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Winter Hiking: My Favorite Season
Cold weather is my favorite for long hikes. Once I figured out my go-to winter hiking outfit, all the anxiety about getting way out there when it’s below freezing melted 🧊 right away. I think the most important question is “How will I stay warm?” Well, staying warm is all about layering, so really “How to layer for winter hiking?” is the better question, and one that will make your frigid hikes worthwhile.
Why go hiking in the winter?
For starters, parks & trails are much less busy when it’s cold. You can avoid crowds and enjoy the pristine stillness of the wilderness (or of your local park) without interruption or distraction. Is there a local hotspot for hikers? In the cold, winter months, you’ll be able to take as many unobstructed pictures as you’d like.
Also, there are colors and sensations winter hiking gives that no other season can.
Don’t you want to be a 4 season hiker and know truly all your favorite parks and trails?
Of course you do!
Table of Contents: Jump Ahead!
Clothing Matters for Winter Hiking
The reason your winter hiking outfit is so important is because to get the maximum enjoyment out of your adventure, you want to be comfortable and safe. Comfort will ensure you’re focused on the right things (the views, sensations, and wildlife) and safety ensures your hike doesn’t get cut short.
Overdressing for a winter hike can leave you hot and sweaty, which at best will make you cold, and at worst can be life-threatening.
Similarly, underdressing can make you completely miserable, a helpless subject to wind, rain, and snow.
Don’t overdress, don’t underdress.
Alright, clothing for a winter hike matters.
Soup in December
cooling but still hot
thoughts of melting mountains
we’ve entertained not
How to Pick a Winter Hiking Outfit
You want something that keeps you warm AND dry, and that’s not always easy out there on your favorite snowy or cold trails. Your clothes can get wet from rain or snow, from puddles and streams, and–most unfortunate–from sweat.
Even when it’s cold, you’re going to sweat. This is why layering is so important: you’ll want to be able to remove and add layers as your body temperature changes. For example, when I hike uphill, I’m always shedding my hat, second glove, and possibly my jacket. Sweat will make you cold if you don’t allow your body and layers to breathe. When I reach a windy peak or open area for lunch, or when I’m marching downhill, I might add those things back to keep the outside wind and cold off.
Once you’ve done a few winter hikes, you’ll develop your own preferences, and you’ll feel more confident heading out for a cold weather trek. During winter months (and really any cold weather hike), you may want to throw extra gear in your bag. If your shoes aren’t waterproof, bring an extra pair of socks. I like extra gloves, a spare hat, and extra food & water for winter hikes.
Alright, let’s talk about my preferred winter hiking outfit. Use this info to build your own, don’t be afraid to try new gear or setups, and most importantly, have fun out there!
Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia. 2022. Grayson highlands has some of the prettiest winter hiking on the East coast.
7 Winter Hiking Apparel Tips
- Only the outermost layer of your outfit should be waterproof! (If you choose to use waterproof gear)
- Every layer of clothing should move moisture away from your skin. That means no cotton!
- Each layer should be lightweight, fast-drying, and easy to remove.
- Always keep a clean and dry change of clothes, and a fresh pair of shoes, in your car.
- My gloves always seem to be my weak link, though I think I’ve got it figured out. Bring an extra pair!
- This guide is very dependent on temperature and conditions. Always test your winter hiking outfit & layering strategy near civilization before venturing too far away from it.
- I run hot, my wife runs cold. She likes extra layers, I like a more streamlined approach. We’re all different, the following advice is just my experience and preferences. Use the following principles to build your own winter hiking outfit. Once you’ve got it dialed in, you’ll rarely need to change it!
Headwear for winter hiking
Heat escapes through your head! For me, the following three items are the best way to regulate my temperature: to get cool if I’m sweating too much, or to warm up if I feel cold.
When the weather is below freezing, I bring/wear three essential headwear pieces…
- Base layer: I rarely take off my Buff multipurpose neck wrap.
- Next up, I wear a packable, polyester 5 panel hat, like this one from Coal.
- Last up, a great beanie. A must-have for any winter hiking outfit.
Let’s talk about some of my favorites…
#1. Buff Multifunctional gaiter
My first layer (and you’ll see throughout this post how important that base layer is) is always a lightweight, polyester neck gaiter (tube?). Wool is cool too, but I don’t like wool around my neck…it itches my facial hair. This one from BUFF is the standard for hikers.
