Snow Hiking Basic Safety Guidelines and Must Have Gear

Pack list for beginner snow hikers (day hikes only) + basic safety tips

If you’re new to snow hiking and not sure where to start… we’ve all been there. The two questions I got the most from snow hikes are: wasn’t it cold & did you have microspikes… so I’ve prepared a winter day hike pack list for you!

Disclaimer: This snow hiking guide is just a basic guideline to get you started, things I wish I knew when I first started hiking in the snow.

two girls hiking on mt baldy summit in early winter

Be Prepared: Safety Checklist Before Heading Out

  • If there’s one thing you take away from this blog, let it be YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO CAREFUL. Adopt the mentality: better safe than sorry
    • Even if you drive up to the trailhead and the trail and weather look rough – listen to your gut. No shame in backing out.
  • Always look up road and trail conditions when planning your hike all the way up until leaving your house – winter is no joke and conditions can change drastically on a whim.
  • I do not recommend hiking any strenuous peaks/ snow-covered trails if you aren’t an avid hiker. If you just want to see and play in the snow, there are plenty of designated areas for that:
  • If you’re a beginner who wants to get into or just try snow hiking, go with someone experienced and go in optimal conditions – no forecast of rain, snow, or strong winds!
  • Yes, it will be cold especially if you’re not used to it, but with the right layers, you can be warm. Also remember, your body will generate a lot of heat as long as you keep moving.
  • Be aware of avalanche areas
  • There is a difference between winter snow hiking and mountaineering.
asian girl in purple hiking in the snow; followtiffsjourney above the clouds on ski hut trail to mt baldy in the winter with frozen icicles

Gear Guide: Winter Hiking Pack List

  • Traction device: Microspikes vs. crampons. ALWAYS pack a pair in the winter, even if you think there will be no snow on the trail! Which one you bring will depend on the trail conditions.
    • Microspikes are silicone grip that slips onto most shoes and has tiny “teeth” on the bottom. These are best for hiking on ice and good to bring if you’re going for a longer snow hike. Remember that the sun will melt the top layer of snow throughout the day, potentially exposing the icy trail beneath. There are two leading brands for microspikes: Kahtoola and Hillsound. I own a pair of Kahtoola microspikes which I absolutely love, and I hear the main difference is that Hillsound has an extra strap around the top of the foot for those worried about your microspikes slipping off (which has never happened in my Kahtoola spikes). Hillsound also calls their traction devices trail crampons, but they’re definitely more like microspikes and not true crampons that you would use for mountaineering.
    • Crampons are more for mountaineering and steeper terrain. The spikes are larger and along the edge of the boots (as opposed to the center on microspikes) and provide better traction for side-stepping up steep snow.
    • I’ve heard a lot of Yaktrax which are advertised as walking tractions/ cleats for snow and ice but that doesn’t cut it for actual snow hiking in my opinion. There are no spikes to grip the ground which defeats the purpose of it in the mountains, but I can see why someone who lives in a snow area might use it around town or shoveling their driveway. I don’t have personal experience with these though so I can’t say for certain… if you’ve tried them, let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!
  • Layers, layers, layers! To state the obvious… your body will warm up quickly as you’re hiking and it’s ok to wear just your baselayers while you are moving so you sweat less, but always make sure you have all the proper layers in your daypack because the minute you stop moving, your body cools down significantly! So what layers should you pack?
    • Extra baselayer: optional, but I like different weight options so I can be comfortable at all times in the snow. I also sweat easily so sometimes it’s nice to change baselayers once I am done with the uphill hiking. My current favorite for winter is Hot Chillys for a midweight and warmer baselayer, and Patagonia Capilene for a light breathable baselayer.
    • Insulating mid-layer: down jacket, fleece jacket or fleece pullover, or insulating synthetic jacket. I like to pack at least 2, usually a down/ synthetic jacket and a fleece.
      • Between the midweight baselayer and fleece jacket, I only bring one at a time.
    • Hardshell jacket outer layer: for me, this was always my rain jacket because that’s all I had, but I now have a softshell jacket that I absolutely freaking love and would recommend by Rab – it’ doubles as a rain jacket’s also waterproof.
    • My go-to winter hiking bottom is a fleece-lined Lululemon legging. Even though it’s winter, I still have a preference for hiking in leggings because of the stretch mobility and personal comfort. It’s still thin and can be breezy though so I am also looking into a pair of snow pants… but that’s what I’ve always worn and I do not double up on my leggings.
  • Winter accessories: gloves/mittens, beanie, neckwarmer/buff, and hand warmers – these are all optional but I’d highly recommend having these for those cold-weather hikes because again… you just never know.
    • I recently got these winter gloves and it’s kept my hands SO warm and at a reasonable price.
    • For the heat pack hand warmers, I’ve tried an American brand that barely lasted 5 hours so I like to stick with the Asian brand I grew up with that literally lasts for 24 hours.
  • Hiking Poles: I don’t normally hike with trekking poles, but for a snowy trail, I like to pack these just to have extra traction/ points of contact to the ground. They’re also helpful if you’re hiking a snowy ridge and want to make sure the ground is below where you’re about to step.
  • Satellite GPS: this is for peace of mind – if something happens… you’ll have SOS at your fingertips.
    • Also, I know this isn’t quite what the Garmin Inreach Mini is built for but I absolutely LOVE the weather function on the Inreach. It allows you to fetch the weather from anywhere at any elevation as long as you have a clear view of the sky. This can help you look ahead in the day to determine whether you should continue on a hike or not. Given the hourly forecast, you can see the wind forecast and chance of rain which has been beyond helpful for me.
  • First Aid Kit
  • Extra socks – I like to bring an extra pair just in case your feet get wet
  • Gaiters: prevent snow, water, and dirt from getting in your boots. I have the taller REI gaiters and love these because the top cinches and I have smaller legs/ calves so it fits better.
  • & of course, don’t forget your daypack to put everything in, including food & water! My go-to daypack for snow hiking is the Gregory Jade 28 – it has an internal frame, large enough to carry all the layers and gear, comes with a rain cover, hydration pack compatible because I can be lazier to drink water in the cold, and has a designated area to attach hiking poles (or an ice ax) outside of the pack. Recently, I’ve been loving the Eddie Bauer Bacon – it is roughly the same volume capacity, much lighter, and cheaper! Just has fewer external pockets which make for a cleaner look.

Helpful Resources for Winter Trip Planning:

Check CA Road Conditions
LA County Road Closures
Angeles National Forest Updates
REI Avalanche Safety

Thanks for reading and let me know in the comments below if you have any questions, comments or recommendations.

Don’t forget to practice leave no trace

8 thoughts on “Snow Hiking Basic Safety Guidelines and Must Have Gear”

  1. Great advice! I recently hiked in some ice and snow patches with my Yaktrax. They helped me quite well on an uphill. On the way down without them, I was slipping. I haven’t done anything with a difficult ascent with them though.

  2. Thanks for your post. In addition, I would recommend the 10 essentials, especially extra food, fire starter, headlamp or flashlight, emergency blanket/shelter.

    1. Thanks Eros, you’re absolutely right! I left the essentials out of my list as I wanted to focus on just the extra items one would include to their normal hiking day pack but for snow.

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