable for winter conditions. You need to keep your feet as warm and dry as possible.
I recommend boots made from Goretex, suitable leather or a mix of the two. Check out my recommendations for hiking boots here.
If you are planing to hike over ice and deep snow, you may need crampon compatible boots, snow shoes, etc.
2. A Good Rain Jacket
It's going to be cold in Winter with every chance of rain, snow and probably more! Your rain jacket is your first line of defense to keep the nasty stuff out. Anything made from Gore-tex or similar technologies should do the trick.
For a newbie hiker doing average day hiking, I recommend A good rain shell jacket, it should do the trick without breaking the bank.
Check out my rain jacket recommendations here.
3. Rain Pants
Next on the list are rain pants. Again, pants made from Gore-tex or similar should do the trick. You need good waterproof capability but you want to look for good breathability too.
You can go for an all in one option but I recommend you have two pairs of hiking pants. The first pair are the normal hiking pants you have on for the duration of your hike. These will be water resistant as opposed to waterproof.
The second pair are hiking rain pants which need to be completely waterproof. You pull these on over your hiking pants when needed. You may not need to have these on all the time on your hike but you will need to put them on in heavy rain, snow or if you're finding things too cold.
I have a pair of Berghaus helvellyn pants, pictured above, for this which I find great. They're a bit more on the pricey side but they kept me dry up and back to the summit of Mont Blanc as well as on many a nasty weather day, day-hiking.
4. Sports Underwear
This one is simple enough, just avoid cotton ladies and Gentlemen. Any kind of synthetic (For example, nylon or polyester) sports underwear should do the trick.
Your underwear is touching your skin so you need some level of wicking capability to let moisture out but keep precious heat in.
5. Sports Tees
You need two tees, well one isn't a tee as such.
Against your skin you need a long sleeved base layer. This will keep warmth in and even though it's cold in winter, you will still sweat at times while hiking so you need to be able to let that vapor out and away from your skin. You can get a decent base layer for thirty / forty bucks.
On top of your base layer I recommend another layer, probably a tee of some kind. I usually use a short sleeved tee. Same rules apply as the base layer, you want it to be breathable with wicking capability. Again, avoid cotton!
6. Fleece Jacket or Similar
Ah, the trusty fleece jacket. A welcome addition on a cold day for any hiker. There are oodles to choose from and, as with all hiking gear, you can spend a lot of money if you want to. However, you don't need to. If you're not fussed on branding, you can get a reasonable one for forty / fifty bucks.
Fashion on the trail is one thing but functionality comes first, always! As long as it can keep you warm, that's what matters.
Pictured, The North Face Denali Fleece Jacket for Men.
7. A Good Pair of Hiking Socks
I have harped on about this many times here but to me, your hiking socks are nearly as important as your hiking boots.
You need good ones and I highly recommend you break them in too … yes, I am serious. Wearing socks a few times on lighter hikes is a good idea to be sure you have no niggles from wearing them.
I recommend wearing two pairs of socks. Check out the two sock strategy post to learn more.
8. Woolly hat
No need to explain this one. Everyone knows you lose a lot of heat from your noggin. A woolly hat does the trick for this problem. There are plenty of synthetic options available too.
Check out this post on hiking hats to learn more about some options for the winter.
9. Gloves (for warmth)
Gloves are a must. You need a pair that will keep your hands warm. Generally I use a pair of ski gloves for heat purposes. My hands do get very cold quickly so I find ski gloves work fast for me.
10. Waterproof Gloves (Goretex or similar)
I was in two minds about whether to put this into no.9 but I thought it better to make it separate to make a distinct point about it.
A pair of waterproof breathable gloves are a must. As with your head, your hands are at the cold face of the elements usually so you need to keep them dry as well as warm.
As mentioned above I use ski gloves for warmth which also provide a level of water resistance. However, I also carry a waterproof pair. These are what I normally wear and I switch to the ski gloves when I get really cold by either swapping them or slipping them on over the top.
The key difference is that these gloves still enable me to use my hands and fingers to about 70-80% of if I wasn't wearing them. So I can still unscrew a water bottle and easily do relatively fiddly things with my hands.
Obviously, when you put the the ski gloves on, that mobility goes out the window. I go into my overall approach to hiking gloves here.
If you don’t have ALL of the above, please DO NOT consider heading out into the mountains in cold winter conditions. If you do, you are a risk to yourself and others.
It's also a good idea to carry spares of all these items where possible in a dry bag. If you fall into a river or something, you will be mighty grateful of a dry pair of clothes to change into. I should add, this can apply across all seasons, not just winter.
This next list is definitely good to have with you and I highly recommend that you do. However, they probably slide just out of the ESSENTIAL category.
Gaiters are great in deep snow. there's a reason why most ski pants have built in gaiters and that's because snow turns to ice cold water against your body heat very fast. gaiters will keep snow out of your hiking boots.
You definitely do not want cold wet feet hiking through snow. It's not only horrible to experience but is also dangerous in case the water starts to freeze. Frostbite is something you should always be conscious of hiking cold winter weather.
If you're a newbie to hiking and you don't know what gaiters are, check this post out.
Muff / Neck Gaiter (can double as a hat)
These are handy things to have and are versatile to be moved about to protect your neck, head and or face.
I don't always use walking poles but the few times I have, they have been very handy to have, especially on steep descents. Having a pole or two handy for trying to negotiate tricky terrain in snow and ice can only be a good idea. Walking / Hiking poles are a very useful addition to your hiking kit!
Head Lamp (just in case you get stuck in the dark!)
A head lamp can come in very handy in winter. As a safety precaution it is always a good idea to have one in your pack. If heaven forbid you get injured or get lost in bad conditions and you don't make it out of the hills before dark, this will make your life all the more easier.
Remember, winter days are short so it's easy to just get caught out and misjudge your journey back to base. if it's get dark and you can't see, you exponentially increase your risk of falling, tripping or slipping and hurting yourself.
I hope you found this top ten essential gear items for winter hiking useful. If you're new to hiking and you plan to do any venturing into the hills this winter, you need to have all of them. This list doesn't cover everything, be sure to check out the complete day hiking checklist in pictures, that covers just about everything you could need for any day hike at any time of year!
Where possible, carry as many spares as possible in case you get wet. At the very least have spare base layers and a warm top. In short, carry as much spare stuff as you can. I don't mean to sound dramatic but it could save yours or someone else's life.
As mentioned above, winter is a really beautiful time to go out hiking on the trail. Ensure you enjoy it as much as possible by taking sensible measures to keep yourself safe. In short, wear the right gear 😉
Happy hiking this winter and as always, stay safe!
Did you find this list useful? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.