A theme you’ll see for me is ultralight polyester as my first layer for winter hiking. It’s light, soft, and it moves moisture away from the skin like nothing else. I use my Buff gaiter as a baklava (around my neck and over the back of my head, covering my ears), but I’ll also use it just as a headband, or to cover my neck and face. Super versatile!
On longer hikes, I might bring a second one, just in case. They take up almost no space, so it’s not inconvenient at all.
💰 You can expect to spend $10-30 for a new neck gaiter.
I’ve always been perfectly comfortable in a Buff neck gaiter and polyester 5 panel hat while hiking in the winter, but I always keep a warm beanie in my pack. Note my Buff wrapped around my ears and neck. Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia, 2022.
#2. A lighter, polyester hat
My 5 panel hat buyer’s guide might help you choose the best lightweight, packable hat for you, but my favorite is this one from Coal. It fits all my hiking hat essentials, and I can use it during all four seasons.
Pairing a polyester 5 panel hat with a Buff neck gaiter is my go-to cold-weather hat setup. It’s easy to remove layers and adjust temperature, the Buff keeps the wind off my ears while the hat keeps my head warm, and the hat’s brim can be flipped up or down for changing conditions.
💰 A quality polyester hat costs around $30.
#3. Best Beanie for Hiking
What’s the best beanie for hiking? How about going with one of the best adventure brands there is: Smartwool! Smartwool makes this fantastic, cuffed, reasonably-priced beanie that is lightweight and warm. It’s 100% merino wool, so it’s meant to regulate temperature.
I use my hiking beanie less than my Buff & 5 panel hat combo, but you need to have one of these handy. Keep it in your pocket for when the wind picks up, for sitting around the campsite, or anytime you feel yourself getting cold.
For hiking, I prefer acrylic (like this Carhatt knit beanie with thousands upon thousands of positive reviews) or wool, but any performance material like polyester will work great. I just prefer the fit of an acrylic or wool hat. Note: my acrylic hat doesn’t dry super well, so I keep it out of the elements as much as possible. Wool is certainly more hiker-friendly, so the Smartwool beanie is a wonderful option.
💰 A warm, good-for-hiking beanie will cost you $30-45.
#4. Other headwear considerations for winter hiking
You’ve got a Buff gaiter, 5 panel hat, and comfy cuffed beanie for your winter hiking outfit.
Is that it?
Well, I also take my hood pretty seriously (we’ll get to tops & jackets next) because it helps a lot with keeping the previous three items dry. It also is a really nice layer for warmth! Depending on how cold and windy (and inhospitable…) your hiking area is in the winter, you could benefit from a second Buff and beanie for sleeping & campsite wear.
Tops & Jackets for Winter Hiking
I have a great system for my winter hiking outfit tops and jackets. I follow the same principles as headwear, starting with a thin polyester layer. Remember, polyester moves moisture (sweat) away from your skin and dries quickly. My second layer is always a Smartwool 250g long sleeve shirt. Next, I layer with a lightweight jacket (usually a quarter zip). Finally, I wear a soft-shell hiking jacket for warmth and protection from Old Man Winter.
Here’re the tops and jackets I prefer…
#1. Rabbit long sleeve shirt
Rabbit makes THE softest, most comfortable performance gear I’ve worn.
Rarely a day goes by in the winter I’m not wearing these shirts as a base layer. I prefer the EZ Tee, but check out all of their women’s or men’s long sleeve tops and find your perfect style. Most Rabbit gear fits tapered, so size up if you like a looser fit. For layering though, a snug fit can be nice.
I think polyester is perfect to wear closest to your skin, and Rabbit is the best hoppin’ around.
So there you have it. Your first base layer for winter hiking should be a Rabbit long sleeve shirt.
💰 You can find long sleeve polyester shirts for $40-100.
#2. Smartwool 250g long sleeve top
I put these shirts (shop men’s | shop women’s) as a favorite pick on my best gifts for hikers guide, and I’m always wearing one in the winter. Wool regulates temperature better than polyester, keeping you warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather. It’s also odor resistant and durable enough to wear in any environment.
When the hiking is mostly uphill, or when the sun is shining bright, I’ve stripped my outer layers down to my Smartwool shirt. Coupled with the polyester underneath, even freezing mountain temperatures aren’t cold enough.
So make your second layer this adventure-ready shirt!
