What’s considered the “best” winter hiking gear somewhat depends on who you’re asking. In other words, personal preference plays a role in gear selection, but there are also important principles to guide outdoor adventurers toward safe winter practices. As I’ve spent more time outside this season, I’ve found some great gear that’s worked well for me. It can be intimidating to spend hours outside in freezing temperatures, so I’ve put together some tips to keep you warm on your winter excursions.

Rocky mountains in Kananaskis
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Mount Wintour from King Creek Ridge in Kananaskis Country.

First off, when it comes to choosing winter hiking gear, I consider the possible scenarios, always layer up, and remember to bring the essentials. It doesn’t matter if I’m out for a day of cross-country skiing or hiking for a few hours in the mountains, my preparation for embracing winter weather is essentially the same.

Hiking in the Snow

Winter scene in Alberta
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Hiking Moose Mountain in Kananaskis after an early snowfall.

When selecting winter gear, take temperature, distance, difficulty and other factors into account. Ask yourself: What’s the current temperature and weather forecast? Is the hike long, short, or somewhere in between? How difficult is the hike? Am I bringing my dog along?

Anticipate possible scenarios. Before I head out, I try to consider the possibilities and plan accordingly. I was never in Scouts… but “be prepared” is their motto, right? Do that.

Also, it takes time and effort to get ready for a winter day outside. So to make things easier, I tend to keep my bag packed and ready to go. This cuts down on preparation time and helps me stay motivated to get outside more often. Because many of us feel strapped for time, right?

Read more: The Chester Lake Hike in Winter Is Better Than Most

Friends hiking in the snow
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Hiking Moose Mountain with friends Kevin and Sonya.

Winter Clothing That I Use Every Time

Outer layer (shell) is crucial winter hiking gear
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Shells like my Arc’teryx Beta AR are very useful on windy summits.

So what should you wear to stay warm on those frigid days? Well, let’s talk layers. Properly layering clothing is the best way to maintain your warmth outside, while also regulating body temperature by removing or adding layers as needed. This is very important. After all, if you’re not warm outdoors, you won’t last very long on the trails!

Let’s break down the essential 3 layers of clothing to keep you warm:

  • Inner (or Base) Layer: The main purpose of the inner layer is to wick sweat and keep you dry. My go-to base layer is this Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck over a merino wool t-shirt. On really cold days, I’ll wear a base layer on my legs as well.
  • Mid (or Insulation) Layer: The mid-layer keeps you insulated and warm. Depending on the outdoor temperature, I like to use my Eddie Bauer fleece sweater or, when it’s colder, my Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket. Generally, I keep my down sweater in my pack and pull it out when I stop for a rest. Sometimes, when it’s a bit above zero, I’ll remove my mid-layer altogether and just use my base and shell.
  • Outer (or Shell) Layer: The outer layer protects you from the wind and rain. The shell doesn’t allow the wind to break through, and also helps retain body heat. My go-to shell is the Arc’teryx Beta SL.

When it comes to keeping my feet warm, I trust and rely on Icebreaker merino wool socks. And unlike cotton, Merino wool keeps my feet warm if my boots and socks get wet. I don’t currently have winter-specific hiking boots, but instead I use my year-round Columbia PeakFreaks. I don’t really like a heavy hiker, so these are light, waterproof, and fairly durable.

Choosing Your Hiking Pack

Bringing winter hiking gear in my Osprey Hikelite pack
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Hiking to Chester Lake in Spray Valley Provincial Park with my Osprey Hikelite 18.

What size pack should you bring on a day hike? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer since this is largely one of those personal preference questions. But pack size depends on what you plan to carry. For example, my Gregory Stout 30 litre pack is large enough for my gear and camera equipment, but I can also use my Osprey Hikelite 18 when I require less space.

Regardless of size, I suggest choosing a pack that is comfortable and supportive (with a solid frame). Since you’ll hopefully be wearing the pack a lot, selecting the right pack is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a hiker (Right up there with choosing hiking boots/shoes).

