Picture the scenery: the morning sun above a snow-covered mountaintop, a puff of smoke rising from a log cabin hidden by distant snowy canopies, and the whispering wind lazily carries the white rain. The snow crumps with your every step, and you stopped to inhale the fresh, crisp, pine-scented cold air.
Gosh, don’t you love hiking in winter?
Admittedly, skiing and snowboarding might sound a bit more appealing and fun, but don’t you agree winter hiking is much more than just wandering through the snow?
I remember, when I was a kid, the excitement of spotting animal tracks on the white surface. There is something thought-provoking in seeing the seasons change in the great outdoors, and the animals adapting to it; reassuring, as well.
However, the scenery mentioned above does come hand-in-hand with several dangers, as hiking in winter requires a bit more preparation than during any other season. Naturally, it’s a good idea to know what you can expect out there in the cold, how to deal with any possible misadventures, and especially – what you should wear.
Now, to avoid hypothermia and dehydration, you should own or consider investing in proper winter hiking clothing. These will help you stay nice, warm, frostbite-free, and ready to explore – if they are made from appropriate fabrics.
Let’s go snow-deep in the article! Buckle up, you’re in for a long one.
- The Good, The Okay and Cotton: Winter Hiking Fabrics
- What To Wear On A Winter Hike?
- 8 Winter Hiking Tips
- A Short Gear Recommendation List
Why should you care about winter hiking fabrics?
A few years back, like most young adults, I thought I knew everything there is to know about winter hiking, and, of course, the world. So, one winter day, I packed up for a short hike: got into my favorite shoes, put on a jacket, and a wool hat.
Long story short…
While I was enjoying a cold weather stroll and taking photos of that one beautiful winter creek, my body was struggling to stay warm, and I was too stubborn to admit it.
My boots weren’t well insulated, so my thumbs started to feel numb. The jacket got damp form snow, and I could feel the wind hitting me hard as mom’s “I’ve told you a million times that you shouldn’t…” To top it off, I didn’t bring enough water and food. Apparently, one energy bar wasn’t enough, who would have thought?
As you can see, wearing your favorite “outdoor” clothing on a winter hike is not necessarily a great idea, especially if the clothes are made from cotton. There’s a reason cold-weather veterans say “Cotton kills,” but, technically speaking, it’s the hypothermia that gets you.
To make sure you have the most fun on your winter hiking trip, you have to know what you’re wearing.
Let’s start with the soft-as-snow…
Of course, the above-mentioned favorite plaid long-sleeve button-up shirt was made from 100% of that bad boy. Cotton can absorb up to 27 times its weight in water, and staying damp in cold conditions will lead to body temperature problems, all right?
“The water can wick away the heat from your body 25 times faster than air.” – The United States Search and Rescue Task Force
When damp, cotton loses about 90% of its insulating ability, which is bad news if you are exposed to the elements.
Since we all love lists, here are some severe downsides to wearing cotton on a winter day:
- Absorbs water
- Dries slowly
- Cools your body
- Promotes heat loss
- Loses insulation when wet
So, what should you bring on your next winter hiking trip? I’m glad you asked!
My granny used to love knitting woolen socks, hats, scarves, gloves – anything to keep the young me warm when I’m out playing in the snow. Now, there’s a great in-depth article here about merino wool – the fabric comes from a different breed of sheep. Since nothing I say can top it, I’ll keep this one short.
Merino wool is a moisture wicking fabric and excellent insulating layer with several winter-friendly features:
- You will stay warm even when it’s wet
- It repels water drops and prevents soaking (to a point, more on that in a moment)
- The fabric wicks moisture away from your body through capillary action and evaporation
- It has antibacterial properties, meaning you will stay odor-free
The downsides are:
- The fiber can absorb up to 37 percent of its weight in water
- The material is expensive. It gets worn out after some time
So, the bottom line is, when it comes to winter hiking, merino wool’s an outstanding fabric for socks, neck gaiters, gloves, and base layer tops and bottoms. Just like granny’s!
If you are born in the mountains, you probably already know the polyester is the king of all winter hiking clothes. Understandably, some folks look down on it since it’s made from petroleum, coal, air, and water – materials which aren’t quite nature-friendly.
However, the synthetic fiber is strong, durable, and used in a wide range of products, such as shoes, tents, hiking clothing, ropes, backpacks, and more – you can’t avoid it.
Polyester on its own is a great fabric for any outdoor product, but when combined with other materials – it skyrockets to excellent. So, what makes it so suitable for cold weather, you ask?
Let’s have a look at what makes polyester so suitable for cold weather hiking:
- The fabric is abrasion-resistant
- It doesn’t wick moisture
- It dries quickly
- It’s easy to wash and doesn’t shrink
- Offers wind resistance
- It’s water-repellent (but not waterproof) and keeps you dry
- It’s affordable
- And it blends easily with other fabrics
Pretty good, right? Well, there are some cons to it; it doesn’t breathe well unless blended with cotton, it can be uncomfortable to wear next to skin, and it traps body odors.
You shouldn’t worry about these, though, since polyester is usually used for outer layers, and polyester/cotton blend used in inner layers mitigates the synthetic’s downsides.
Speaking of layers…
Dress in layers: What should you wear on a winter hike?
