What’s in My Pack for Cold Weather Hiking

The hiking season doesn’t need to end if you have gear to keep you warm and safe when it’s cold and wet out. Here’s what I take in my backpack when hiking in colder temps. A lot of these items are the same as what I take in warmer months, but there are a few extras for colder conditions.

what's in my pack for winter hiking

Backpack

In colder months, I use a larger day pack than I do in the summer. Extra space is needed for carrying more clothing layers, plus it’s good to have room for a thermos or lightweight backpacking stove. There’s nothing like having hot soup, tea or hot cocoa on a frigid day hike. For me, a 36 liter pack is large enough to carry what I need. The Women’s Osprey Sirrus 36  pack has a zipper on the side for easy access to the main compartment, and a lid on top for stashing smaller items.

Water

Instead of using a hydration bladder, I like to use a water bottle with a hose. If the bottle doesn’t hold enough for a long day of hiking, I also take a water filter. If I’ll be in areas without access to water for filtering, I take an extra water bottle and leave the filter at home. To keep the hose from freezing on frigid days, blow air back into it after taking a sip. Or stash the hose inside your jacket, add an insulated cover to the hose, or eliminate the hose altogether and plan to make frequent stops to access a water bottle. I use the OneBottle Hydration System with an ultralight Nalgene bottle.

Gear Review – One Bottle Hydration System

Essentials & Electronics

Regardless of the conditions, I always take the ten essentials for hiking. In the winter, I take two headlamps in case one runs out of battery, which is also good for sunset hikes when you’ll be on the trail in the dark for longer periods.

While I always take a paper map on every hike, I use my smartphone for navigation using the Gaia app. In addition, I carry a personal locator device for contacting search and rescue in case of an emergency. Hopefully that won’t happen, but with a two-way communication device like the InReach, you can also text anyone to let them them know where you are, get help with your vehicle, or anything else that comes up. I also carry a battery backup device just in case… if something happened and my batteries died from the cold, I’d have a way to recharge electronics including my phone, InReach, or headlamp.

See Hiking Essentials & Electronics for more info.

Layers

I used to think that the hiking season was over once the colder rainy season began. And when I did get out in the winter, I tended to wear a heavy coat that had me sweating after hiking for more than a mile or so. It doesn’t take long to warm up, especially on hikes that have elevation gain. Then I’d be miserable for the rest of the hike since I didn’t have options for making adjustments. Plus, getting too wet from sweat can lead to hypothermia. I learned to use lightweight layers to stay warm and dry on trail by adding or removing layers as needed. Learn more: What to Wear for Cold Weather Hiking

cold weather hiking layers

Rain Gear

In addition to base layers and mid-layers, I always take a rain jacket no matter what the forecast is – a rain jacket is an essential on every trip but especially in the winter in the Pacific Northwest. Not just for rain, having protection from the wind can help keep you much warmer. Just be sure to check for moisture building up inside due to exertion. Vent a rain jacket by unzipping underarm vents, the front zipper, or hand pockets. I also take rain pants when hiking in colder months for the same reasons. And both are great for hiking in the snow, keeping your insulated outerwear dry.

rain gear for cold weather hiking

Traction

In the winter, icy trails are more common. Falling on ice is no fun, as my shoulder can tell you from when I took a hard fall a few years ago. Wearing a pair of microspikes over your hiking boots or shoes will prevent this from happening. The type of traction devices used for walking on city sidewalks (Yaktrax or similar) doesn’t provide enough grip for icy trails so I’d recommend keeping a pair of microspikes in your pack instead. I like the Katoola Microspikes since they fit well over my trail running shoes.

icy rock steps

Sit Seat

For sitting on breaks, a foam pad will not only protect your bum from sticks or rocks, it will also provide insulation. Look for a foam pad with silver coating on one side, which reflects body heat to keep you warm. I like the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat Pad.

Food

I find that my body burns calories faster when I’m exerting physically in colder temps. Due to this, I focus on higher fat and calorie hiking snacks and bring a more substantial lunch for a break on longer hikes. Add hot tea or hot soup in a thermos on particularly frigid days can be uplifting (and warming!).

hot tea while hiking

Shelter

Sometimes things don’t go as planned and a shelter can make things more tolerable… and survivable. Emergency blankets made of a thin reflective mylar material are commonly provided in survival kits for this purpose. Additional options include an ultralight tarp with guylines and stakes, a bivy sack, rain poncho, and in a pinch – a large plastic bag. Anything to keep you dry in case you need to spend more time outdoors than planned will work.

Tarp Setups for Backpacking Trips & Emergencies

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