Do you know how to prepare for a winter hike in Denver? The seasons change and November to April is Colorado’s transformation into a winter wonderland. The season begins even earlier and concludes much later up in the mountains. These months bring the cold, but there are some real benefits to getting outside: fewer people on the trails, the snow-laden landscapes, and the softened sounds surrounding you. Hikers should always set out well-prepared for the elements. Check out our 10 Winter Hiking Tips below, and download our Free Hiking Guide to help you prepare and pack smart for your dayhikes near Denver.

Featured Image: Fog in the Valley, Candle in the Sky – Courtesy of Zach Dischner

10 winter hiking tips hallett peak dream lake

Hallett Peak from Dream Lake – Courtesy of Justin Mier

  • Plan ahead.

  • While the prospect of a spontaneous adventure sounds exciting, solid planning is crucial when hiking–particularly in the winter season. Winter is enjoyable but it will likely make your hikes more challenging than usual, so it’s best to anticipate obstacles and plan accordingly. This post will walk you through several key planning components. The first and most important is to always leave your itinerary with a friend or family member. This should include your trailhead, planned route, and a range of time when they should expect you to be home or to give them a call.

  • Check the weather–and expect it to change.

  • Winter hikers should check forecasts before proceeding out into the cold. Winter storms can crop up unexpectedly, so I always advise dayhikers to prepare for the worst: pack an emergency blanket or shelter, always have a down coat to keep your core warm, and if you are going deeper into the mountains, pack in a down sleeping bag. Hopefully, you’ll never get caught overnight in such weather, but it’s wise to be ready for it. Winter in the mountains is a completely different reality compared to winter along the front range near Denver. It might be 60 degrees in February at Red Rocks park, but blizzard-like conditions in the high-country. Many hikers new to Colorado may not realize that a lot of snow can fall as late as June up in the higher elevations–and even in late September in the Fall. So, make no assumptions, and be sure to do your homework. If you are looking for hikes with less volatile winter conditions, check out our top 7 Winter Hikes Near Denver. With the exception of Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll find this set of hikes a better match to the Denver forecasts.

  • Check ahead for road and trail closures

  • Bad road conditions, trail damage and blockage, and slippery ice are common in the winter season. The weight of snow and moisture is taking down many of the trees killed by the pine beetle, blocking paths and confusing trails. If the trail your is marked by blazes (blue or white square markings on trees), then you’ll find it easier to keep to the trail. There are also a lot of seasonal road closures in Colorado, so be sure to check the Colorado Dept. of Transportation site before you head out. It can be difficult to find accurate information on many trailheads, especially those further up in the mountains, but it’s worth spending some time checking online when you plan your hike.

    10 winter hiking tips mountain reflection

    Mountain Reflection – Courtesy of Larry Lamsa

  • Bring a map and a compass.

  • Or a GPS device, since we are on the modern times after all. Snow could mean unmarked trails and that’s a simple recipe for a lost hiker. Even though you’ve already planned this trip, it’s always a good idea to bring these along in case finding your way becomes a concern. And it probably goes without saying, but be sure you know how to use them, too ;)

  • Wear winter clothing in layers.

  • Like an onion, stuff yourself in layers of thick clothing for these cold times to avoid hypothermia. The key is to stay warm and dry at all times. Take note to avoid cotton because its insulation is virtually worthless if it gets wet. Hiking in layers helps you to avoid producing too much sweat, which can accelerate a person into hypothermia. Maintain the balance between warm clothing and being warmed up by the movement you make along the way.

  • Always Pack the 10 Essentials.

  • This goes for any hike any time of the year. What are the 10 Essentials:

    • Hydration: plenty of water. The dry winter weather often means you need more than you might expect.
    • Navigation: map, compass, gps
    • Insulation: appropriate clothing for the conditions
    • Fire: lighters (better than matches)
    • First Aid Kit
    • Illumination: headlamp or flashlight
    • Emergency Shelter
    • Nutrition: enough and extra food
    • Repair Kit and Tools: knife, multi-tool, para-cord to replace broken boot laces, etc.
    • Sun Protection: sunscreen and sunglasses

    10 winter hiking tips sunrise frozen dream lake

    Sunrise over Frozen Dream Lake – Courtesy of Justin Mier

  • Use Traction Devices and Trekking Poles

  • Walking through snow tends to be quite difficult. Trekking poles aid you in your balance and help you to judge the depth of the snow. Just as important are traction devices like YakTrax. These slip over your boots and give you extra grip on the snow and ice. In the Spring in Colorado we have many days where snow is melting, then freezing over the trail at night. This can make for long treacherous stretches of slick and frozen trail. You can order both trekking poles and traction devices from REI.

  • Prepare hot beverages.

  • To prevent dehydration and keep your body energized, bring water in a thermos which you can boil to prepare some drinks to warm you up. Bring the necessary tools or utensils to boil it and then make either a coffee, tea, or a chocolate drink. This warm treat could certainly help in battling the cold and provide you some calories to refuel you up along the way. We’ve recently acquired a set of Yeti thermal ramblers which keep liquids hot for hours! These things are amazing, and though they are a bit pricey, they are worth every penny.

  • Hike with a Friend.

  • Do not go alone. As much as possible, hike with others during the winter months.

  • Don’t forget the return trip.

If you are on an out-and-back winter hike, always remember that when you reach the primary destination, you’ve just completed half of the trip. While the return trip may not be as difficult, it’s still wise to remember that you need to consider your energy and resources on your way back. Also consider that the sun sets both earlier in the winter months, and it gets dark quickly when the sun disappears behind the mountains.

We hope these tips aid you as you prepare for your winter adventures. Enjoy exploring the winter landscapes of Colorado.