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Beginner Winter Hiking

My wife and I enjoy hiking the easy trails in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Three miles round trip is about our max. I'm 54 and she is 63. We've hiked in the spring, summer, and fall. We're going to the Whites in January and would like to try winter hiking. In addition to the obvious, layers, boots, packs, and other gear, is there any advice you could give to a couple middle aged, first time winter hikers? Any info would be greatly appreciated, thanks.

Don't overdress, being a little cool is better than being too warm. Slow down or layer down if you even think you're starting to sweat. If you use a hydration bladder sip often and blow the hose clear afterward, it sucks not having any water because you waited too long to drink. 

I'll assume you know about cold weather apparel, given your regional climate.  Sinking up to your knees in soft snow is no fun, but you probably already know this, too.  So I will delve right into the issue of snow travel.  

Maintaining balance is an issue.  Therefore whatever the means you use to get about, you should also get a pair of trekking or ski poles.

A lot of people resort to snowshoes.  They require little in the way of skill, are not too expensive and can be used with a wide variety of foot ware.  There are different designs, some are general purpose, while others are tailored to more specific terrain or conditions.  The downside to snowshoes is they are ungainly.

Another way to travel is using cross country (XC) skis.  If you are sticking to gentle terrain they are easy to use.  XC skis come in a variety of designs.  There are several ways XC skis gain traction, allowing you to travel on level ground and grades.  Some skis have textured based to supply traction, while others rely on special waxes.  On steeper terrain skiers may attach traction devices known as climbing skins.  Skis also have different designs for different uses.   There are traditional track skis for touring along a path with slots for each ski, skating skis (skating is a technique) that also require groomed paths; and there are skis for traveling over unimproved terrain.  There are even skis for negotiating fairly steep terrain.  The down side of XC skis is they are more expensive, require specialized foot ware and have a learning curve if you wish to venture beyond gentle terrain. 

Attempting to fully explain all of these different choices in detail is beyond the scope of a forum post; I suggest getting a book about snowshoeing, a book about XC skiing, and renting equipment before you commit to a purchase.

I would not recommend you attempt traveling over snow you cannot penetrate with a boot, at least not in the beginning.  Using snowshoes and skis on such terrain requires learning specific techniques.  Additionally traveling over such snow with boots is unsafe unless you have spikes that can be attached to your foot ware.  the most surefooted of these spikes are known as crampons, but there are less expensive albeit less effective spike devices.  I would also recommend avoiding steeper terrain for a variety of reasons.  If the snow is hard and you fall, you will not be able to stop from sliding down the slope and this can be dangerous.  You need special skills and equipment for steep snow covered terrain.  Additionally steeper inclines may be prone to avalanche.  You do not want to go out into such terrain without taking a snow safety and skills seminar.  In any case steeps are beyond the scope of what you should be considering at this point.    


As far as comfort while out in the snow, bring along a closed cell foam pad you can use to sit on while at rest.  Bring an extra change of socks and gloves.  Short trips are a great venue for a picnic!  You most definitely want to bring sunglasses and consider sun screen for exposed skin.  If it is really cold keep an eye on each others ears and nose - graying skin is a prelude to frostbite.  Likewise if your feet lose feeling stop and rewarm them, else risk frost damage. 


Clothing management takes some practice. Try not to sweat like people have mentioned before.  Bring some basic equipment in case you have to spend the night out there.  Even for a day trip bring headlamps. It gets dark early in winter. Bring fire starters space blanket, some parachute cord. Bring some navigation equipment. It is easy to get lost in a snow storm.  If you get cold, stop and build a fire. If there is a bad storm wait it out. Watch the weather forecast. Be careful with stream crossings. Getting really wet can kill you in the cold. 

in no particular order, and in a number of cases agreeing with comments above (i have been hiking in the white mountains and adirondacks in the winter for over 30 years):

1. tackle trails that aren't super-taxing at first. walking on snow in winter boots requires significantly more effort than walking on dry trails.

2. be mindful of the weather. you know the white mountains, so you know how quickly the weather can change. it's even more important to pay attention in the winter.

3. however you navigate, make sure you can do that in the winter. wind + snow or fog can mean limited visibility, even white-out conditions in the winter (less so below treeline, hence the advice to avoid the high areas when you are starting out). trails can be a bit harder to find covered with snow.  and alkaline batteries aren't great in cold weather; opt for lithium ion batteries if you use an electronic gps, and keep the batteries and/or the device in a pocket under your jacket.