I know I’m stating the obvious here, but every hiking trail is different and has its own set of challenges and difficulties. However, they all have one thing in common – when it gets cold, it’s cold.
Planning the trip and educating yourself about the trail’s conditions and the weather forecast is step one in knowing what you should be wearing when you finally get there.
Overdressing is also a problem. Remember the dangers of getting wet in the snow? Well, if you wear too many clothes, you will overheat and start sweating. Once you finally stop and rest, the sweat will start cooling you down to quickly, which can lead to unwanted problems.
Taking off or adding an excess layer of clothing can help regulate your body temperature. These layers are known as:
- Base Layer (thermal underwear)
- Mid Layer (soft shell insulation)
- Outer Layer (water-resistant shell)
Base layers for winter hiking
All great winter adventures start with a good base layer. Whether we’re talking about tops or bottoms (also known as long underwear – I know it sounds unappealing), you should look for the ones made from polyester/merino wool. That’s what makes it warm and wicking, and even when the fabric gets wet, you will retain your body heat.
Unless you’re going on a frigid day or the trail leads to above the tree line level, the lightweight base layer will do its job. Otherwise, consider investing in mid to heavy-weight.
Oh, and, by all means – avoid cotton base layers!
Mid-layers for winter hiking
Here’s where we can get both functional and fashionable. Whether you are an insulated jacket person or a performance fleece enthusiasts (such as myself), mid layer’s job is to provide additional warmth at no cost to your mobility or style.
The weather out there is unpredictable, and conditions may change with a blow of wind, so it’s important to consider packing some extra mid-layer heat.
If you are looking for a top performance soft shell jacket, KÜHL Protektr Hoody is the one for you. Comfortable, stylish, with water-resistant coating – perfect for a cold day stroll through the woods.
To me, KÜHL Skyr quarter-zip fleece jacket is the perfect mid-layer fleece because you can pack your chocolate energy bar right there in your chest pocket. And I love pockets. On a more serious note, the fleece is made from a polyester/merino wool blend which is soft, warm, and feels pleasant to the touch.
Outer layers for winter hiking
With a little help from your outer shell friend, your every winter hiking trip will be sneeze-free and adventureful. Look for insulated, breathable, windproof, and water-resistant features.
KÜHL Fleece Lined Kollusion is hands down an exceptional choice for winter hiking enthusiasts. The jacket doesn’t care whether it’s snowy, windy, or both. Its fleece insulation will keep you warm, and the front zip flaps shut out the pesky wind.
Additionally, the waxed outer layer keeps the winter jacket water-resistant and durable – which is another useful feature. A while back, while hiking to Bridal Veil Falls, I slipped and fell, and cut my brand new goose-down insulated shell on a random rock…
Anyway, here’s a reminder – outer layer should be:
- (Optional) Durable
Winter hiking pants
Wearing the right pair of winter hiking pants is as important as avoiding wearing cotton. Seriously, don’t wear cotton! Now, cold weather pants come in different shapes, sizes, features, and materials. Just like your outer layer, it’s necessary to know what works best for you and your hiking trip.
KÜHL Jetstream Rain pants are my go-to winter hiking trousers. The lightweight softshell pants are breathable, wind and water-resistant – ideal for a stroll on a cold day. However, should you decide to sit in the snow and enjoy the moment, your bum will get wet after a while.
The fabric takes the water and disperses it to dry quickly, which is a great feature to have, especially when it’s snowing.
So, just like your outer layer, winter hiking pants should be:
8 winter hiking tips
Here are 8 key points to have in mind before you fully embrace the cold and head out on a winter hike:
- Start as early as you can – Winter comes with much fewer daylight hours.
- Check the weather – Unless you want to experience an unexpected (but thrilling) blizzard, knowing the conditions help you know what to pack for the hike.
- Choose adequate trail difficulty – Don’t bite more than you can chew! Tip: Uphill trials get the blood flowing and will heat you up.
- Consider bringing safety gear – A first aid kit or even a home-made backcountry emergency kit.
- Bring enough water and snacks – Just like hypothermia, dehydration is a common problem on a winter hike. Snacks are there for extra energy! Optional: Bring coffee, tea, cocoa, or any other warm drink in a thermos.
- Keep your electronics tucked in and warm – You would want your mobile working in case of an emergency.
- Put on a lip balm and sunscreen – Snow reflects the dangerous UV rays.
- Read more about hypothermia – Things to look out for:
- Mumbling or slurred speech
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Numbness in the fingers and loss of dexterity
Winter Hiking Gear Recommendation
Packing extra gear is easy when you know what to expect from a winter hiking trail. Here are a few gear recommendations that can help you have a memorable hike:
- Trekking Poles – Useful for slippery conditions
- An extra pair of gloves – One to keep you warm, the other to protect from wind and snow
- Neck gaiter – For additional warmth
- Traction aids or crampons – Helps with icy trails
KÜHL people hike in winter
We’ve reached the end of the trail here.
I know it’s a lengthy one and by all means, bookmark the article and re-read it. You are now officially ready for your next winter adventure. I hope you took notes on this journey and understood how adequate outdoor clothing plays a critical role in your winter hiking trip.
See you soon in the mountains!