10 Tips on How to Stay Warm Hiking in Cold Weather

Most hibernate during the winter months. Shying away from the cold and all the wonder that winter brings to a hiking trail.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you know how to stay warm, you can enjoy the trails year-round. 

Hiking in cold weather is magical. Frost glitters through trees, spiders and flies take a welcomed vacation and the trails are almost always quieter. 

Through some research and LOADS of trial and error, I have compiled a list of 10 tips that will help you stay warm on the trail – either on a day walk or overnight.

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rugged up in multiple layers while hiking in cold weather for sunrise at the Warrumbungle National Park

Layer, Layer, Layer

The most obvious, the most important, yet the one most get wrong. Layering sounds easy but can just as easily be done incorrectly.

Lets start with the Base Layer

The first thing everybody needs to know when it comes to staying warm while hiking in cold weather is…

Cotton = Bad. 

Especially for a layer touching your skin.

Clothing keeps you warm by trapping air near your skin. When cotton gets wet – mainly due to sweating – it stops insulating as the air pockets in the fabric fill up with moisture. As a result, any cotton touching your skin will make you ten times colder as your sweat cools and the temperate drops. 

You may have heard of some materials being ‘moisture-wicking’. This means the material has the ability to draw moisture away from your body and dry rapidly, keeping your sweat away from your body and your clothes dry and warm. Cotton does not do this. 

Ok, if it’s between going naked or choosing cotton I guess cotton will be warmer… 

BUT

Merino wool is the best moisture-wicking material, closely followed by synthetic materials like polyester, polypropylene and nylon.

A good set of merino wool or polyester long underwear will do wonders in setting you on the right track to blissful warmth.

See the latest Price on our favourite base layers:

Walking through the thick green forest while climbing up Hannels Spur on our hike to Mt Kosciuszko

The Mid Layer For Your Upper Body

The mid-layer is highly dependant on the temperatures you’re hiking in. Though I would always start with more and shed layers later.

Trust me, I’ve been stuck on top of a mountain with goosebumps the size of my head on too many occasions while hiking in cold weather. Just don’t do it to yourself!

You may get away with only adding your Down Jacket next, but if it’s bitingly cold or camp time, I suggest adding an extra mid-layer beneath the puffer.  

The best material for your next layer after your merino wool or polyester long sleeve is a fleece jacket. Fleece is lightweight, moisture-wicking and oh so cosy. 

The downside to fleece – and the reason I suggest adding a down jacket next – is its inability to win a fight with the wind. 

Adding a down jacket or insulated jacket next is a recipe for a snug upper body. Have a look at my guide to choosing the right down jacket for help on this subject. 

See the latest Price on our favourite Mid Layers:

winding the the misty green mountain peak while hiking in cold weather at the Warrumbungle National Park

The Mid Layer For Your Lower Half

While hiking in cold weather, most will be fine with just one layer on their legs. Our legs are our biggest muscles and therefore don’t need as much heating. 

I usually wear a good set of full-length sports tights as my only layer… and I am the biggest sook you’ve seen when it comes to the cold! 

If this sounds preposterous to you, a great option is to wear your merino base layer leggings topped with a pair of nylon hiking pants or sports tights under shorts. Snug as a bug in layers.

Candace pushing Dylan off a cliff hiking in cold weather at the Warrumbungle National Park

The Outer Layer

Your outer layer needs to be waterproof and windproof. Breathability is also a huge bonus, otherwise all your efforts in avoiding sweat will be for nothing. 

The top contender for waterproof, windproof, lightweight and breathable products is Gore-Tex.

However, there are many brands that are stepping up to the challenge of making equal products – which just makes our decision making all the more difficult. Check out this post for help on how to pick the right Rain Jacket.

Waterproof pants are questionably necessary. I wouldn’t bother for day hikes around most of Australia. But If you’re planning multi-day hikes in winter or loads of snow hikes then grabbing a pair of rain pants would be beneficial. 

