Winter Hiking in the Whites: What to Wear

It’s 7 a.m., the thermometer outside reads negative one, and the trees are swaying with ominous winds. While other vacationers to New Hampshire’s White Mountains are tapping the snooze button, hikers are hitting the trails, braving deep snow, frozen river crossings, and subzero wind chills. Some may think us crazy to head into the woods in such adverse weather. But with the correct clothing and gear, winter hiking can be a quite comfortable – and enjoyable – experience.

Sign: Stop! The area ahead has the world's worst weather in America. White Mountain National Forest.
Hikers pass these warning signs on their way up Mt. Washington, the tallest peak in New England.

So what should you wear on your next winter hike? This blog post breaks it down layer by layer, with advice and specific brand recommendations from local experts Justin Walsh and Caitlin Quinn. Justin guides ice and mountaineering skills with North Ridge Mountain Guides out of Twin Mountain and runs the Notch Hostel in North Woodstock, NH. Caitlin is a long-distance, all-weather hiker and lightweight gear junkie who works for outdoor clothing company Ibex (instagram shoutout @cmquinn). Use our guide and checklist to ensure you’ll stay warm and safe on your next winter hike!

Winter hiking checklist: what to wear. Base layer, insulating layer (ex. puffy), soft shell, hard shell jacket and pants, buff/neck gaiter/balaclava, hat, goggles, liner gloves, waterproof gloves, overmitts, liner socks, wool socks, mountaineering boots, gaiters, Traction - microspikes, hillsounds, crampons, snowshoes, trekking poles

Top and Bottom Layering

It is ironic that one of the greatest challenges in winter hiking is to prevent overheating and sweating. Damp base layers make you cold. Throughout the hike, you must monitor your body temperature and layer up or down as needed. You could be in a short-sleeved shirt on the way up, and later need every single layer you packed while traversing a windy, exposed section. To avoid sweating, Justin recommends beginning your hike with less, not more, layers — your body temp will rise on it’s own as soon as you start moving.

Below are specific top and bottom layers needed for winter hiking:

The Base Layers

Base layers, often worn under insulating or outer layers, are designed to wick away moisture and regulate the body’s temperature. These comfy tops and long underwear bottoms are worn next to the skin and come in light, mid, and heavy-weight versions. It is important that this layer be made out of either a synthetic or wool material.

“Cotton kills,” warns Caitlin. An avid supporter of lightweight wool layers, she advises against any moisture retaining material, and especially advocates for wool as a base layer. Both Justin and Caitlin recommend Ibex, a wool outdoor clothing company, as the go-to brand for your base layer.

“I wore an Ibex wool base layer throughout my entire ascent and descent of Mt. Baker [in Washington State] this past spring,” Justin says. “Others in my team were taking frequently taking layers on and off throughout the climb to manage sweat, but the wool layer kept me just warm enough without ever causing me to perspire or get chilled.”

The Insulating Layer (aka “the Puffy”)

The purpose of the insulating layer is to retain body heat. The insulated jacket, often called a “puffy,” has become a quintessential part of most hikers’ layering system. It is typically (not always) worn over the base layer, but beneath the soft shell to help maintain body heat. This jacket is useful to throw on just before breaking tree line, when temps drop and winds pick up.

This jacket can be insulated with synthetics, wool, or down feathers, but down is the most common choice. Down is more lightweight and compressible compared to synthetics like fleece. However, if it becomes wet, the down will lose its insulating abilities, so it’s important to pack it carefully and wear a shell over it if it’s precipitating.

Justin Walsh standing on the summit of Mt. Washington in NH, home to the world's worst weather.
Justin Walsh standing on the summit of Mt. Washington in NH, home to the world’s worst weather.

“My puffy comes with me on every cold weather hike,” says Justin, who sports a Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer down jacket. If you’re shopping for a puffy, Caitlin and Justin recommend selecting an 800-fill jacket with a hood, such as Caitlin’s ultralight Mt. Bell.

The Soft Shell

The soft shell jacket and pant, typically worn over base/insulating layers, are windproof, water repellent (not waterproof!), and breathable. Their key function is to transfer body moisture out while preventing wind and precipitation from getting in. It protects from harsh elements while allowing for intense physical exertion, and should not be restrictive of movement when worn over other layers.

