Winter Hiking Tips:
Hiking in the winter can be a truly rewarding experience, but it can also be dangerous if you're not prepared. In this blog post, we will discuss how to stay safe and warm while hiking in the winter. We'll go over some essential gear that you'll need, as well as some tips for avoiding danger while out on the trail. So whether you're a seasoned hiker or a beginner, read on for some helpful advice!
The beauty of newly fallen snow on the mountains is undeniable, and it's only natural that hikers would want to switch from trail runners to waterproof boots so they can explore these gorgeous alpine winter wonderlands. With the right tools, education, and experience, you can have a blast revisiting your favorite places under completely different conditions. But if you aren't properly prepared and skilled without good judgment, a winter mountain visit could end in injury or death.
No matter how many times you've trekked a location in the summer or shoulder months, it transforms once the temperature drops, snow falls, and ice forms on the ground. We offer the following information to provide a basic summary of the hazards and skills necessary while winter mountain trekking – but we also recognize that this article barely scratches the surface of your understanding and expertise in order to safely enjoy snow- and ice-covered territory. We recommend that you seek out training that covers these tools and methods in a controlled setting, learn from people who are professional in the field, and strive for success.
Many people don't realize that the cold can be a big problem when hiking, but it can be especially problematic if you sweat while wearing cotton clothing. That's where layering comes in handy – by wearing a non-cotton base layer next to your skin, you can prevent sweat from ruining your hike. There are plenty of great wool and synthetic options on the market.If you go hiking in a cotton shirt and/or jeans in the winter, you are putting yourself at significant risk - your clothes will not dry, leaving you extremely chilly after you cease moving, which can lead to hypothermia. Add a "mid-layer" to help insulate you while taking a rest on a winter trek – fleece, down, and synthetic down are all popular materials.A shell layer (i.e. a Gore-Tex jacket or similar) will further protect against wind and precipitation.
When you're unexpectedly stranded after dark, when the temperature drops dramatically, your risk of dying from hypothermia increases significantly. Not only will your water and batteries freeze if the temperatures fall low enough, but your body will also enter shutdown mode. This is one of the reasons it's essential to carry a complete layering system (including gloves and a hat), as well as an emergency blanket.
Almost nothing beats the beauty of a snow-capped mountain, but it's essential to remember that playing in alpine snow is distinct from lower areas. Some falls might be light and powdery, which can cause trouble for hikers since it can be challenging to walk on (particularly if it rests on granite or slickrock) and not think enough to need traction devices (read more below) – aim for shoes or boots with good tread and lugs.
When the snow pile gets deeper and more compacted, it freezes and forms layers. In sunny regions (or during warm spells), the top layer may melt away – only to refreeze overnight to become extra hard and slick the next morning. You run the risk of having to trek over "sun cups" (egg-carton-like depressions on the snow's surface that love to turn ankles) when the snow is soft, and you get "postholing," which means punching through the softened snow's crust as you hike.Delaying your hike until the afternoon might help you avoid dealing with slushy snow, as many people choose to time their hikes for early morning. If you do encounter soft snow, however, don't worry - snowshoes can help spread your weight out over a larger area. Additionally, adding “snow baskets” to your trekking poles will keep them from plunging all the way through the snow.
Deep snowfall has the potential to cover up obstacles that lie beneath the surface, like running water or jagged rocks. If you're familiar with the area, though, you can use landmarks to orient yourself and prod at potentially dangerous areas before crossing them. For example, if you know there's a creek ahead, test the snowy ground before putting your full weight on it – otherwise you might fall through what looks like a sturdy "snow bridge."Another hazardous zone, skiers are all too familiar with, is the tree well. The heat generated at the base of trees can cause snowmelt and create a pooling area that may entrap unsuspecting pedestrians, especially if it's hidden beneath the tree's branches.
Yet another problem that snow creates is covering up the pathway you're supposed to be walking on. Never go into an area withacha heavy snowfall without first consulting a map and having a compass - and knowing how to use them effectively. Even though nearly all hikers carry a compass, it does nothing for you if you can't read it. The same goes for maps; they're no help at all unless you know how compare what's shown on the map with your actual surroundings. Many people carry a GPS or wear a GPS watch – these are only as good as their battery power (and satellite signal).