Rain Jackets are like snacks, and everybody loves snacks! You should never go hiking without one stashed in your backpack. They could be the difference between life or death…

See the latest price on our favourite outer layers:

Relaxing on a boulder trying to stay warm while hiking in cold weather at the Warrumbungle National Park

Keep Your Head and Extremities Warm

How many times have you been told as a child that heat escapes from your head, hands and feet? 

My father used to tell me this on a daily basis – I hated and still hate wearing shoes! 

But I have to give it to him, he’s right. If your extremities are cold, you’ll have a much harder time warming up. 

Your Head

Keeping your noggin warm is relatively easy. Most outer layers come with a hood or you can wear a beanie (Toque for my Canadian friends). 

However… there is always a however isn’t there?!? 

I get frustrated with hoods and losing my peripheral – don’t get me started on the fact that my hearing sucks and hoods restrict it even more. And beanies – while they’re perfect for camp and snow – make me far too hot when hiking. 

We have recently found the perfect medium – Head socks or tubes or buffer or whatever you want to call them! (Yes I know these have been out for years but we have newly become acquainted with them so we are still excited.)

These bad boys can either be worn as a headband to keep your ears warm or even as a neck and face warmer. Their multi-function makes them popular for pack weight-conscious hikers. And if your head gets too hot, chuck it around your neck and avoid opening your backpack…again! They’re also great to avoid that good old neck sunburn. As I said, multi-functional!

See the latest price on neck buffers from Wilderness Wear

mugshot of Candace while snowshoeing at Thredbo taking hiking in cold weather to the extreme

Your Feet

As with your base layer, your socks should never be cotton. Your feet are destined to sweat, and wet socks equal cold feet and blisters. Yuk.

Merino wool is a good material for hiking in cold weather, however, it should be blended with nylon as merino isn’t strong enough to withstand the constant abrasion against your shoes. 

Your camp socks need to be warmer. I find that every time I camp, my feet are the coldest. 

The bee’s knees of the warm sock world are alpaca fleece. But with that comes a very high price tag. I settle for merino wool mixed with polyester and my toes stay toasty enough. 

See the latest price on our favourite women’s hiking socks from Wilderness Wear
See the latest price on our favourite men’s hiking socks from Wilderness Wear

Your Hands

This is the hardest extremity to keep warm while hiking and camping due to the amount you need them. Annoying I know.

Finding a pair of gloves that allow you to freely work with your un-matched fingertip sensitivity is almost impossible and for this reason, gloves are something I rarely considered.

Then a smart chap invented liner gloves that have smartphone-friendly fingertips. What a world we live in. Now you can continue snapping happy photos while avoiding the loss of a digit.

See the latest prices on hiking gloves:

Keeping my hands warm while hiking in cold weather by using my breath

Indulge In Warm Drinks

It can be a whole lot harder to stay hydrated during a winter hike. Who wants to slurp up cold water and undo all the effort you’ve just expelled in keeping warm!? 

Enter warm drinks. By simply heating up your water and sticking it in an insulated bottle, you can sip away at warm water and stay cosy inside and out.

Tea is another perfect solution if drinking warm water sounds terrible. Similarly, chuck a tea bag or two in an insulated bottle with hot water and bobs your uncle. 

It’s especially beneficial to sip a warm drink before bed to help kick start your body into warming itself up. You don’t have to give me any more reason to ’need’ a hot chocolate!

And now for the bad news… coffee doesn’t help in keeping you warm due to the fact it dehydrates you. Of course, this doesn’t stop us from fuelling our addiction. However, we are sure to have a non-caffeinated tea ready to counter-balance our indulgence.

Pouring coffee to keep warm while hiking in cold weather

Pack The Right Food 

The absolute best part (aside from the whole nature thing) about hiking in cold weather is the absolute necessity of carbohydrates.

Pasta come at me! 

In all seriousness, packing the right food is of the highest importance. While two-minute noodles are cheap and light, they don’t have the necessary nutrition to keep you full, replenished and warm.

