Catskill Mountaineer

Winter Hiking and Survival Guide

Gear List - Part 1



It is impossible to make a standard list of items that will work for everyone on every hike. You need to change your gear list for every hike. When considering what items to put in your pack, you need to consider all the conditions that you might encounter on the hike. You want to keep warm, dry, and be able to travel with relative easy. And, above all, you don't want to get lost. To achieve this, you need to know what the weather is going to be on the hike, and the day after the hike. Always error on the side of caution. The weather forecast can change during your hike, and you can encounter high winds, snow, rain, sleet, and cold. Always be prepared for the unexpected. If the weather turns unexpectedly sour during the hike, you should seriously consider turning around.

In the summer months some hikers use "Minimalist Gear List". The idea behind Minimalist Gear List is to reduce the amount of weight to an absolute minimum. You will take only what is absolutely needed. In the Winter, you want to do the complete opposite! You want to error on the side of caution. You want to bring more then you think you will need. Weight is only a minor consideration in the Winter. In the summer if you forget an item, you will survive. In the winter, you can die over forgetting an item.



  • Hiking Clothing
  • Hiking boots
  • Paper Maps
  • Head lamp
  • Showshoes and Poles
  • Microspikes
  • Hiking Crampons
  • Food & Water
  • Hand Warmers
  • Extra Batteries
  • Water & Food
  • Backpack
  • Knife / Clippers
  • GPS and/or Compass
  • PLB/InReach/SPOT
  • Fire Kit
  • Extra Clothing
  • Extra Socks
  • Extra Thermos
  • Hat
  • Medical Kit
  • Whistle
  • Thin Glove
  • Thick Gloves
  • Cell Phone
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun Screen
  • Bivy Sack
  • Rain Gear
  • 50 gal Plastic Bag
  • 5 gal plastic bags
  • Nylon Ties
  • Rope
  • Construction Tape
  • Sharpe Markers


    BATTERIES - There are four different types of batteries that you can use with your electronic equipment.

    Alkaline batteries have a long life shelf life before discharging too much. The Disadvantage is that you can only use them once. For head lamps, they work great.

    NiMh Batteries work well in the summer months, but discharge quickly once below 40F. They have a poor shelf life after charging them. They work well in GPS units in the summer months.

    NiCd Batteries work very well in cold weather. They also have a poor shelf life after charging them.

    Lithium Ion Batteries have a fairly good shelf life. But, not as good as Alkaline batteries, but better then NiMh and NiCd batteries. They will also last longer then NiMh and NiCd batteries. Their operating range is 32F to 131F. Below freezing, they are a poor choice. They give off very little heat, so they provide better elevation readings. They work at a voltage of 1.5 volts, and they stay at 1.5 volts during their use. This is great for GPS devices that can use Lithium batteries (need to change setting on unit). The disadvantage is that you do know know when the energy in the battery is used up because there is no change in voltage.

    PAPER MAPS are still the gold standard. A paper map is always available. With some cell phone apps that have trail maps on them, some hikers question the need for paper maps. Cell phone batteries can go dead. Hikers drop the cell phones in streams, or off ledges, or lose them. Even if you want to use your cell phone, a paper map is a safe backup. It could save your life.

    CELL PHONE TRAIL MAP APPS Cell phone trail maps have a number of problems that you need to be aware of. Some of the larger application software providers, obtain their trails from existing users. Many users are unaware that the software company may use the tracks from your hike for new trails added to their Trail App. Cell phones have poor GPS sensors, which provide poor quality tracks. This is especially true in rugged terrain and cold weather. Sometimes trails get added that are not really trails. Many of the trail apps also do not indemnify you against liability in a case where someone is injured or killed due to using the tracks you unknowing provided. You could be sued for someone's death.

    Professional cartographers (map makers) use military grade GPS, and check multiple tracks to ensure that the tracks are correct. Additionally, they make sure that the trail is marked correctly. The mileage is very accurate. Often within +-25 feet for a track that is several miles long. Poorly made maps result in hikers getting lost more often. Always insist on professional made maps. You want the company who made the maps to be the one who also collected ALL the tracks for the trails.

    Lastly, Cell Phones use Lithium Batteries. In cold weather the batteries drain at alarming rates. Often below 0F, they do not work at all.

