The Minimalist's Guide to Winter Hiking

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Winter is here. Plenty of snow, ice and cold temperatures to play in. When prepared, hiking in the winter (free of bugs and crowds) can be incredibly fun and rewarding. Given the nature of the challenge, winter hiking often leaves a hiker more confident and fit going into summer adventures. Here’s an extensive overview on clothing and other related gear for winter day hiking, including some examples. 

LAYERS:

Layering is key, with the intention to manage perspiration by constantly putting on/taking off clothing as the conditions and body temperature changes. 

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#1: Underwear

Making the investment in wool underwear is without a doubt the best option for winter activities. I wear my Smartwool PhD bra almost for all of my daily outdoor activities. Wool bras and underwear will wick the sweat, breathe, and less chilly (think comfortable nips) than polyester when wet. It’s worth the price tag. The downside to wool is the durability, but I think companies are making a better product these days that holds up to heavy use. I’ve been really happy with the ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Bikini Briefs, Smartwool Women’s NTS 150 Micro Bikini and Patagonia Active Hipster Briefs for active underwear. Top men’s choices are the Smartwool NTS 150 Micro Boxers and Icebreaker Anatomica Boxers

#2: Baselayers

Baselayers provide the first line of warmth and breathability to enjoy winter. Again, merino wool does the best job staying odor free and trapping warmth, with wool-synthetic blends coming second. I love my Smartwool 250 1/4 Zip Baselayer Top, and wore it 24/7 for a fair chunk of the CDT this fall. Synthetics, like polyester or spandex are less expensive and more durable, but retain odors and don’t wick sweat, so typically I keep them for Spring/Summer activities. The nice part about wool baselayers is we really only need one top and one bottom (thank god, given the price) and can re-wear it all week before washing. It’s important to learn how to manage sweat and keep from soaking these layers (i.e. take off shells & midlayers during periods of heavy perspiration). My favorite synthetic baselayers are hands down the Patagona Midweight Capaline or EMS Techwick. For wool, look at Icebreaker and Smartwool. The men's counterparts are equally awesome. 

#3: Midlayers/Jacket

Next layer is about adding and insulating warmth, like a fleece or down jacket. Look for a breathable or lightweight jacket or fleece. Down will be warmer and lighter, but synthetic does better in wet conditions and is less expensive. My favorite lightweight down puffys include the Patagonia Down Sweater, Montbell Superior Down Parka, and Marmot Quasar Nova Hoody. On a budget? The REI Co-op Down Jacket and EMS Feather Pack offer great value, simple design, and fair weight. The Marmot Featherless Jacket, Patagonia Nano Puff, and Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody are lightweight, high quality synthetic jacket options. Most of these come in hoody options which provide added warmth for a higher price and weight. Some of the most highest performing fleeces include the Patagonia R2, Melanzana Micro Grid Hoodie, Columbia Men's Steen Mountain 2.0, and EMS Classic 200

#4: Shells

The hardshell jacket is where everyone tends to spend the most money. This layer doesn't need to be insulated (that's why we layer), but provide protection from wind/rain/snow/sleet/hail. Goretex (look at the Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell, Outdoor Research Clairvoyent, Arc'Teryx Zeta AR or Arc'Teryx Beta SL) gives the best protection against wet weather, but is pricey and heavy. I'm a fan of more conventional jackets will have a better balance of value/weatherproof/breathability. Some top rated women’s options (or, look for the men’s counterpart): the Marmot PreCip, REI Co-op Stormrealm and Mountain Hardwear Torsun. In more forgiving weather conditions, softshells can be the better way to go, like the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol or Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody. For pants, look for hardshell (or hard/soft combos) that are windproof and waterproof, with leg zippers and pockets. I love my (2013) Patagonia pants, and found the Triolet Pants to be the best current comparison for a high end, Goretex choice. I’ve also heard awesome things about the Marmot Minimalist and The North Face Freedom. For a great soft-shell option, check out the Marmot Scree.

