I love to hike and I love winter hiking with kids even with the additional challenges it brings.
We live in an area with thousands of miles of hiking trails, and several trail heads are less than an hour away. A major portion of the Appalachian Trail is also an hour away, so we frequently meet thru-hikers on our own, shorter hikes.
I enjoy the challenge of a long, mountainous hike, but I also enjoy shorter, 1-5 mile hikes with my own children. Often, when the snow starts to accumulate, we can feel like hiking season is over and it is time to curl up and hibernate like the bears.
However, with the right gear and knowledge, you can have just as much fun hiking as a family in the winter as in the summer.
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1. Winter hiking with kids: start with a small and familiar hike
If you are new to winter hiking, start with an easy trail, less than 2 miles long. You want to be close to the trail head and your car. Look for something in or near a town, to boost your confidence. Its important to do short trips to figure out what gear works and what doesn’t. This is related to my next tip…
2. Know your trail, and your kids’ limits
Don’t go for your first winter hike on a trail that you have never hiked before. You need to understand the terrain and challenges of the trail before taking your children on it during the winter.
Bring a trail map, and check trail conditions if possible before leaving.
Ideally, you should choose a trail that you have hiked in the summer, so that you are already familiar with the trail.
A water crossing in the summer can end up being a problem in the winter, or a steep incline can turn into a slippery luge-track.
Knowing the trail ahead of time will help you predict what type of clothing to bring.
3. Bring lots of snacks, especially when winter hiking with kids
You wear more clothing in the winter, which means you are carrying more weight overall. Kids get hungry hiking, and they get even hungrier hiking in the winter.
According to a few studies I read, you burn 25-30% more calories hiking in the winter than in the summer. Make sure the snacks you bring are calorie dense and yummy. Check out this post for snack ideas.
4. Wear layers, making sure they are easy to remove
Be like an onion. Wear lots of layers. In all seriousness, this is true. You want to avoid sweating profusely during a hike, so make sure that you have easy-to-remove layers. Sweat makes you damp, which will lead to chills as soon as you stop moving.
You’ll want to remove layers, or unzip jackets as soon as you start to heat up. If you are getting warm, you children probably are as well, so make sure they have layers that are removable as well.
On days when the temperature is between 32-40 F, I have my children hike in a pair of thermal pants with basic rain pants over the top. We own rain pants from both L.L.Bean and REI and find that both types work well.
Snow pants work fine for colder or windy days, or if you know you will be moving slowly.
5. Bring traction, especially when hiking on packed or icy trails
If you live in an area with snow and ice, you will need traction unless the trail is mostly flat. Even a moderate incline can be dangerous if it is packed down and icy. Children can slip and slide, getting bruised and hurt in the process.
Generally, if the outdoor temperature is about 32 F and it is sunny, the snow will likely be soft and you won’t slip. If the trail is colder and packed, it will be very slippery.
6. Bring a dry pair of mittens, for keeping hands warm on all parts of the hike
As you hike, your gloves or mittens often get damp, either from perspiration or the snow. On many hikes, the hardest part is the uphill, where your body is warm.
On the return trip, however, you often expend less energy, which translates into colder fingers. Having a nice dry pair of mittens or gloves for the whole crew helps keep everyone cheerful.
7. Carry something warm to drink
A warm beverage is great because it warms you up from the inside out, AND it can be used as a bribe for children who want to turn around too early.
8. Bundle up your littlest ones
If you have a child in a child carrier, or are pulling one in a sled, remember that they will not be getting as warm as the rest of you. They will need extra layers, including on their hands and feet as.
A down snowsuit is a good cozy layer, in addition to good base layers. Check out this post for more winter layering tips and tricks.
9. Bring winter hiking safety essentials, such as a first aid kid
There is a saying “Plan for the worst, and hope for the best”. Most short hikes are not going to turn into survival situations, however, it is still crucial to bring basic essentials in case something does go wrong.
Your own list of essentials will vary depending on the weather, altitue, and remoteness of you hike. Some good basics are:
- First aid kit
- Map and compass
- Extra food
10. Enjoy the journey, and bring a sense of humor
Hiking in snow and ice is very different than summer hiking. Packs fit differently, kids slip, clothes are constantly being put on or taken off. It is important to laugh when things get frustrating.
When starting something new, it is easy to make a specific destination or view our goal. When hiking with kids, however, it is important to just enjoy the journey and go with the flow.
Are they getting tired? Stop, and look for animal tracks or build a mini snow man. Are they feeling cold? Time to turn around and try for another day.
Time spent together outdoors is always worthwhile.
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