Here’s my hiker’s essential Smartwool gear collection…
- Smartwool hiking crew socks: shop men’s | shop women’s
- Smartwool cuffed beanie
- Smartwool neck gaiter (though I prefer this one from Buff)
- Smartwool sport tee (for warm weather hiking & casual wear): shop men’s | shop women’s
Smartwool makes tons of products I haven’t tried, but I’ve never been disappointed by their gear. If you find something you think you might like, you can feel confident buying from this trustworthy brand.
💰 Smartwool tops are expensive, but they’re well-worth the expense. They last forever, are odor-resistant, and can be worn for lots of outdoor activities.
#3. Lightweight jacket
Okay, so far my winter hiking outfit is a warm head, a long sleeve Rabbit shirt, and a 250g Smartwool base layer. I’m pretty comfortable and getting warmer, but I’ll need more protection from the elements.
My next layer is a lightweight jacket. Anything synthetic or wool (or some combination of the two) works great, so you can stick with something from Rabbit (men’s | women’s). I have a few favorites in this category: some have hoods and others are full-zip, but I usually wear quarter-zips (like all of these from REI).
Don’t use something too heavy or thick. Remember: layering for winter hiking requires gear that can be easily removed and stored. When you’re too hot, you’ll want to ditch the outermost layers. When you stop for a snack or when the sun is hiding behind clouds, you may want to add those layers back.
💰 You might pay $50-$100 for a good quarter-zip jacket.
#4. A soft-shell, waterproof jacket
What is a softshell jacket?
A soft-shell jacket is a water-resistant, lightweight, stretchy/flexible jacket that allows more airflow than a hard-shell winter coat (like you might wear for adventures with heavy rain and snow, or high winds), but is warmer than a typical rain jacket. I prefer a jacket with a hood for gusty, rainy days and usually choose something on the lightweight side of the spectrum.
I’ve had great experiences with Columbia (men’s | women’s), The North Face (men’s | women’s), Marmot (men’s | women’s), and On Running (men’s | women’s). REI also has a great selection of men’s and women’s soft-shell jackets for winter hiking.
Jackets like these are super versatile. Just because they’re hiking jackets doesn’t mean you can’t wear them all the time, it actually means you should wear them all the time.
Wear your softshell hiking coat whenever you’re starting to feel chilly, or when the wind or snow get bad. Stow it in your hiking bag (mine is a GR1 from GORUCK) when you feel too warm.
#5. A raincoat for winter hiking
Even when I have a soft-shell jacket, I bring a raincoat. In fact, I bring a raincoat for any hiking adventure.
A raincoat will come in handy if it rains hard, snows a lot, or is particularly windy. The most important tip for hiking in the winter is to stay dry, and an easily accessible raincoat will only help. Plus, a good rain jacket is packable and lightweight, so you won’t even know it’s there.
Stay dry, hike long, enjoy your day!
I use a raincoat made by REI (men’s | women’s). They tend be less expensive than some of the outdoor name brands. For hiking, always get one with pockets. I have one with pockets and without pockets, and I always prefer the one with pockets to keep my hands dry and warm.
With proper layering, a raincoat can provide excellent protection from wintry weather without a bulky soft shell jacket. Here’s my wife wearing a rain jacket in frigid 25 degree weather at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia. Layers are key!
Pants & Bottoms for Winter Hiking
I’m pretty picky when I’m choosing hiking pants. My preferred bottoms for hiking are running shorts, but that’s not feasible when the temperature drops below freezing. But I try to get my hiking pants as close to running shorts as possible.
So here’s what I look for in hiking pants…
- No belt needed, easy to move in: While I have a couple good hiking belts (and here are my 3 favorites), I prefer pants that sit comfortably without one. Something comfy & stretchy that moves with me and won’t need adjusting. Is that a lot to ask? Well, we have DEET free magical mosquito repellers and folding sunglasses, so I think we can manage hiking pants with no belt.
- Moisture-wicking and water resistant: It’s so important to move moisture away from your skin when it’s cold. Your choice of hiking pants is very important here. It’s also important that moisture doesn’t soak your pants, so choose something fast-drying and weather-proof.
- Durability: It’s a good idea to only own one pair of awesome hiking pants. It’s more affordable, it’s more eco-friendly, and you only have to keep track of one pair of pants. With this simplicity in mind, make durability a priority!
