“Winter can be a really enjoyable time to be outside, but it can be really dangerous too,” said Andrew Skurka, author of National Geographic’s “The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide,” and who’s hiked across the globe, including a 4,700-mile trip in the Alaskan and Canadian Yukon.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the biggest winter dangers are hypothermia (when body temperature drops below 95 degrees) and frostbite (when a body part freezes, damaging tissue).
Ensuring safety against these dangers involves two different forms of preparation, says Skurka. “There’s what you carry with you — your gear — and what you carry between your ears — your skills,” he said. “Skills become disproportionally more important: You could have the best gear in the world, but you’re going to be in trouble if you don’t layer correctly or don’t know how to navigate.”
That said, being properly outfitted is a critical piece in the winter safety puzzle. Here are some tips to cover you from head to toe.
“It’s important to maintain a steady body temperature; you don’t want to be hot and sweaty and then really cold,” explained Kristin Hostetter, gear editor for Backpacker Magazine. “That means having many layers and stopping often to adjust depending on your activity.”
Hostetter suggests a combination of head gear to layer for changing conditions and activity levels. A light wool or acrylic fleece beanie can provide a good base. She also recommends a hood or two attached to your clothing to block the wind. One of her favorite accessories is the versatile Buff made from merino wool, which can be used as everything from a headband to a wind screen.
One of Skurka’s head-protection must-haves is a visor. “It sounds strange, but the brim keeps snow out of my eyes and can keep my hood from getting in my eyes too,” he said.
When it comes to clothing, you should start protection at the skin level. “It’s really important to have a quick-drying, wicking base layer so you don’t get wet with sweat, which accelerates heat loss,” said Hostetter. The best materials are either wool, Hostetter’s personal choice, or a synthetic blend. “Do not allow any cotton against your skin.”
You’ll also want a mid-layer that’s appropriate for the conditions and activity. If you’re going to be more active, Hostetter suggests a lightweight, breathable shirt or jacket such as a thin insulated fleece. If you’ll be more sedentary, you’ll want a thicker option like a down jacket. Multi-day trips may require both options.
Your outer layer will be a shell that’s either breathable, what Hostetter refers to as a “soft shell,” or waterproof, what she refers to as a “hard shell.”
Again, layering is key for full protection. Skurka starts with polyester or merino wool boxer briefs and a pair of polyester spandex tights, noting that sometimes that’s all that’s needed. Hostetter emphasizes the importance of fit. “You’ll have better wicking and warmth if the fabric is making contact with the skin,” she said.
“Fingers are always the first to get cold,” said Hostetter. Skurka uses a glove system of liners and insulated shell mittens, which he recommends purchasing as a set to ensure a proper fit. Both agree that mittens offer more warmth, but you lose dexterity. A liner-mitten combination can provide the best of both worlds.
Footwear will be more specific to the sport you’re performing, but good socks should be a staple. You can select either a wool or synthetic, although Hostetter says wool socks tend to be warmer and retain their shape better. Regardless of your material choice, always pack a backup pair in case your feet get wet.
For shoes, the general rule is to go up a half size to ensure there’s enough room for bulky socks and toe movement. “If there’s not enough room to move your toes, they’re going to get cold,” said Hostetter.
Planning to trek on ice or snow? Skurka suggests an ice-traction device that straps onto your shoes, and Hostetter recommends gaiters to keep the elements out of your boots.