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#5: Odds & Ends

Socks- When it comes to socks, I’m opposed to the liner/sock combo in the winter because of friction and blisters. Most people opt for a merino wool or wool blend sock that is breathable, regulates temperature and has moisture-wicking properties. My winter favorites are the Darn Tough Boot Sock Cushion, Smartwool PHD Outdoor Medium, Smartwool Medium Crew or the REI Co-op Lightweight Merino Crew (best value).  I’ve also been dying to try out the Fits Rugged Crew, which I’ve heard glowing reviews about. 

Hats- This one should go without saying. For hats, polyester or wool-blends provide the most warmth, while fleece (check out Turtle Fur) is the lightest and softest option. I also really like my Smartwool Merino 250 Headband because it breathes so well and I don't get hot during ascents.  

Gloves- I’d recommend TWO sets of gloves for any winter hike, no matter the length. If things were to go wrong on a trip, proper gloves could be the difference between losing fingers to frostbite or not. Everyone regulates heat a little differently, so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to gloves. If you run hot, look for thinner wool options where you can manage sweat and insulate properly. For anyone running cold, look for thicker fleece. I prefer simple, wool blend liners that keep my hands warm when wet, as opposed to synthetic ones that feel less breathable during periods where I’m sweating profusely. Look for liners with finger technology so you don't need to expose bare skin when using phone or headlamp. My favorites are the EMS Journey Liner, The North Face Etip, REI Co-op Wool Liner and The North Face Flashdry. For mitts or gloves, look for waterproof features, durable and flexible materials, and wrist protection (some come with removable liners). I love my Smartwool Ridgeways, but other great options are The North Face MontanaOutdoor Research Mt. Baker Modular and Black Diamond Mercury

Gaiters- If there’s snow, high gaiters are a must. Not only do they provide protection from snow getting inside your boots, but also provide added insulation below the knee. Look for gaiters without zippers, because they tend to break or freeze. I think Outdoor Research makes the best gaiters, like the Crocodile or Rocky Mt High for more aggressive, below the knee gaiters. The Overdrive Wrap are popular for packed snow conditions or trail runs. 

Balaclava- For snow, wind, or extreme temperatures, it’s nice to have face coverage. I like a Buff in milder weather or shoulder seasons, however a fleece balaclava or neck warmer can be a game changer in your level of comfort. Especially above treeline, and would eliminate the need for a hat. Favorites are the Burton Cora Hood, Icebreaker Oasis and Turtle Fur Ninja

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BACKPACK:

I’m a fan of hybrid cuban fiber (dyneema) packs for all seasons. In the Northeast’s unpredictable winter weather, it’s nice to be confident a pack will keep all the warm layers inside dry. With fabrics other than Dyneema, you’d want a pack cover or garbage bag liner to protect valuables from the elements. I love to use my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400 for 4-season adventures, but the Osprey Talon 33 is my favorite for day hikes. Some features to look for in a pack: inside torso sleeve, outside pockets, ice axe loop, internal zipper pocket, trekking pole attachment, adjustable shoulder straps and hipbelts (be sure it fits with ALL your puffy layers on). The Hyperlite Daybreak DaypackULA Fastpack, REI Trail 40, and Marmot Graviton 34 are all awesome packs. 

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TRACTION: 

Historically enjoyed only by the affluent and elite, winter sports are gaining popularity among a wider audience. The emergence of new equipment, like microspikes, to replace expensive mountaineering gear, helps make winter hiking more accessible and affordable to everyone. My Kathoola Microspikes were a game-changer for me years ago and now I use them nearly everyday, from trail running to peakbagging in New Hampshire. While microspikes can’t entirely replace crampons, they can be used in a variety of conditions and provide adequate traction and stability on ice and snow. There are a variety of knockoffs too. On particularly icy, steep or exposed peaks, crampons and an ice axe are still often necessary. Another great benefit of microspikes is they can be strapped to any shoe, from running sneakers to hard-soled boots, making them incredible versatile. 

