How to safely explore the joys of winter hiking.

Winter hiker, viewed from waist down, wearing blue snowpants and walking on a snowy trail between pine trees

By midwinter, our urge to hibernate can start to feel constricting instead of cozy. What better antidote to being cooped up indoors than a bracing hike in the crisp air outdoors?

Winter backdrops are stark, serene, and often stunning. With fewer people on the trail, you may spot more creatures out and about. And it’s a prime opportunity to engage with the seasons and our living planet around us, says Dr. Stuart Harris, chief of the Division of Wilderness Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. But a multi-mile trek through rough, frosty terrain is far different than warm-weather hiking, requiring consideration of health and safety, he notes. Here’s what to know before you go.

Winter hiking: Safety first

“The challenge of hiking when environmental conditions are a little more demanding requires a very different approach on a winter’s day as opposed to a summer’s day,” Dr. Harris says. “But it gives us a chance to be immersed in the living world around us. It’s our ancient heritage.”

A safety-first attitude is especially important if you’re hiking with others of different ages and abilities — say, with older relatives or small children. It’s crucial to have both the right gear and the right mindset to make it enjoyable and safe for all involved.

Planning and preparation for winter hikes

Prepare well beforehand, especially if you’re mixing participants with vastly different fitness levels. Plan your route carefully, rather than just winging it.

People at the extremes of age — the very old or very young — are most vulnerable to frigid temperatures, and cold-weather hiking can be more taxing on the body. “Winter conditions can be more demanding on the heart than a perfectly-temperatured day,” Harris says. “Be mindful of the physical capabilities of everyone in your group, letting this define where you go. It’s supposed to be fun, not a punishing activity.”

Before setting out:

What to wear for winter hikes

Prepare for extremes of cold, wind, snow, and even rain to avoid frostbite or hypothermia, when body temperature drops dangerously low.

Carry essentials to help ensure safety

About the Author

photo of Maureen Salamon

Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio View all posts by Maureen Salamon

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