Keep Your Toes (and Poles) Warm This Winter

Ideas & Advice / Winter Sports

My most recent hike began with a trailhead temperature of three degrees. As my group began to gear up for a hike over the Osceolas (East Peak: 4156′, Main summit: 4315′ ) we all had the same problem: our collapsible trekking poles had frozen on the ride up. After a lot of pulling, twisting, wrenches, and the heat from a car exhaust, we finally were able to use our poles.

Frozen poles at the trailhead

Unfortunately poles aren’t the only things that can freeze on a hike. You run the risk of your water, food, camera, and body freezing. Avoiding this is a mixture of skill, preparedness, and a great deal of trial and error.

Water, in my opinion, is the easiest item to keep from freezing. I switch over from my beloved Camelbak that I use in warmer weather, to a wide mouth Nalgene. I fill that with warm to hot water (depending on the forecast) and put it in an EMS H20 Cooler upside down. The 32 ounce Nalgene bottles fit perfectly inside and is very easy to take out with mittens. I attach that to my pack strap to keep it warm by my body. Having it within reach is also a good reminder to stay hydrated on winter hikes. You can also stick another one in your pack close to your body.

I think food is the trickiest item to keep from freezing. I am always trying out new lunch items, bars, and snacks on the trail so I tend to bring more than needed just in case. One of my favorite parts about winter is you can bring food that would normally spoil on a warm weather hike. Tuna or chicken salad is delicious on the trail!

Here are some foods I have found that survive on a winter hike:

  • Smoothies
  • Anything in a thermos (bring a spoon for food like chicken noodle soup or the liquid will come out first followed by a whole lot of noodles)
  • meats
  • bagels
  • cheese and crackers/cheese sticks
  • Trail mix
  • Chocolate
  • Jerky
  • dried fruit/fruit leather
  • fruit such as apples, clementines
  • Some bars (Lara bars especially) do ok. Put one in your pocket with a hand warmer
  • Macaroons are a nice treat and I haven’t had any issues with them freezing


One of the best things about hiking in the winter is how beautiful all the trails are. The last thing you want is for your camera to freeze. I’m not sure if certain brands or types of cameras happen to do better in cold weather, but I have found some luck with keeping my camera in a small zippered camera case on my backpack strap next to my body with a hand warmer inside. I keep the hand warmer in the smaller pocket of the pouch so it’s not touching the camera, but still keeping it warm.

While it is nice to keep your camera warm enough to take photos, you must think about your well being first. Heat regulation is a skill you learn from a lot of trial and error. Every person’s body runs differently so there is no fool proof way to stay warm (but not too warm!) on a winter hike.

I don’t sweat a lot so it’s not as hard for me, but it took some time to get the system down. I try and start of cold (but not too cold) at the trailhead to avoid having take off layers fifteen minutes after starting. I choose clothes that will serve a specific purpose and can be layered without restricting movement. I can either get down to just a sweat wicking t-shirt if I get really warm, or be bundled up in multiple layers of long underwear and mid layers with a synthetic jacket on top.

For my lower half I wear a pair of long underwear and wind resistant pants. The kind I have are form fitting so they are not bulky. I also wear gaiters, wool socks, and insulated winter boots.
My hands are always the biggest worry. I have found that the best solution is glove liners and mittens. Mittens will keep your hands the warmest, but when you need to manipulate something, you will still have protection from the liners.

Always bring more layers on a winter hike, especially wool socks, mittens, and hats. I’ve had branches almost steal my hat multiple times!

Keeping warm in -2 degree weather

Of course no one system is ideal for everyone and this only scratches the surface of layering in the winter. Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping yourself or your stuff from freezing on the trail? Share in the comments section below!

Allison Nadler

Allison is a passionate (or mildly obsessive) hiker who enjoys spending her free time in the White Mountains. In 2012 she hiked New Hampshire's 48 4000-foot peaks and isn't stopping there. Allison's biggest accomplishment so far has been a one day solo presidential traverse. You can see all her adventures at


  1. January 26, 2013, 10:29 am

    Marta- The boots in the photo are called Verto S6K Glacier by the North Face.

    Great tips, Heather! I love my Camelbak, but I’d just be too worried in winter and opt for a Nalgene.

  2. Heather
    January 25, 2013, 12:08 pm

    Liquids with salt in them, like gatorade or broth, will freeze at a lower temperature than water, making that another option! Also, if you use a Camelbak, I discovered that blowing the water back up the tube, and keeping the mouthpiece tucked inside your coat, helps keep it from freezing.

  3. Marta
    January 24, 2013, 9:19 pm

    By any chance could i know what boots the person on the first pic is wearing?

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