12 Tips to Enjoy Winter Hiking

We’ve always been a little worried about hiking in winter, but this year we decided to undertake the 52 Hike Challenge, and we knew if we started in June that we’d never catch up by the end of the summer, so we chose some of our favorite hikes to try in the winter. After our first one, we were hooked! We have learned a few winter hiking tips after going on a few of these winter hikes that we want to share with you.

Getting out in the mountains of Utah is always an amazing experience, but we’ve found the winter to be an ideal time because the crowds are thinner and the air is clearer. It is really nice to get out even on the cold days. In this post, we’ll tell you how to make your first winter hike as successful as possible. These winter hiking tips are simple, but they have helped our family have a lot of fun in the winter.

Winter hiking is a magical wonderland. It is beautiful out on the trails even with snow!

Tip 1: Layer up

Anyone who has been outside in the winter knows the value of putting on several layers. For Mom and Dad, this means some sweats or yoga pants under a thick pair of jeans, two pairs of socks under your snow boots, and a long sleeved shirt, jacket, and overcoat. Our boys do the same, but with snow pants. We also wear scarves, gloves, and stocking caps. On our last hike the temperature was around 20 degrees and we were out for around 2 hours and only had one cold toe out of our 50!

Wearing layers is also nice just in case it warms up on you. It is so much easier to shed layers than to add them, so we prefer to be overly prepared.

Mom gets cold, so she often wears her snow pants, too.

Tip 2: Be Aware of Sunset

Sunset comes early in the winter, so be careful about the time of day you hike. In the summer we’ll take Dad on an after work hike, but the day starts to cool off around 4. The best hiking hours are between noon and 4 pm because the day is at its warmest point. Don’t attempt a late hike, but instead, aim to be home before dinner.

The sun goes to bed early in the winter, so plan accordingly for your hike time.

Tip 3: Half it

Whatever your kids’ max distance is in the summer, cut it in half for a winter hike. The snow and the heavy boots make you work much harder, and for kids in snowpants and big coats it is even worse. Our limit is about 5 miles in the summer, but we haven’t tried anything over 2 in the winter. We wore our kids out by trying two hike two hikes in one day, which we often do in the summer. We definitely learned our lesson about halfing the distance that day. So we recommend sticking to shorter hikes in the winter.

The kids started to have meltdowns after we pushed them a little too much in the snow.

Tip 4: Pick a Familiar Route

Everything looks different when it’s covered in snow, and trails can be tricky to find. If your trail is not familiar or at least well-traveled you run the risk of wandering away and getting yourself in a bad situation. Choose a short, familiar trail to begin with so that you are safe as you hike. We like to hike trails that we love in the summer to see how different they look in the winer.

We pick hikes that we love in the summer but want to see in a different winter light.

Tip 5: Bring Hot Chocolate

There is nothing better than leaving the little thermos with hot chocolate in the car. Throw in some insulated cups, and your kids will be excited to get back and get warmed up. This is easy, tasty, and gives the kids a reason to be out in the cold.

Our boys love the end of the hike with hot chocolate, and so I bring double what we would drink at home!

Tip 6: Stay on the Trail

It is important to stay on the trail on any hike, but it is doubly important in the winter. Our boys love to snowplow through the deep drifts, but hidden branches and rocks can be treacherous, and snow will come in over the tops of their boots. Worse, sometimes they’ll find a soft spot and sink in all the way to their waist. Most trails around here are well-packed, and you’re best off right in the middle.

The trail was narrow on this hike, so it was important to stay in the well packed snow so that no one fell into the creek.

Tip 7: Choose a Fun Destination

We always recommend choosing hikes with great destinations like waterfalls or arches for kids. It gives everyone something to look forward to. This is especially important in the winter. After you trudge through the snow for awhile, it helps to have a fun ending to all of that work. One of our all time favorite winter trails is Dripping Rock in Spanish Fork which turns into icicles.

The icicles at Dripping Rock are so cool.

Tip 8: Keep it short

Unless you are an experienced winter sports person it is best to keep your hike under an hour. If it is cold, kids faces will be rosy red and their toes will start to get cold. You don’t want to be a mile from the car when this happens. Though Dad does a lot of carrying in the summer, winter carrying is twice as hard with heavy boots, choking scarves, and hats. It’s okay to stay close to the car and enjoy a smaller adventure.

