For some, cold winter temperatures mean it’s time to curl up at home and stay cozy, but for others, it’s a time to explore the natural beauty of one of the most striking seasons. Snow and ice can make beautiful views, but also treacherous conditions. When you’re hiking in the winter, how cold is too cold?
The temperature that’s too cold for hiking is specific to your experience and equipment preparation. Most people will not be comfortable in weather colder than 40°F (4.44°C) without cold-weather gear. With the proper gear and training, however, you can hike even in sub-zero temperatures safely and comfortably.
Warm layers, ice gear, and other tricks can keep you safe from frostbite and hypothermia, even in windy and freezing conditions. You know your limits the best, but this article will help you determine what the right choice is for you. Read on to learn about how to hike in the cold.
Is It Good To Hike in Cold Weather?
When you’re prepared for the conditions, hiking in cold weather can be just as good for you as hiking in the spring and summer. However, cold weather hiking does carry more risks than warm weather hiking.
Beyond the cold, there are weather conditions you should be aware of that might make your trek dangerous. High wind and heavy snow can make trails treacherous, especially on mountains or steep climbs or when the wind and snow are combined. Clear days are the safest option.
Cold-Weather Hiking Tips for Beginners
When you’re new to cold-weather hiking, start slow. You won’t be able to go as quickly as you do during warmer weather, so start with shorter trails. Take advantage of the limited winter sunlight by starting early in the day. You want to be able to finish the trail before the sun goes down.
Wear at least three layers, and pack extra socks. You need to stay dry, so make sure your outermost layer is waterproof, including your shoes. The colder it is, the more layers you need to stay warm. If it’s below freezing (32°F or 0°C), then you’re at risk for frostbite, so keep as much of your skin covered as possible.
Always check weather reports and avalanche risks before you head out to the trail. If the conditions are dangerous, postpone your hike for another day. Even if conditions are good, you may want to hike with a guide or a more experienced hiker until you’re more comfortable navigating trails in the winter.
Pack more food and water than you would for a warm-weather hike, too. You’ll burn more calories and get dehydrated faster in colder weather as your body has to work overtime to regulate your body temperature. Don’t forget to insulate your water bottle so it doesn’t freeze!
How To Train for Hiking in the Winter
The best way to train for hiking in the winter is to start slowly and build up to harder and longer trails and colder temperatures. Especially if you’ll be hiking up to very high elevations, you’ll want to do some conditioning first.
Your first winter outing shouldn’t be an eight-mile mountain climb in sub-zero temperatures. Instead, start with shorter, lower elevation hikes in warmer weather, and gradually work your way up to more extreme conditions. Listen to your body, and don’t try to do a hike that’s more than you can handle.
Even if you’re an experienced warm-weather hiker, you want to gauge your winter pace and your cold-weather comfort level before committing to a difficult trail. You can always increase the difficulty of your hikes over the season as you get more experience.
How To Prevent and Treat Frostbite and Hypothermia
Two of the biggest risks of hiking in extremely cold weather are frostbite and hypothermia. Both conditions happen in cold temperatures. The colder the weather, the faster the signs and symptoms will appear.
Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops too far below normal. This can be as little as a 5°F (-15°C) drop, so you’re at risk long before the weather goes below freezing. The first sign is shivering, but you want to warm your body up long before you get to the next step, which is when you stop shivering and start exhibiting confusion and disorientation.
Dressing in layers will help prevent you from losing body heat and getting hypothermia. Keeping your core warm is critical, but you want to keep your extremities covered too to prevent frostbite.
Frostbite is what happens when your skin freezes. In severe cases, it isn’t just the top layer of skin, but the flesh underneath as well. With severe frostbite, you risk losing the affected body part. Keeping your skin warm and dry is essential to avoid this.
Hand and foot warmers are a great addition to your hiking gear when it’s cold. Amazon.com sells Tundras Hot Hand Warmers and Tundras Foot Heat Warmers that can keep your extremities warm for six hours or more. Putting these in your boots or gloves can help you prevent frostbite.
It’s important to keep your face covered, too, as your nose is at risk for frostbite as well. Neck gaiters, scarves, and balaclavas are all great options for keeping your face warm throughout your hike.
What To Wear Hiking in Cold Weather
The number one rule for dressing to hike in the cold is to wear layers. You want at least three on top and two on the bottom. Your outermost layer should be waterproof, and the layer closest to your skin should be moisture-wicking.
Bring extra pairs of socks and gloves, too. If your clothing gets wet, either from snow, ice, or sweat, you’ll get colder faster and increase your risk of hypothermia and frostbite. You’ll also need a hat and waterproof boots with good tread.
If you’re hiking a particularly icy or steep trail, you should consider using crampons as well. They’ll act as miniature ice picks for your boots and will help keep you from slipping on the ice. The Trazon Crampons Ice Cleats from Amazon.com will slip on over any kind of boot and give you the grip you need to stay safe on the trail.
Tips for Staying Warm in Extreme Cold Weather
Staying warm in the extreme cold is more than just bundling up. You also need to take care of the inside of your body to help regulate your temperature. Consider bringing a thermos of hot tea or broth with you in addition to your water supply.
The warm liquid will help regulate your body temperature. Staying hydrated with water is also important, as dehydrated people get hypothermia faster than hydrated ones. You’ll also burn more calories in the cold as your body has to fight to keep your temperature stable. Bring plenty of high-energy snacks with you to keep yourself fueled.
Keeping dry is just as important as keeping warm, as wet clothes will bring your body temperature down faster than dry ones. That’s one of the reasons for layers; if you start sweating, you can adjust how many layers you wear before you get too sweaty.
When you hike in the cold, it’s also helpful to find a steady pace you can maintain for the whole hike. Moving will increase your body temperature as your blood flows, but if you stop you’ll start to lose body heat again. Stopping and starting will be harder on your body than hiking straight through.
Snow Hiking Gear for Extreme Cold Weather
The most important snow gear for hiking in cold weather is your clothing and your footwear. You need a waterproof coat or shell. If you’re hiking through deep snow, your shell layer isn’t just your coat; it should include snow pants that will protect your lower half from getting wet.
In addition to crampons for your boots, you might also want trekking poles for additional stability. The TrailBuddy Lightweight Trekking Poles from Amazon.com have different attachments for different weather conditions, including snow and mud.
My Closing Thoughts
As with hiking in any weather, being prepared and knowing your body’s limits is the best way to stay comfortable and have a good experience. For cold weather in particular, you need to check the weather, dress appropriately, and keep yourself warm on the trail. As long as you do this, you can hike at any temperature you please.
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Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.