    HEADLAMP should always be in your backpack year around. You want to pick a headlamp that uses LED bulbs. LED bulbs use far less energy then older style bulbs. You should also test your headlamp periodically to ensure that it still works. Many get knocked around inside your backpack and can fail or not work correctly. Equally important is to use Alkaline Batteries in your headlamp year around. AND, you want a second set of batteries with the longest expire dates stamped on the batteries. Lack of headlamps or failure of the headlamps is common problem that New York State Rangers encounter on night search-and-rescue operations.

    PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON ("PLB") - is an electronic device that can notify Search-and-Rescue ("SAR") exactly where you are, and that you are in danger of dying. It is considered to be a "last resort" device. Should you become severely injured or ill, and have no possible alternative to get out of the woods safely, activating the PLB will automatically call Search and Rescue (SAR). Once activated, the PLB will make a transmission will notify SATSAR via satellite, to your exact GPS location automatically. Once activated DO NOT MOVE until help arrives! A minute later a strobe will come on. The strobe means that SATSAR received your distress call, and help is on the way. The strobe will work for a minimum of 40 hours. SATSAR will coordinate with local SAR and Rangers to come and rescue you. They will also contact people on your contact list to obtain as much information as possible. The purpose of the strobe light is to guide in a helicopter to your location, or SAR on the ground. The PLB has a very strong transmitter (5000 milliwatts), and will work in some difficult locations where other devices will not work. The PLB can also be used down to -40F. Before the PLB can be used, you must register with with your contact information. In the event of an emergency, they will notify your family that you are in an emergency situation. The device has a permanent battery that will last up to five years before it needs to be replaced. It never needs to be charged. You can leave it permanently in your pack.

    The ACR PLB is made by the same company that makes PLB for boats and ships. It comes from a very reputable company with excellent results. The ACR PLB cost about $250. Cheap insurance for the experienced hiker. It works in the winter or summer. They also have a model that floats in the water. The only down side is that you must be conscious to call for help. They also have an optional message system for those who want to send home, "I'm okay".

    SPOT or InReach is a different device then the PLB. The SPOT/InReach is an excellent device to let your family know where you are on the mountain and that everything is good. It can be used as an emergency device, but it has limitations. The SPOT has a weak transmitter (400 milliwatts). Due to the weak transmitter, sometimes the GPS location is significantly wrong, and SAR goes to the wrong location. You also will not know if someone got the signal and SAR is coming for you. It will only work down to -22F. The SPOT does not meet the requirements to be called a PLB. One of the primary purposes of the SPOT/InReach is to reduce the anxiety of your family. The SPOT requires an annual payment for the service. Over time it cost more then a PLB.

    The ACR PLB is best product for hikers. The SPOT/InReach has it's application for some hikers. For most hikers, the PLB is the right device for emergencies.

    GPS devices have very specific purposes for hikers. Today, most hikers have moved away from using GPS devices, and using their cell phones with apps like Avenza with specific maps for the region they are hiking in. Their primary purpose of GPS units is to create a very accurate set of tracks for a particular hike. While most GPS devices have a display map screen, the quality of the screen is poor, and the maps that come with them are also poor. You can find better free maps of New York to download to a USB card. They also are more capable of providing accurate elevations when used properly.

    Today, GPS devices are used for GeoCashing, cartographers, SAR, etc. The best GPS devices, that are affordable, are those units that handle multiband satellite systems. As of 2023, Garmin is the most common GPS units out there. Unless you have a specific reason to buy a dedicated GPS unit, we recommend that you skip purchasing a GPS unit.

    FIRE KIT - While it is possible to start a fire without a Fire Kit, it is more important to get a fire started quickly in the Winter. A complete Fire Kit should consist of a cigarette lighter, hand sanitizer, and flammable material. I like to put these items in a single plastic container.

    A cigarette lighter is the most important part of the kit. Pick one that is a bright color. If you drop it, you want to be able to find it easily in the snow or brown ground cover. Find one that allows you to turn up the flame. If it is windy, you want the lighter flame to be big and strong enough to not blow out. If your hands are frostbitten, you want a lighter that is easy to light. You also want one that is compact. You don't want a lighter with a long spout. There are also magnesium sticks that you can strike to make a fire. They are marketed under a number of names. Most do not work well, and some don't work at all. Don't waste your money on them. A compact lighter is a better choice.

    Flammable material is an optional item. But, most people don't mind carrying some. Here are a couple of options. The best option is a small $1 hand sanitizer bottle. They carry about 1 oz of a gel. This gel has approximately 50% alcohol by volume. It can be used for it's intended purpose, or it makes an excellent fire starting material. You can also use the hand sterilizer to sterilize wounds, and can serve the daul purpose of part of your first aid kit.

