When it comes to winter hiking, beginners don't need a plethora of expensive equipment to get started. What's really important is a strong understanding of how the human body reacts to cold temperatures. With the right fundamentals, preparation becomes logical and easy. This is how beginners can best prepare for winter hiking.

The Fundamentals Of Winter Hiking

Before getting out in the wild, there are a few things to know first.

Rule 1: Raw, prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures can lead to severe and debilitating damage. Do not let ice or snow come into contact with exposed skin for more than a few seconds. If it's really cold, the ice won't melt and any exposed flesh will suffer from ice burns and frostbite. If it's cold, but not significantly below freezing, the ice will melt and possibly seep into internal layers of clothing. When hiking in winter, avoid getting wet at all costs - this also applies to sweating.



Planned layering is important. Depending on the conditions, the base layer should be a thermal and moisture-wicking material. This means avoiding cotton or wool as they can soak in and retain sweat. Getting wet, even with sweat, significantly increases the chances of hypothermia, so plan accordingly.

If the sun's out and hikers are traversing a challenging stretch, they might get too warm under all their layers. As previously mentioned, it's a bad idea to sweat too much. Anticipate this by having multiple layers that can be removed and put on accordingly. The goal is to maintain a cool but comfortable body temperature.

Hiking boots should be waterproof and cover the ankles. Ideally, they should have non-slip soles and, depending on the terrain, spiked or grip-friendly bottoms. Hikers should consider tucking their jeans or pants into their boots to prevent snow and water from getting in. It's bad news to be caught in the wild with drenched socks at sub-zero temperatures. That leads to the next point, which is to pack an extra pair of socks.

Fingers and toes are sensitive extremities that will go numb before the rest of the body. To compensate, inexperienced hikers might travel with their hands in their pockets, which can be risky on slippery or rocky terrain. Always pack a pair of gloves to avoid this.

If temperatures are below freezing, wear a waterproof outer layer to cover all parts of the body, from feet to neck. It's also essential to have a layer of material to protect the ears. A good beanie/toque in addition to a jacket with a hoodie will do the trick.

Rule 2: Breathing correctly is important. During intense physical exertion, hikers can experience the sensation of "burning" in their lungs - this is especially the case when temperatures are significantly below freezing. Breathing in dry, frigid air incorrectly will cause lung pain. To add insult to injury, hiking in cold weather can also lead to a runny nose, which is distracting and ultimately a waste of bodily fluids.

Related: These Are The Best US Trails To Hit For Gorgeous Winter Hiking

Practical Breathing

To mitigate the sensation of burning lungs, practice nasal breathing. Breathing through one's nose has the advantage of warming, humidifying, and filtering the air before it gets to the lungs. It also delivers oxygen more efficiently, which will improve stamina and metabolism.

Additionally, nasal breathing helps keep the nasal canal clear and dry. Beginners might be tempted to pant and mouth-breathe, but they are doing themselves a disservice by causing dry lips, dry mouths, inflammation, nasal leakage, and lung burn.

Related: How Countries Survive Below Freezing Temperatures Year Round

Rule 3: The human body reacts to freezing temperatures in certain ways.

It burns calories to generate heat and stay warm; it retains water to maintain its core temperature; and it concentrates blood in the chest and abdomen, which is why the extremities - fingers, toes, ears, nose, etc. - will usually be the first to freeze.


Hikers should pay attention to their bodies and ensure that excess energy expenditure is sufficiently compensated for with nutritious calories. It's best to eat fatty foods in the cold, as fat is digested quickly and burned slowly for sustained energy. Protein is less ideal as it takes the body a lot of time and energy to digest, which will divert blood and energy away from the muscles and extremities to the stomach, causing fatigue. Simple carbohydrates should be avoided, as glucose spikes lead to inflammation and subsequent crashes, crippling stamina and the body's ability to keep warm.

Due to increased fluid retention, hikers may not feel as thirsty as they would in warm conditions. This can confuse the body, so make sure to stay hydrated with plenty of electrolytes. Always pack enough water and hydration sachets. It's wise to pack a thermos with some hot liquid as well, just in case a situation arises where one's body temperature needs to be increased without exercise. Avoid coffee as it has diuretic properties that promote dehydration and disrupt homeostasis. It's also impractical to keep stopping for bathroom breaks in the freezing cold. Therefore, it's better to opt for tea or, for hikers with self-control, hot mulled wine.

Good food options for winter hiking include dried, fatty meats; sandwiches with brown bread and lots of butter and/or mayonnaise; nuts; and chocolate. Don't pack foods that could make a mess by spilling or crumbling. If there are bears in the area, make sure the food is sealed tight.

These are the fundamentals of hiking in the winter. Beginners should take the time to understand how to dress, breathe, eat, and drink appropriately in cold temperatures. More than anything, it's important to understand how the body works in order to prepare for and avoid risks that cannot always be anticipated.

Next: The Ten Hiking Essentials That Every Adventurer Should Always Have In Their Pack