Ice is a major danger in mountainous regions, especially when it's hidden under snow or as thin, hard-to-see verglas.
Do not head out to “hike” in steep, icy mountainous areas unless you have the experience and tools to do so safely.
Traction devices improve safety while walking on snow or ice. They have spikes or teeth on the bottom that grip the slippery surface. If you're planning to walk in an area where conditions could change, it's a good idea to carry traction devices even if the trail is currently clear. DO NOT use minimalist equipment (i.e. Yaktrax) in the mountains; they are designed for use in cities and on flat terrain outside of trails. The next level up is a mid-level gadget like Kahtoola's MICROspikes or Hillsound's Trail Crampons, which usually include a rubber rand that you place over your shoes (including trail runners and low-top hikers) with tiny metal teeth along the bottom to provide a little greater grip. Created specifically for milder terrains with well-packed snow crust, “spikes” will give you the necessary traction needed to avoid slips. Although, if you find yourself on slick and steep hard ice, spikes likely won't provide adequate support.
Crampons not only have longer, sharper points beneath your feet, but also in front. They strap onto compatible boots (or in some cases, any type of footwear) and provide excellent grip on solid ice or in steep terrain. Most “true” crampons also come with an anti-balling plate so snow doesn't accumulate and make the spikes ineffective.It's especially crucial to be cautious when carrying and wearing them since they're generally quite sharp - learn how to use, care for, and fit crampons before heading outdoors in cold, steep environments.
On steeper, more treacherous ground, it is always best to wear a helmet and carry an ice axe (which is different from an ice tool climbers use). An ice axe acts as a brake when you're sliding down snow-covered slopes. Additionally, having a self-belay or self-arrest system helps you prevent losing control in icy weather conditions. While I won't go over any of these in detail here, all of these processes should be studied and practiced on low-angle slopes free of hazardous runout before being used in severe mountain terrain. Online video watching is not a substitute for adequate training. Remember that an ice axe is only useful if it's in your hand, not strapped to your pack.
A NOTE ON RESCUE
When a news report on a mountain rescue sparks a discussion about personal responsibility and whether those picked from the slopes should reimburse Search and Rescue and other services utilized, it's only natural that we ask ourselves how common such incidents are. A similar debate frequently emerges about the use of cell phones and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) like SPOT and Delorme inReach devices, which provide not only a connection to the outside world, but also a "panic button."
Here's the issue: mountaineers with a lot of expertise can suffer accidents, just as those with less knowledge do. Of course, the more experience and practice you acquire in winter travel in the mountains, the less likely it is that you'll get stuck in an unescapable position that requires rescue.A PLB is not a "Get Out of Jail Free" card; you should never attempt anything above your skill level thinking that a helicopter will be just a button push away if you get into trouble. While most gadgets allow friends and family to track your movements, and some even enable you to check the weather and send messages, they should not be viewed as a substitute for being prepared but rather as a tool to utilize only when absolutely necessary.
If you’re interested in playing in the mountains during the winter, education is key. Here in .............. Sierra Mountaineering International also offers extensive courses covering everything from ice axe and crampon use to avalanche education. Hikers preparing to set off on the Pacific Crest Trail may find Mountain Education’s courses highly useful – they often offer special classes right on the trail in the Sierra for the current year’s trekkers. Nationwide, you may consider looking into courses offered by REI, NOLS, and guide services local to the area you’re planning to travel within.
A FINAL WORD
You can have an amazing time exploring the mountains in winter when you are adequately prepared. But if you feel unprepared or uncomfortable in the terrain, it's best to turn back. If you forgot a crucial piece of gear at home, return for it before continuing. It's also not worth proceeding if you're hiking with someone who is improperly equipped--better safe than sorry. Finally, even if ascending is no problem but returning down Afterwards would be, go back the way you came up. If your gut tells you to go back, then do it. The Trails and Mountains will always be there, so make sure you'll be able to enjoy them next time.