    Some hikers like to carry dryer lint. If the wood kindling is wet, the dryer lint can help get the fire started under difficult weather conditions. Most blankets and some cloths have fire retardant added to them, so you want to avoid that kind of lint. If you use dryer lint, check to make sure that the lint you use is flammable before you store it. I usually store the lint in a very small zip lock bag. The last item of good value is dollar bills. $1 dollar bills burn quite nicely. If you are about to freeze to death, then burning money isn't that important to get a fire started.

    FIRST AID KIT - First Aid kits for hikers are often setup specifically for each hiker. What is in my first aid kit will most likely be different from your kit. Some kits are very small. Some are just medication kits. Medical issues like asthma, diabetes, allergies, etc will make your first-aid kit larger. Here are a couple items you may consider for your First-Aid Kit:

  • Pills - Advil in a small zip lock bag
  • Pills - Anti-diarrhea in a small zip lock bag
  • Pills - Allergy in a small zip lock bag
  • Liquid Band-Aid for cuts and scraps
  • Tick removal & save kit
  • Small amount of Toilet Paper in a zip lock bag
  • Small package of Kleenex in the same zip lock bag as the toilet paper
  • Diabetes test kit and medication
  • Epipen for severe allergic reactions
  • Asthma inhaler
  • Medical tape (doubles as duct tape)

    You can put all the pills in one very small zip lock bag and place it in a very small plastic case.

    A tick removal kit can vary. Most hikers buy the plastic twirler removed tools. They usually work better then tweezers. They then place a cotton ball and the tools in an old pharmacy prescription bottle. Some doctors in the area are giving their patients, who are avid hikers, a prescription of Amoxicillin 500 mg. They take one pill after getting bit by a tick. Ask your doctor for advice if you have a problem of getting numerous tick bites.

    Medical tape can also be used if you have a rub spot on your foot where it is rubbing against your boot. This helps prevent blisters. Ideally, if you are having this problem, then your boots may not be a good fit for your feet.

    I generally like to put everything into one small rigid plastic case. I try get get a plastic case that fits well into my pack, and takes the least amount of space.

    OTHER ITEMS - There are a couple other items of interest:

    EMERGENCY MYLAR BIVY BAG - are common items in hikers packs. They are very light weight, cheap, bright in color, and take up very little space. A common misconception is that they help keep you warm if you are forced to spend a night under the stars. This is only true if you seal up the bag. You cannot do that because you would run out of oxygen and die. But, bivy bags do have other value. If you have to stay overnight in a snow cave or trench, they will keep you dry. The same can be true if you have to camp in the open during a snow storm. They are bight in color for SAR to find. They are also useful for wind resistance. So, they do have value, but not for what most hikers think.

    WHISTLE - This item has been on most gear list for years. We do not have any reports of any hikers using the whistle to help get rescued. They do make a orange nylon clip that has a whistle built into the clip. They also make one that attaches to the zipper of your jacket. Remember that no one is going to hear a whistle when it is raining, snowing, near streams, or windy. But, for a dollar or two it might be a worthwhile items.

    ROPE - Few hiker benefit from carrying rope. But, some hikers do carry 10 feet of 1/8" or 3/16 round rope. It can be used to fix broken shoe laces, tie items onto their packs, or repair broken snowshoes.

    NYLON CABLE TIES - Like rope, few hikers have a need for them. Like rope, they can be used to ix broken shoe laces, tie items onto their packs, or repair broken snowshoes.

    CONSTRUCTION TAPE - If you get lost, you can use this tape to mark your route. This can be used by rescuers in locating you quicker. Pink or orange tape is highly visible. You should use a Sharpie Magic Marker to write on the tape the date, time, name, direction of travel and "SOS" before you tie it on a tree branch. I like to keep it in a zip lock bag. It has a tendency to unwind in your pack without a bag. Few hikers carry this item. Better to have a better way of being rescued, like a PLB.

    Please beware that if you use it for a non-emergency use, you could face stiff fines from Rangers or ECO's. Using it to mark your route or other purposes is illegal.

