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What to Pack Day hiking in Winter

What to Pack Day hiking in Winter
Timothy James Photo

This blog post is not meant to be an end all of how to prepare for a winter hike. Winter hiking in the south – where LightHeart Gearis based – is different than winter hiking at higher elevations and deeper snow where avalanches can occur. Winter hiking in the New Hampshire White Mountains, the Rocky Mountains or the Sierras is not something I am familiar with, but hiking in North Carolina during the winter months is delightful.

Day hiking during the winter provides opportunities for views that just can’t be had in other seasons. The fresh crisp air, and perhaps a blanket of snow, calls you to venture outside. Daylight hours are rather ‘limited’ during the winter months, so when you can normally do an 18 mile day hike in the summer, you may find yourself in the dark on an 18 mile hike in December. There are also other challenges to face beside the shortage of day light hours.

Aside from all the normal day hike preparations you make, including the usual ‘10 essentials’, you need to consider the following:

Clothing choices

It may be well below freezing, but as you are huffing and puffing up a hill sweating up a storm, your shirt gets wet. You stop for a break and now your wet shirt is growing frost. Pack extra layers incase you need them. It’s best to have multiple layers in the winter to help control body temperature. Don’t forget a hat and gloves. Mittens will keep you warmer than gloves.

Footwear

This is the only time I’m a fan of waterproof/GORE-TEX® shoes or boots.  Walking through slush and snow or even cold rain, GORE-TEX® lined boots will help keep your feet dry and warm. Make sure your toes can “play piano” inside your shoes. If you put on an extra layer of socks, the shoes can be too tight which can cut off circulation to your toes.

Microspikes or crampons of some sort. There can be a layer of ice hiding under the snow, YAKTRAX® or other crampons can save you from slipping, falling and hurting yourself.

Emergency Bivi sack

ALWAYS, ALWAYS be prepared to spend the night outside. You never ever know what can happen on a day hike. A sprained ankle or a bridge out over a river can conspire to ruin your hike. It’s easier to get lost in the winter when there is a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. Switchbacks can get missed, trails lost. Adventure Medical Kits make great emergency bivi sacks that don’t weigh a lot – please, bring one with you on any day hike.

Protection from the ground

This ranks up there with the emergency bivi sack.  Go outside sometime this winter, pretend you are on a day hike and just twisted or broke your ankle. You may be less than a mile from the trail head, but you are unable to walk and have to wait for someone to get help. Now, try sitting down on a rock or the snowy/wet ground for 30 minutes. The ground will suck the warmth right out of you. I bring a full-length NeoAir™ with me on day hikes as well as half of a Therm-A-Rest® Z-ridge Pad. The NeoAir™ stays packed unless I have to lie down. It is absolutely necessary to have some protection. You can live overnight without food or water, but without protection from the elements in the winter, you might die.

Sun/ Eye protection

The sun can get glaringly bright in the winter, especially if there is a blanket of snow. Sunglasses can prevent snow blindness, which is a very real threat and can be excruciatingly painful.

And, since the sun is going to set a lot earlier than usual, make sure to bring a headlamp or other flashlight.

Other items I generally carry on day hikes in the winter include:

It’s also always nice to bring a thermos with something hot to drink.

For other packing tips, check out What to Bring on The Colorado Trail.

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