Winter Hiking Outfit Essentials


Bradee Felton

January 30, 2024

Looking for winter hiking outfit essentials so you can confidently hit the trails year round? Winter is certainly the season when making smart apparel decision is the most crucial. Showing up unprepared is simply not an option, especially at higher altitudes. This article will be outlining each type of winter hiking apparel you will want to invest in as the temperatures drop. I also want to emphasize that winter hiking year round IS possible. Even in extremely snowy places like Colorado. In 2019, I completed a 52-week hiking challenge, which means I completed one hike per week for the entire year starting January 1st. While not all weeks looked like what some may consider a traditional “hike”, it was still doable! Winter hiking can look very different week-to-week and depending on the altitude at which you are hiking. So let’s talk about what to expect as far at different altitudes:

  • Trails below 7,000 feet will tend to be less snowy and icy in general. You can expect snow on the trails December- March apart from unseasonable snow storms. 
  • Trails 7,000-10,000 feet will tend to have more consistent snow + icy conditions from November-April. There will likely be a few earlier snow storms and a few later snow storms to consider as well. 
  • Trails above 10,000- feet will likely be completely snow covered from late October- late May (sometimes into late June depending on that year’s snow fall). 

Of course, you will always want to check forecasts and check trail reports to get a more current and accurate picture of what you can expect for trail conditions. The app AllTrails is a wonderful resource, as people often leave reviews of trail conditions. All of that to say, it’s not just about dressing warmly, but about factoring in the conditions based on your altitude and time of year. 


Leggings– You will absolutely want multiple layers on your legs for most winter hikes, especially if snow is piling up. Start with a base layer for your legs. This can either be traditional leggings, or merino wool leggings for particularly cold days. 

My recommendations: 

Snow pants- On top of your leggings, you will want a waterproof snow pant. These will go over your leggings, socks and the openings in your boots to prevent snow from reaching your ankles. They will also provide an extra layer of protection from cold, piercing wind. 

My recommendations: 

Warm, performance socks- For winter hiking, the proper socks are crucial. Look for wool socks, at least crew height (halfway up the shin) with heavy cushioning. 

My recommendations:

Waterproof snow boots- Pac boots or snow boots will be your best bet at protecting your feet from the elements and maintaining warmth. The main difference between traditional snow boots and pac boots is that snow boots do not have a rubber lining. Pac boots are better for sub-freezing conditions, but only for shorter time periods. Snow boots are better for longer periods of time in cold conditions. The main thing you want to look for is proper insulation and that they are waterproof. If you find that your boots are not completely waterproof, you can also treat them with DWR (durable water repellant). 

My recommendations: 

Spikes- One of the biggest gamechangers for me during winter hiking was discovering spikes for my boots. Spikes essentially just clip around the bottom of your boot and provide much for traction when you hit icy patches. Spikes are ideal for when it’s not quite snowy enough for snowshoes, but it’s still slippery. And the good news? They are extremely cheap! 

My recommendation: 

A base layer top– In basic terms, this is simply a long sleeve shirt that is the layer closest to your skin. It is worn with the intention of insulating/keeping in the warmth, so tighter is better. You have a few options when it comes to choosing your base layer:

·  Synthetic – this is similar to a “dry-fit” material. This type of base layer is the most durable, and is ideal for intense activities that will produce sweat, such as running, skiing, or intense hiking.

·  Merino-wool – this is the warmest base layer option, as well as the best for preventing odors and insulating when damp. However, wool is not the most durable material. 

·  Synthetic wool hybrids – Newer technology is now allowing a hybrid of these two base layer materials. This option will dry faster than wool while still being warmer than typical synthetic. Still, at the end of the day, this material will not match 100% wool in warmth. 

My recommendations: 

Mid-layers- Mid layers are exactly like they sound! The middle layer that goes over the base layer, but lies underneath the your shell/coat. The materials that make up typical mid layers are wool, down, synthetic or fleece. Here are a few considerations for each of these mid-layer material types:

Wool – 

  • Positives: Decent water absorption, warm when wet, good moisture-wicking performance
  • Negatives: Expensive, heavy fabric, doesn’t compress down well in backpack, only decently durable

Fleece –

  • Positives: Excellent water absorption, durable, warm when wet, excellent drying time and moisture-wicking performance, inexpensive
  • Negatives: Moderately heavy and doesn’t compress down extremely well in backpack, not the warmest overall choice

Down – 

  • Positives: Extremely light while still extremely warm, compresses down better than all other materials, good at absorbing water, extremely durable
  • Negatives: Very expensive, does not provide warmth when wet, only decent drying time and moisture-wicking performance

Synthetic –

  • Positives: Good weight and compressibility, excellent water absorption, performs well when wet, inexpensive, and has good drying time
  • Negatives: Decently durable, moisture-wicking properties will depend upon the garment, overall not the warmest choice

My recommendations: Double click the photo for link

Outer Layer (Shell) – Outer layers are the very top layers worn over base and mid layers. The primary job of the outer layer is to protect from elements such as wind and rain. That’s why outer layers typically have a harder feel to them than base/mid layers. Here are the three main types of shells you should consider and their benefits:

Hard shell –

  • Positives: protects well against moderate to heavy rains, excellent wind protection, light material
  • Negatives: No insulation, only decent breathability and comfort

Soft shell –

  • Positives: protects against light rain, good wind protection and breathability, insulated with fleece for more warmth, extremely comfortable
  • Negatives: Not as ideal for wind and rain protection, moderately heavy

Insulated shell –

  • Positives: Insulated with synthetic or down for excellent warmth, extremely comfortable
  • Negatives: Very heavy, breathability/wind/rain protection vary 

My recommendations: Double click the photo for link

Beanies – Head protection is extremely important in cold temperatures, especially for extended amounts of time. Even if you don’t end up needing it for much of your hike or at all, having one in your pack at all times is essential. 

My recommendations: Double click the photo for link

Waterproof gloves – Keeping your hands warm is not something to take lightly on winter hikes. Bringing along waterproof gloves to keep in your pockets or pack is highly recommended. 

My recommendation: Double click the photo for link

While colder temperatures certainly change the dynamics of hiking, it is still possible to enjoy the outdoors and explore year round! If you have any questions on apparel or gear, drop them in the comments! 

Thanks for being here and happy trails!

Bradee XOXO

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