Your Ultimate Guide To Hiking In The Snow

There is something enchanting about wandering through a forest transformed by the icy touches of winter. Hiking in the snow, when branches hang heavy with millions of tiny snowflakes and rocks are hidden beneath soft white pillows, can evoke feelings of pure bliss and wonder. 

However, hiking in the snow is no easy task – especially if it’s your first time or you’re unprepared! While it’s a magical experience, you can also expect frosted fingers, damp feet, hidden trail markers and copious amounts of snow sliding down your back. 

We’ve experienced varying degrees of snowy conditions on numerous hikes, some creating the best memories and some not so much. But each one has taught us a valuable lesson that we are going to share with you here.  

Hiking in the snow along the Lake Rodway Track from Scott Kilvert Hut

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Expert Tips For Hiking In The Snow 

Allow Extra Time For Hiking In The Snow

Hiking in the snow at golden our on the Lake Rodway Track in Cradle Mountain

Hiking in the snow is slow going and demands far greater attention from you than usual. It can often feel like walking up a sand dune, where each footfall sinks and requires increased effort to lift again. Other times, the ice forces you to take on a sort of Emu walk as you carefully place each foot as flat as possible before moving on. 

As a result, you can expect your usual hiking time to increase by almost double as you navigate this new and challenging terrain. For this reason, here are a few extra tips to avoid being stuck after dark.

  • Start early: Begin your hike as early as possible, ideally as the sun is rising so that you can utilise as much of the daylight hours as you can.
  • Choose shorter trails: Pick hikes that are half the length you would usually walk in a day in order to allow yourself more time to enjoy your experience without the added stress. 
  • Don’t forget the days are much shorter: In many places, the daylight hours in winter are considerably shorter than in summer. In Tasmania, you have only 8 hours of light a day but if the weather is overcast the dark may creep in earlier. 
Hiking in the snow in the dark

Know How To Hike In Snow Or Ice

Before you take off on your winter hike, check the trail conditions and pack accordingly. If the conditions are icy, microspikes will be extremely helpful. But if the snow is deep then snowshoes may be more appropriate.

*More information on this footwear below

If you don’t have either of these items, there are a few tips that you can learn to help you walk safely on ice or snow.

Walk Flat-Footed On Ice

When you’re walking on ice or hard-packed snow, place your foot down flat rather than heel first to avoid slipping backwards. Of course, this is impossible for steep gradients which should be avoided if you don’t have microspikes and there are no trees to hold onto. 

Walking on ice while hiking in the snow in Tasmania

Kick In Your Steps When Walking Uphill and Downhill In Deep Snow

When you’re walking uphill, to avoid sliding, you can kick your foot into the snow to create a makeshift step. You can do this by kicking the toe of your boot into the snow and then firmly stepping to pack it down. 

This works when you’re walking downhill as well, but instead of kicking your toe into the snow, you can kick your heel in so that you can then place your entire boot down to step.

While this doesn’t work quite so well when the snow is deeper than your knee, it is still good practice and allows you to at least pack down parts of the snow so you don’t sink quite so far. 

Hiking uphill in Deep Snow

Use An Ice Axe and Crampons Where Necessary

Although ice axes and crampons are seldom needed in Australia, they’re essential for hiking in steep and icy terrain, such as New Zealand’s Mueller Hut Route in winter. These tools help you grip hard ice surfaces and assist in keeping you safe while hiking in the snow by increasing stability and control.

Learn more about how to use ice axes and crampons in these helpful resources by REI.

Keep Your Electronics Warm

When it’s cold, your battery on your phone or headtorch will likely decrease much faster than normal. To avoid this as best you can, carry your phone in an inside chest pocket to keep it warm. If you don’t have a chest pocket, you can also wrap your electronics in spare beanies or gloves to keep them toasty until you need to use them.

We also recommend carrying a portable charger and extra batteries for your torch if you’re walking for an extended period of time. 

Bring Hiking Poles

Hiking in the snow overlooking Barn Bluff in Cradle Mountain National Park

Hiking poles are invaluable tools when it comes to hiking in the snow. You can use them to test the ground in front of you and to keep you balanced when the track is icy or deep with snow. 

They are also very helpful in dislodging the snow that’s built up on the low-hanging branches – which are constantly threatening to drop frosty snow down your back! 

