A Beginners Gear Guide for Winter Adventures
Winter can be a hard season to navigate through when it comes to training, especially for those who get the winter blues or are hesitant to embrace the cold, icy conditions. People often seek hibernation or stick to training indoors, but not everyone. Many of us embrace the winter before it embraces us. We take it on by participating in winter sports we love or try new ones, whether snowshoeing, backcountry hiking, XC skiing, mountain biking, ice climbing, etc. It’s a great time to give your body a rest from your primary sport and try something new.
My backcountry experience and passion for winter was established during the 8 years I lived in Alaska. This is where I learned how alluring the mountains are, their beauty commanded my attention and exploration, and the weather demanded my respect. I now have a deep connection to the silent beauty, power and strength the winter in the mountains gives me and I want to help you feel the same!
The goal of this article is for you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace the winter feeling prepared and ready for the challenges ahead. I will discuss tips and offer gear advice based on what we use during our winter adventures that last can last 2 hours to all day.
Before you Begin
- This is a great time to make an appointment with your Doctor for a physical and to check your vitamin levels, especially your Vitamin D. No winter blues this year!
- Rally your friends or find a group such as a hiking, multi sport, cycling or running group to train and adventure with so you can take on the winter together. Check out our MPF Adventure Club.
- Gather the appropriate gear for your planned winter adventures and cold weather training. Quality gear is important for safety & durability for many seasons to come.
- Establish a Strength & Conditioning Plan.
General Winter Safety Tips for Hiking & Training in the Outdoors
- Always let someone know where you are going, your planned route and when you are expected to be back.
- If possible, always travel with another person or group.
- Carry a fully charged cell phone, even if it doesn’t work in the area, the GPS should be able to be tracked, if needed. The latest phones such as the iPhone 6, 6+ and Samsung Galaxy do a lot better in cold weather than their previous generation but still keep it protected from the wind and cold weather by placing your phone in a windproof pocket close to your body. At the same time, be careful not to overheat and start sweating because then your phone can become pretty wet. A simple ziplock bag can help with this.
- Carry a small external battery charger for your cell phone or other electronic devices. We like the Anker Astro Mini. This is a very small battery and will easily charge any current smartphone from 0 - 100% battery in a couple of hours. Just be sure to carry your phones charging cable with it. This a very durable battery and even when we have left it in our packs for a couple of cold days, it still had juice to charge a phone fully. We use iPhones and like the Amazon’s Basic 4 inch cable.
- Download the Avenza PDF App. This application allows you to download trail maps to your phone for quick navigation and as a reference tool to pinpoint your exact location if you happen to get off course. Only use this app to confirm a location or in emergency. It can drain your battery quickly, especially in cold weather. The newer phones are much better with battery life and Avenza has updated their App to be more energy efficient even under heavy use. Make sure you have the latest software update for your phone and the latest version of the App.
- Always carry a hard copy map even if you are using the Avenza App and be sure to outline your route before going, even if you are being led by someone else. If something happens to the group leader, such as he or she sprains an ankle or gets badly injured, you know the route and can get help if needed. This also helps ensure the safety of the entire group.
- If you know how to use a compass, carry one. If you don’t know how to use a compass, start learning and practice as often as you can. The key with compass and map reading is 1st being able to orient your map and yourself out on the trail.
- Place your cellphone, camera, batteries, etc. as close to your body as possible to preserve battery life. In cold temperatures and high winds batteries drain amazingly fast and are very unreliable. If this happens to you, they can be warmed back to life by placing them close to your body for possible short usage. As always, make sure your batteries are fully charged before you head out and keep them protected.
- Know the hourly weather conditions of the area you will be adventuring. Be aware that the temperature and weather can change significantly and quickly so be prepared.
- If you are using a hydration pack be sure the tube is cleared of water after each sip. You can do this by blowing into the mouthpiece after each use so the water in the tube will be pushed back into the main reservoir. Then place the hose inside one of your layers to keep it from freezing. You can also use a sleeve to protect the exposed areas of the hose from the wind and cold. If it does freeze, take the bladder out of your pack and place it within your jacket, not against your skin and continue to move forward so your core temperature stays elevated. Make sure the valve is closed and that nothing is going to leak, this is essential because getting wet in cold conditions can become extremely dangerous. We like to use Camelbak Antidote Reservoir with the Quick Link System for easy filling and cleaning. They are compatible with just about any pack. Purchase an optional Thermal Control Kit Hose, this will help protect your hose and keep it from freezing.
- Staying hydrated during winter adventures is just as important as a summer day. Your thirst may not be as high but your body's fluid levels are dropping fast and this can severely increase your chances of becoming hypothermic so continue to drink and stay fueled!
- Carry waterproof matches, lighter and know the basics of fire making.
- Bring an emergency blanket. This is a very lightweight, packable and versatile (shelter, reflector, trapping heat. etc.). More imperative in the backcountry or longer adventures.
- Hand warmers and toe warmers are great backups for emergencies.
