I live in Colorado because I love hiking.
From 2016 to 2018, I summited all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers (mountains over 14,000’). Since then, I’ve focused on climbing all 584 ranked 13,000’ peaks — a list so long it has taken me 3 years just to get halfway! I summit a new 13er at least once per week, year-round.
I used to only hike in the summer — July in Colorado is hard to beat. Adventures in the high Rockies have taken me to meadows full of wildflowers, cerulean alpine lakes, and quiet, warm summits.
One of my favorite things is trail running through golden beams of sunlight and giant alpine stands wearing only shoes, a base layer, and a small pack. Warm season isn’t without its faults, though. Summer can also mean crowded trails, aggressive wildlife, afternoon thunderstorms, and smoky air from wildfires.
A few years ago, I didn’t want to stop going to the mountains just because summer was over. As the temperatures plummeted I kept hiking, and I witnessed how the cold changed everything around me.
With tourists headed home, kids back in school, and popular summer spots empty, there were hardly any people on the trail. Forests grew quiet as chirping marmots headed into hibernation, hummingbirds migrated south, and moose and deer calmed after mating season.
That year, I fell in love with winter hiking.
I discovered hiking in snow season offered the most isolation, silence, and uninterrupted beauty of the year. Blinding white snow was a sharp contrast against the bright sky and dark mountains. I picked up a pair of snowshoes and fell in love with the slow, steady cadence of wandering the trails in winter.
I also learned quickly that what to wear hiking in cold weather is different. It requires more gear and alternate systems than in summer. Through trial and error, I learned how to stay comfortable, safe, and maximize fun.
Here’s my list of the best cold weather hiking gear (plus some tips for hiking in the cold) so you can stay out on the trail all year long.
Best Men’s Winter Hiking Gear
1. Layer Up
Winter hiking requires a constant search for your Goldilocks temperature: not too hot, not too cold. That’s where layering comes in.
A proper layering system is the best cold hiking gear. It will keep you comfortable in any weather and temperature. In just a few hours, the Colorado Rockies can fluctuate 20-50 degrees. I’m constantly putting on and taking off clothes as the weather changes and as I heat up (or cool down) from moving.
Start with the Base Layer
Start with a base layer that will wick moisture when you sweat but hold in heat. A base layer is a thin but warm top and bottom worn underneath your clothes. If it’s near freezing outside, your base layer is the first line of defense.
Pay attention to the fabric — most modern leggings and tops combine advanced materials like elastane, polyester, merino wool, and spandex. Avoid cotton at all costs — it holds moisture instead of wicking it away, which could lead to dampness and chafing.
Add a Midlayer
Next is the midlayer. It retains the heat of your base layer, offering additional warmth.
A fleece jacket and water-resistant pants are good choices. For my winter layering system, I use a thick pair of lined leggings, then a lightweight zippered pullover with a microfleece hoodie on top of that.
Top it Off with an Outer Shell
Last, add an outer shell to your list of winter backpacking clothes that accounts for the weather on your hike. We’re talking here about weatherproof jacket and winter hiking pants.
Is there even a chance it might snow? Will it rain? What’s the windchill? Your jacket should be water resistant but flexible and light enough to move in comfortably. Because I hike in snow, I usually wear waterproof pants, but can switch to snow pants if needed.
2. Protect Your Digits
Cold fingers and toes can ruin a winter hike. While your body can regulate heat well, that’s not always true for your hands and feet.
If you’re going on a colder and snowier hike, add a pair of waterproof mittens on top of the glove liners. I recommend mittens over finger gloves because your hands warm up faster and easier when your fingers are together, sharing heat.
You may lose dexterity, but it’s easy to pull mittens off to check those texts. Look for trusted outdoor brands that use Gore-Tex, a well-known waterproof and durable material, in construction.
For snow, consider doubling up your socks. Clothing technology has made ultra-fine, allergen-free wool a staple of the industry. Look for a tight fit with a breathable but warm material.
