Hiking from fall through spring offers different challenges than summer – shorter days, colder weather, and avalanche danger – so you need to plan accordingly. Here are our top 10 tips for shoulder season (and winter) hiking in Alberta.
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1. Check the trail report before heading out. The provincial and national parks provide reports on trail conditions for popular official trails. If there isn’t a trail report for where you would like to go, look at trail reports for the area to get an idea of whether the trails are muddy, snow packed, icy, or not recommended.
2. Choose an appropriate trail and research the route. Many steep trails you hiked in summer may be prone to avalanches from late fall to late spring. I highly recommend taking Avalanche Skills Training if you would like to adventure in the mountains year-round, but if you don’t have training, you can inquire at a parks visitor centre, or stick to official winter trails (lower chance of avalanches but not zero risk – read the trail descriptions to see if the trail crossed infrequent avalanche paths and then check the avalanche report.).
- The best spring and fall hikes in Kananaskis
- The best shoulder season hikes in Banff
- The best winter hikes near Calgary
Also, it is best to avoid unofficial trails in the off season because they are unmarked and it’s easy to lose your way once the trail is snow covered. See our tips on How to avoid getting lost and carry a map and GPS/compass – and know how to use them.
3. Check the weather before you go and dress accordingly. You should always carry a down jacket, waterproof / windproof layer, toque, and mitts/gloves this time of year. For cold weather, consider base layers or soft shell pants (I like fleece-lined leggings under soft shell pants). Keep in mind that falling / blowing snow can affect visibility and windchill can make a huge difference, so if Saturday is -10 C with 50 km/hr winds but Sunday is -12 C with 4 km/wind, you’re probably better off hiking on Sunday.
4. Check the avalanche report (and learn what the danger ratings mean). Avoid all avalanche terrain when the danger is high or extreme, and use caution when it is considerable or moderate. To reduce the risk, take Avalanche Skills Training and/or stick to official winter trails.
5. Get an early start. You don’t want to be caught out after dark in the cold, so start early even if it’s a short hike. You need to account for poor trail conditions, route finding, and injury (slips and falls are more likely to occur on wet/snowy/icy trails).
6. Carry the Ten Essential Systems. While all are important, be sure to have a headlamp for each person plus extra batteries to avoid being caught out after dark and unable to find your way back to your car (in which case you will need the rest of the essential systems). Extra layers are an absolute must as temperatures can drop rapidly. We bring one down sweater and toque per person, and extra mitts and socks for the kids since they tend to get wet playing in the snow. If it isn’t quite cold enough for snow pants or soft shell pants, rain pants are great for blocking the wind or protecting against wet snow.
- For a multi-season hiking pack list, please see The Ultimate Day Hike Pack List.
- See Keeping Kids Warm in Winter for tips on dressing kids for cold weather; includes what to look for and product recommendations.
7. Bring ice cleats or microspikes for improved traction in icy conditions. Yaktrax are high quality ice cleats that are affordable and suitable for walking on fairly flat terrain. The XS size will fit toddler boots! For adults, I strongly recommend investing in Kahtoola microspikes as they work better on ice and inclines, and stay attached securely to your boots. Hiking poles are nice to have on steep terrain too.
8. Wear gaiters to keep mud and snow out of your boots. Even waterproof boots will not protect your feet if snow goes in the top of them! I recommend breathable gaiters so you can wear them year-round without getting heat rash. The Outdoor Research Crocodiles Gaiters are pretty awesome and easy to put on/take off. Gaiters will also keep ticks out (ticks are active any time it’s above 4C). See my tick safety tips here.
9. Bring a closed cell foam sleeping/sitting pad to sit on so you stay warm and dry at break time. This can also come in handy in an emergency to keep an injured person insulated from the cold while waiting for help. We like the Thermarest Z-Lite SOL.
10. Bring hot drinks and/or soup in an insulated bottle. We like the Hydroflask Wide Mouth Flex Sip Bottle; it keeps hot drinks hot for up to 12 hours! Many people find it hard to drink cold drinks on a cold day and get dehydrated. Did you know dehydration makes it hard to keep warm? To learn more tips on keeping warm, please read Keeping Warm in Spring (or Fall).
- Canadian Avalanche Forecasts
- Kananaskis and Banff Trail Reports
- Why You Need Avalanche Skills Training
- The Best Short Hikes Near Calgary
- Fall Hikes in Calgary & the Mountain Parks
- 4 Spring & Fall Hikes in Banff
- Family Hiking Essentials from Footwear to Baby Carrying Devices
- The Best Children’s Snowsuits, Jackets, and Snow Pants