With a little bit of preparation and a dash of patience, winter hikes and road trips can be extremely exciting. Stomping on thick, freshly fallen powder with snowshoes, watching snow drip from the sagging leaves, and seeing the bare forest wide-open in front of my eyes are just a few things I love about winter road trips and hikes. And I think you will, too.
While I prefer not to live in a snowy region, I do enjoy spending a little bit of time in a frosty location every winter. Winter road trips and winter hikes can be fun if you are properly dressed and prepared.
Whether or not you live in a wintry location, I am going to share some tips on how to safely hike and road trip in the winter. So you can either confidently and bravely venture to a cold location this winter or make the most of the winter season in your current living situation.
Winter Hiking Tips
Hiking in the winter, when done safely, can be a vastly enjoyable experience! Trails that were once cloaked in grass, leaves, and dirt transform into snow-covered paths. Trees that were once adorned with fat leaves, green in the summer and colorful in the fall, are now bare, but snow clings to all of the evergreen branches. Waterfalls that were once flowing with tumultuous waves of water are now frozen in a shiny sheet of vertical ice. Crowds that flocked to the trails in the summer are nowhere to be found in the winter; they’re probably tucked away in their homes or barricaded inside warm cabins with crackling fireplaces.
Hiking in the winter season can be a truly intimate experience with nature, and I hope that after reading this, you’ll consider throwing on layers, strapping on your boots, microspikes, or snowshoes, and hitting the snowy trails this winter!
Dress in Layers
Tip #1 is to dress like an onion! Layering is a critical technique used by hikers not just in cold weather, but year-round. Layering allows hikers to be able to add or peel clothes as needed to keep the body operating properly. It’s important to dress properly in the winter to avoid hypothermia and keep your body warm, safe, and functioning.
The 3 Layers & Their Functions
- Base/wicking layer. Wicks perspiration off the skin and keeps you dry.
- Mid/insulating layer. Retains body heat to protect you from the cold.
- Outer/shell layer. Waterproof layer that shields you from the wind, rain, and snow.
Tips for Selecting the Right Layers in the Winter
- Never wear cotton. Cotton takes a century to dry when it gets wet, leaving you constantly chilled.
- Pick a base layer that is made of polyester, nylon, merino wool, or silk.
- Pick a mid-layer that is made of polyester, down, synthetic, or wool.
- Pick an outer layer that is waterproof and breathable.
- Remember to cover all of your exposed skin, including your extremities! Cover your nose and cheeks with a neck gaiter/chute, your ears with a headband or hat, your feet with wool socks and waterproof boots, and your hands with wool or fleece gloves and shell mittens.
Carry the 10 Essentials
Having the 10 essentials loaded into your backpack will help you conquer everything from starvation and dehydration to illness and disorientation.
While some of these may seem unnecessary in the winter or on short hikes, each one has a purpose no matter what season you’re hiking, what the weather looks like, or how long you’ll be away from your car. That’s why they’re called the 10 Essentials, after all!
- First Aid
- Sun Protection
I have an entire guide focused on the 10 Essentials!
Let Someone Know Your Plans
Informing a friend or family member about where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, when you’ll be back, and what you plan on doing while you’re there will help you if you find yourself in a dangerous or dicey situation. Especially in the winter, when conditions are less than ideal, every minute is crucial. Hypothermia can take over within minutes.
If someone is expecting you to be back at a certain day and time, and they haven’t heard from you, they’ll be able to alert search and rescue on your whereabouts, potentially saving your life.
That being said, your chances of survival heighten dramatically if you’re hiking with at least one other person. That other person you’re with would be able to get help should something happen to you. Hiking solo is rewarding, but if you’re unprepared, you could put yourself in a dangerous situation. Hike smart!
Let your friend or family member know your itinerary before you leave for your trip, and if you want to contact them when you’re on the trail and/or when you get off the trail, you’ll want to carry a satellite phone with you. Cell service isn’t always available in the backcountry; in fact, it’s super rare that you’d even get a bar while on the trail, especially in remote areas.
Carrying a satellite phone, like the Garmin inReach Mini, would allow you to text loved ones, send your current location, check the weather, and press the big red SOS button all on the satellite network, from any location in the world. For just $14.99/month, you can activate this device and have ultimate peace of mind.
Staying hydrated is important no matter which season you’re hiking in or what the weather looks like. Yes, it’s important even in the winter.
I know that when I’m cold, I don’t always feel like guzzling water, so I tend to not consume as much. Your mind tricks you into thinking that since you’re not as overheated as you can get in the summer, your body doesn’t require as much water. But that’s not true!
Your body’s metabolism is its best heat source, and it has to work overtime to maintain its core temperature, so it’s crucial to keep it fueled with nutrition and water. You’re still exerting the same amount of energy as you would in the excruciating heat in the middle of summer. And you’re still releasing sweat, so your body needs to replenish its lost liquids with water and electrolytes.
Tips for Drinking Water in Cold Weather
- Put your water bottles inside your pack instead of in the exterior pockets. This will keep your bottles insulated and less likely to freeze. Another option would be to buy insulated sleeves for your bottles, or simply slip them inside wool socks!
- Flip your bottles upside down to prevent freezing. Bottles usually freeze from the top down, causing bottle tops to freeze shut.
- Keep at least one bottle within your reach so that you don’t feel like you have to stop, take your pack off, and dig through your bag. As a result, you will drink more often.
- Pack an insulated bottle filled with hot tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, or bring a Jetboil to boil water on the trail or at camp. Warm drinks will go a long way for your cold body temperature.
