Winter Hiking Essentials for Women

I’ve been want to post more non-journalism writing, pictures and meanderings — namely stuff about hiking, gear I like, adventures we go on, so this is some of that.

I have a narrow threshold of comfort when I’m hiking. And a lot of being comfortable is having gear that works for you and investing in quality stuff that will work across seasons and last for a long time.

I never really hiked in the snow before moving out here to Seattle, but now we go out most weekends for at least a short snowshoe hike in the winter. So I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error with gear and I’ve read a lot about what other people use.

I figured it might be helpful to other ladies out there who are getting into snow hiking or snowshoeing and want to know what gear or brands could work for them and would be worth the investment. None of these products or companies have paid me or given me products to review free of charge.

So here it is: Lauren’s winter hiking essentials for women…

Clothing Essentials:

Bottoms: Halle Pants from Prana

I’m starting with the worst clothing item for hiking women: PANTS. Hiking pants are the worst. Especially if you have hips, a butt, curves of any kind. It’s like they are always cut for dudes but with the zipper just on the other side. But these pants from Prana — despite the price tag ($85 yikes) — are pretty much the best hiking pants for women.

I’ve worn them on every hike for almost two years and they show pretty much no wear at all. They also keep me warm and dry during snow hikes, even though they are not insulated and are not specifically for snow hiking. I wear them layered with Smartwool 250 weight thermal pants in the winter.

They are slim in the leg, but roomy enough for flexibility and layering thermals underneath. Unlike most hiking pants, they leave enough room for your hips without being too tight in the waist. I am a size 27 waist + 30 inch (or less) inseam and wear a size 6 regular in these.

Another option for snow hikes: Waterproof rain pants like the Torrentshell Pants from Patagonia. I have these in a size medium  and they fit overall, but are a little tighter in the butt. I usually prefer my Pranas over these for snow hikes.

Base layers: Smartwool all the way

I use three wool, base-layer style items for snow hikes:

  1. Women’s NTS Mid 250 Bottom
  2. Women’s NTS Micro 150 Tee (I wear this on pretty much all hikes, winter, summer, anytime.)
  3. Women’s NTS Mid 250 Crew (This is new for me. I usually just wear a flannel shirt)

For me, wool is the best option by far. It’s comfortable, warm, breathable, it keeps you warm even you’re damp, it dries quickly, it doesn’t retain smells like synthetic fabrics and you can wash and dry Smartwool stuff in the machine. I wouldn’t go on a winter hike without at least the bottoms. The tops are optional if you have other warm flannels or sweaters you like to hike in.

Jackets: Patagonia Down Hoody + Torrentshell rainshell

I’ve tried out a few different combinations of jackets for staying warm but also not feeling bulky. I tend to be on the cold side, and my body cools down super quick whenever we stop moving on a hike, so having jackets that are breathable and can layer well is important, but most of all they need to keep me warm.

I’ve zeroed in on a hooded down jacket from Patagonia. I have a couple other brands and types of down jackets for hiking/camping, but I’ve found a hood to be essential, especially for winter hiking and if it’s snowing.

I pair the down jacket with a rainshell from Patagonia (which you can see in the image above in the Halle pants item) which is helpful if it’s snowing, but also helps keep you insulated especially if it’s windy out. I used to have a basic, REI brand rainshell, and I really disliked it. It felt more plasticy and puffy and bulky, and just never seemed to fit right. It was wayyyyy less expensive than the Patagonia version, but it also seemed like if I did use it a lot, I’d have to replace it often.

I also really like Patagonia’s policies that promote repairing your gear and recycling gear to keep it out of landfills, and basically that they make high quality gear that you only need to buy like once in a decade. It’s important.

Gloves: Dakine Sequoia Insulated Mittens

I have really super cold hands. If we pause hiking out in the snow or I take my gloves off to make a picture with my iPhone, my hands get so cold I can’t even think straight. And then I usually have to get out a pair of Heat Factory handwarmers.

I just started using these mittens from Dakine and they are fantastic so far. They come with a nice set of fleece liner gloves with tips THAT ACTUALLY WORK ON THE IPHONE SCREEN. Like, they work as well as your own fingers, maybe even better. So that means no more exposing your bare hands to the bitter bold in order to take a picture of the winter wonderland you’re exploring.

I’ve also found that mittens far surpass fingered gloves in keeping my hand warm. Maybe because my hands are on the small side, so my individual fingers would get cold and cramped in the big, gloves. The mittens are super toasty and I on our more recent snowshoe hike, I didn’t even have to use handwarmers.

So if you have cold hands, I would definitely recommend insulated mittens over gloves.