Bring An Extra Pair Of Gloves

You’ll most likely need to use your hands while hiking in the snow, either to balance or to hold your hiking poles, and it’s inevitable that your gloves are going to get damp – especially in Australia where the snow is considerably wetter than in most of the northern hemisphere!

We recommend bringing at least one spare pair of gloves that you can change into when you stop or swap out when your first pair becomes sodden and cold. There’s nothing worse than frozen fingers when you’re trying to keep the rest of your body warm!

Building a snowman wearing waterproof snow gloves while hiking in the snow

Stay As Warm As Possible While Hiking In The Snow

Let’s be real, it’s inevitable that you’re going to feel at least a little chilly while you’re out snow hiking, but there are things you can do to stay as warm as possible and to avoid hypothermia. 

Stay Hydrated

It can be super difficult to keep up regular water intake when you’re cold, but dehydration accelerates the onset of hypothermia. When you drink water, it kicks your metabolism into gear which assists in keeping your core warm. 

Here are some ideas to help you increase your liquid intake while hiking in the snow:

  • Pack a hot drink: You can find loads of insulated water bottles that work perfectly in keeping your tea or coffee steaming while you hike (this is the heavier option). Frank Green has the perfect bottle for this!
  • Add hot water to your bottle: Not every water bottle can hold hot liquid, but if you have an insulated water bottle or a Nalgene you can put hot water in it instead. It won’t stay completely hot in a Nalgene but it will be much warmer than beginning with cold. I know this may sound less than appealing but you’ll thank me when you’re on the frosty trails! 

Note: Your water bladder hose can freeze if you’re hiking in sub-zero conditions so unless you’ve got an insulated hose I suggest using water bottles instead. 

Snack Regularly

Did you know snacking can actually keep you warmer!?

The production of heat in your body is called thermogenesis and it occurs when your body is metabolising. So when you snack on the right food, you’re not only increasing your energy levels but also keeping your core warm. 

Certain foods that take longer to digest can increase your body temperature and keep you feeling warmer. The best snacks for winter hiking are ones that are easy to eat and ideally allow you to keep your gloves on. Our favourite snacks for hiking in the snow are:

  • Muesli bars – Clif Bars are the best! 
  • Chocolate bars
  • Jelly lollies
  • Bananas
  • Dried fruit and nut mix

Layer Correctly

Hiking to Hanson's peak from Scott Kilvert Hut in Cradle Mountain National Park

There is an art to layering correctly when hiking in winter and once you accomplish it, you’ll understand why it’s such a hot topic amongst hikers! 

The idea is to wear the right layers that will keep your body temperature regulated so you avoid sweating or freezing. Having the right layers allows you to remove one when you’re hot rather than swap out clothing. 

Let’s go a little deeper into the art of layering…

What To Wear When Hiking In The Snow

Dressed in thick hiking layers while walking in a blizzard on the Overland Track

Layering is the key to staying warm and dry while hiking in the snow. But it can be one of the most difficult conditions to regulate as you’re bound to heat up as you climb yet your fingers may continuously stay wet and cold. 

While you’re almost guaranteed to feel a little chill, we can do our darn best to minimise the discomfort with this layering system. 

Here is a quick list of the layers that we wear hiking in the snow:

Layering For Hiking In The Snow

  • Base Layer: Merino wool 170 g base layer
  • Mid Layer: Polyester fleece jacket and/or down vest (depending on the temperature)
  • Outer Layer: Rain jacket and Rain pants

How To Layer When Hiking In The Snow

The number one rule in layering when hiking is to NEVER WEAR COTTON! Cotton is not breathable, does not dry quickly and has poor moisture-wicking properties. It is the devil when it comes to adventuring outdoors. 

Instead, choose either synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester and polypropylene, or merino wool. 

The basics of layering for hiking can be applied in any condition and for each individual no matter the level of endurance you may have to the cold. It’s all about learning what is right for you and you can alter these core layers by increasing or decreasing the warmth of each. 

Base Layer

Sitting on a deck in lightweight base layers while hiking Frenchmans Cap

Your base layer is the item of clothing that is in direct contact with your skin. This is arguably the most important layer to get right as its main job is to wick moisture away from your skin to keep you dry. 

Base layers come in various weights (the heaviest being the warmest) and should be form-fitting. The best materials to use for your base layer thermal are merino wool, synthetics such as polyester, or a blend of both. 

