Whatcha Got In That Winter Bag, Kid!?
So we’re still in the middle of a god damn pandemic. You’re supposed to stay home. Hanging out with your friends is illegal. Going to any small businesses is illegal. You can’t eat out at restaurants, you can’t do a whole lot of your favorite activities. So, going outside and meandering about may be your only option. So you’ve decided you wanna start some winter hiking. And then you get out there and realize you’re completely not equipped. You see folks with all kinds of gadgets and gear – and you aren’t even sure what the hell they are. Or maybe you’re not a complete newbie to winter hiking and you’re trying to build a better gear bag to make your outdoor adventures a little bigger, a little longer. Don’t we all wish for something a little bigger, a little longer. Joe Wilderness is here to help.
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Let's get to it....
Let’s start with the basics. And before we do, a little required disclaimer from the folks at Amazon. Some of these Amazon links are affiliate links – meaning if you click on em and then buy some stuff, I may get a small commission. Almost all products listed here can be clicked on to bring you through to Amazon.
The basics for winter hiking are the same as any other season: your bag, your footwear, your clothing and the “hiking essentials”. If you need a quick refresher on the “ten hiking essentials” check out this link right here: TEN HIKING ESSENTIALS. These are things like a map (paper preferably, most hikers will discourage you from electronic because of battery issues. I trust your judgment.), a headlamp, first aid & fire, food, water and extra clothing. The importance of the ten hiking essentials can’t be overstated, especially for hikes any longer than your average local nature trail, and should be in your pack at all times. But what about the other stuff? So many choices in terms of socks, clothing, backpacks, footwear, cooking gear and so on and yada yada. Here’s what I’m rocking – and we all know I’m pretty cheap so I’m trying to build a kit that won’t break the bank.
The Backpack, duh.
Obviously, you need a bag to carry all that gear. But shopping for a backpack gets confusing right away as you start to question what size you’re gonna need. Ranging from 8-10L, all the way up to 100L, it can be super annoying to figure out what it is you need. As you progress, you’re likely to replace your first backpack after learning what you like and what you don’t like, what features you need and what you don’t. I generally carry my 65L during the winter, but mostly because I carry a ton of extra camera gear that takes up awkward space. I’d recommend using something between 30L and 40L for your winter needs. New hikers have a tendency to overpack – which isn’t always terrible, but can ruin your experience if your shit is too heavy. Using a 40L will ensure you have what you need and you have no room left to pack what you don’t need. Here is a link to my 65L and a 40L that I would also recommend for beginner winter hikers:
If you’re shopping around on your own, a few features to look for in a backpack: an included rain cover, a comfortable and adjustable hip belt, a ventilated backpiece, side water bottle pocket. Starting with these things will keep you comfortable. When it comes to actual sizing and fitting of your pack, here’s a little video (not mine) explaining the whole thing:
What's On Your Feet?
What you have on your feet is likely one of your biggest decisions in hiking, particularly in the winter. Because everybody has different feet and needs, this is one item that’s hard to recommend. Just know that you want your feet to stay dry and warm at all times. Wet feet will not just ruin your day, it could potentially lead to major issues such as hypothermia. Since I began hiking, I’ve been a New Balance guy. But brands aside, waterproof is what you’re looking for. Goretex is probably the most popular material you’ll hear hikers talk about when it comes to shoes (and other clothing, for that matter). The other thing to consider is getting shoes/boots that go over your ankle. Your footwear will, in all likelihood, be the most expensive part of your gear loadout. And I definitely suggest not cheaping out here. Click the links for recommended Ladies & Mens waterproof boots.
Oh. And get you some socks too!
If you’re protecting your feet with some sick boots, good job! But underneath, you gotta keep them piggies dry too. The best sock method I’ve come up with keeps my feet dry and blisters away. So far, anyway. I go with a silk sock, like you’d wear to your uncle Birch’s wedding reception, underneath and a merino wool sock over top of that. I generally don’t pack an extra silk pair, but will have a spare pair of the merino wool socks in my bag. In case I need to change em, or use the first pair to wipe my butt. That hasn’t happened yet. I swear. But yes. Socks. Important.
Things With Layers: cake, onions, hikers.
