Winter Hiking in the National Parks


If you are an avid hiker, chances are that you found that most National parks in the North and Western states are covered by thick snow and ice. If your favorite National park hiking trail is not covered in snow, it soon will be. But, just because snow and ice cover the hiking trails you much enjoy hiking, it doesn’t mean that you have to put away your hiking gear until the spring thaw. In fact, winter hiking offers its own opportunity to explore the National parks in a way you did before and offers stunning beauty.

Winter Hiking Requires Extra Care

Your winter hiking in the national parks will offer solitude, amazing landscapes, stunning views, and a unique opportunity to see the National parks in a way you never experienced ñ even if you are an avid hiker. Hiking on snow and ice-covered trails requires special attention and comes with a higher degree of risk. You will have all the risks associated with hiking in the spring and summer months plus new ones that amplify the normal risks associated with the terrain and severe weather.

For instance, your chance of losing your bearing (getting lost) greatly increases as well as the response times for emergency services to get to you. These two factors alone mandate that extra planning is taken prior to setting out on your winter hiking adventure.

You don’t have to let the risks of winter hiking keep you from the trails of your favorite National park, however. Some common sense planning and some extra precautions will allow you to be able to hike during winter, even on snow and ice-packed trails.

If you study and know the trail you will hike, take along another hiking buddy, and ensure that you have all of the supplies and equipment you will need, you will need for a wide variety of potential conditions, your well-planned winter hiking adventure may be the adventure of a lifetime.

Your Winter Hiking Guide and Tips

Pack Wisely: As with most hiking trips, you will want to leave your non-essential items at home. This will help you ensure that your pack is lighter and will also allow you to pack some extra items that you will need to handle various weather conditions that may come upon you unexpectedly. The following list is by no means the only items you want to pack for winter hiking, but they are essential to bring:

  • Food: Winter hiking can easily require an additional 500 – 1,000 calories per day, an average of 4,500 calories per day for men and 3,500 for women. Start planning the right foods before the start of your winter backpacking trip. Eating nutritious foods will make a difference in your ability to stay warm and energized. When you pack up your food bag for a winter trip, it’s really important that you count your calories carefully and portion out your snacks and meals in advance. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are not eating enough because you will wear down fast. Chocolate, which melts in the summer, keeps well on winter hikes. Gorp–good old raisins and peanuts mixed with chocolate candy–makes a portable snack you can mix up in quantity at home and eat throughout your trip. Brownies, candy bars, energy bars, cheese sticks, jerky, and nuts all make good winter camping snacks.
  • Water: While the National park trail may be covered in snow and ice, you will get sweaty trekking the trail. You will need at least two liters of water per day. If you decide that carrying that much water will be just too heavy so you will just munch on the snow and ice, make sure that you still use a good water filtration system. You can take along some iodine tablets and/or water filters. Even if you take the iodine tablets or a water filtration system, take water with you.
  • Backpack: Make sure your pack is waterproof because it will get wet. A medium to large size is best, but ensure it’s large enough to carry your hiking gear.
  • Sunscreen and Sunglasses: The snow makes a perfect reflector of sun rays. Anyone who has been skiing knows that getting a sunburn in the middle of winter while the ground is covered in snow and ice is a very real possibility. Make sure when doing your National park hiking adventure to take along 50 SPF sunscreen and a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes against the harmful glare.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries: The days of winter are short. The snow and ice-covered trails will take longer to navigate than when navigating them in the spring or summer months. If you find yourself on the trail longer than expected you will be glad that you brought along a flashlight so you can see where you are stepping. Taking several sets of extra batteries is a good idea to ensure that you will have a source of light for much longer than you can anticipate.
  • Waterproof/Gortex Clothing: Keeping dry will help keep you warm. Having a great weatherproof outer layer of clothing will protect the layered clothing underneath. Make sure that you have several extra pairs of wool socks, mittens, gloves as well as a hat to keep your head warm and protect it from the sun.
  • Waterproof hiking boots: You need to keep your feet dry at all costs to avoid frostbite. Investing in a great pair of waterproof hiking boots may just save your life. Ensure the tread is sufficiently deep for the best traction. Inspect the ones you have and if the treads are worn, it is time to buy a new pair.
  • Ice cleats: While you may not need them, you will be extremely glad you have them if you find yourself on an icy stretch. Ice cleats help to prevent slipping on ice and are easily put on or taken off. Most will just fit over your hiking boot. There are many different kinds of ice cleats, but getting a high-quality pair will serve you the best. Don’t be confused, though. Crampons are not the same as ice cleats. Crampons are used for climbing mountains in icy conditions and help with footing. Ice cleats are appropriate for most hiking trails. If you need help finding the right ice cleat for you, be sure to read our review of the top five ice cleats for winter hiking.
  • Hiking poles: Like ice cleats, hiking poles will help you with stability while hiking snow and ice-covered trails. Most hiking poles will come with a snow basket and ensure that yours are attached to help with traversing unpacked snow. Need help with finding the right hiking poles for you? Be sure to read our backcountry gear review of the top five hiking poles.
  • First Aid Kit: A well-stocked first aid kit is a must and must include Band-aides, bandages, gauze, antiseptic, electrolyte tablets, and a solar blanket.
  • Safety equipment: Flashlight, weather radio, GPS watch, whistle, and signal mirror are just some of the safety equipment you will need for winter hiking.
  • Waterproof tarp: If you find yourself on the trail and an unexpected winter storm develops, your winter hiking trip may turn into a winter camping experience, although not by choice. Having a weatherproof tarp can be used as a make-shift shelter to ride out the storm and protect you from the elements.