Make sure the socks fit well with your boots and other socks you might wear at the same time. Again, material matters — no cotton. There’s nothing worse than cramped toes and blisters!
3. Choose Warm and Waterproof Winter Hiking Boots
Of course, waterproof boots or shoes will keep your feet dry and comfortable. Choose footwear based on the winter conditions in your area.
Is your hike going to be at or around freezing? Bring a couple of hand and foot warmers. Save them for the coldest temperatures on your hike, like near an exposed area, at elevation, or in wind.
Hand warmers are also helpful in an emergency. When I’m hiking in the cold for a long time and just can’t warm my extremities, I’ll stick warmers on the back of my glove liners or top of my base socks to add a few hours of external heat.
4. Extra! Extra! (Winter Hiking Gear)
Cold season hiking sometimes demands additional gear. Here are some of my favorites:
I always recommend hiking poles. Poles are especially helpful in winter to check snow or puddle depths, navigate ice, and keep balance. Many models offer snow “baskets,” a disk that attaches to the tip of your pole to prevent them from sinking into snow.
Studies have shown a significant reduction of leg muscle and joint strain when using poles on a descent. For me, they’re essential on steep uphill climbs.
Additional traction — like microspikes — can make or break an adventure. Most models are easily stretched over your boot and held in place with the rubber of the upper spikes. Once on your boot, a network of small metal teeth stays stretched across your shoe’s traction to help dig into slippery surfaces like ice.
I recommend microspikes over a coiled option. Yes, spikes tend to be more expensive, but they outpace coils in every way: they last longer, grip more effectively, and weigh less.
If you’re wading through the white stuff, gaiters are clutch. Using waterproof materials like nylon and Pertex, these attach with a strap on the bottom of the boot, then wrap around your foot and leg.
Gaiters essentially seal your boot opening so snow and moisture can’t get in. Plus, they add extra warmth.
Geared up and ready to rumble with my dog Blodgett, winter 2020. Follow Blodgett’s famous “barkour” and hiking adventures on Instagram >
If there is a lot of snow where you hike in the winter, snowshoes might be needed. Many outdoor stores offer rentals for dirt cheap. But if you’re hiking regularly in snow, it might be time to get your own pair.
Always Wear Eye Protection
Don’t be fooled by the cold air — the sun is even more powerful in winter. Snow reflects the sun’s UVA and UVB light. It can cause serious skin damage and snowblindness in mere hours.
Don’t forget sunglasses, or even goggles, for eye protection — and strong sunscreen for your face.
Top Tips for Cold Weather Hiking
1. Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated in winter is every bit as important as it is in the summer. But chances are, you’ll have to change the way you access the water you’re carrying during the “off-season.”
Filtering water can be harder in winter. By February in the Colorado backcountry, most lakes are frozen, streams are buried under feet of snow, and accessing open water can be dangerous with icy banks.
Plus, many filters don’t work if they freeze. When ice forms inside, it can stretch out the parts that do the actual filtering, rendering the whole device useless.
To prevent this, I always keep my water filter wrapped in a glove, sock, or other clothing. If it’s really cold, I’ll even remove the filter from the rest of the device and keep it in a pocket near my body to prevent ice.
If it’s really cold, scrap the hydration bladder altogether. The mouthpiece can freeze, making your only water source inaccessible. Many hikers will insulate their bladder and hose, but there’s no guarantee water will continue to flow easily throughout your adventure.
Instead, I recommend carrying multiple water bottles like Nalgenes or collapsible options. Store them upside down in your pack so they don’t freeze. I often add hot water, then loosely wrap the bottles in extra clothing in my pack.
Another tip is to add a pinch of salt to stop water from freezing — and add electrolytes!
Ice beard during a break climbing Whale Mountain, winter 2019.
2. Insulate Your Phone
Have you noticed your phone battery hates the cold?
