It might seem like winter is not the best time to hike in California but this is actually one of my favorite times of the year to get outdoors. With the rain returning, the hills are turning a beautiful green again, the mushrooms are in season, the creeks and waterfalls are running and there are ample opportunities to drink your fair share of hot chocolate. ‘Tis the season.

The only real hitch is that it can get a little cold and wet on the trails this time of year — but don’t let that get in your way. With the right planning and preparation you’ll find you can enjoy even the wildest of winter weather. So, before you take to the trails, here are some simple tips on what to wear, how to stay warm and how to thoroughly enjoy yourself hiking this winter:

winter hike - POST
A couple enjoys a rare and fleeting snowstorm from the top of POST-protected Windy Hill, something that happens about once or twice every winter. Photo: Teddy Miller

Upper Body: 

You Should Feel Like a Peanut M&M (I can explain)

In this analogy, you, my friend, are the peanut (stick with me here). Surrounding you is a warm, thick layer of chocolate. The chocolate is your insulating layers—the lofty, soft, light-weight layers that create a warm cushion of air between you and the cold winter air. The more chocolate, the warmer the peanut.

The outside of a peanut M&M is the hard, candied shell, an impenetrable layer of goodness that protects the chocolate and, ultimately, a very special peanut. This is your waterproof layer, the final article of clothing layered on top to protect the rest.

Congratulations. You now have a very robust understanding of the important concept of “layering” and, most likely, a hankering for something sweet.

Think Layers (but think smart):

One thing that has taken me a while to learn is to choose layers that are easy to pack away. For the longest time, I was that guy who was cold in the parking lot and started hiking with a huge parka only to get hot ten minutes in and be forced to awkwardly carry the fifteen-pound heap of fabric for the entire hike. So, here’s a pro tip from the school of hard knocks: pack light layers that compress well, making them easy to stuff in your pack.

Mind Your Melon:

There’s a popular myth that most of our body heat is lost through our heads. Even though that myth has been dispelled, I still think that keeping your head warm and dry is critical to maintaining a cheery disposition on the trail. There are so many options when it comes to hats and, to each his or her own in that department. All I’m saying is, mind your melon.

winter hike - POST
It’s rare for much snow to accumulate in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but when it does we’ve got to make the most of it. Photo: Teddy Miller

Lower Body:

Wear What’s Comfortable:

Let’s face it: your lower half is going to be doing most of the work out there and there’s nothing worse than an uncomfortable pair of pants on a long hike. Death by chafing? No thanks!

Find a pair of pants that you feel you can walk a long time in and still be comfortable. They don’t have to be fancy, synthetic or even made by an outdoor company. They just need to be comfortable and warm.

Cotton is Great (so long as it stays dry):

When it’s dry, cotton is a terrific fabric—comfortable, warm and relatively lightweight. But when it gets wet it’s pretty useless for insulating and, since it absorbs water so well, it gets really heavy. So know what you’re getting into if you decide to wear that favorite pair of cotton jeans for a long hike on a wet day. Maybe pack a lightweight, synthetic pair of pants as back up? Maybe you risk it? Maybe you make an awesome pair of garbage bag pants and become the envy of everyone on the trail? Your call.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Your Feet Wet:

Plan to get your feet a little wet and muddy for your next winter hike. You can come prepared with some waterproof boots (something with some tread so you don’t slip), but if you don’t own any, don’t let that deter you. Again, wear what’s comfortable and what you have. It’s ok to get your feet a little wet, especially if your socks aren’t cotton and will keep you warm once wet. You can also pack some thick, dry socks to put on as soon as you get back to the car. Ahhh.

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About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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