Alternatively, this post could be titled "Layering 101: How To Survive Canadian Winters", because really, that's what we're going to talk about.
Hiking in the late spring, summer and early fall do not require much in the way of equipment. If you have a water vessel, some bear spray (depending on where you're hiking), sun coverage or sun screen, a hat and some snacks, and of course some sturdy footwear, you're probably doing great! This does not suffice in the winter. At least, not in a Canadian winter.
So, what are you gonna do if you love hiking and the mountains as much as I do, and you can't not be outside through 6-8 months out of the year? You layer, and you get really clever if, also like me, you don't want to break the bank on a whole bunch of expensive or fancy gear (I have yet to justify the purchase of a pair of winter or snow pants - I can't afford to spend $250+ on a pair of seasonal pants).
There are obviously a lot of different ways to accomplish the same thing, and hiking in the winter is no exception. The key here is to be safe and smart. If you're feeling unsure about whether your gear will suffice, plan a short hike or explore a local park as a trial before you take your ambition to the mountains. It is always, always, always better to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to off-the-grid adventuring.
Critical and Non-Critical Layers
Here's my lower-half standard mountain layer make-up for -20 C to 0 C adventures from skin to sunshine: underwear, base layer, thermal layer*, technical layer, accessories* (i.e.: waiters), socks, footwear, and footwear accessories* (i.e.: micro spikes, snowshoes, skis). Top half: sports bra, long sleeve base layer, thermal layer*, wind/snow/technical layer, accessories (i.e.: hat, scarf, muff, mitts)**.
* A single asterisk denotes layers that are not critical to wear but you should still pack.
** The double asterisk for accessories means that though you might not wear them, you should always have them. My hands always get too sweaty when I wear gloves, so I never wear them. But if you stop to eat lunch or take photos, trust me - you're gonna want them. If the wind comes up close to a summit, you're going to want that hat. And if you start stripping your upper layers because you're sweating too much, the scarf will at least keep your neck, chin and nose from freezing.
Depending on the weather, you can eliminate certain layers or double them up. In -10 C to 0 C weather, I will pack thermal layers for top and bottom in my backpack instead of wearing them, because I know I will get too warm, but you never know when or where the temperature might dip. In -20 C to -10 C weather, I will also pack an extra big thermal layer in my backpack for emergency purposes - this might be a down jacket if you have one.
In case you're wondering, yes, I have been out in temps lower than -20 C. It's pretty much a free-for-all, wear-everything-you-own, and don't plan to be out long kind of a situation. It CAN get dangerous real fast, especially when you factor in the windchill. I'd say any cooler than -20 C, you may actually want to start thinking about investing in those fancy snow pants or a heavy down jacket (with a hood). It's doable without, but I wouldn't advise it.
Layers: Dos + Don'ts
I have started to field a lot of these questions from friends - "how come my toes freeze in my boots when I'm wearing two pairs of socks already?" or "I'm wearing all of my layers and I'm still freezing - why?" - and I almost always start by asking what their base layers are made of. Are they wearing cotton or wool socks? Are they starting out with all of their layers on in the morning, or are they starting out bold and adding as they go? Sounds silly, but these subtle intricacies make a huge difference.
Footwear: My go-to is a pair of sock liners, a pair of wool hiking socks and of course my hiking boots. Simple. I have yet to lose feeling of my toes, even after four hours of plowing through fresh pow. The trick? Material content of your socks. Cotton absorbs and holds moisture. Whether it's -20 C or 20 C, your feet are going to sweat while you hike. Moisture loses heat and freezes quickly, so if you're wearing cotton, you might as well be wearing ziplock bags full of icy water around your feet. Wearing a synthetic fibre that wicks away the moisture will keep your feet dryer, and thus warmer. Your wool hiking socks will provide a thermal layer, and the wool content should also breathe (to release some of your sweat) while keeping you warm.