4. i like to bring an insulated bottle with hot chocolate or tea. that either means a wide-mouth poly bottle in an insulated cover or something like a yeti rambler with a wide mouth. narrow mouth bottles and reservoir/tube setups are much more prone to problems in NH winters. bringing warm liquids makes them less likely to freeze.

5. gaiters keep snow out from between the cuffs of your pants and your boots. to me, pretty essential winter accessory.

6. if you tackle anything reasonably steep, you should at least have microspikes or the equivalent available. most moderately-used trails in the whites in the winter can get slick. katoohla microspikes or yak trax. (i use crampons or snowshoes with spiked winter bindings, but i mostly do the northern presidentials in the winter). 

7. it can get really cold there, but resist the temptation to overdress and overheat when you are working hard - layer up and down frequently if needed. on steep trails, even when it's insanely cold, i'm often in a baselayer and a light wind layer only while i'm moving. 

8. backups - bring extra hats, handwear, batteries, even on a day hike. in really cold weather, having a hat or mitts/gloves blow away in the wind can quickly become a major problem, assuming you like avoiding hypothermia and having fingers.

9. goggles with antifog applied or glasses. you must plan to be able to see with high wind and blowing snow. 

To illustrate Andrew's #7 point, this pic was taken on Chocorua this past March. Temp was around 0F to -5F. I'm wearing a lightweight merino wool shirt over a silk weight polypro baselayer, which is doing its job by wicking sweat away from my skin and into the wool where it can freeze and sublimate. The shoulders & chest are darker because my shoulder & sternum straps slowed down the freezing process, but the layers were doing their job. IIRC we'd stopped a little below the treeline to take a break before layering up for the wind (and -30F-ish wind chills) above the treeline. With another merino layer and a rain shell I was perfectly comfortable. A snugger-fitting shirt would have been better, air spaces between the base layer and mid layer above it do reduce effectiveness a bit.


Lots of good advice here which saves me a lot of writing time :)

I'll mention two things about snowshoes though:

1. Wear them! Postholing a nicely broken out trail makes the snow angels weep. Well and it makes me swear a lot. If you've absolutely decided you can't or won't use them, don't walk in the broken out trail. The exception would be if you are using crampons or spikes on a hard, ice encrusted trail. I bring both spikes and snowshoes on every trip so I'm prepared for whatever conditions I find. Some days I will switch between the two several times.

2. Find a local park or golf course where you can stomp out a trail and practice frequently. Strength and technique improve the more you use them. This pays off when you are out on real trails and need both.

Be safe and have fun. Winter can be amazing in the mountains if you are prepared for it.

Thank you everyone for the great advice. We'll make sure we're prepared properly and give it a try. Thanks again!


You've got some great gear advice. Let me add some advice outside of equipment. These are the same parameters we use for caving...

1) Always tell a reliable person where you are going, and when they should expect to hear from you. In caving, we tell our contact when we expect to be out of a cave, and when they should report us missing. We normally allot a couple of hours for delays or self-rescues. 

2) Especially in winter, dress and carry gear that will allow you to hunker down and survive if everything goes to pot and you have to wait for rescue. Water filtration, nutrition, shelter. Ask yourself, "If it all hits the fan, do I have what I need to wait it out 24 hours?" Where not talking comfort so much as survival. 

3) Check the weather. I've never hiked the Whites, but some of the stories I've heard are scary. 

4) Don't let your agenda supersede good judgement. Yes, you may have been planning that hike for weeks, but if things look if-y, let it go. There will be other opportunities. 

A few years ago a Missouri dad took his sons out into the Ozarks for a day hike. It was a warm late-fall day. They got caught in a rainstorm. Night fell. The died of hypothermia. 

I LOVE hiking in the winter, and I camp more in the winter/early spring than during the summer or fall. So I'm not discouraging you from doing it. Just be prepared!

Hi Steven,

There is so much but these are a few things.

I've been winter hiking in the white mountains for 7 years, I took the AMC winter hiking series class

"If you have to be rescued your putting someone else's life in danger".

I don't recommend using bladders, they can and will freeze, even the insulated bladders. I tested it a couple times.

Buy 2 Nalgene bottles and 2 insulated bottle holders, 1 strapped to the backpack for access and 1 in the backpack. Heat preferred fluid.

There are 3 types of snowshoes:

Flat terrain: No traction, bigger for flotation.

Hilly terrain: light traction usually small crampon under foot.

Mountain terrain: Usually more aggressive crampon under foot, side rails can be jagged, Heel lift, more secure binding. Emphasis on traction more than flotation.

