A guide to essential winter hiking gear

Posted by Fiona Mcintosh on 28 May 2012

I love winter and whenever there’s a snowfall I seek it out. A few years back, I spent a month in Antarctica and recall telling the base camp manager I could never cope with the cold.

‘There’s only one reason you get cold,’ he said. ‘Bad gear.’

The good news is gear just gets better and better. Here’s the gear I take on my winter hiking trails.

Winter hiking gear for your feet

The right boots are critical. The heavier the boot, the harder walking is. Think about the number of times you lift your feet – every extra 100 grams soon adds up. So I go fast and light in all but deep snow or thick mud – and even then I prefer adding knee-length gaiters to wearing full boots. Several major outdoor footwear companies such as Salomon, Karrimor, La Sportiva and Hi- Tec make waterproof mid-cut boots, which are just the ticket.

Socks are a very personal thing, but a layering system works best. A thin liner helps wick away moisture from your feet and reduces friction and the likelihood of blistering (though that’s rarely much of an issue these days – most synthetic boots need little in the way of wearing in and are kind to your feet). Falke leads the field in South Africa and a good choice for a long hike is a Drynamix liner, then a thicker sock to suit the expected temperatures. Falke’s regular hiking socks, which have a built-in Drynamix moisture-management system, are great for day hikes.

Winter hiking gear for your body

As with socks, layering clothing is key to staying warm. A good base layer wicks away moisture and provides a tight insulating layer. I’ve been impressed with the First Ascent Derma-Tec seam-free top, which has panels with a denser weave on the torso to keep your core warm.

Next up is a layer or two of lightweight fleece and a good waterproof jacket or a softshell if you’re expecting a strenuous workout. Softshells are somewhere between a fleece and a waterproof jacket and keep layering and bulk to a minimum.

All major outdoor clothing manufacturers have several weights of softshells offering various degrees of insulation, wind resistance and water repellence so you can choose how much protection you need and can afford. The top-of-the-range ones have a waterproof membrane, are seam-sealed (making them as waterproof as conventional hardshells) and feature hoods, insulating cuffs and other accessories to keep the elements at bay.

The stretchy fabric, short cut and breathability make softshells comfortable for adventure sports and they’re tailored, so they double as fashion garments.

Not everyone has traded in their fleeces and waterproofs because softshells can be expensive, so if your current system works, assess whether it’s worth the investment. And while versatile, softshells aren’t replacements for hardshells and offer a lot less protection in very wet conditions (in a downpour, water will soak through most softshells). Softshells are ideal when it’s windy, cold and dry, but they’re not a good choice for backpacking trips in wet weather – a soggy jacket doesn’t keep you warm at night.

If you’re planning a multi-day hike in the Berg or not-so-sunny Scotland, opt for a hardshell and a fleece. At the end of the day, you take off a wet rain jacket and still have a dry fleece.

Winter hiking gear for your head

Up to 40% of body heat is lost through your head, so there’s truth in the old adage: ‘If your feet are cold put on another pair of socks; if they’re still cold put on a hat’.

Columbia’s silver-lined Fast Trek fleece hat with Omni-Heat technology is my favourite, not least because it’s snug enough to fit under a helmet when skiing or rock climbing. Also, wear a Buff or equivalent when hiking, which serves as a beanie, scarf or mask in the cold.

Winter gear tips

Pack a couple of hand warmers, which work well inside gloves or to warm up your sleeping bag. Also, a Nalgene bottle filled with boiling water makes a good hot-water bottle in the mountains.

Photograph by Shaen Adey


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