Winter Hiking with Emily Ford

Winter long-distance hiker Emily Ford loves the fourth season. She and her Alaskan husky, Diggins, have completed thru-hikes during the coldest months of the year, including the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. She makes the case for trying winter treks. Listen to the podcast or read on for her gear tips and other recommendations.

Podcast Transcript

When I talk to people about hiking in winter, the main response I get is, “But it’s so cold!” It is cold, but that’s the brilliant part about it. Cold means no mosquitoes. There are not as many people on the trails. Lakes freeze and you can essentially walk on water—or skate, play broomball or hockey, and even fish in the middle of the lake without a boat.  

You can build shelters out of snow. You can bring different foods on your expeditions because they never go bad. And warm sleeping bags are even cozier; I sleep so well out on the snow. 

The sky is super clear because it’s cold outside, and in many places, winter is a brilliant time to see the northern lights. The list goes on forever. It’s so good.   

Emily Ford

Gear Up Like Emily

As a person who grew up in the throes of Minnesota winters, I’ve always loved this season.  Over the years, I’ve compiled tips for layering and a gear list to help me stay warm.  

I try to live by the runner’s mantra “dress for mile 2.” It is OK to be chilly at the beginning. You don’t want to be frigid and unbearably unhappy while winter hiking, but a wee bit cold is good. The point of understanding our layers and how our bodies do in the cold is so that we do not overheat and sweat. Sweat quickly turns cold and can send you into hypothermia without you even knowing. So, as soon as you feel sweaty, either take off a layer, open a vent or expose your neck or wrists. Adjust the following list per how your body heats as it is moving.

Base Layer

The goal in the winter is to be like a beautifully layered butter biscuit. You want a bunch of thin layers (the dough) with heat trapped in between (the butter).  You can choose any brand of base layers here. I choose ones that people give to me as gifts, or whatever is already in my closet. If you tend to get cold easily, two thin base layers on the bottom or one thicker layer is always a good idea. Never be afraid to double up.


The hands are like the feet in that they vary for every person in how much they sweat. I rarely run with gloves. My hands are too cold and sensitive for me to not have my fingers touching each other for accumulated body heat. Here are my go-tos:

Thin, crappy “one size fits all” gloves: These are usually cotton, but they are just enough to keep the heat in on a warmer day. They are also a nice extra layer inside a mitten.

  • Manzella mittens: I love my thin, fleece-lined mittens to the moon and back. They block the wind, but the material also breathes so you don’t get too sweaty.
  • Hestra leather mittens with wool liner: Also known as “choppers” in the Midwest. These are nice and warm! A perk is that the liner can come out so that you can use the leather mitten as a shell layer or just a wind-protective layer.
  • Helly Hansen mittens: Ultra warm, no liner, good for a really, really cold day.
  • Black Diamond shell mitten. These are good with a thin layer beneath to keep the wind off, or as an extra heat-trapping layer with thicker mittens. Don’t let the thin design deceive you.

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