You can read more about the best base layers for hiking here. Or take a look at our favourite thermals below.

Mid Layer

Hiking in the snow in Fleece jumper and down vest as mid layer

The mid layer is key for warmth and breathability. Choose a layer that is quick-drying, breathable and supports a high warmth to weight ratio. 

This layer is often your final layer in fine weather and therefore needs to be durable. The best materials for your mid layer are polyester fleece or thick merino wool. When you’re hiking in the snow, you may choose to use your down jacket as your mid layer as it will be your warmest option.

Our material of choice is fleece as it’s super lightweight and often more durable than merino wool, even when we’re hiking in the snow we find that a down jacket is too warm as a mid layer. 

For your legs, we recommend nylon pants or durable hiking leggings for women that are made of synthetic fabrics. Alternatively, you can wear your base layer thermals underneath your rain paints in cold weather. 

Check out our favourite mid layers below.

Outer Layer

Hiking in my waterproof hiking gear next to a frozen fagus tree

Your outer layer’s main priorities are weather resistance and acting as the final stage of releasing any moisture from your body. This layer can also be used as a wind barrier and offers extra warmth and insulation when hiking in winter.

In most circumstances, your outer layer will simply be your rain jacket and rain pants. The type of rain jacket you choose, whether it be a shell or an insulated jacket, will depend on the conditions you’re hiking in.  

Find out more about the best rain jackets for hiking here. Or take a look at our favourite Rain Jackets below.

Bonus Tip: Now I know I just said that we rather wear a fleece instead of a down jacket while snow hiking, but there is one more option that has become my favourite. 

For my mid layer, I wear a down vest over my base layer or over my base layer and fleece if the weather is especially cold. This helps to keep my core warm but allows my underarms to breathe. 

The Additional Items Of Clothing

Close up of warm headwear while hiking in the snow

Now that we’ve got the main layers sorted, let’s cover your head and extremities.

Beanies: Here’s a fun fact – 40 – 45% of your body heat is lost through your head and neck. So we can all agree that this is one of the most important body parts to keep warm while hiking in the snow! 

Depending on how hot you get while hiking will determine the level of warmth you should look for in your beanie. The best beanies are either merino wool or synthetic fibres such as polyester fleece.

The warmest option is a merino wool beanie with a fleece lining, here are some of our favourites.

Neck Warmer: As we learnt above, your neck is as important to keep warm as your head. A merino wool neck warmer is ideal to keep you warm while allowing breathability and wicking away moisture from your breath.

Buff Merino Neck Warmer

Shop Merino Buffs

Socks: It can be difficult to find the perfect pair of socks that keep your toes warm but don’t result in your feet sweating after a few kilometres. 

The best socks for hiking in the snow are merino wool and nylon blends. Merino wool isn’t particularly durable but offers more warmth than nylon, which is far more durable. Often you will find this blend in various levels of thickness much like your base layers. 

For winter hiking, I recommend a sock that is mid-weight and durable. Here are some of our favourite options. 

Gloves: Your gloves will get wet when you walk in the snow and therefore, a pair that has a gore-tex or similar outer layer is highly recommended. 

The best type of gloves to keep your hands warm while hiking in the snow is a good pair of snow mittens. These are often fleece lined with a waterproof outer layer. If you know your hands freeze easily, you can wear a thin pair of merino gloves underneath.

Goggles / Sunglasses: I know that these aren’t technically clothing, but they deserve a place on this list. 

If you’ve ever been caught in a snow storm, you’ll know how damn hard those little flurries can hit your face. Making it extremely difficult to see when you have snow slamming into your eyes! 

Goggles are the most ideal form of protection to keep your face a little warmer and allow you to block the snow coming in sideways. But if you don’t have a pair of goggles, sunglasses are far better than nothing in this situation. 

The Best Boots For Hiking In The Snow

Walking on ice while hiking in the Snow wearing my Scarpa Delta Boots

Unfortunately, your trail runners or summer hiking boots may not cut the mustard when you’re hiking in the snow. Often, the snow will be deeper than your ankles and can completely engulf your shoe for an extended period of time. 

Having wet feet is less than ideal so to avoid that as much as possible, wear waterproof hiking boots. You’ll also find that hiking boots will be warmer and sturdier in the snow compared to runners.