This little guy gets rosy cheeks pretty quick, so we try to pick short, easy hikes for him in the winter.

Tip 9: Don’t Forget Sunglasses

Don’t forget sunglasses if you are hiking on a clear day. The reflection from the snow is blinding as any skier can tell you. Even down in the shade of the trees it can be very bright. We make sure to grab out sunglasses on any winter adventure no matter the cloud cover.

We are always glad we brought our sunglasses when the sun comes out and reflects on that bright snow.

Tip 10: Take Shoes

We always leave our shoes in the car so that we don’t have to keep our snow-covered boots on. This is more comfortable, helps your feet warm up faster, and keeps the car a lot cleaner. Not only that, if we grab a treat or go to dinner at one of our favorite local joints after it is nicer to be wearing shoes. You can also throw in a pair of dry socks, just in case.

It’s always nice to take off the wet, cold boots and switch into dry shoes after a winter hike!

11. Enjoy the Snow

Let your kids have fun in the snow. On our first winter hike, I was super worried about them getting wet from rolling in the snow or throwing it at each other. But the more I bugged them about it, the less fun we were having on our hike. The kids don’t care about getting right down into the snow, and they don’t mind being a little wet. So let them play! And if you follow our tips above, the wet will only be for a short time, and they’ll have something warm to look forward to at the end.

Our boys are rolling in the snow more often than they are hiking, but they sure are happy!
There is also a lot of snow throwing, and snow eating! Let them enjoy it!

Tip #12: Invest in Traction Devices

We bought some affordable pairs of hiking spikes at Costco and from Amazon, and it made a HUGE difference in hiking in winter. I don’t think that you need them for every hike, but when you come to a hike that is steep or has any kind of ice, the spikes are lifesavers. We used them on our hike to Rocky Mouth Falls and walked across the ice, no problem! They give me a little security when hiking in winter for under $10.

He walks right across the ice to the edge with no problem wearing microspikes.

Safety Tip: 

One of our readers reminded us about the dangers of avalanches here in Utah, so we wanted to remind you that you should always pick a good day to go hiking. Watch the weather and avoid super cold days, as well as days where there might be too much snow and bad roads. And definitely check for Avalanche warnings before heading to deep into the mountains. This link to the Utah Avalanche Center gives information about Avalanche areas and dangers in Utah.

Reader Tip:

One of our readers gave us this tip that we definitely need to try. Take a sled, or two. She says that they pull light sleds along with them, and then find places to sled along the trail. Sounds so fun!

Don’t be afraid to stretch your horizons and extend your hiking into the winter months. We did, and we couldn’t be happier! And don’t forget to check out our list of Easy Winter Hikes in Utah.

Gear for Winter Hiking

We try not to do adventures that require expensive gear. We use our regular snow boots and coats. But we have found a few things that we like to use when hiking in the winter (like the traction devices). Here are a few suggestions:

1. Thermos: We use the thermos to keep the water hot for hot chocolate. We boil enough water for a few cups of hot chocolate/person. Then we dump it into the thermos and put it in the back of our van. We take disposable cups, spoons, and packets of hot cocoa to mix it all up after the hike. This is the one we use: Thermos.

See our thermos full of hot water in our van?

2. Camelbaks: We bought these Camelbak Mini Mules for the two smaller boys and a Rogue for our older son for Christmas. They have already paid for themselves. Our boys are so motivated to hike, and my pack is a lot lighter now that they are carrying their own water and snacks. The prices change constantly on Amazon, so I just watched them for awhile until I saw a price I was willing to pay. Best thing we ever bought!

Camelbaks on our kids

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Laura

    We have a very modest goal of doing 25 hikes this year and I was just lamenting today how we would have a LOT of hiking to catch up on once the snow starts to melt. I never considered still going in the winter. These tips are great! Thank you so much for sharing. Do you have any recommendations for places to hike in UT this time of year?

    1. Natalie Ockey

      We are currently working on a list, but you can check out our post called 52 Hikes in Utah, which we are using to track what we do this year. The post starts at the bottom and currently lists our four January hikes.

    2. Linda

      Our mini van is not all wheel drive. Do we need chains to get to any of these locations?

      1. Natalie Ockey

        You do not need chains. Our van does not have all wheel drive either. All of these hikes in places that will be cleared of snow by snow plows.

    1. Natalie Ockey

      Thanks for the tip and the link. We will mention this in our post because it is definitely important.