Winter Hiking 101: Equipment & Clothing

The “winter hiking 101” series are obtained from the Winter Activity Committee (WAC) of the Appalachian Mountain Club Delaware Chapter, which are adapted from an original from Bob Vogel of the Southeast Mass chapter.

Equipment and clothing needs vary. For short hikes or snowshoe trips on nice winter days, the requirements are less than for assaults on 4000’ peaks above treeline. To get started winter hiking your needs are pretty low and can be met with a mixture of ‘high tech’ and ‘low tech’ equipment. As your get more into winter hiking your desire for more ‘high tech’ equipment will probably grow. (And your bank account will dwindle!) Here is look at the equipment and clothing. Visit for the complete list.


Boots: In the White Mountains, Plastic boots are the winter boots. They work well with crampons, snowshoes, or by themselves (on snow.) They don’t work well on bare ground… it’s a lot like walking in downhill ski boots. ‘Sorel®’ boots (or other similar insulated Pac boots are rubber bottomed, leather or nylon uppers) are the approved alternative option. Ones with removable liners provide a nice option for drying them out if they get wet. They work well alone, or with snowshoes, but don’t work as well with full crampons. (The crampons don’t always stay on the flexible rubber boot well, and the risk of stepping on your own foot and causing serious damage to the boot and foot shouldn’t be ignored.) These are less expensive than plastic boots and sufficient for introductory winter hiking. One of these approved options may be needed for official chapter trips in northern New England. However, there are many high-tech winter boots on the market suitable for less demanding conditions. Your boots are one of your most important and critical pieces of winter equipment.

Snowshoes: You can’t beat the new aluminum snowshoes with built in crampons for traveling through snow covered mountains. These come in several models, from ‘recreational’ to ‘summit,’ where the strength (and price) increase. The more expensive ones are stronger, heavier, and generally last longer. Any will work for introductory winter hiking~ There is no consensus on sizing. Some recommend following the manufacturers’ weight suggestions for the snowshoes (be sure to add in the weight of your pack!). However, remember that here in the Northeast, where we seldom get deep powder snow, you can often use shorter snowshoes.

Gaiters: These are designed to keep the snow out of your boots and pant legs and can add warmth. Gore-Tex® is best, but newer Schoeller cloth gaiters and even nylon retain breathability without full waterproofness.

Crampons: Full (10- or 12-point) crampons (on your plastic boots) are the way to go for traction on hard packed or crusty snow or ice. They are available in ‘step-in’ bindings for most plastic boots, or ‘strap-on’ style for any boots. Instep (4- or 6-point) crampons strap to your boots and provide some level of traction on snow or ice. Some have had good luck, others only problems, but they can be a good compromise offering protection with less weight in less serious conditions.

Ice Axe: An impressive looking piece of equipment, but not needed on most trips. However, above tree line (with the proper training), an ice axe can be a lifesaver if you slip on the steep, crusty snow fields and during normal climbing provide a crucial third point of solid contact.

Poles: These are good. They help you keep your balance on the snow and give you something to lean on when panting! The options range from old ski poles, which work fine up through the latest adjustable trekking poles, which also work, but cost more. There is argument about basket size, some advocate bigger baskets for deep snow but in some winter conditions these can get caught under crusts and in holes. Many experienced climbers advocate small summer or no baskets.

Water Bottles: A wide mouth Lexan bottle, filled with hot water mixed with Gatorade®/ Tang® or similar, stored upside down in an insulated water bottle carrier on your waist belt is the way to go. (The Lexan bottles won’t break, the hot water delays freezing; the flavoring further reduces the freezing point and makes it taste better, and the carrier delays freezing while providing easy access). Storing it upside down causes the first ice to form in the bottom of the bottle and the threaded cover to stay ice-free longer. Carry a second bottle well inside your pack to keep it insulated. It’s also good to carry a stainless vacuum bottle with hot water to make a drink. (Note: While great in the summer, hydration bladders are subject to freezing problems in the winter.)

Food & Carrier: The key is to eat small amounts throughout the day. It will keep you warm, and you probably won’t have the opportunity to stop and eat an extended meal, as you would get too cold. Food should be a mixture of easily eaten items, and should be carried in a waist pack or pouch on your pack. GORP, candy, cut up baklava, granola bars… Avoid some bars such as Power Bars, which freeze solid. If you want to take them treat them like cheese. Pre-cut them then pop a piece in your mouth and wait for it to thaw out before chewing. A trick I use is to carry my GORP in a plastic bottle. I can unscrew the cover with my mittens on, then ‘drink’ the GORP without getting my mittens in it. Something you can’t do with a bag of GORP.


Remember the three “Ws:” Wicking, Warmth, and Weather protection:”

• Socks: Polypro liners (for their wicking), wool socks (for their warmth) and your boots provide the weather protection. Smartwool mid to heavy weight socks work well.

• Long Underwear: PolyPro or Polyester? Polypro (actually polypropylene) supposedly works slightly better at wicking away moisture while absorbing about 1% less water, but it also permanently absorbs body odors that are almost impossible to remove by standard washing.

• Pants and shirts: For warmth, choose nylon, polyester, fleece, or wool.. . not cotton, which retains moisture! Many thin layers are better than one thick layer, as you can adjust your insulation to the weather and your level of exertion. On a 30-degree day, climbing uphill you might only need thin nylon pants over your long underwear. Standing around at —20 you may want several layers of clothes. Pants with side zips are especially good, as you can add, or remove, them over your boots.

• Overpants and coat: For weather protection, Gore-Tex® is the material, although lately other vendors have been coming out with other waterproof/breathable fabrics and coatings. Below 32 degrees you can use uncoated nylon wind pants and coat. These are even better, as they breathe better than even Gore-Tex®. But they aren’t waterproof, so you really need a rain coat too. (33 degrees and raining, without a waterproof layer, is asking for hypothermia.)

• Mittens/Gloves: The same three Ws apply. Thin Poly liners, fleece or wool mittens/gloves, and over mitts to keep out the wind and water. You will find that when hiking with much on your hands, they will probably sweat. Thin fleece gloves or mittens may be all you need. Mittens or gloves? Mittens keep your hands warmer by reducing the surface area exposed to the cold. Gloves provide more dexterity, but frequently not enough! Try poly gloves inside fleece (or wool) mittens with overmitts. Then if you need dexterity you can remove the mittens and still have the liner gloves for some warmth.

• Hats, Facemasks, Goggles: Fleece hats are good, but most don’t stop the wind which can lead to earaches. Windblock fleece headbands are good, as they protect your ears, while allowing your body to cool off, which you may need while climbing. A facemask or balaclava is important when it’s very cold, or windy. Above tree line, a facemask and goggles may be needed to protect you from the wind and snow.

• Chemical Hand/Toe Warmers: These shouldn’t really be needed. If you are using them often it could be argued that you are too close to being in trouble. But they should be carried. These are a material which produces an exothermic reaction (i.e., give off heat) when exposed to air. They are a one-time use item, and while they don’t give off a lot of heat can be the difference between frostbite and cold, or cold and warm.

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