Winter Hike: Beginner's Guide to Dayhikes in Snow

Hey fellow winter newbie.

I'm from the warm, tropical islands of the Philippines, where we had to suffer through our cold season that can go as low as 15 degree celsius of December weather. Hiking in Japan where winter goes a bit colder unfortunately meant that I'm parked for the winter season... or am I? 

February 2018 I did my first winter *overnight* hike with Dave's Facebook group, and experienced my first night shivering in the cold throughout. I had my waterproof summer shoes from the Philippines, winter jackets from Uniqlo and a lot of hot packets from the drugstores. 

By now I have a couple more winter hikes under my belt, and I don't shiver at night (mostly haha.)
I won't claim to be an expert. At all. But if I'm doing some winter hikes, here's the gear I would bring, and some tips. I'll make this simple, and design this specific post for dayhikes. Overnight hikes need a bit more specialized gear, which will likely be similar to my packing list during my Himalayas hike.

Required Gear.

  1. Winter boots. They need to have the same traction as a normal hiking boot, be waterproof, and have that warm lining that'll save your toes. 
    • If you're not slushing through snow throughout the day, I'd actually prefer normal hiking shoes, but I'd still strongly recommend waterproof shoes. In this case, put socks on, put your feet on plastic bags (yes, the ones at convenience stores), then put the shoes on. The plastic will keep your feet warm, enough for a dayhike. Yes, I've done that. 
    • Winter boots can cost from JPY10,000 to JPY30,000 (USD100-300), and I'd recommend getting one OUTSIDE of Japan (Japan's a ripoff, with very few options). I bought mine at the US and had it shipped to Japan. 
    • In Japan, you can get some at second hand stores too. 
  2. Spikes or crampons. As a general rule, I only start putting them on when I start slipping on snow/ice.
    • Spikes are mainly to help my grip and as they are light, I start putting them in my bag from around November. 
    • I only bring crampons for the "big hikes", which means practically snow covered hikes. Once I have to bring crampons, I have to start considering ice axes. 
  3. Warm jacket. Down jackets. Even the ones from Uniqlo are ok. 
  4. Fleece jacket and/or normal jacket. Not really needed, even a normal cotton jacket will do. The key to hiking in winter is layers! What I normally wear, even at -10c:
    • Going up, just a normal shirt and a normal jacket. The exertion keeps me warm enough.  
    • Going down, it's a shirt, one normal jacket, and a fleece jacket. 
    • While resting at the summit, it's a shirt, a normal jacket, a fleece jacket and a warm one. 
  5. Waterproof jacket. Just in case it snows, I would not want my layers to get soaked and be useless. 
  6. Warm hat/beanie. Having a warm head makes a huge difference. 
  7. Warm gloves. First thing that goes cold for me are my fingers, so these are definitely a requirement. Preferably made of wool. Items made of wool can keep you warm even when they get wet. 
  8. Warm socks. Preferably made of wool too. 
  9. Buff / something to cover your neck while hiking. Not a scarf please. Or a scarf, but make sure it doesn't get blown off by the wind. 
  10. Your sense of adventure. I'm kidding. Polarized shades. The snow can be the purest of white, and blinding. Seriously. Google snow blindness. 

    Optional Gear.

    • Trekking poles. I'd put them as strongly encouraged optional gear. 
    • Emergency bivy (or emergency blanket). Just in case. The thing with winter is that stopping can get you killed (hello hypothermia), so having this little emergency bivy which is half the size of (my) fist can keep me alive should I be stuck waiting for help. I always have an emergency bivy plus an emergency blanket in my pack, for myself and whomever I end up hiking with. 
    • Gaiters. Something to cover the bottom of your pants so that the snow wouldn't get it. Which only becomes a problem once you're walking on a foot+ of snow. 
      • For dayhikes, I personally don't consider this too big a problem so I don't bring gaiters. Even if your shoes get a bit of snow on it, it's ok as you'll be done with the hike at the end of the day. Overnight hikes are a different matter. 
    • Hot packets. Just in case the jacket you thought is warm enough is actually not warm enough. 
    I think that's it. The core gear one needs when starting with winter hikes. 

    But, what else is there to be careful for? 

    I'd say it's mainly the same as a normal spring hike, except it likely has snow on it. Which means trails can be a lot harder to see and follow.

    But, as this is a beginner's guide from a fellow beginner, and YOU are reading this, don't go starting a big hikes yet! In those cases you'll need to know how to break trails, self arrest, spot the danger zones (e.g. avalanche risks!) and a million other things, which is definitely beyond the scope of this post.

    In the meantime, I am starting to write about the winter hikes I've done, but I have a year's worth of posts on the pipeline so this may take a while. >.< Feel free to leave a comment or suggestion (would love suggestions!), and I'll update this post as needed!