Here are our top suggestions for hiking boots:

Additional Footwear For Hiking In The Snow

Hiking in deep snow using poles for balance and waterproof boots and gaiters for keeping dry

Gaiters: Even if you’re wearing waterproof hiking boots, your feet will still get wet if you don’t have gaiters protecting your ankles. Pair these with waterproof rain pants and you’ll be toasty dry… mostly! 

Gaiters are not only ideal for snow, but they’re also highly beneficial in muddy and wet conditions, as well as providing protection from snakes. They’re a great investment that you can use all year round, especially in Tasmania! 

Sea To Summit Quagmire Canvas Gaiters

Shop Gaiters

Snow Overboots: For those that hike in the snow often, purchasing a waterproof overboot such as the Neos Adventure Snow Overboot is a great alternative to gaiters and will keep your boots dry for a longer period of time. 

However, this option is overkill if you don’t regularly walk in the snow.

Neos waterproof hiking boot for hiking in the snow

Shop Neos Overboots

Microspikes: Microspikes are small spikes linked together with a chain that is slipped over your footwear for added grip in icy conditions or hard-packed snow. These are small and easy to take with you on any of your winter hikes. 

While microspikes are great for most conditions you’ll find hiking in Australia, they are not ideal for deep snow.

Microspikes fitted to a hiking shoe for hiking on ice in winter

Shop MicroSpikes

Crampons: Crampons are the big brother of microspikes, with large spikes and a foot frame that attaches to the bottom of your boots. These are ideally used for climbing icy slopes or for mountaineering. 

For most instances in Australia, these are unnecessary and more of a hindrance on the trails.  

Grivel G12 Crampons for serious snow hiking

Shop Crampons

Snowshoes: Snowshoes have a large footprint that distributes your weight over a wider area and small spikes underneath for grip. These come in various sizes and basically, the deeper the snow – the bigger you need. 

When you’re hiking in deep snow, snowshoes are highly ideal to keep you from sinking to your knees or further! While they are big and heavy, they’re invaluable if you plan a big adventure in a destination known for high snowfall. 

Snow shoes for hiking in the snow

Shop Snow Shoes

Safety Tips For Hiking In The Snow

Use A Form Of GPS 

When the landscape blurs into a world of white, the trail can be completely hidden and any opening through the trees can seem like a possible path. Using a paper map in this scenario can be difficult due to all your landmarks being disguised in white. 

A GPS will help you keep on track even when you can’t actually see the path. There are multiple options for tracking your movements, from mobile apps to specific devices. These are the three that we have used and can recommend. 

  • Garmin inReach: The Garmin inReach is the ultimate GPS tracker that comes with all the bells and whistles. Not only does this little device track your movements, but you can also send messages from it and contact emergency services via the SOS feature. The inReach comes in two models, the Mini and the Explorer +.
  • Alltrails: Alltrails is a navigation app that gives you access to thousands of hiking trails. The free version allows you to find hikes and stay on course with its in-built GPS while you have service. The paid version of the app (which costs $60 for 3 years) allows you to download maps, record your activity and use the GPS tracking features offline. 
  • Garmin eTrex 10: The Garmin eTrex 10 is a durable and waterproof navigator with a preloaded worldwide basemap. While this option has no SOS features, it’s a great budget option with exceptional battery life. 

Read The Terrain And Know Where You Can Seek Shelter

Hiking emergency shelter on overland track with distant view of Tasmanians highest mountain peaks
Emergency Shelter before blizzard
Hiking emergency shelter on overland track in blizzard conditions
Emergency Shelter during blizzard

If you find yourself lost or caught in a blizzard or high winds, you should seek shelter and wait out the storm if possible. Knowing which way the wind is blowing will help you search for a large boulder to bunker behind or will help you make a snow wall that will block out the elements.

There are different ways you can shelter from a blizzard and here are the best examples.

  • Build a snow wall: If the snow is deep enough, you can pack it high to build a wall that can act as a buffer to the wind. 
  • Find a cave or overhanging cliff: Check which way the wind is blowing and seek a cave or cliff that can act as a buffer. Only do this if there is one close to the trail. 
  • Ice cave: not recommended unless you have experience and know what you are doing. This also requires a shovel.

However, it’s important to note that you should never stray too far from the track in a blizzard as your footprints can be lost in minutes. 