- Pockets: Finally, I love pockets. In addition to the normal pockets situated around the waistline, I try to get a couple extra pockets on the legs for snacks, sunglasses, lip balm, or a notebook for writing poems. At minimum, though, I want the normal amount of pockets around the waistband.
- Running pants make the best hiking pants. Why do I shop for running pants when I’m going hiking? They’re light and breathable, move moisture away from my skin, and are super comfortable to layer with. I can rarely find hiking pants that don’t have belt loops, but all running pants are stretchy all over and move with me. The best running pants are supremely comfortable, and you can use them for anything. As someone who has run ultra marathons, I feel confident venturing off the beaten path in a good pair of running pants, especially in the winter.
With those few tips in mind, I have some recommendations. Now, I’m picky about pants, but I’ve had luck ordering online with the following brands and styles. Most places have pretty good return policies now, but you can always head to REI or a local outdoor shop to try things on.
I prefer layering to bulky, warm pants, so you’ll find me layering a pair of tights beneath these if the weather is cold enough (usually under 40 degrees F). A nice cozy pair of polyester tights as a base layer beneath your pants can make your adventure time MUCH more enjoyable. I’m usually rocking something like this as my base layer.
#1. On Running Pants
Hands down, these On Running Pants are the best hiking pants money can buy. They’re synthetic pants that are engineered for movement. The materials used are some perfect intersection of breathability, durability, and comfort (or freedom of movement). They’re water repellant with zippers designed to keep elements out and valuables secure.
I first tried On Running Pants when I worked at a run specialty shop, and I never looked back. 10/10 the best athletic & outdoor pants you can buy.
Wear these pants year-round, and use a pair of tights underneath when the weather is cold.
#2. Vuori Meta Jogger
These are the pants I wear most often: lounging, running, walking, hiking, etc. Perhaps that’s why they call them Meta: zoom out and look at all your activities, these pants get the job done. They sit great around my waist and ankles; every Vuori pant I’ve bought is comfortable enough to do anything in.
Meta Joggers are a bit warmer than the On Running Pants I just mentioned, and the quality is outstanding. They’re perfectly comfortable and ready for adventure. The only downside? Pockets! These pants only have pockets at the waist.
Vuori also sells my favorite Spring/Summer/Fall pants, the Ripstop Jogger and Pants (beware! these are cotton and aren’t good pants for winter hiking) which is available in ladies’ sizes, unlike the Meta series.
#3. REI Co-op hiking pants
For winter hiking, all you really need is a good pair of synthetic pants over a pair of tights (unless temperatures drop waaaay below freezing and there are piles of snow). My legs don’t get super cold, so that’s what I prefer.
REI has some awesome affordable hiking pants, and I’ve never had a bad experience with any of their branded gear (including pants!). Tap here to browse all the pants they’ve put together for hiking, and look for something synthetic with enough pockets.
My go-to winter hiking footwear? My nine year old Lowa Renegade GTX boots.
Waterproof Boots and Shoes
Boots or shoes make a huuuge difference when winter hiking and backpacking. If your feet get wet, you’re going to have a bad time. In warmer seasons you may not choose something waterproof, but winter hiking requires it. Here are a few of my favorites…
#1. Lowa Renegade GTX
As of writing this, I’ve had my waterproof Lowa Renegade GTX hiking boots for nine years. And while I could probably use a new pair, I just haven’t lost faith yet. They’re still comfortable (I keep the underfoot feel fresh with unisex Currex RunPRO insoles), still waterproof, and I still wear them all the time. Whenever it’s wet, or whenever I’m hiking in the winter, I’m wearing these boots.
My favorite part about my Lowa boots? Lowa has been making the same boot for 25 years. Talk about time-tested!
You know a boot is good when it’s lasted for years on your feet and you can still buy the exact same one.
My Lowa Renegade GTX boots fit true to size, I wear a 10.5 in Lowa, Brooks, Altra, and a few other brands.
#2. Brooks Cascadia GTX
The Brooks Cascadia GTX is my favorite waterproof trail shoe. While it doesn’t come up over the ankle like a boot, I’ll wear these awesome trail runners if the weather will be tame (if it’ll be raining or snowing, I’m wearing the aforementioned Lowa boots).
They keep your feet warm and dry, they’re nimble and comfortable, and the brand is trustworthy. I’ve never had an issue with Brooks running shoes, and I’ll always replace my Cascadias with the newest edition.