Hiking with mountains above a frozen lake
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Jen hiking on the frozen Rawson Lake in Kananaskis.

What Winter Hiking Gear Do I Use?

Crampons are essential winter hiking gear
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Get in the habit of bringing trail crampons on your winter hikes.

Here’s my packing list for winter hiking gear. I’ll include notes about my gear, in case you’re wanting some specific ideas. In my pack, I typically carry:

  • Crampons—I use these Hillsound trail crampons.
  • Trekking poles—I use Komperdell poles.
  • Siltarp (shelter)—I bring a McKinley Siltarp. I’ve never used this on a day hike, but I could need it if I get injured while hiking solo and need to keep warm.
  • First Aid—I have a couple, but usually bring Adventure Medical Kit (ultralight) when I’m solo.
  • Whistle—Can’t go wrong with a Fox 40.
  • Fire—Always bring waterproof matches, lighter, or flint.
  • Rope—Paracord has so many uses.
  • Knife—The Morakniv fixed-blade is for all things camping and hiking.
  • Headlamp—I bring a Petzl headlamp.
  • Nutrition—I tend to bring Clif bars, GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts), or other food.
  • Hydration bladder—I find the Osprey 2L Water Reservoir is great for most trips.
  • Water filtration—There are many options, from water filters to drops to UV light. I bring the MSR TrailShot Microfilter but also use the MSR MiniWorks EX Filter.
  • Navigation—I tend to use my phone (and battery pack) for day hikes, with apps like AllTrails and Gaia. Good idea to bring a compass and map, too.
  • Bear spray—Bear’s don’t truly hibernate, and winter encounters happen. I always carry bear spray on the hiking trails.
  • Light toque and gloves
  • Down mittens, extra fleece toque, balaclava
  • Down jacket—I really like my Patagonia Down Sweater.

Optional:

  • Stove—I bring a Jetboil for easy boiling. Sometimes I just leave it in my vehicle and have hot chocolate at the end of my hike… yum!
  • Thermos
  • Camera equipment

This is what I’ve come to carry in my pack, and I always want to make sure I have the right winter hiking gear. But be sure to modify your pack depending on the weather and the type of activity.

Do you have additional items on your packing list?

Read more: The Rawson Lake Hike in Alberta (With a Surprise Visit!)

Jetboil is great winter hiking gear
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If I don’t bring my Jetboil along on my hike, I enjoy some tea or hot chocolate when I finish.
Johnson Lake in winter
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Beautiful view at Johnson Lake in Banff National Park.
Frozen Lake Louise in the winter
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The iconic Lake Louise.

Winter Hiking With Dogs

Bernese mountain dog in the snow
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Belle posing at Sheep River Provincial Park.

My Bernese mountain dog Bella loves winter. She couldn’t be happier in the snow and relishes any opportunity to hike with me. However, I need to pay attention to her needs on the trail. And it’s important to remember that not all dogs enjoy hiking in the snow as much as you do.

If you do bring your canine companion, be sure to pack dog boots for colder temperatures. Remember, most provincial and national parks require you to keep your dog on-leash. It’s also a good idea to have your dog’s identification tags on their collar, in case something unexpected happens. And lastly, don’t forget nutrition and hydration for your pup, too.

Make sure you do your research to know what your dog needs in the cold and snow. They’ll love you for it!

Any other tips for hiking with dogs in winter?

Leash and other winter hiking gear is important for your dog
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Bella hiking to Rawson Lake in Kananaskis.

Great winter activities for all skill levels (check conditions first!):

Bighorn sheep walking in Kananaskis
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Bighorn sheep in Spray Valley Provincial Park.

Thanks for reading! If you’re new to winter hiking, did you find this helpful? For those seasoned winter outdoors-people, did I miss any essential gear or useful tips? Drop a comment below.


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The Best Winter Hiking Gear—Stay Warm and Happy via @outandacross
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