Learn How to Use Winter Hiking Gear
Winter hiking generally requires you to bring more gear than you would in the summer. Aside from extra clothing layers that you’ll have to bring, you’ll need additional pieces of gear that will help you navigate through the treacherous ice patches and deep snow fields.
These are some gear items that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with if you plan on venturing onto snow-covered and ice-sheeted trails:
- Microspikes. Microspikes, or trail crampons, use chains and spikes to provide traction on slippery surfaces.
- Snowshoes. Snowshoes, wide frames that slip over shoes or boots, allow hikers to walk on snow. You’ll want to learn how to snowshoe before hitting the trail!
- Trekking poles. Trekking poles can be used year-round, but they give hikers additional traction in the winter, especially when paired with snowshoes.
Be Aware of the Shorter Days
Since days gradually get shorter and shorter in the winter, daylight is limited. Try to limit your hiking and snowshoeing to daylight hours if possible.
Ice patches, snow banks, and slippery trails become increasingly more difficult to navigate in the dark. If you plan to be out hiking or camping before dawn or after dusk, always make sure you keep a headlamp in your pack with extra batteries, and of course, use caution.
Winter Road Tripping Tips
Depending on where you are in the country, winter road trips tend to look drastically different than summer road trips. If you’re road-tripping in the northern half of the country or are going to be in mountainous areas, you’ll need to take some extra precautions when navigating through the snow and ice.
Get Your Car Tuned
Before hitting the road, make sure your car is tuned and ready to go by doing the following:
- Get an oil change and tire rotation.
- Check your lights.
- Check your wiper blades.
- Fill fluids.
- Test the car battery.
- Fill air pressure in all four tires. Cold weather causes the pressure to deflate by around 1PSI every ten degrees.
- Have a mechanic do a thorough checkup of the brakes, belts, hoses, and fluids.
Have an Emergency Kit in Your Car
Whenever you’re on the road, a number of things can happen to your car. This isn’t a winter-exclusive tip, but car breakdowns can quickly turn into emergency situations when the temperature is below freezing.
Keeping an emergency kit inside your car at all times, including during winter road trips, will allow you to resolve several different issues that can arise while on your road trip.
If you have a leak or you run low on fluids, you can fill them. If you have low pressure or a leak in one of your tires, you can fill it with air or replace it with a spare. If you get stuck in mud or snow, you can dig yourself out with a shovel or use a traction device like Maxtrax to get your tires free. If you need to stop on the side of the road due to dangerous weather conditions, you will have fuel and blankets to keep you warm and alive until visibility returns. If you need to go get help, you’ll be able to traverse the snowy and/or icy roads with microspikes and snowshoes.
Emergency Car Kit Essentials
- Jumper cables
- Tire inflator
- A spare tire
- Windshield washer fluid
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Window shatter device
- Extra snacks and water
- First aid kit
- Ice scraper and brush
- Basic tools like a screwdriver, wrench, and pliers
- Folding shovel
- Reliable traction like Maxtrax or DIY traction like kitty litter
- Snowshoes and/or microspikes
- Fuel can with at least one gallon of gas
Keep Emergency Numbers Handy
Sometimes, an issue can arise while on your road trip that you won’t be able to resolve without an extra pair of hands. Keep numbers for close friends and family, a towing service, and roadside assistance in your contacts list. Make sure to bring a wireless charger so that you can charge your phone even if your car breaks down.
Drive Carefully in the Snow and Ice
Road-tripping can take a lot longer in the winter than in the summer. Oftentimes, winter brings delays due to road closures, long detours, slick roads, and slow, cautious traffic. Daylight is limited, so drive time windows can get slimmer if drivers aren’t comfortable navigating in the dark.
Tips for Driving in the Snow and Ice
- Set a reasonable pace. Driving in snow and ice will take a lot longer than cruising down the same cleared roads in the summer. Prepare for the extra time it may take to drive to your destination.
- Make sure your tires are all-terrain and have enough traction. Replace them if the tread depth is below 4/32”. You may need snow tires and/or chains if you’ll be in extra snowy or mountainous areas.
- Avoid slamming on the brakes. Press on the brakes lightly and slowly, giving yourself plenty of time to stop.
- Don’t ride the bumper of the car in front of you. Keep your distance to account for the extra time it’ll take to stop.
- Clear your car windows. Completely defrost and clear all windows from snow, ice, and other debris before driving.
Keep an Eye on the Weather and Changing Conditions
Watch for changing weather conditions. Certain areas, especially mountainous regions, can be unpredictable. It could be cloudless and clear one hour and foggy and snowy the next. You don’t want to get caught in a snowstorm and end up stranded on the side of the road.
Even with provisions like snacks, water, and blankets, it’s possible to not put yourself in a situation like that by consistently checking the local weather on phone apps or, if you don’t have a cell phone signal, radio stations. Watch the sky and consider stopping in local restaurants or rest stops to inquire about the weather or alternate, less hazardous routes. Locals are very knowledgeable about their town’s weather patterns!
I hope you’ve gained some useful tips on winter hiking and road-tripping.
For winter hikes, dress in layers, carry the 10 Essentials, let someone know your itinerary, carry a satellite phone, stay hydrated and fueled, learn how to properly use winter hiking gear, and avoid venturing onto the trails in the dark if you’re not experienced and/or prepared.
For winter road trips, get your car tuned before hitting the road, stock an emergency kit in your car, keep emergency numbers handy, drive carefully in the snow and ice, keep an eye on the weather and changing conditions, and don’t be afraid to ask the locals for advice on alternate routes and weather concerns.
Stay safe this winter!