When I worked in a running store, Brooks was the number one selling brand. Every. Single. Year. And it wasn’t very close.
Brooks is a trustworthy brand, and I love my Cascadia GTX trail running shoes for winter hiking, trail running, or just running errands. When you need something nimble and waterproof, trust the Cascadia. You can also check out the more-cushioned Caldera, but it doesn’t come waterproof.
#3. Altra Lone Peak
The Altra Lone Peak (and its different versions) is my favorite four-season trail shoe. You’ll see some fun variation in the Lone Peak: they make them waterproof, as a boot, and as waterproof boots! You can have a pair of Lone Peaks for every occasion.
What’s so great about the Altra Lone Peak?
Altra is a performance brand dedicated to natural movement patterns. The Lone Peak is popular amongst ultra endurance athletes for a few good reasons…
- Foot-shaped toe box: your toes will never get squished or crammed in a Lone Peak. The seemingly goofy shape of the shoe is meant to allow your toes to splay out naturally. They’re super comfy and great for long hikes, runs, or backpacking trips. I’ve completed 50+ mile ultra marathons in the Lone Peak and haven’t earned a single blister along the way.
- Zero drop platform: the Lone Peak (like most Altra shoes) is flat. That doesn’t mean no cushion! It means that your forefoot and heel are at the same height. Why? Well, it keeps the pressure off your toes (you’re not leaning into them) and provides a natural gait cycle. Think of the holistic benefits of barefoot shoes, but with plenty of cushion! Curious about transitioning to a zero drop shoe? Tap here to read about my experience.
- Aggressive lugs: this is one of my favorite parts of the Lone Peak. The tread under your feet is grippy (aka anti-slippy) with big directional lugs that help pull you uphill and keep your from sliding downhill. Most trail shoes have directional lugs, but the Altra Lone Peak has my favorite underfoot tread.
In short, the Lone Peak looks good, feels good, and will keep your feet (especially your toes!) happy on the trail. It’s a nimble shoe with enough different versions (low-cut, boot, weather-resistant) to rock all year, no matter the weather.
Best socks for winter hiking
Socks for winter hiking are as important as the boots or shoes you wear. You’re going to want something highly rated (aka trustworthy), made with a synthetic or wool blend, and long enough to grab moisture before it gets to your feet.
What are the best winter hiking socks?
Well, if you’re looking for highly rated socks made with the best hiking materials, the best answer is Darn Tough’s merino hiking socks. I prefer the crew-length (shop men’s | shop women’s) for winter adventures.
For maximum coziness and protection from the elements, I tuck my base layer tights into my socks, and my socks into my hiking pants. Three layers right around the ankle to really keep the water, snow, and sweat from soaking my feet.
Here are a few other favorites of mine…
- Danish Endurance merino hiking sock
- Balega Blister Resist crew socks (featured as one of my favorite gifts on my Gifts for Hikers Guide)
- Feetures Mini Crew (best for running and warmer weather)
Must-have accessories for winter hiking and backpacking
You’ll need a few extras to make any frigid excursion great. Don’t forget to bring these with you…
- Cliganic Organic Lip Balm Set: chemical-free made with natural ingredients, USDA organic, made in the USA, and cruelty-free. A win-win-win-win! Keep your lips from getting dry and cracked by Old Man Winter.
- Always bring a headlamp when you go hiking. You really never know when you’ll need it. You might be on the trail longer than expected or have car trouble on the way home. I like this Petzl ACTIK CORE listed on Amazon myself.
- Want to make some soup, hot cocoa, or oatmeal out on the trail? Your friends will thank you! A warm-up snack can be a great way to rest without letting your body temperature drop. My favorite Jetboil Zip camping stove makes cooking on the trail a breeze.
- Keep your electronics dry with a Sea to Summit Dry Bag. Perfectly waterproof, durable, and built for adventure.
- Sunglasses! Goodr’s OG Sunglasses are the way to go. Inexpensive, polarized glasses favored by runners, hikers, and travelers.
- My winter hiking outfit always includes 2 pairs of gloves: a thin base layer pair of running gloves and my main pair. For my base layer, I like these running gloves from New Balance. For my main pair, I use a pair similar to these from The North Face. I might bring a third pair of gloves if the hike is long or the weather is bad. Or if I’m with someone less experienced (I’ve donated gloves to another hiker before). In short, use layering for gloves and bring an extra pair. You won’t regret warm, dry, comfortable hands!