National Park Winter Hiking Adventures

Most all National parks offer excellent winter hiking adventures even in the deepest of winter, snow and ice-covered trails and all. Winter hiking will enable you to encounter fewer people and even perhaps provide you with a glimpse of the abundant wildlife. Consider the following National parks if you are wanting to do some winter hiking:

  1. Rocky Mountain National Park: The Pool and Cub Lake trails offer easy to moderate winter hiking conditions with outstanding views. Both trails are under 3 miles. One of the many benefits of winter hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park is the opportunity to do some wildlife watching. Winter is an especially good time to look for elk, mule deer, moose, and other large mammals. Look for moose along the Colorado River on the park’s west side. Elk and mule deer are most active at dusk and dawn and are usually seen in meadow areas. Look for bighorn sheep along the Highway 34/Fall River corridor on the park’s east side. Coyotes may be seen any time of day. Members of the Jay family, including Steller’s jays, with their striking blue bodies and crested heads, gray jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, and the iridescent, long-tailed black-billed magpies are commonly seen in the park. Make sure you check out the park’s trail conditions before you depart: Rocky Mountain National Park Trail Conditions.
  2. Mount Rainier National Park: If you are wanting a ranger-guided snowshoe hike in this Washington park, this would be a great introduction to winter hiking, and there are also many trails where you can strike out on your own. The mountain receives abundant snowfall and the scenery is spectacular. In winter, recreational opportunities are numerous. A winter visit to Mount Rainier can include ranger-guided snowshoe walks, Paradise snow play, camping, snowboarding, and skiing. Learn about winter hiking opportunities at Longmire in the Longmire Winter Trails brochure. Make sure to check out Mount Rainer National Park Alerts and Conditions: Mount Rainer National Park Alerts and Conditions.
  3. Glacier National Park: There is no lodging available in the park in winter, but there are camping opportunities. Auto camping is available at the Apgar Picnic Area and St. Mary Campground. There is no charge for camping in the winter. A free backcountry permit is required to camp in the backcountry. In lieu of hiking boots, strap on snowshoes and join a ranger for a two-hour snowshoe in the Apgar area. Take an intimate look at the park while searching for signs of wildlife, discovering plants and animals, and enjoying the solitude of winter during this unique experience. Make sure you check out the park’s trail conditions before you depart: Glacier National Park Trail Conditions

Final Thoughts on Winter Hiking in the National Parks

With scenery that few people will ever experience, the National parks offer a unique perspective on our national parks, with scenery that few people ever experience. Taking simple safety precautions and proper planning for your trip will keep you safe for your winter hiking adventure in the National parks. Whether your adventure is hiking across a trail in the Rocky Mountains or snowshoeing through Glacier National Park, your winter hiking adventure will be one that you will remember for many years to come.