However, snow, ice and cold temperatures are intimidating to new winter explorers. Those fears are understandable. Snow adventurers face shorter day lengths, colder temperatures, insecure footing and while the lack of crowds is mostly a blessing, it removes a common summer safety net of random passers-by. The winter conditions must be respected and treated with conservative judgement. With just a little knowledge, and the right gear, the risks can be mitigated and the winter can be enjoyed by all who seek it.
The first step in a successful winter outing is choosing the right trail. At the start of each season, pick a few short, easy hikes in well-traveled places to acclimate yourself and test out gear. Hiking in the winter is more strenuous. More effort is needed to move through the unstable snow/ice and hills are harder to climb and descend. As the season progresses, keep in mind your own physical conditions and those of your companions.
Check the weather leading up to an outing paying particular attention to freeze-thaw cycles which lead to icy conditions. NOAA is a great resource for specific point forecasts. Check out the Flathead Avalanche Center’s avalanche danger forecasts. You can get information about which regions are more likely to experience slides and which aspects (North, East, South, West) are more dangerous for that particular day. When in doubt, play it safe and stick of low angle, treed areas. If you really want to get out into the backcountry, take an avalanche safety class.
Once you’ve picked your first winter hike, make sure to have the right gear. Start with a good set of base-layers or long underwear. Choose wool, silk or synthetic materials (anything but cotton). The purpose of these layers is to wick moisture away from your body. For full day outings, I throw in a second set of base-layers to change into half-way through my hike once the first layers are damp with sweat. Next, add some insulating layers like fleece or down jackets and sweaters. Again, avoid cotton. Finally, top it off with a shell layer (pants and a jacket) to keep the wind or precipitation from getting to you.
Once you have those essentials, it’s time to accessorize. Grab a wool or fleece hat, a neck warmer or buff, some warm wool socks and gloves or mittens. I like to wear thin fleece or wool gloves for the uphill part of my hike and then put on a pair of insulated mittens for the colder descent. When looking for winter boots, pay attention to the sole; you want something with thick but light rubber sole to keep your feet protected from the cold ground. As you try on boots, make sure there is enough room for a thick pair of socks without cutting off circulation to your feet.
As you start your hike, chances are good you’ll only be wearing some of the lighter layers so you’ll need a backpack to carry the extras as well as to carry your other gear. Make sure to waterproof your gear somehow either with dry bags, pack covers, or a simple garbage bag. You’ll want to bring some kind of foam pad to sit or stand on during breaks. Bring hiking poles and some kind of footwear traction device (Yaktrax, ice trekkers, snowshoes, microspikes). If you encounter icy conditions, these items will be a big help. If your hands and feet get cold, a few pairs of hand/toe warmers can make a big difference to comfort and safety.
In the winter, it’s especially important to be prepared for emergency situations; an inadvertent night out could lead to disaster if you’re unprepared. A whistle and first aid kit should be a part of your year-round hiking gear. For the winter, also bring fire starting materials such as a lighter and sheets of birch bark (or commercial fire starters). Some kind of metal vessel will help you melt snow for drinking water and a stove can be very helpful as well. Consider adding an emergency blanket or bivy-sack to protect yourself from the elements if an overnight stay is unavoidable. A backcountry shovel will make the task of constructing snow shelters or caves much much easier and if you choose to head into avalanche terrain, a shovel is essential.
One of the most important things in your backpack should also be food: lots and lots of food. Calories=warmth, it’s as simple as that. You’ll want to pack foods that are easy to snack on, won’t freeze into teeth breaking bricks, and that give you a good mix of sugars, fats, proteins and salts. My favorite winter foods include kitkat bars, sliced pepperoni and cheese, dried fruit, potato chips, and tortillas filled with peanut butter and honey. Also bring enough water to keep dehydration at bay. Your body can’t metabolism those calories if it isn’t hydrated. To keep your drinking water liquid, consider insulating your bottles with old wool socks. Store them upside down so the lid doesn’t freeze shut. If it is below 15ºF or so, skip the hydration bladder; those hoses are nightmares when they start to freeze.
When all the gear is packed, the snowy road has been conquered, and those last sips of coffee from the morning’s thermos are gone, it’s time to get hiking. Remember to hike like the BEAST you are.
Be Conservative: play it safe, the consequences are more intense and the safety net is smaller. Don’t take unnecessary risks like thin ice crossings or steep gulley traverses
Eat and drink constantly: calories calories calories, and hydrate too
Adjust your pace: winter hiking is all about slow and steady pacing. Try not to sweat, and try to take only a few short breaks. It’s easier to maintain body temperature with a consistent exertion rate
Stay dry and warm: once you’re cold it’s really hard to warm back up. So adjust your layers, keep them dry, minimize sweating and when you start to get cold, do something about it immediately
Think ahead: Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty, put on your parka before you’re cold, etc… Plan your movements so they can be efficient. Set a turn around time and stick to it; the way back is not always easier in the winter
Even with the best of planning, the right equipment, and good decision making, things can go wrong. If you find yourself in an emergency or survival situation the first step is to pause and take a deep breath. There will rarely be a situation without 10 seconds to pause and take a deep breath. Once you’re calm, assess the situation and make a mental priorities list. Don’t stop moving slowly but methodically until the list is completely done. Once you stop to sit or lie down, it’s ten times harder to get going again.
The first step is generally finding or making some kind of shelter. This may just mean putting on all of your warm clothing. You can dig a snow trench, burrow into a hillside or set up a tarp and build some snow walls. The goal is to create a somewhat small space protected from the wind where your body heat will raise the ambient temperature.
The second step in the priority list is usually tending to any first aid needs of yourself or the group. Treat hypothermia by adding calories, and moving the patient into shelter. For frostnip (not quite frozen skin), warm it gently with skin-skin contact like an armpit or against a warm stomach. For frostbite (tissue is completely frozen), protect it from further freezing, but do not thaw it; wait until advanced medical care is available.
After first aid needs are taken care of, consider building a fire for warmth. Collect dry branches (look for dead limbs at the base of conifer trees) and lots of them. It takes a lot of little kindling to get a fire going in the winter. If you think people may be out looking for you, the smoke from a fire will double as a signal. You can also draw or lay branches in an open snowy area to attract attention. Use your whistle (3 short blasts) to communicate you need help. As you hunker down and wait for better conditions or for rescue, continue to be BEASTly.
If you possess a desire to get out into the winter, do it! There is nothing getting in the way of year-round outdoor recreation. Take it easy at first and find some friends to venture with. As you get more comfortable and head farther afield, you’ll discovered the joys of winter travel.
Use good judgement and respect the environment to ensure you can continue your winter adventures for years to come!
Please download our free winter survival checklist so you can be prepared going into the winter wilderness.