Your phone’s Lithium-ion batteries lose power rapidly in freezing temperatures. Whether you need to send a message or use a GPS app to help navigate where you’re going, a long winter hike would be a challenging place for your phone to die.
Keep your phone inside some material, like a piece of clothing, to prevent condensation and direct contact with freezing temperatures. Or store it near your body.
I stash my phone either in a pocket in my leggings or the inside pocket of my jacket. That way it’s easy to access, out of the elements, and my body heat moderates its performance.
3. Consider a Portable Battery or Satellite Phone
If you’re spending extended time hiking in winter conditions, consider buying a portable backup battery. If your phone battery percentage dips, you can easily recharge your device.
Single-charge backup batteries are lightweight, affordable, and compatible with most phones. An extra charge could make all the difference in salvaging your phone battery to navigate to your car, send a message, or call for help.
For serious winter hiking without cell service, look into a satellite phone. Whether it’s a dangerous route, an emergency, or simply a very long day, having a reliable method to send a message or get help beyond your phone is indispensable. The price is steep on these, but what’s your life worth?
4. Bring a Headlamp
During long winter day hikes, I bring my headlamp. Because there’s so much less daylight in the cold months, dusk can creep up on you.
I found it was a tremendous peace of mind to have that bright flood of light if I there wasn’t enough daylight to retrace my tracks. So bring a headlamp!
5. “Feed Me Seymour!”
Hiking in the cold season can often mean more work, especially in snow. As the day gets warmer, snow tends to get wetter and heavier as it melts.
You typically burn more calories in winter conditions than an equidistant hike in the summer. Wading through snow with microspikes on can feel like running in the sand with weights attached to your feet — burning more calories at a faster pace.
Eat accordingly. I recommend high calorie and high protein options.
Dig out those favorite snack bars, pack a hearty lunch, and eat as often as you need to keep energy up and focus strong. Anything you’re excited to eat is a worthy snack when you’re hiking. For example, I hike with a friend who always brings cold pizza. My favorite thing after a few hours of hiking is a Boston cream donut.
Also eat well before your winter hike so you’re starting out with fuel to burn.
A nice place for a break at 13,000’+ in the Gore Range, winter 2020.
6. Keep Your Eyes on the Skies
Weather can be unpredictable in winter, especially in the mountains. Get to know the accurate weather apps and sites for your area. I recommend finding an active meteorologist in your region on social media and check for their updates.
Planning is imperative. In Colorado high country, many days start out with blue skies and no clouds, but by noon, I’ll be hiking in a snow or rainstorm.
Cold weather is one thing, but moisture like rain and snow is another. Storms can change the dynamic of a hike. Snow can completely cover a trail and make navigating much more difficult. Be sure to plan your hike based on the weather that day.
7. Bring the Right Hiking Backpack
Hiking from October to April means carrying more clothes. Clothes take up more space, and you’ll need a hiking backpack that can hold everything securely — that small summer backpack is probably not going to cut it.
The distance and type of winter hike will determine how big your backpack should be, but I recommend something between 28 to 36 liters. I use a 28-liter pack, which is just big enough to accommodate the extra gear I need for a snowy hike.
A pack with lots of straps and pockets on the outside is great for stashing gear as you remove it or put it back on, without having to take off your bag.
Winter hiking can offer real tranquility with less people, more quiet, and incredible views. But to thrive in the cold season, adapting your hiking gear is key to staying comfortable so you can have the adventure of your life:
- Make sure to layer up and choose the right hiking gear for you and where you’re going.
- Choose the right hydration system and snacks.
- Don’t forget to keep your phone safe in case you need it, and always check the weather ahead of time.
Every winter hike is a chance to adjust your gear and decide what the right setup is for you. The more often you go, the better and more dynamic your winter system will be, and the more fun you’ll have!
Looking for more great outdoor tips from the experts? Sign up for our newsletter to get awesome outdoor adventure to your content every month!