Cold Weather Hiking Tips You Didn’t Know You Needed

Nov 15, 2019

With temps now regularly dropping below freezing in Zion, at least after dark, it’s time to start preparing for winter weather.

While the cold and the busyness of the holidays will thin the crowds this season, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a wonderful time for hiking. In fact, fewer people make for open trails, and the end of the summer heat makes scaling difficult hikes like Angels Landing a bit easier. And if you know how to properly prepare, hiking, even in freezing temperatures, can be a fun, safe, and rewarding experience. Keep reading to learn what you need to know about cold weather hiking.

Layers Make All the Difference

Unless you’re hiking in the middle of a hot summer day, with no hints of a rainstorm in the distance or a chance that you’ll stay on the trail after dark, you should always dress in layers while you’re hiking.

On the trail, miles away from any shelter, changing conditions can leave you exposed to the elements. Even on a warm day, a sudden rain shower or the sun going down can cause the temperature to drop. Wet skin can leave you chilled, even if the air temperature remains safe. If you’ve packed layers, you can easily add them to stay comfortable.

During the winter months, or even the late Fall or early Spring, layers become even more important. Mornings and evenings can be cold, and you’ll want plenty of warm layers to ward off the chill. Start with thermals, then add a warm, insulating layer, like a wool sweater or fleece pullover. Top it off with a down jacket or coat, and a waterproof outer shell.

In the middle of the day, the sun comes out and the temperature may climb several degrees. Add in some rigorous hiking, and you might find yourself too warm for all those layers. Peel a few off and pack them in your backpack, where they’ll be ready and waiting when the temperature starts to drop again after dark.

Leave Your Cotton in Your Hotel Room

Have you ever heard the phrase, “cotton kills?” If you haven’t, you’ll want to make sure that you read and follow this next tip.

There is plenty of cotton clothing out there that might seem perfect for your next winter hike. Maybe you have a set of cotton thermals or cotton leggings and a long sleeve tee that you think will be warm as a base layer. The problem is, while these items might feel warm when you’re getting dressed inside, you’ll regret them later on the trail.

The problem with cotton is that it isn’t good at wicking moisture away or drying quickly. This means that as you sweat, those cotton base layers trap that moisture against your skin. When the cold temperature or wind cut through your clothes, that trapped moisture will leave you chilled, not to mention uncomfortable.

Cotton outer layers are a problem too. Rain or snow will lock into your clothes, leaving them soggy and you cold. If conditions get bad enough, this could leave you dangerously exposed.

Leave your cotton layers in your hotel room to wear on your plane ride home. When it comes to hiking, stick to wicking fabrics. Synthetic fabrics are best, as they wick away sweat and water and dry quickly. Wool is also a good choice. While it doesn’t wick quite as well as synthetic fabrics, it will keep you insulated, even when it gets wet.

Top Off Your Outfit with a Hat

Just a few years ago, scientists agreed that we lose as much as half of our body heat through our heads. While most now agree that the amount we lose is closer to 10 percent of our total body heat, that is still a significant amount when you’re on the trail, exposed to the elements in the chill of winter.

To keep from losing so much heat, always make sure to top off your outfit with a warm hat. If you hate the idea of an itchy winter hat, even a thick ball cap or the hood of your coat will help reduce this heat loss.

Warm Your Water

While a big drink of ice-cold water feels pretty great when you’re hiking in the middle of summer, it won’t quite feel the same in the winter. Unless you’re someone who gets very hot while hiking or its a warm day, that cold water in your hydration pack or water bottle will only make you feel even colder than you already did. Plus, if temperatures drop low enough, the water in your bottle could freeze before you ever get a chance to take a sip.

To keep your water from freezing, opt for an insulated water bottle. Just as these bottles help keep your water cold by locking out the heat, they also help seal out that cold air to prevent your water from freezing. You can also use foam koozies to insulate your water bottle. 

If you’re going to be doing any camping during your hike, or even a long day hike, you can also opt to heat up your water. With a simple backpacking stove, you can make yourself a hot cup of plain water, or bring along coffee grounds or tea for an afternoon pick-me-up. Nothing beats a hot drink during a cold day on the trails!

Pack a Cold-Weather Emergency Kit

No matter what time of year you’re hiking, you should always have a first aid kit along. But during cold weather, there are a few staples you’ll also want to throw in your pack.

An emergency blanket is one must-have. If a snowstorm hits or the temperatures drop unexpectedly, this can help keep you warm until help arrives or you can get off the trail. Extra socks allow you to swap out a pair that gets wet from snow or rain. A flashlight will illuminate the trail when darkness comes faster than you were expecting.

For longer hikes, that backpacking stove is another great addition to your gear. If you are colder than you expected, you can heat up water and warm yourself from the inside-out in the middle of your hike.

Planning a Winter Visit to Zion

Winter is a wonderful time to visit Zion National Park. Whether you’re the one planning a hiking adventure this winter or you’re looking for ideas for the outdoor lovers on your Christmas list, check out this guide to the best holiday gifts for hikers.