As a bonus, having two layers in your boots means friction gets caught between the two layers, instead of against your feet. This is why double-walled hiking socks are so popular - way less of a chance for blisters! I have one pair, and I love them, but they are expensive.
I invested in a pair of slip-on micro spikes this winter because they were only $30 versus the $120+ for a pair of snowshoes. They don't work the same but I LOVE THEM. They make me feel invincible. Just not in fresh snow. If you're hiking already packed or wet trails, micro spikes are awesome (just stay on the trail). If you're out in 3'+ of deep, fresh snow, you're going to want snowshoes. Since I only get out in fresh snow a couple times a year, I rent snowshoes from MEC for $15 a day. Either way, you'll be using your own boots, so make sure you have a quality pair of water resistant (at minimum) boots, and make sure they're good and dry when you set out.
Another great $30 I spent on gear was for a pair of waiters. They can be used in a variety of situations but in the winter, I use them to keep snow out of my boots and socks, and bonus - they keep your calves a lot warmer! If you already have boots with a high ankle support, you might not need these.
Base Layers: I have a pair of merino base layer pants from MEC that are a great start. I've also been successful wearing a pair of Lululemon tights. Either way, the same principles apply here as they do to your socks, and to your top layers - the article of clothing that is closest to your skin should wick sweat and dry fast.
On top, my favourite thing to wear is actually a long sleeve rash guard. It dries SUPER fast, and I love that I can open the zipper front if I am still getting too hot. It's useful enough that if I shed my thermal layer and my technical layer because I'm too warm, it still performs well.
This layer should be tighter fitting, so that you can layer over top of it.
Thermal Layers: On the bottom, this can look like anything, or you can combine it with your base layer. Fleece lined tights to replace your wool base would be great. For versatility's sake (and my wallet), I wear leg warmers. I have an amazing pair of wool, mid-thigh-high leg warmers that I pull on over my tights. If I'm too warm, I can shove them down, and when I get cool, I can pull them back up again.
On top, I wear a fleece zip-up jacket from MEC. This has to be one of the most versatile things in my apparel gear these days, and I won't go anywhere without it. It's fitted enough that it doesn't get bulky, but boy does it ever perform well. It dries very quickly, provides comfortable warmth, and even cuts some wind. I like the collar a lot, and I love the little internal pocket for important items I don't want to get lost in my pack.
Technical Layers: If you invest money in any pieces, these are the ones where you should do your research and choose something that's worth its weight and function. My go-to for pants here are the MEC Amanita hiking pants. Why do I love them? They are light weight but very durable. They are water resistant and dry quickly, and even if they do get wet, they don't get heavy or stretch. I love the waistband style as opposed to buttons and zips, and they have buttons and straps built-in if you want to roll-up the muddy cuffs into capris. They're also made of ripstop nylon, so they're practically indestructible if, like me, you're a bit clumsy on the trail.
On top, I wear a Columbia rain shell. It has big zip-up pockets to stash mitts and hats for easy access, under arm zips for ventilation, a great hood, and it keeps rain, snow and wind out. Most of the time all I wear is my rash guard and my rain shell. The combination seems to be most ideal. I add the thermal layer in between when I take breaks, or if the temperature dips.
Basically, anything rain/snow, wind, bug (in other seasons) and bush resistant is awesome here. You want to keep the elements out from your base layers, and you want to make sure that your base layers can breathe underneath.
Lastly: I was taught (and stubbornly ignored this wisdom for the first couple of years) to "be bold, start cold!" It sounds a little crazy, but it's a worthwhile lesson. If you wear all of your layers and enthusiastically set out at -10 C, you will inevitably start sweating, and get too hot. Then you have to stop and shed layers. Wet layers. Because you are sweating. Those wet layers are going to get crammed into your backpack where they will stay wet. Later in the day when you stop for lunch or something terrible happens, and you need to put those layers on to stay warm, they're not going to work the same as they would if they were dry. Start with one layer less than you think you need and give yourself 10 - 20 minutes to adjust to the conditions as your body starts to warm up. If you're still really cold, go ahead and throw on your thermal layer (dry).