    SNOWSHOES and POLES - are a very important part of your winter hiking gear. Trying to hike without snowshoes is a quick way to die. The higher you hike in elevation, the deeper the snow will get. Without snowshoes, the post holing in the snow will quickly wear you out. Finding the right snowshoe for you is a personal choice. For older snow, or harden snow, most people pick snowshoes that are around 25 inches long. For deep snow that is fresh, some people will move up to 30 inch snowshoes. For very deep fresh snowshoes, they will use 36 inch snowshoes. If you have to buy one pair of snowshoes, buy a 25 inch pair. That are very few opportunities to hike in deep fresh snow. Women weight less then men, so they can buy women's snowshoes, which are shorter then 25 inches, and lighter in weight. The longer the snowshoe, the more they weigh, which makes them harder to move with your leg muscles. But, a longer snowshoe will not sink deep into fresh snow as shorter snowshoes. So, there is a trade off between length of snowshoes and the depth you will sink into the snow. You want to pick a length that requires the least amount of energy.

    NOTE: Post holing in snow without snowshoes is heavily frowned upon in the Catskill Mountain, and illegal in the Adirondack Mountains. The problem with post holing is that once it hardens, it presents a hazard to snowshoes who can end up breaking their ankle or leg because of your frozen post holes. If hikers see you doing this, expect them to have some choice words for you. But, if the trail is broken and frozen, you can hike with microspikes instead of snowshoes. Frozen post holes on a broken trail is even more hazardous for hikers with microspikes. Every years SAR has to carry hikers down the mountain with broken ankles. Please do NOT post hole - Rent or buy a pair of snowshoes.

    Most hikers can only break-trail (snowshoe in fresh snow) about 5 miles. The depth of fresh snow will increase or decrease that distance. It is much easier to snowshoe on 6 inches of fresh snow versus 24 inches of fresh snow. On broken-trails (someone has already packed down the snow), most hikers can snowshoe about half to two-thirds of the distance they can hike in the summer months.

    One important factor is the ease of putting the snowshoes on. If you are hypothermic, you may have difficulty putting on your snowshoes. So, make sure that the bindings are very easy to use.

    Always look at the cramp-ons on the bottom of the snowshoes. The more aggressive they are, the less problems you will have on steeper sections. The Catskill Mountains have some very steep and difficult trails. You want a snowshoe that is going to stick to ice and snow. Some of the newer snowshoes have outside rails that help the snowshoe stick better.

    Snowshoes now have a step bar at the back of the heel of your boot. When the bar is lifted up, it helps you climb up inclines easier. Women's snowshoes have the bar placed further up for smaller feet. The step bar will also help prevent Plantar Fasciitis and ACR damage. Don't skip this feature. Cheaper and poor quality snowshoes often do not have this step bar. You want to avoid purchasing snowshoes without the lift-bar.

    There are basically two types of ski poles. Once piece poles that are used for downhill skiing will also work for snowshoeing. These poles are more rugged and will not bend as easy as three-piece poles. Three piece poles are thinner and collapse into a very short length. If you are traveling by plane, these are required to fit into a snowshoe bag.

    Always talk with other people about their experience with the products you are interested in. This will help you find hidden problems with the products you are interested in buying. This will help you purchase the best product for your application.

    MICROSPIKES - are very useful in late Fall and late Spring. They are often used to get over ice flows or when the trail ices up. Microspikes run about $60-to-$100. They may seem expensive, but they are made of stainless-steel which is much more expensive then steel. They are less then a pound of weight, and take up very little space. Virtually all experienced hikers carry them from late Fall to late Spring.

    Even when there isn't snow on the ground, the trail can be icy, so always make sure you have microspikes with you. Sometimes, the sun may melt everything on the trail, but on your return trip back down the mountain in the late afternoon, the trail turns to ice. Always be prepared!

    Virtually all hikers use Hillsound or Kahtoola microspikes. Hillsound microspikes have 3/8" spikes and a strap to prevent them from shifting. Kahtoola microspikes have 1/4" spikes and do not have a strap. Products change every year, so look at both products before deciding which manufacture's microspikes to buy.

    In very icy conditions, the next step up, is crampons. While they are not used very often in the Catskill Mountains, sometimes there is a need. Sometimes, we have ice storms, or we have a severe melt cycle. In this case, crampons become mandatory for safety. The disadvantage of crampons is that they have high spikes and it is hard to walk on terrain where there is not thick ice. Crampons generally require a mountaineering boot that is stiff.

    BACKPACKS - Standard sized backpacks are a necessity in the Winter. In the Summer you can use small back packs or fanny packs. But, in the Winter you need to carry a lot more items. Even for small day hikes. Furthermore, backpacks help keep you warm. It helps insulated your back.