Justin swears by his Outdoor Research Mithrilite jacket and his Patagonia Alpine Guide pants. Caitlin sports Patagonia Galvanized pants over her wool leggings and tights.

The Hard Shell

Like the soft shell, this layer helps protect against the natural elements, but is used for the more extreme wind, rain, and snow conditions. Hard shell layers are made out of laminated membranes such as Gore-Tex. The hard shell isn’t as breathable as the soft layer, but offers more protection.

“Be sure to look for the ‘wind- and water-proof’ — not water ‘resistant’ or ‘repelling’ — label on the tag,” warns Justin, who wears a Mountain Hardwear hardshell jacket. Justin recommends looking for a hard shell pant with full side zips, so you can take them on and off without removing your boots. Caitlin wears an Arc’teryx Beta AR jacket.

Caitlin Quinn and her hiking companion Vaida on the summit of Mt. Adams.
Caitlin Quinn and her hiking companion Vaida on the summit of Mt. Adams.

Head and neck protection

There are a few different pieces of gear that can help protect your head and neck from the winter conditions, including hats, neck gaiters, buffs, balaclavas, and goggles.

When selecting a hat, make sure it’s made from wool or acrylic material rather than cotton. (Just always avoid cotton. For everything.) Caitlin never goes on a winter hike without her Ibex wool hat.

Buff (left) versus balaclava (right)
Buff (left) versus balaclava (right)

Neck gaiters, typically made out of a thick wool or fleece-like material, shield your neck against wind and cold and are great when hiking above tree line in the Whites. Buffs are a similar piece of neck equipment, but are longer and more versatile than neck gaiters. If wearing a balaclava, a full-on windproof face mask, make sure it includes a nose port to breath. That port is important when wearing goggles, so they don’t fog up and freeze.

Goggles are worn when facing extreme wind and cold above tree line, such as when doing a Presidential traverse, when you need complete face coverage.

Hand protection

Liner gloves, waterproof gloves, overmitts.
Clockwise: Liner gloves, waterproof gloves, overmitts.

Like everything else, layering is important for keeping hands warm. First, you’ll want a pair of thin liner gloves — these fend off the worst of the cold but allow for excellent dexterity. Justin wear liner gloves from Outdoor Research and will occasionally bring a second pair to swap out if the weather’s expected to be wet. You never want to expose your raw hands to the cold, especially above tree line, or else you could risk frostbite. Many liner gloves come with smartphone compatible fingertips!

Over the liners, you’ll want a pair of waterproof, heavier gloves such as Justin’s Outdoor Research Stormtrackers or Caitlin’s Ibex work mittens. Mittens, the warmest, are recommended when you don’t need the dexterity of your fingers. Waterproof overmitts such as the Outdoor Research Alti Mitts add even more insulation and protection. Big enough to fit over a regular glove or mitten, overmitts are great for extreme conditions, and for anyone who struggles with hand warmth and circulation.

Feet protection

When it comes to socks, wool is again the way to go. Wool socks provide warmth, breathability, and are naturally deodorizing (phew!). Caitlin exclusively wears Darn Tough socks, a Vermont brand known for their warm, non-bulky, durable wool products.

To cut back on the friction against the skin and to avoid blisters, wear a thin sock liner, such as Terramar’s silk sock liners or Smartwool’s merino wool and nylon blend. Tip: Justin adds baby powder to his boots before cold winter hikes to further minimize excess moisture around his feet.

Mountaineering boots: La Sportiva Cube (left), Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX with integrated gaiter (right).
La Sportiva Cube (left), Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX with integrated gaiter (right).

Winter mountaineering boots fall into two categories: leathers and double plastics. For most day trips in the White Mountains, leather, waterproof boots such as La Sportiva Nepal Evo or Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX are ideal because they’re comfortable and built with compatibility for wearing crampons, which are needed for some winter hikes in the Whites.

It isn’t until you’re facing extreme cold temperatures or extended trips that you should consider wearing double plastic boots, like the Scarpa Inverno or Asolo AFS.  The inner, insulating boot is made of a synthetic material similar to a ski boot liner, while the outer plastic boot acts as a super-waterproof shell. On overnight trips in extreme cold, the inner boot can be removed and placed inside your sleeping bag to dry out overnight.