Trekking poles. Bring them. They don't need to be fancy, but if you get yourself stuck in four feet of fresh snow and you're breaking a trail in snowshoes, you will appreciate having two more points of contact with the ground, or to test for snow depth. And god forbid you hit icy patches, they will help you navigate safely.
A med kit is always ideal. Maybe even some emergency hand warmers. And always pack an extra pair of socks, just in case your feet do get wet.
If you're gaining elevation or shooting for summits or ridges, you should get avalanche educated and bring an avalanche safety kit. Even if you're not tackling such feats, it's still a good idea to know what to do in case of snow emergencies, and to always check risks of avalanches before you head out.
Consider your water supply and how you intend to keep it warm. If you're out in -20 C weather, the water bottle strapped to the outside of your pack is going to get cold real fast. Consider packing warm water in insulated bottles, or insulate your hydration pack. When you're finished pulling water through your hydration pack for a drink, blow some air back into it to decrease the amount of water that could freeze up your tube.
Another thing you might want to consider keeping warm are your electronics. Ideally, you should have two methods of navigation - if one is digital, the other should be a hard copy. Print out your trail directions or pack a map and compass. Screenshot trail directions from the internet so they're available as photos in case you don't have service, or download the necessary maps in a GPS app that's accessible without service. Then, keep your phone warm - if you don't, the battery will drain VERY fast. Since I don't wear my mitts while I'm on the trail, I slip my phone into one of them, and keep that mitt close to my body (usually in a zipped pocket).
Sun protection. Sure, the risk might not seem obvious, but it can be a concern for some when you consider the intense reflection off of white snow - either for your eyes or skin. Pack some sunnies and protect from burns if you think you'll be out long enough.
I hope I don't have to tell you to bring snacks. Having fuel for your body to burn will keep you warm - high fat and carbohydrate contents will keep your body burning out on the trail! Nuts are always ideal to snack on along the way.
Bring yourself a hiking companion if you can, or plan to hike in areas where you expect other people will be. There are dangers in both the winter and summer, but I do believe that things can get nasty a lot faster in the winter, and the winter chill is much less forgiving. If you are hiking solo, consider leaving a note on your car's windshield to let others know when you should be getting back to it, or tell someone at home where you're going and when they can expect to hear from you next. Or just take someone with you, either to keep you company or share the gear load. If something terrible happens to one of you, at least the other should be able to get help a lot faster.
One of my favourite things about winter hiking (and truthfully, sometimes even high-heat summer hiking) is leaving myself a change of dry clothes in the car. Despite frigid temperatures, you will still sweat. A lot. And if you're wearing a wind or rain/snow shell, a lot of that moisture will get trapped in the layers closer to your body. I always leave at least a big, cozy sweater in the car to replace my sweaty under layers, but you can go as far as leaving a pair of sweatpants and a dry change of socks, too. I always wear a different pair of shoes to and from the trail so I don't have to wear my boots in the car - they're awkward to drive in, and they're miserable to drive home in if they get wet throughout the day. Dry footwear is your best friend. And what better way to ride the endorphin high of an amazing winter hike, than doing so in dry clothes and shoes?!
I have also started leaving a blanket for my lap on the drive home, and a thermos of coffee or tea. Even lukewarm, it's a real treat! Check out the Calgary Heritage Roasting Co.'s website for some of my favourite java. Happy all-season hiking!!
Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.
First: Shark Lake snowshoe, Spray Valley Provincial Park 2017 | Second: Panorama from the Fullerton Loop, Kananaskis 2017 | Third: Snow adventure collage 2017 | Fourth: Unexpected snow hiking Tent Ridge, Spray Valley Provincial Park 2017 | Fifth: My CHRC mug, post-hike coffee, and a handmade/crochet blanket 2017