    There are a lot of items to look at when considering a backpack. One of the most important items is that the backpack must be waterproof or have a waterproof cover. Backpacks that become saturated will endanger you. This can cause the life saving clothing and equipment to become worthless when you need them the most. If you fall into the snow, you don't want snow to come into the pack. If you are caught in a blizzard, you don't want snow creeping into small openings. If it is raining, you want the rain to not enter the backpack. Carefully examine a backpack for places that might leak or allow your gear to become wet. Ask more experienced backpacks they like.

    Also look for a backpack that can hold gear on the outside of the pack. You may want to tie your jacket to the outside. Expect to tie your snowshoes to the pack often in early and late Winter. If you ski, you may want to tie your skies and poles to the outside.

    Many backpacks now have water systems built into the backpack. You will need to insulate the tube coming out of the pack. Otherwise, it will freeze. Some hikers put hand warmers around the water reservoir inside the pack if it starts to freeze. Other hikers like to put warm water in the reservoir in the morning to help prevent freezing.

    CLOTHING - Proper clothing is a very important part of Winter hiking. One important point is to make sure that you don't wear any cotton clothing. Water Cotton absorbs sweat and water, and water on the cotton clothing evaporates very slowly. Good hiking clothing is made of synthetic material, like Polyester. Polyester is just flexible and durable form of plastic. Polyester doesn't absorb water, and will wick it off quickly with evaporation and gravity. Fleece jackets and micro-fleece shirts are made of polyester. You should make sure that your shirts are made of polyester or other non-absorbing materials. The real issue is cooling off and still being wet. This can cause hypothermia quickly. Your body can cool 30 times faster with liquids versus exposure to the air. If you become hypothermic, and your body cannot recover, you can easily die of exposure. You will essentially freeze to death.

    You also want to wear thin layers of hiking clothing. Remove or add clothing as you heat up or cool off. GLOVES - Wind has a hard time flowing thru leather gloves. You can dig in the snow with them, and they don't get wet. During blizzard conditions they can keep your hands warm. Insulated leather gloves can make the difference between life and death. Most hikers carry a thin pair of glove, as well as, a thick well insulated pair of gloves.

    SOCKS - Your socks also play an important role in keeping you warm. Most hikers bring at least 1 extra pair of winter socks that have the ability to wick the sweat and water out of your boots. If you feet get wet for sweat or weather (snow or rain), you need to change them. If you break through the snow into a hidden stream, your foot can get wet. You need to change your socks immediately this happens. If you get your socks wet, place them on the outside of your pack to dry them out. But, only if it is not snowing or raining.

    PRO TIP - If you have to change out of your wet socks for a pair of dry socks, you may consider putting a 5 gal plastic bag over your socks before you place them back into your wet boots. Otherwise, your dry socks will absorb water from your wet boots.

    BOOTS - While we are talking about your socks, it is important to have a good pair of boots that are waterproof. Make sure that you keep them maintained with sno-seal or nikwax for smooth leather boots. Silicone spray if they have a rough texture. Check with your boot manufacture for the best method of water proofing them. Don't use boots that have vents built into them. They need to be WATERPROOF! If you step into a stream, and water can seep in, then they are NOT waterproof.

    GAITERS - Gaiters are a necessity for hikers in the Winter months. The most commonly used gaiters is made by Outdoor Research. These keep snow and water off your boots and lower pants. They are an important step in keeping your legs and feet dry and warm.

    PANTS - Ski pants can be difficult. Some are insulated and some are not. Colder weather require insulated pants. Very cold weather requires insulated pants with thermal underwear. Warm Spring days may require polyester pants. Some ski pants have side zippers for warmer weather. Layering for your legs consist of Thermal underwear, hiking pants, and ski pants with side zippers. There may be situations where you are only using one, two, or three layers for your legs.

    SHELL JACKET - Your shell jacket is one of the most important pieces of clothing for your torso. When it is raining, sleeting, snowing, or windy it helps keep you dry and warm. If the trees are snow loaded, you can use the shell jacket to keep you dry. Try to buy a jacket that has a hood. This will keep snow from getting down your neck.

    HEAD - Sometimes when it is really cold, you may need a face mask. Some buy a hat with a face mask already built in Other people keep an extra mask in their pack for those rare moments. Most hikers also buy fleece neck warmers.


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