Hiking in cold weather causes your body to expel even more energy than in summer. Not only are you trying to hike up a damn hill with a heavy backpack, but you’re also trying to keep your body warm. Therefore, picking warm foods with complex carbohydrates is paramount.

All of our favourite hiking meals are super easy to replicate and the best part is you don’t need a dehydrator for any of them!

cosy food we take on overnight hikes to keep ourselves warm, cosy and satisfied

Get Yourself An Emergency Blanket

Emergency blankets are super light and oh so beneficial. You never know what could happen in the wilderness and if you’re only out for a day hike, you won’t have a sleeping bag or a tent to keep out the extremes. An emergency blanket could save your life.

And they’re oh so small!

There are two types of emergency blankets you can purchase, a multi-use or single-use. I recommend a multi-use blanket as it also has multi-purposes. You can use these tougher blankets for a tent footprint, a picnic blanket, a shelter or to wrap around you if you’re in need of superior warmth.

We recently bought a SOL multi-purpose emergency blanket and couldn’t be happier. It kept our tent base dry and our butts further insulated from the freezing ground.

Make a Fire

Even if you’re planning a day hike, bringing some matches with you and a bit of cardboard is a great idea. If you happen to get stuck in the elements, a fire will greatly improve your mood.

If you want to be completely new age and have the luxury of sparking a flame easily, invest in some firelighters! They are cheap and make burning wet wood a walk in the park. Some may say we are cheating, and to that I say – yes we are, but we’re warm!

Be sure to use a fire circle that has already been set up. If there isn’t one, start the fire on a slab of rock to avoid fire scars and the potential for a bush fire.

Warming around a fire while hiking in cold weather at the Warrumbungle National Park

Invest In A Good Quality Sleeping Mat

These are SO IMPORTANT! If you ever think you’ll be fine sleeping on the ground, you’re bonkers. Especially in winter, the ground is the ultimate heat sucker. While a good sleeping mat can break the bank, they are absolutely worth it.

Picking a sleeping mat that has insulating properties will be a huge factor for a good nights sleep.

Dylan went with the cheap option and is massively regretting the decision. As we speak he is trying to find a cheap second-hand mat to make up for his mistake.

Sleeping bags and sleeping mats set up inside an Macpac Olympus four season tent to keep warm camping

What About Sleeping Bags?

Well, this is a no brainer, isn’t it? You surely wouldn’t go on an overnight hike without a sleeping bag! 

But is yours warm enough?

Companies rate their sleeping bags by comfort and extreme. The comfort is the temperature you will stay snug in and not need to layer up excessively. 

The extreme is the temperature you could endure without dying. But by no means will you have a good nights sleep in this temperature! 

Always check the comfort rating. If you’re planning to sleep in temperatures lower than the comfort rating, get a warmer sleeping bag!

Now one more thing on sleeping bags, they work best when they come in close contact with your skin. Using your body heat to warm the air around you. Picking a sleeping bag that isn’t too big is important, as is not wearing too many layers to bed. Keeping just a thermal base layer is recommended… even though stripping down to this layer may feel counterproductive! 

Sleeping Bag Liner

Essentially, a sleeping bag liner is a big sock for your entire body. These bad boys are a great addition to add some warmth… and keep your sleeping bag less stinky. You can find some great liners that can add up to 10 degrees to the comfort rating of your sleeping bag.

Sleep in the Next Days Base Layer

Putting on freezing cold clothes in the morning is hell. Absolute hell. To avoid this, wear your base layer that you’re planning to wear the next day to bed. And stuff the rest of the clothes you want to wear in the bottom of your sleeping bag. Not only does this keep the clothes warm, it also fills up extra space in your sleeping bag, creating a warmer environment inside your sack. Win-win.

Beautiful campsite in the Warrumbungle National Park

And the secrets are out. There is no reason for you to stay inside all day every day this winter. Get outside and explore! If camping in a tent is still too daunting, here are some of our favourite winter camping spots in Thredbo.

If you’ve got some good hacks or tips for hiking in cold weather, please let us know in the comments below.

Hiking in cold weather Pinterest pin

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