- Extra socks in case your feet get wet and they can even be used as a backup pair of gloves.
- Headlamps with new batteries. Be sure to check which batteries work best for your headlamp. Newer models, such as the Petzel Tikka RXP Headlamp use rechargeable batteries. Many people often forget how slow going it could get in snowy conditions and daylight is on the shorter side this time of year so don’t leave home without one.
- Food & Fuel! Gels generally will freeze and can be hard to get down but if you can keep them close to your body you shouldn’t have a problem. Natural food Bars, dried fruit, nuts, etc. are all good choices. Remember, if you're running low on energy or you become slightly dehydrated, you're going to become grumpy and much colder then you should be so stay on top of this, this is one of the simplest ways to stay warm.
While its fun to have the thirst for adventure one must always respect the conditions. You may not live in Alaska or any other big mountain state but winter travel is very serious and you must always be ready for any situation that may occur. I have experienced many life threatening situations and know the consequences of being ill prepared. I can go on, and on from saving someone who glissaded out of control to the terminus of glacier or myself back 2002 when running the Susitna 100 endurance run in Alaska when my shoes froze to my feet in -30 degrees fahrenheit. Respect the winter and show up prepared!
Clothing & Dressing in Layers
Why do you always hear cotton is the enemy in the winter? The main reason is that it doesn’t wick moisture away from the skin all too well. Meaning if and when you sweat the fabric will become wet and stay wet, leaving you cold, especially when your pace slows down or you stop to have a snack. This can become life threatening if you suffer an injury and can’t generate enough body heat. It's important to make sure all of your clothes are made out of wicking (synthetic blends) or wool blend. Which ever fabric you choose it needs to be able to dry quickly.
Winter is where layering correctly becomes very important! As your effort level increases you can shed some layers to keep your core temperature in check. Start with a base layer such as a long sleeve shirt that’s form fitting, than a mid layer fleece or heavier half zip long sleeve shirt, vest, windproof fleece, etc. A down jacket can be used for extremely cold temps or when activity has come to a hault. The last layer would be an outer shell that is wind & water resistant. For bigger adventures and multi day trips, a wind & waterproof shell becomes essential.
When you are adjusting to the temperature or increased activity level, you can remove your mid-layer and even outer shell and continue to safely move about. As your pace slows, the temperature drops or you approach a mountain top, layers can be quickly added.
Coming from a woman's perspective, base layers can be tough to figure out. Sports bras just don’t wick moisture well, period! If I know I am hiking versus running I will choose not to wear one, or if thats not an option, I’ll wear this one, it’s lightweight and somewhat breathable, but doesn’t offer much support. The goal when I head out is not to sweat or if I do, I try to minimize it by shedding layers as soon as I feel my body temperature rising. Sometimes if I know the route begins with a hill, I will embrace the cold and start with less clothing on knowing within 10 minutes I will be warm.
Outer Shell Jacket
I prefer a Gore-tex shell with pit zips (zippers under the arm which can be opened to increase air flow), a deep hood that has a brim to protect you from wind and snow getting into your eyes. Again, this is condition dependent. Gore-Tex Shells that are made for serious winter travel are not all that packable and the material is a little stiffer which allows air to be trapped between layers to keep you warm but at the same time, the air is moving so your body can breathe much better and will significantly decrease moisture build up. They are also much more durable and can be abused without the worry of them tearing easily. Click here for a list of Arc’teryx Jackets.
Lighter jackets that are highly packable are great for backups or fast outings but can stick to you like a garbage bag, especially in rainy and wet conditions. When this happens, your body will not be able to breathe, increasing the humidity and moisture build up, making you damp and wet. Not a good combination on a winter day. The Patagonia Houdini is great for quick & lightweight protection when going light and more running is involved.
Outer Shell Pants
Gore-tex or water resistant hiking pant with a long underwear layer underneath if needed for those really cold days. Sometimes If I know the route and it’s not snowing, I will often just wear a winter running tight. If you are using snowshoes one should wear pants to protect your bottom from getting wet from the snow that can kick up when you take a step. Here are some options, click here.
A lot of heat escapes from your head and by taking a hat on and off is one of the best ways to monitor your body heat. When it’s snowing or raining I prefer a hat with a brim but any breathable winter hat will do. When the temperatures are below zero or single digits its helpful to wear a balaclava to protect your face and secure hot air from escaping from your neck. Lastly, wearing a headband of sorts to cover your ears and a hat over that, allows you to remove your hat so heat can escape but your ears will still be covered, keeping them warm and protected from the wind. As it goes, any part of your body that is left exposed and becomes cold, you then become cold!
If it’s below zero or single digits and I am not using trekking poles or the route doesn’t require me to use my hands while scrambling or climbing, I will wear mittens with a light glove liner. The glove liner allows me to be able to make any adjustments to my pack etc. without exposing my skin to the freezing cold temps. When I have to use my hands to scramble or with trekking poles, I will use a glove that is water & tear resistant.