I like Kahtoola Microspikes.

I would recommend going with someone who is experienced.

Research winter boots 

Research trails and conditions:

Hike the Belknap range with your new winter gear before hitting the White Mountains.



I am a bit surprised that no one posting so far has mentioned the several New England area outing clubs. If nothing else, you can get information about these organizations and the training they offer from EMS and REI stores. They run training sessions and will guide you on some beginner routes.

You say:

My wife and I enjoy hiking the easy trails in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Three miles round trip is about our max. I'm 54 and she is 63. We've hiked in the spring, summer, and fall. We're going to the Whites in January and would like to try winter hiking.

I note that you say the 2 of you are"seniors" (As a 77yo I would consider you "just kids", but you do say that the 2 of you consider 3 miles as your maximum on easy trails). Although Barbara and I now live on the Left Coast (and are suffering from 3-digit temperatures these days), we spent time in New England (living in Boston, but hiking, snowshoeing, and XC skiing in NH, Vt and Maine, including several treks up Mt Washington in winter.)

Given that information, I would strongly suggest you get an introduction to snow travel from experienced trainers. Start off with short day hikes on beginner trails. Your trainers should introduce you to how to make the "180°" decision (when to turn back). 3 miles on New England snow can be a full day outing if the snow is freshly fallen.

NE can get sudden, unexpected dumps of heavy snow that may make it difficult to drive your car home (Mass snowplow operators have a habit of piling the snow up against parked cars). Your instructors should teach you how to recognize worsening snow storms, in addition to learning how to read the forecasts.

OK, that all sounds terrifying. OTOH, we found snow travel in NE to be fun and exhilerating - IF, we paid attention to the weather (I am sure that, living up in that corner of the country,  you are very familiar with the old saying "if you don't like the weather around here, wait 5 minutes - it will change, usually for the worse."(Barb and I once did a bike ride on a beautiful spring day on the peninsula, and got heavily snowed on).

If you learn from experienced instructors and pay attention, New England snow travel is fantastically fun!!! Just pay close attention to your trained instructors.

I don't want to scare you off. Just get the proper training and you will find NE snow hikes to be among the most fun things you will ever encounter.

Bill S said:

I am a bit surprised that no one posting so far has mentioned the several New England area outing clubs..."

"NE can get sudden, unexpected dumps of heavy snow that may make it difficult to drive your car home (Mass snowplow operators have a habit of piling the snow up against parked cars)..."

"I don't want to scare you off. Just get the proper training and you will find NE snow hikes to be among the most fun things you will ever encounter."

Very good points, Bill. 

Pictures of New England XC skiers leisurely gliding along trails in a winter wonderland is what inspired me to take up that sport; indeed I consider it among the most enjoyable of outdoor activities.  This is a sport that is easy to learn and do on gentle terrain.  The terrain beyond snowed in roads and level valleys beckoned, and motivated me to take on snow camping and winter mountaineering.  While my ski skills were self-taught, I did receive formal training, regarding snow safety skills and winter travel skills.  I highly recommend anyone considering backcountry snow travel or camping to do likewise.

Several outdoor organizations in the Northeast are world renown.  The northeast was the crucible for many of the icons of American mountaineering lore, including Bradford Washburn, Robert Bates and Dr. Charles Huston, who got their starts in the Harvard University Mountaineering Club.  I personally found experienced northeastern winter mountaineers and trekkers to be among the most competent companions I have climbed and trekked with.  While the OP is not looking for such high adventure and the Harvard club may be more adventure than what they seek, rest assured there are other excellent training programs and outdoor social clubs that are perfectly suited to meet the needs of budding winter activity enthusiasts of all ages and ambitions.

Snow plows and parked cars.
Many from snow country will read this and yawn, but those who have not had the experience, beware snow plows can entrap your vehicle in rock hard ice and snow as they pass your parked car, or block entry to the road from unplowed parking areas with a berm of piled up snow.  It can take hours to extricate your vehicle using the shovels folks typically take into the backcountry.  Therefore I usually pack my vehicle with a full size pick axe, drain spade, and a scoop shovel or snow shovel (don't forget work gloves else risk getting blisters). 



Since Bill brought it up and I just saw this post..I would recommend looking into the Appalachian Mountain club..They have classes and I looked one up on winter hiking and its in october it also covers snow shoeing...someone from here posted their classes to me when I was brain storming on winter backpacking and getting back into it..I live on the east coast but south...So their a good fit for getting farther North and exploring...

October 28, 2020
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