With temperatures dropping with every passing day, your Summer or early Fall gear isn’t going to cut it much longer, if you haven’t already packed it away for the season. Dressing for the winter elements is not only necessary to stay comfortable; it could also save your life.

From thermal layers to waterproof jackets and the right boots, there is some gear that you simply can’t go without. Before you hit the trails this season, check out this list of the must-have winter gear you’ll need on your back or in your pack.

Non-Cotton Thermals

When most people think about winter wear, they picture heavy coats, hats, gloves, and other out layer items. But the reality is that staying warm starts at the closest layer to your skin.

Base layer thermals are a staple of any hiking wardrobe once temperatures begin to drop even just a little. On warmer days, they can be worn on their own or under a light jacket. In cooler temps, they act as a soft, comfortable, warm base on which you can layer jackets, sweaters, and outer layers.

But before you turn to your favorite cotton leggings and long-sleeve t-shirt, think twice. While it may seem better to invest in more expensive outer layers and use what you already have underneath, this isn’t an area you should skimp on. To start, cotton is the worst thing you can wear when the weather gets cold. It traps moisture, such as sweat or snow and rain, against your skin, leaving you damp and chilled. It can even lead to hypothermia in extreme conditions.

Synthetic base layers prevent this. They are designed to wick moisture and allow it to evaporate quickly. This means that you stay dry, and as a byproduct, warm during your hike.

A Waterproof Outer Layer

While base layers are important, they don’t negate the need for a waterproof outer layer. Even the best wicking under layers can’t hold up to lots of rain and snow. Your outer layer should lock out the elements, including both wind and precipitation. This ensures that the layers underneath can keep you warm, no matter what kind of weather you’re hiking through.

You could opt for a heavy winter coat that’s also waterproof. But if you hike all year long, this might not be the best choice. Instead, it may be more cost-effective to purchase only an outer shell that’s wind and waterproof. You can then wear it on its own or with light layers underneath in warmer weather, or pack on the layers when it gets cold outside.

A Down Jacket

If you’re going the route of choosing a thinner outer layer that you can then add warmer layers underneath, you’re going to want to buy this piece of gear as well. A down jacket is a perfect way to add warmth without adding bulk. These staples are available in a wide variety of warmth so that you can choose just the right thickness and down fill for the conditions you hike in most often.

Waterproof or Water-resistant Boots

The right hiking boots is always a must. But during the winter months, there is one big feature you’ll want in your boots if you want to stay warm and comfortable. Your boots should be water-resistant, at the least, or waterproof if you plan to hike through snow.

If snow is involved, you’ll want hiking boots that not just waterproof, but that are also designed for cold temperatures. These will not only help keep your feet warm but are usually designed with soles that will help keep your grip on icy surfaces. 

Nothing puts an end to a fun hike faster than wet feet. And when it’s cold outside, even a little bit of water can be devastating, as it won’t dry before you get off the trail. Make sure that you’re locking out rain and snow to prevent frostbite.

Several Changes of Socks

Even if your boots are rated for winter conditions, some water might get by from time to time, especially if you’re hiking through snow. Additionally, under those warm boots, you might find that your feet still sweat, even when temperatures are sub-zero.

To keep this sweat and water from leaving you chilled and uncomfortable, make sure to pack a couple of extra pairs of socks. Just like with your base layers, skip the cotton and opt for wool or synthetic blends instead.

An Emergency Kit

You probably already know that you should have a basic first aid kit in your day pack, no matter how easy or short the trails are that you’re planning to hike. But during the winter months, you’ll want to add a few more key essentials to this kit.

An emergency blanket will help you stay warm if you get caught on the trail later than you expected. With sundown now coming much earlier in the day, you’ll want to have a flashlight along, too. Some high-protein snacks can help you keep your energy up, which you’ll need if you’re hiking in frigid conditions or through the snow.

Choosing the Right Winter Gear

Before you take off on your next winter hiking adventure, make sure that you have the right gear for the job. Not only are these essentials key for staying warm and comfortable, but when conditions become extreme, they can also be the difference between getting off the trail safely and facing an emergency situation.