Shoes: Waterproof & preferably high tops

Shoes are a really personal thing, so I won’t get too much into it. I have what they refer to as “low-volume” feet, meaning I have skinny, narrow feet and some shoes feel big and floppy on me. I’ve found Scarpa to be a great brand for feet like mine, and I use Superfeet insoles (the orange ones).

But in general for winter hiking in the snow, I’d recommend that your shoes be:

  1. Waterproof
  2. High tops (Full disclosure: I’ve been using my low-top light hiking shoes this winter and haven’t had wet or uncomfortable feet/ankles, but I would prefer to use high tops to better keep the snow out of my shoes. You could also use gaiters to keep the snow out of your shoes.)
  3. Waterproof (Just need to reiterate: your feet will be cold if they are wet).

Gear Essentials:

Snowshoes: Atlas Elektra Access 23 Snowshoes – Women’s

I’ve tried a few kinds of snowshoes (Tubbs, MSR) and here’s why I really like these snowshoes from Atlas for women:

  1. The bindings: They are SO EASY to tighten and loosen. You just pull up on the binding strap to tighten, and then there is a convenient little loop to pull on the closures to loosen again. The only drawback is the heel strap is still a bit difficult, but way easier than others I’ve used. So far I haven’t had any issues with the wrap bindings freezing or anything (which would make it difficult to loosen).
  2. They are lightweight: I’ve used the 27 and 23, but decided to buy the 23 for myself. They are both so light though, especially compared with the pair of Tubbs I’ve used a lot over the past couple years.
  3. They are fairly narrow, so I feel way less clunky trying to walk in them and can use a more normal stride (still gives a little inner-thigh workout though).

My dude has been using the MSR Evo snowshoes (pictured on the right) which are a great value, sturdy and reliable, but even he’s been eyeing my Atlas Elektras (pictured on the left), which are way quieter, and they look way cooler.

Microspikes: Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System

We actually carry microspikes with us all year long on hikes in the Cascades, since you can encounter snow and ice in some places well into summer and very early in the season. They are small and lightweight, so it’s easy to just keep them in your daypack at all times.

They are especially great on snow hikes that are packed down (not requiring snowshoes) but have slippery or icy surfaces. Spikes are also, in my opinion, way superior to YakTrax, which add traction without the spikes. Just go for the microspikes.

In this video I recently made for The Seattle Times, you’ll see where people could definitely be making good use of microspikes.

Day Pack: Osprey Sirrus 24 Backpack

This is another year-round recommendation, what I believe to be the best day pack for women hikers: the Osprey Sirrus 24.

Here’s why:

  1. It’s simple, with enough pockets to have things you need readily accessible (sunglasses, handwarmers, tissues, snacks).
  2. It has a spot for a 2.5-liter hydration bladder (I drink a lot of water when hiking, especially in the summer).
  3. It’s compact but you can stuff a lot into it if you need to (I typically carry another puffy jacket with me at the bottom, plus rain pants, a rain jacket, food, microspikes, etc).
  4. It has a really supportive waist belt and a frame that allows for airflow and makes the pack seem weightless (almost).
  5. It has a built-in rainfly that comes out of the bottom compartment, so it’s super easy to pull out and use in a pinch.
  6. It’s easy to attach your hiking poles (or ice ax!) and even to strap your snowshoes to the outside of the pack with just a couple of carabiners.

My only gripe is that the pockets on the waist belt are no big enough to fit my iPhone 5, but really, phones now are getting too big for any pockets. But there’s not really any other protected but accessible pockets to put your phone when it’s snowing or raining.

Other things that make snow hiking lovely:

Comfort: Therm-a-Rest Z Seat pad

This is kind of a silly little comfort but I love it. My dude used to carry his Therm-a-Rest Z Lite sleeping pad with him on hikes so we’d have a dry and warm spot to sit no matter where we ended up having lunch. But with these little guys, people won’t ask us if we’re camping all the time when we’re out on day hikes. They weigh practically nothing yet ensure that your butt is dry and comfy when you stop for a break.

And! Therm-a-Rest/Cascade Designs is based in Seattle. Local!

Food: Stanley Classic Vacuum Food Jar (17 oz)

Clearly, we take our hike lunches very seriously. For winter and snow hikes, there is literally nothing better than having hot soup or hot veggie chili for lunch out in the snow. You seriously cool down when you stop for any amount of time on a snowshoe or winter hike, and drinking some hot tomato soup is just incredible. It’s worth the extra weight.

So there it is. I might add or edit things on this list. But as of January 2017, this is what I love to use to get outdoors and stay comfortable, dry and safe.