Leapfrog Navigation

Hiking snow markers buried in deep snow on the Overland Track Tasmania
Snow markers can be very difficult to see in a white out

If you find yourself caught out hiking in a blizzard or a white-out, you can use the leapfrog technique to ensure you stay on track. This obviously requires at least two people, but I wouldn’t recommend hiking in the snow on your own anyway, regardless of your experience.

The leapfrog technique is quite simple when the trail is marked and is a tool to use when you can’t see the next marker ahead of you. Basically, one person stands at a marker while the other hiker walks forward until they can spot the second marker. Once the second marker is spotted, the first person meets the second and they continue to the next marker, where they’ll repeat the steps. 

When searching for the next marker, you should always stay in sight of your hiking buddy in order to avoid getting lost or being split up. If in doubt, retrace your footsteps and head back to a safe area. The weather can change rapidly in a storm and being stuck in the open can lead to serious consequences.

Choose Your Hike Carefully

Hiking up man made steps in the snow towards Marions Lookout
Hiking to Marions Lookout, a route we are extremely familiar with

Hiking in the snow is vastly different to walking on a normal trail. Navigation can be increasingly difficult and the amount of energy you expend almost doubles. If you’re planning to hike in the snow for the first time, it’s best to choose an easy trail that you’re familiar with and that has plenty of options to shelter from the elements. 

If you know there is a chance of a snow storm brewing at your planned hiking destination, it’s important to do your research on the hike and determine whether it’s safe enough to continue with your plan. 

Some locations that often receive large amounts of snow have the appropriate navigational markers in places – such as orange reflectors on trees and tall poles with reflectors on plateaus and alpine summits. Embarking on a hike that doesn’t have good trail markings can be increasingly difficult when the track is covered in snow, let alone in blizzard conditions.

Tell Somebody Your Hiking Plan

It’s good practice to let someone know when you’re hiking in any condition, but even more important when you’re snow hiking. 

Tell a friend, partner or family member where you’re going and what time to expect you home. Give them a map of your route so that if they need to contact emergency services, they will know the general direction to search. 

Bring A Compass And Map

Reading a topographical map in the snow, looking for the best hikes near me

I may be old school, but I hate relying solely on technology. It has a way of letting me down in the most inconvenient times. Therefore, I always bring a topographical map and a compass on hikes. 

If you’re caught in a white-out and your navigational device decides to stop working, it’s easy to get lost even if you’re on a familiar trail. Having a backup of a compass and map could just save your life. 

If you need to touch up on your navigation skills, take a look at this post

Check The Trail Conditions At The Visitors Centre Before Your Hike

The staff at the visitors centre are your best source for up-to-date trail conditions. Check in before you embark on your hike for updates on the trail and the weather that’s forecast for the duration of your hike. 

We all know that the weather apps can often be wrong! 

Plan Your Breaks Around Sheltered Areas

Kitchen Hut covered in snow, perfect shelter while hiking in the snow in Tasmania

Spirits can dampen extremely quickly when you are looking for a spot for lunch and can’t find anywhere out of the weather. 

Before you go on your hike, do some research to discover whether there are any huts along your route or natural shelters that can protect you from the weather. Natural shelters can include dense forests where you can set up your emergency shelter (part of the 10 essentials), caves or cliff overhangs that can act as barriers to the weather. 

Pack The 11 Essentials

There are 11 essential items that are with us every time we go on a hike no matter what. While you may not use every item on every hike, you will feel much safer knowing that you have the means for survival if you happen to need it. 

The 11 essentials are:

  • Headtorch
  • Matches or Lighter
  • Sunscreen
  • Emergency Shelter
  • First Aid Kit
  • Multi-tool
  • Extra clothing
  • Extra Food
  • Extra Water
  • Navigation and Communication (map, compass and GPS device)
  • Emergency Beacon

You can find out more about each of these items in our hiking essentials packing list.

Hiking up Stacks Bluff in the snow wearing some of the best rain jackets on the market

Hiking in the snow is a magical experience that, with the right planning and equipment, could become your favourite time to hike! But don’t forget the risk that comes with the conditions and ensure you’re set up for success before hitting the trails. 

Have you hiked in the snow before? We’d love to hear about your experiences and personal tips in the comments below. 

Happy Hiking!