- The North Face Power Stretch Gloves - High aerobic activity (these also can act as a liner).
- The North Face Denali Gloves - When temps are a little colder with some wind.
- The Mountain Hardwear Impulsive Outdry Gloves - Great for very cold single digits and you still want use of your fingers.
- Black Diamond Mercury Mittens - My favorites for at camp or when its zero degrees or below.
A Down coat if it’s really cold and windy, like single digits or below, i’ll bring this along. Last year while trekking in the Adirondacks High Peaks Region, it was -10º and I hiked uphill comfortably in a down coat. These days down or warm synthetic options are very compressible and can fit very easily into your pack, they’re great for added protection from the elements especially if you stop for any reason, whether on top of a mountain for lunch or in an emergency. Make sure your down jacket is at least water & wind resistant. Arc’teryx make some really good down jackets for a variety of adventures, click here.
If there are several inches of fresh snow on the ground, these are a must. A good pair of gaiters can last a very long time. I have a been using a pair of Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters for a dozen years now and they still work well. These are a full on gaiter, coming up to just below the knee and can be used for hiking, snowshoeing, running, mountaineering, etc. Ankle gaiters for when the snow is not as deep.
A good sock is so important and usually is a personal preference. A few options are Winter Smartwool high socks which are great for hiking and long COLD days on the trails. Drymax, Smartwool or Darn Tough socks have great options for when the pace is high.
Hydration Packs / Backpacks
A good pack that fits right, can make winter travel safer and allow you to explore farther than you could without one. Most packs are hydration compatible and vary in size. Some can easily be expanded to allow you to place layers such as a fleece or outer shell inside it. It is a good idea to have a few options when it comes to packs. One for a quick dash out the door to carry small things such as your microspikes if you're not using them, phone, water, fuel, camera, waterproof matches and emergency blanket. Then another one for those long days out on the trail where you may be removing layers or need to store additional layers for when the temps dip further into the winter night. Make sure you have a properly fitted backpack, this important to avoid chaffing, fatigue in your shoulders and hips. Some of the packs we use are:
Trekking Poles are so light and packable these days, they are easy to bring along. They will make travel safer and more efficient. They are great for long hikes, steep approaches and stream crossings. We like the Black Diamond Distance Trekking Poles. They come in both men and women’s versions.
One thing you will notice when adventuring around the snowy trails is a strong glare and brightness to all of the white fluffy stuff. If you're out there long enough this can actually damage your eyes so be sure to bring a good pair of sunglasses with you to protect them. A polarized pair; although more expensive, is the way to go.
Footwear can vary depending on the goal of the hike. If you are navigating ice while climbing mountains your footwear will differ. If you are trekking around your local State Park, a Gore-Tex or waterproof hiking boot will suffice such as the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot or a Gore-Tex Trail Running Shoe. Make sure they fit properly and it is a good idea to break in your new footwear by wearing it around for a couple of days so that you get use to them and they loosen up a bit. Make sure to use good pair of socks the work well with your new footwear so you avoid getting blisters and unwanted discomfort.
Winter Trail Running Shoe
There are many different shoes on the market but these are are our top favs for winter running and snowshoe running.
Winter Hiking Boot
There are many different options on the market but these are some of our favorites. We like a heavier boot if we have a carrying camping gear etc.
- Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot - Joe loves these boots, and uses them for just about everything, even trails runs of 10 miles or more.
- Keen Targhee Outdrys - Fine for day trips paired with a winter sock.. Love these boots.
- La Sportiva Makalu
- Hardcore boots for Mountaineering - These are the boots we use when our winter hiking trips turn into mountaineering trips.
Kahtoola Microspikes are a favorite of ours and this year Kahtoola has come out with few additional options for the trails. They offer a very versatile Hiking Crampon for more aggressive terrain without the need of a super stiff mountaineering boot, but of course you won’t be ice climbing with these. Also new this year are the Kahtoola Nanospikes which are low profile and slip right over your running shoe. They incorporate spikes that bite into ice and slippery surfaces . To learn more about Kahtoola traction devices, click here.
There are different varieties of snowshoes that can be used for general hikes, to backcountry and deep snow adventures that have aggressive crampons for steep terrain. There also snowshoes made specifically for running. Checkout our latest post on the “MSR Snowshoes, A Quick Review on their 2015 Ascent & older Axis models”. Ben Nephew’s favorite running snowshoes are the Dion Snowshoes.
I use the winter conditions in the mountains as a tool to get me ready for the mountainous ultras I tend to participate in. I focus on fast pace hiking, trail running and snowshoeing which is a skill in itself and is a nice option when the trails are covered in deep snow. I curtail my running workouts by using a HR monitor and adjusting my effort level according to whatever my plan dictates.
Now leave the fever in the cabin, gear up, and get out of your comfort zone! I hope this article helped you feel more comfortable about adventuring outdoors during the winter months. On your mark, get set, go!