Winter hiking can either be majestic or masochistic, depending on the caliber of your wardrobe. If you want a hiking season that extends beyond summer, a few gear upgrades go a long way when the temps drop and increased precipitation becomes a factor. After spending fall as a hiking guide in the Sierra Nevada, and then migrating north for winter in the Cascades, I’ve honed in on seven winterized gear items that will undoubtedly carry me through to spring with comfort and style.
1. Guide DCS Jacket
KUIU is my go-to choice for bombproof technical outerwear. The Guide DCS Jacket is as well-rounded as winter outerwear comes. Though it’s technically not waterproof (the seams can be penetrated), it’s as water-resistant as any softshell I’ve tried. Plus, the breathable, stretchy material is far more comfortable than traditional raincoats. Designed for hunting in cool to cold climates, the Guide jacket is relatively light, remarkably quiet, and genuinely comfortable, but not at the compromise of toughness. Its shell is made with a patented yarn that’s lighter, quicker to dry, and more durable than comparable soft materials.
The Guide is lined with fleece and coated in DWR (durable water repellent), a combination that provides plenty of warmth and protection in mild to moderate snow and rain. I wear it with a merino wool midlayer on snow days. When I begin to overheat, I zip open the underarm vents and dump steam. Toughness aside, the Guide’s awesome ability to regulate temperature is its best attribute.
[$239; kuiu.com]Get it
2. Jack Wolfskin Argo Peak Down Jacket
Ultralight clothing usually comes at a compromise—it’s generally delicate, less insulated, or both. But for its weight (11.2 oz), the Argo Peak down jacket is an anomaly. The 90 percent white goose down and 10 percent feathers that pack it are responsibly sourced. Those geese must be quite healthy because it’s ridiculously warm.
Jack Wolfskin claims the outer layer is “windproof,” and the 10D rip-stop nylon lives up to the claim. It’s also more water-resistant than other puffies I’ve tested. I wear mine mainly on ski trips and find it’s impermeable to snow in light volumes—rather than soaking in, snow tends to bead into water droplets and wick off.
While function is key, style points only enhance, and the Argo Peak gets extra in my book for its zig-zag stitching pattern that provides a unique aesthetic and stands apart from other puffers. And when the sun comes out, the whole package packs into its pocket for easy stowage.
[$227; jackwolfskin.com]Get it
3. Ridge Merino Inversion Heavyweight Base Layer
When it comes to cold weather, there’s no material I love more than merino wool, and no brand does merino better than Ridge Merino (hence the namesake). While supremely quick-drying, temperature-regulating, odor-resistant and breathable, merino wool is typically scratchier than cotton, which makes it difficult for me to love as a baselayer. That’s a non-issue with the Inversion Base Layer system, which uses ultra-fine, 18.5 micron fibers for a soft feel next to skin. Ridge Merino’s wool is all natural and sustainably sourced, and paired with a 100 percent recycled polyester waistband that also makes me feel good about this buy.
For a heavier, more relaxed baselayer that doubles as a great pair of sweatpants, try the Convict Canyon Jogger.
[$80; ridgemerino.com]Get it
4. Ibex Indie Hoodie
No article of clothing is more useful in winter than a cozy hoodie. The Ibex’s Indie Hoodie covers all the essential qualities of a great hoodie in awesome style. Another example of merino wool’s superiority for active use, unlike cotton hoodies, the Indie is built for performance in rigorous activity outdoors. Most importantly, I can sweat in it all day and it dries quickly and relatively odor-free.
The Indie is soft enough next to skin for use as a baselayer on cool days, thin enough to wear as a midlayer on extra cold days, and adequate as an outer layer on the rare warmer days. That’s the magic of merino—it packs warmth without bulk. The hoodie’s quarter-zip neck works well for regulating heat, and its scuba-style hood fits seamlessly under my ski helmet. But the Indie stands out most for its resilience. After using it all summer as a sun hoodie on backpacking trips, it’s now surviving an active winter on the ski hill, and it’s no worse for wear. Just make sure to air dry it after washing. Dryers are the nemesis of merino wool.
[$160; ibex.com]Get it
5. Patagonia Point Peak Pants
I’m a huge fan of versatility in outerwear, and usually go for pants that can perform in multiple seasons. Patagonia’s Point Peak pants are warm enough to withstand winter temps over a pair of long johns, but thin and breathable enough to work equally well in spring or fall.
For me, the Point Peak’s design nuances provide the critical value. The velcro waistline negates the need for a belt, so they don’t chafe under the weight of a backpack’s hip belt. The ankle ports are also adjustable via velcro, so you can pull them down over the top of your boots, which works fairly well in lieu of gaiters in mild to moderate winter conditions. Zippered pockets protect my belongings for mindless security in a scramble or climbing scenario, and the recycled nylon/spandex material accommodates for range of motion in those instances as well. The one compromise of these materials is that the Point Peaks aren’t waterproof, so I also pack Patagonia’s waterproof Torrentshell pants and pull them over the top when the sky opens up. Paired with Ridge Merino’s Inversion base layer, there’s no better combo for wintertime hiking.
[$129; patagonia.com]Get it
6. Danner Trail 2650 GTX Mid
I’ve sung the Danner 2650s’ praises for years now, and with good reason. The fact is, there’s no better option for trail footwear in my book. Danner’s flagship hiking shoe, the 2650s were engineered to withstand the rigors of thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Their durability is a testament to achieving that goal. The model comes in a range of styles to accommodate different climates. During summer, I prefer the Campos—a shoe designed to breathe and withstand desert climates. But for wintertime hiking, the newer model—the Trail 2650 GTX Mids—is supreme.
The GTX’s suede and textile upper is lined with a Gore Tex layer to make them 100 percent waterproof. An orthopedic, open-cell polyurethane footbed combines three layers of various density for enough cushion to support all-day outings. An external heel counter keeps heel rub at bay, and an underfoot trailguard shank lends security and support in rocky terrain. I like the higher ankle line of the mids for winter, as the extra material helps keep snow and mud off socks. I first tried these during a crisp backpacking trip in Yosemite last fall. There were no issues despite forgetting to break them in before the trip. This is a shoe that dominates year-round—a versatile wintertime hiking shoe that can carry you comfortably into summer as well.
[$190; danner.com]Get it
7. Hillsound FreeSteps6 Crampons
A lightweight pair of crampons is essential in variable wintertime conditions when the trail tends to get muddy or icy. The FreeSteps6 handles every slippery hiking scenario I throw at them. First, they’re the lightest crampons I’ve tested, with my size mediums weighing in just under 12 ounces. The elastic harness stays put when in use, but is also easy to slip on or off. So they’re convenient for both high-mileage hikes and shoveling snow in the driveway. The FreeSteps6 accommodates a range of footwear—from my Danner Trail 2650 GTXs to insulated winter boots like Sorels—though they fall short of fitting around my snowboard boots. And with 22 ¼-inch stainless steel spikes dispersed around the footbed, they provide all the traction I need for casual trail outings without all the extra weight of more burly mountaineering options. I keep a pair in my truck so I never leave them behind.