Over the last few years, my winter wardrobe has grown substantially and I’m just tickled pink. I tend to get cold very easily, but I also warm up very quickly once I’m moving around. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, I warm up fast when I’m moving, and over the last few years have learned some tricks of layering that have greatly increased my enjoyment of winter recreation. I thought I’d do what I’ve never done before on this blog and share some non-expert enjoyment of some gear that I’ve found that I particularly enjoy!
- Ice cleats. Last winter, I bought a pair of YakTrax walkers because I was cheap, and found out why they were cheap. Because they weren’t meant for the kind of hiking I like to do! By the end of the season, I had broken them, not beyond repair, but they were broken. So when this winter rolled around, I knew I wanted something sturdier and, as I thought about it, more aggressive. So I found a pair of ice cleats by Unigear. They aren’t as expensive as the Kahtoola brand ice cleats, and they might not be as durable, but they’ve stood up great to some of the ridiculous terrain I’ve hiked in over the last couple months, from ice covered AND bare boulders, rocks and rocky terrain, and normal winter conditions. The metal links aren’t welded, so I have had to to a minor fix job on them once, but that’s it. Their one limitation I’ve found so far is deep, sticky snow. They quickly form snowballs under the ball of the foot and the heel and make walking a little awkward, and they get heavy and fall off, in spite of a velcro tape holding them on. But I’ve used them on a number of hikes where they were indispensable, including a search and rescue effort where I was the only one on my team with cleats. Yes, people were jealous. I also have some hip issues which seem to crop up mostly in the winter, either in deep snow (because of having to step so high) or on slick surfaces (when the hips experience extra torque). Traction is very helpful in minimizing that torque
- Gaiters. In addition to ice cleats, another piece of gear I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year is a pair of gaiters, also indispensable for winter hiking. Not only do gaiters keep your lower legs and boots dry, and keep snow from getting into your boots, they’re an extra layer of insulation and wind protection. I love them. They’ve made my regular hiking boots be quite sufficient for winter hiking, including in frigid temps!
- Balaclava. This one I discovered on a hike where temperatures hovered around 0-5 degrees Fahrenheit all day. What a difference a balaclava makes. Not only does it keep all cold air from reaching your neck and ears, but the Carhartt one I have pulls all the way up to the eyes, keeping chin, cheeks, and nose warm, and allowing you to breathe warm air. I had no idea what a difference that could make, both in terms of comfort and in terms of (for a lack of a better word) survivability.
- Wool socks. Most hikers already know the joys of wool socks. I just want to briefly state that the hype isn’t just hype. Its true. Wool can absorb much more water than cotton and still feel dry and warm. A great option for winter hiking. However, I’d like to bust the myth that Smartwool is the only way to go. I bought a few pairs on discount last winter, and honestly didn’t think they were that great. I found my feet to get too sweaty in them, even in the winter. The wool socks I’ve fallen in love with are the Cabela’s brand wool blend crew socks. They’re excellent. Just the right amount of insulation, and my feet don’t over-sweat.
- Wool mittens. When it is really bitterly cold outside, wool mittens are the way to go. I have two pairs that I found at Menards and I love them. They’re inexpensive, which is a huge plus. They’re convertible, mittens and gloves, which I like because of my photography and needing to have my hands or at least fingers free. I’ve worn them comfortably down to 0 degrees, probably colder, definitely colder with windchill, and my hands were toasty warm. And they’re roomy enough that when my fingers did get cold, I could just pull my fingers all into the body of the glove and warm them up.
- Waterproof pants. This is a very new one for me, but they’re super effective. Often, the snow out here is dry, rendering waterproof pants completely unnecessary if you know how to layer. But on a recent 9-day Wilderness First Responder class, we did a lot of sitting in snow and being outside in frigid temps. They recommended bringing waterproof pants or snowpants, which I was very glad I did. It made sitting in the snow and being relatively inactive in cold temps much more manageable. Waterproof often means wind resistant, which is a huge plus in frigid temps.
- Hiking pack. The only reason I include this one is because of the issue of size. I bought an Osprey Sirrus 24 pack a year ago, thinking it would be sufficient for day hiking. It is. But not during the winter. It is just enough too small that for a long hike or a cold enough hike, I’d either have to skimp on water or skimp on layers. I’d rather not skimp on either. So with some Christmas money, I bought the Osprey Mira 34, which is 10 L bigger than my Sirrus 24 (and was on clearance), and really is the perfect size, AND can be cinched way down if the extra space isn’t needed.
So there you go. A non-professional’s top seven items of winter gear, which I have found to be either indispensable for winter excursioning, OR to make winter excursioning much more enjoyable! Feel free to share your favorite winter hiking gear in the comments section. I’d love to hear what others do to enjoy the outdoors in the winter!