So you’ve got your backpack. You’ve got some warm, waterproof hikers. The third component of the winter hiking trifecta: LAYERS. Staying warm and dry isn’t just important. It can save your life. Cold weather and wet are a bad combination. You’ll hear a lot about Merino Wool in your research. Which is awesome. It’s what I wear too. But, the biggest tip I can give is to stay away from cotton. Cotton holds moisture in and is hard to dry. This means your sweaty self is just bathing in your own juices all day while you’re hiking. With all that freezing cold sweat right up against your skin, it can bring your body temperature down and make it super hard to stay warm. What you wanna look for is a base layer that wicks away moisture, meaning it pulls it away from your body. Whether you go with synthetics like nylon or you opt for the (slightly more expensive) merino wool, the wicking factor is a must to stay dry and warm. Here’s a few shots of me, modeling like a nerd, showing my layer system. I’ve got a merino wool base layer and a fleece jacket. This is generally how I start out (I’d rather get cold and layer up, then be warm and layer down.). On top of that, if I get chilly, I put on my orange down-filled, water-resistant (not waterproof is fine for this layer) puffy jacket. Your puffy should pack down super tiny and is very lightweight. And on top of all of that, a big, wind-resistant, water-resistant summit jacket. Which I generally use for the wide-open summit of a mountain where it’s much colder than the trail. Click each image to check out my recommended items on the ole Amazon box.
Basics Covered, Let's Accessorize!
Now your backpack is strapped on and your body and feet are protected. Let’s accessorize with some stuff to keep your hands and head warm, plus a few more essentials to keep you safe while you’re out there hunting for El Chupacabra.
I like my first pair of mittens to be fleece and lightweight. I wear these most of the hike. I like my bigger pair to be big enough to fit OVER the fleece, not in place of. This just gives me extra warmth. You do you, but you won’t regret a two pair glove system.
For my dome, I generally go with a good merino wool toque or beanie. Often times I will wear a buff around my neck, in case my face gets cold, allowing me to keep my beautiful facial features warm and intact. This is optional, obviously, but a buff weighs next to nothing and more warmth is always a good thing. Plus, it can be a snot rag if you need it to. Yep. That right there is why you read Joe Wilderness and not some other run-of-the-mill hiking blog.
Don’t forget a small fire kit (if you know how to use it. Don’t pack gear you don’t know how to use.) and a little first aid kit. Mine are both too big right now, I will downsize them shortly and do a blog post showing what is in them. I’ve never been trapped in a survival situation where I’ve needed to build a fire. But having the option in my bag is a huge bonus, especially if I’m solo. And as for my first aid kit, I’ve never used it on myself. But I’ve given plenty of strangers bandaids or alcohol wipes and I feel great being prepared in case an accident happens.
If You Wanna Be "Advanced" About It...
Here’s a few items you’ll hear hikers talk about all the time that you may want to consider adding to your pack. Things like microspikes are something to consider and are not just for beginners. If you’re just starting out, spikes will be more up your alley than a full-on crampon, which is used primarily for ice climbing or if the trail is really iced over. Micros really just help you keep a grip on that slippery winter terrain and can definitely save you from a fall or three. The biggest recommendation I have about microspikes are to avoid those without a velcro or fastener across the top. These things have a tendency to come off a lot….so, if you can keep em strapped to your feet, all the better.
One of my absolute favorite pieces of gear. The MSR Pocket Rocket 2. You can get this on it’s own, or as part of a set that comes with a cup and a pot. I use this on almost every hike, winter or not. I like a nice hot meal when I’m hiking. Using the MSR Pocket Rocket to boil water gives me the ability to have coffee without carrying a heavy thermos and a hot meal whenever I want it. Freeze dried meals are way more delicious than you think and are generally pretty calorie dense for us hikers to get some fuel for the rest of your day.
One Last Thing...
I’ve been over this before. I thought hiking poles were for old people. Then I realized I’m almost 39. Yep. Hiking poles are for everyone. Especially in the winter. In combination with some good boots and a set of microspikes, these badboys should keep you on your feet and off your ass for at least the majority of your hike.
Well, that’s all for now. Obviously, I could go on and on for days about gear. And things you should stuff in your backpack. But this should get you started and keep you safe. Remember, if you’re new, please try your best to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles of hiking: to sum it up, leave only footprints, take only photos. And don’t litter like an asshole.
If you’re still here, that means you’ve read this whole thing. Which means you’re in to this hiking stuff. So, if you haven’t yet seen the debut episode of my new YouTube series “Joe Wilderness Snazzy Adventures”, I’ll leave that here. And…..did you hear?? I’ve launched a GIFT SHOP!!! Full of tshirts, hoodies, jackets, socks and so much more shit you don’t need. You can check that out right here: GIFT SHOP. A portion of all profits from the GIFT SHOP will be donated to my local food bank, to give those in need a nice warm meal. Thanks for reading, clicking any of my links and for your continued support. See you on the trails.