Gaiters, a garment that covers your ankle and lower leg, are also suggested to help keep the snow out of your boots and to protect the bottom of your pants from tears when wearing crampons. Some boots, like Salewa or the Scarpa GTX Pro, have gaiters built in.

Winter Traction Devices

You’ll need different types of traction, or grip, on your feet depending on trail conditions — deep snow versus slick ice, broken-out trails versus untouched ones, etcetera.

Check out recent trip reports on sites like TrailsNH.com to get the most recent trail conditions and traction recommendations for your hike. Always go with the least and lightest amount of traction needed, because, as the saying goes, “A pound on your feet is equivalent to five extra pounds on your back.” It’s better to keep unnecessary traction equipment in/on your pack, or leave it at home if you’re certain you won’t use it.

Microspikes, from brands such as Kahtoola, are the most essential traction device for winter hiking in the White Mountains. They are great for adding extra grip on trails with slippery or packed snow or ice.

Crampons, such as the Grivels shown below, are a spiked iron plate that locks onto your mountaineering boot, are more adept for higher angles and thicker ice. They range from light-weight versions for snow walking to technical ones built for frozen waterfalls and other ice routes. Frontpoints are an important feature to help with gripping when mountaineering. Justin currently uses Petzl Lynxs, which are great for both mountaineering and ice climbing.

Hillsound Trail Crampons are a popular new device that offers a level of traction in between spikes and crampons. They are similar to microspikes but with slightly longer teeth and more stability.

Left to right: Microspikes, Hillsounds, Crampons
Left to right: Microspikes, Hillsounds, Crampons

Snowshoes are used in deep snow to minimize post-holing (when your foot punches through the snow and you sink toward the ground) and slogging by more evenly distributing your weight across the snow surface. Mountaineering snowshoes, like the MSR Lightning Ascents, have teeth to provide more traction and prevent slippage in slick areas. We highly recommend snowshoes with televators, or heel lifts, that can be flipped up to help relieve calf strain and save energy uphill. Televators are a welcome feature that makes steep climbs significantly easier.

For more info on traction, check out this guide by SectionHiker.com

Finally, trekking poles offer improved balance, stability, and less stress on your joints. They are especially helpful for added balance on snowshoes. Look for lightweight, durable poles made for trekking — not skiing — ideally with a collapsible feature so you can strap the minimized poles to your pack when not in use. Caitlin recommends Gossamer Gear LT4 Carbon trekking poles, while Justin uses adjustable poles from Black Diamond.

Money-Saving Tips

All this sounds great, if you have a million dollars to spend on fancy mountaineering apparel. Here’s how the rest of us keep costs down when shopping for new hiking duds:

  1. Try the item on in the store to determine your size, then order it online at a cheaper price. Often, you can search for promo codes online for additional discounts.
  2. Buy used gear. Sites like eBay, GearTrade, and Craigslist have quite a selection. IME in North Conway has a great in-store selection as well. Note: Although some items may be cheaper, there are certain pieces of equipment you should never buy used, such as climbing rope or any other life-saving equipment.
  3. It is worth signing up for rewards programs from companies like REI and EMS when purchasing gear. Some companies offer significant student or other discounts, so make sure to be on the lookout for those or other deals they promote.
  4. Rent before you buy. If you’re not ready to commit to a big purchase, there are plenty of places to rent equipment for cheap so you can test it out. Lahout’s Summit Shop, right here in Lincoln, rents snowshoes, microspikes, poles, and other hiking equipment. North Ridge Mountain Guides, located just north of the Notch in Twin Mountain, offers rental gear ranging from boots to puffy jackets to crampons, and you can even rent through their website!
Don't end up with a "whipsnake" pack!
Don’t end up with a “whipsnake” pack!

Now that you’ve decided what to wear…it’s time to select a backpack (or two) and figure out how to “be prepared” without turning your pack into a towering “Whipsnake” (hilarious video) or a Christmas tree with gear ornaments dangling off it. Stay tuned for a future post on packs, what to put in them, and how to pack ’em!

What do YOU wear on winter hikes? Leave a comment below!