The painting shows a wintry scene in which three hunters are returning from an expedition accompanied by their dogs. By appearances the outing was not successful; the hunters appear to trudge wearily, and the dogs appear downtrodden and miserable. One man carries the "meagre corpse of a fox" illustrating the paucity of the hunt. The overall visual impression is one of a calm, cold, overcast day; the colors are muted whites and grays, the trees are bare of leaves, and wood smoke hangs in the air. Several adults and a child prepare food at an inn with an outside fire.
The landscape itself is a flat-bottomed valley (a river meanders through it) with jagged peaks visible on the far side. A watermill is seen with its wheel frozen stiff. In the distance, figures ice skate, play hockey with modern style sticks and curl on a frozen lake; they are rendered as silhouettes.
The 1560s was a time of religious revolution in the Netherlands, and Bruegel (and possibly his patron) may be attempting to portray an ideal of what country life used to be or what they wish it to be.
Writing in the "opinion" section of Nature, art historian Martin Kemp points out that Old Masters are popular subjects for Christmas cards and states that "probably no 'secular' subject is more popular than ... Hunters in the Snow".