Snowshoes are another piece of equipment that is especially important right after a snowfall to pack down the trail. They can typically be rented by the day from local outfitters, or found cheap on Craigslist or Ebay. I won’t go too much into finding the right snowshoes but the basics are: if you’re looking to cover longer, flatter distances in deep snow, go for a longer snowshoe. For bagging steeper peaks, look for a more aggressive (and light) set of snowshoes. Tubbs and MSR make great products.  

Trekking or ski poles are also important to provide traction in the winter. Ski poles aren’t usually adjustable to fit in a backpack when they’re not being used, while trekking poles are. Just be sure to have snow baskets on there. 

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NAVIGATION: 

In the summertime, it’s easy to get away with only our phones for maps and GPS. When winter rolls around, the cold takes a beating on the phone battery and they are NOT a reliable tool. Carrying paper maps, preferably waterproof, is crucial. For those of us in New England, there’s an awesome waterproof map of the New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  

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WATER:

Water in the winter is a whole new ball game. When out for a day hike, it’s easiest to pack a liter or two from home. If it’s above freezing, a Camelbak bladder is a great option to stay hydrated. In cold temperatures, an insulated waterbottle sleeve will keep water from freezing. Hydration tip: Make tea prior to the hike and pour into a water bottle. For extended hikes, a stove would be necessary to melt and treat water. Most people struggle with getting enough fluids during winter hikes, myself included. I try to make up for lack of hydrating DURING a hike by drinking a liter beforehand, and having tea afterwards to bring back up my core temperature and restore electrolytes. 

FOOD:

Our bodies use a considerable amount of energy to stay warm while exercising in colder weather. In addition to the calories burned from the activity itself, when the body temperature drops, you’re body burns extra calories to warm it back up. Eating also generates heat within the body (thermogenesis), stemming from the energy released during digestion. We can use this to our advantage by snacking frequently while hiking, usually every 1-1.5hrs. Don’t bother packing energy or protein bars, because they often turn rock solid and you’d burn their calories just in the eating process. Good options include: cheese, salami, nut butters, cereal bars, pretzels, nuts, dried fruit, pop tarts, and cookies. 

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COMMON SENSE ITEMS:

Winter hiking doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Contrasting to what you may have heard, you CAN take a minimalist approach, while still keeping yourself safe. This is where the common sense thinking comes in. Use good judgement based checking the weather forecast and trail reports. How long is the hike? How remote? Is it the weekend? Does the area have cell reception? Are you alone or with a group? What’s the weather forecast for the high peaks in the area? What elevation will you be at? These are all factors to take into account before setting off. For a 3 mile hike on a popular route on the weekend, a shelter, first aid kit and emergency beacon is not necessary. For more remote, longer hikes, an emergency blanket and extra layers are smart to have.

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A good headlamp, fire starter and knife are smart to bring no matter the distance or conditions of the hike. For anything above 4,000 feet in New England, always bring rain/wet weather layers. Sunny weather above treeline? Bring sunscreen and sunglasses/ski goggles. The sun reflects strongly on snow. It’s always good to have toilet paper on hand if you’ll be out for the day, but remember to bury it and bring a ziplock to carry out any used TP. Be familiar with your footwear, gear, and the area itself to avoid learning any hard lessons in unforgiving conditions. I wouldn’t recommend someone start hiking in the winter, as some prior experience and fitness is helpful. But by no means should anyone feel too intimidated to go out in the winter. Expect more crummy weather than good, and be prepared to turn around on a summit bid if conditions are poor or daylight slim.

You don’t need to bring your entire closet with you to enjoy the backcountry in the winter, just be selective in your choices, and always let someone know your plans. Get out there and let’s enjoy the rest of the winter season while it lasts!!