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13 Essentials For Your Winter Hike

Winter camping at Point Campground in Kananaskis, Alberta Canadian Rockies
Winter camping at Point Campground in Kananaskis Country, Alberta

My boyfriend likes to joke that I pack like a Boy Scout (Be prepared!) by bringing half a survival bunker in my hiking bag. It’s a fair observation. Though the following list might look a bit psychotic, I’m always relieved to have brought these items whenever I’ve needed them. (And so was Jason, that time our hike outlasted the sun and he really needed a headlamp —  a-HA!)

Despite some evidence to the contrary, I am fairly minimal and don't tend to complicate my life too much. I assure you, most of the items below pack small and light, and I don’t carry a big backpack. My Gregory Jade bag is 38 L and naturally, it is fuller on winter hikes than on summer ones. 

Before starting, a word or two about backpack organisation:

  • I keep my hiking bag packed and ready to go in the front closet; I don’t prepare it every time I head out. I just add my ID, food, water and weather-specific clothing and I’m good to go! 

  • If I use my headlamp during a hike, it gets recharged before going back into my bag. Same with wet tuques or mitts; dry them out before putting them straight back in your bag. Bandages or painkillers should also get resupplied immediately.

Alright, let’s do this! 

winter hiking canadian rockies fire starters
The added plus to using dryer lint as your fire starter: the fresh laundry smell !


Start your hike off slightly cold and you'll warm up fast enough; it's a lot easier to add an extra layer when you stop for a bite than it is to try to warm up once you've already started shivering. It’s all about striking a balance. You don’t want to overdo the heat factor and sweat too much during a winter hike, as sweat will make you colder in the long run. Staying warm and dry will go a long way toward making your hike much more enjoyable.

  1. Puffy jacket (breathable) or fleece  Puffy jackets are light, pack small and will keep you warm as a mid-layer; fleece is a good second option. Synthetic down tends to perform better when wet than feather down does. Regardless, high performance quality and breathability are important factors here; that funky and stylish puffy shouldn’t be in your bag.

  2. Fire starters  Pack waterproof matches/lighter, and a fire starter like dryer lint or two tea lights. I pack new dryer lint into my bag every time my lint compartment needs emptying. 

  3. Gaiters  They come in all sizes; I have a shorter pair that reach my calves and pack light and small. They keep snow from accumulating on the tops of my feet and sides of my ankles (and therefore melting inside my boots).

  4. Extra tuque, mitts and socks  All preferably merino wool/down/synthetic. No cotton!


A cold hiker is nothing to scoff at, but a cold and wet hiker is in trouble. Being wet makes you much more susceptible to hypothermia; that layer of moisture on your skin could become a real concern in low temps. 

5. Waterproof jacket or poncho   Your top layer should keep the rain, wind and snow off ya. The best waterproof jackets tend to be Gore-Tex and have pit zips. Surprisingly, during a cold and rainy hike in Iceland, my good ol’ poncho kept me drier than my (frankly, rather expensive) jacket. I draped it over my backpack and snapped all the buttons closed to keep the wind from blowing it up and away.

6. Aluminium emergency blankets  Mylar blankets provide heat by reflecting your body temp back at you, but they don't allow for breathability. The result? Your skin will get wet and clammy if it’s near the blanket, which is more dangerous than just the cold on its own. 

A 2-person blanket will allow for plenty of coverage and will completely envelop you (and your layers) in cold temps. If you have to spend a chilly night outdoors, you’ll want to be tucked inside that burrito; wrap the blanket, silver-colour inward, around all your clothing. Better yet, use a 2nd one to insulate against the cold ground (where a big part of the cold is coming from). Lastly, use it as a tarp should you get caught in the rain, or as a blocker in heavy winds (hold on tight, though!)

A friendly word of advice:  Leave a note on the dashboard of your car stating your name, phone number, name of hike and date of expected return. If your car/note is discovered, it can get search and rescue personnel going so much more quickly.


7. First Aid kit  Painkillers (Aleve/Tylenol/Advil), purification tablets, disinfecting pads, blister prevention/care, duct tape, cable ties and a multi-tool. Read First Aid Kit for Hikers.

8. Hiking poles (with snow baskets)  Poles go a long way toward helping with balance, preventing slips on ice (especially downhill), etc.  I consider them indispensable on all hikes.

Winter snowshoeing at Skoki Lodge, Canadian Rockies, Alberta
Winter snowshoeing at Skoki Lodge, Canadian Rockies, Alberta

9. Sun protection  Sunglasses and sunblock. Sunglasses not only help with sunlight but with the snow’s reflection.

10. Microspikes  What an incredible difference these rubber microspikes can make on packed snow and ice!  Most microspikes come in a canvas bag, and pack small and light.


11. Extra food and water  (More than you need for your day hike) In general, water will be the heaviest item in your backpack. If I find myself getting annoyed at its weight, I force myself to drink some. I keep certain snacks in my bag at all times; nuts (almonds, cashews and walnuts) travel well, as do Sun Rype fruit bars. 


12. Headlamp (with extra juice)  Headlamps keep your hands free, which will come in handy if you have to read a map, build a fire, walk with poles, answer a call of nature or construct a shelter. My headlamp gets recharged when I get home; I like the lithium battery headlamps, as they last longer than regular batteries. Don’t forget that in the winter, it gets dark around 4:30 pm in the Canadian Rockies.

13. Topographic map  For days when your cell phone just can’t hitch onto a network. Never count on service in the backcountry. Here’s a short video by REI on How to read a topo map.

So there you have it; those are my 13 winter hiking essentials. What do you like to bring on the winter trails?

See ya on the trails!

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