Hiking during the Winter in snowy and icy conditions can be challenging and also a ton of fun. It is important to be safe, and pack appropriately for hiking against the potential hazards. If you plan appropriately, you will stay warm and safe.
1. Be Sure That The Trailhead Is Open And Unrestricted
There have been many times where you may plan a hike and it’s not until you arrive that you may face a closure sign stating the trail closed for landslides or downed trees. Especially with severe snow or storm conditions, trails may be unsafe. This probability of trails closing increases during the winter months. Check the park or trails posted info online before you head out to avoid potential disappointment if you were to arrive at a closed trailhead.
2. Never Hike Alone If You Can Avoid It
Hiking, especially in remote and far removed areas pose a risk year round. It is always good advice to hike with others. When hiking in dangerous conditions including snow and icy conditions, hiking in groups should be take seriously. If you choose to hike alone be sure to tell others where you are going, and use a GPS tracker just in case. Make sure you bring auxiliary navigational equipment as well, including a compass and map.
3. Time Your Hike With Sunrise And Sunset
With the winter months, you are facing short days. This means you will want to start early to use the daylight hours more productive. Be sure to calculate the length of trail and how much land you can cover realistically in the winter conditions. It’s a common mistake to underestimate how long a hike will take you under adverse winter conditions. The same trail may take you hours longer to hike if the conditions are icy and snow covered.
Under deliberate consideration, many hikers plan their snow hikes topographically. If you time your hike while the sun is facing the western side of the mountain, you will be faced with potentially icier conditions and dense snow since the sun has not had a chance to melt some of the ground cover. The conditions may make your hike exponentially more difficult and dangerous. If you time the hike correctly, you can let some of the the snow clear out following direct sun exposure.
4. Pack Winter Survival Essentials
You always want to pack like you may have to stay overnight if you get stuck or temporarily stranded. Be sure to stay on the safe side and bring essential emergency equipment and supplies:
- Food and water (Enough for a few days)
- Ice axe
- headlamp / Flashlight
- Spare batteries (make sure they don’t get too cold)
- Hand warmers
- GPS and/or Compass
- First aid kit
- Matches / Flint + Steel
- Emergency blanket and mat
- Emergency shelter or bivvy
- Trekking Poles
5. Know Your Surroundings
Keep in mind these safety concerns when hiking in the snow:
- Avalanches - Some common indications of potential avalanches are cracks in the packed snow, the thumping sound that can foreshadow an incoming avalanche. It is important to understand that avalanches pose a risk on slopes on 30 degrees or more. Please be mindful when traversing any steep embankment.
- Frozen Lakes and Rivers - If you must cross an ice or snow bridge, make sure you do so earlier in the day before the ice has a chance to melt. This can cause you to potentially fall through if it’s unable to hold your weight. Crossing a river is safer earlier in the day since the water flow is less forceful before the melted runoff ice/snow has a chance to flow into the water from the surrounding land. This can be a huge danger, and many have lost their lives underestimating the force of rivers in the winter months.
- Cliff Edges- It can be very deceptive to tell where the edge of a cliff starts and the trail ends. When you are hiking in severe snow or ice conditions always hike in the center of the trail, and do not test the . It is best to avoid routes that are narrow and give way to a drop-off or cliff.
6. Bring Many Layers To Wear To Keep Warm (Bring More Than You Think)
The weather can change in a moments notice. You want to be ready for the temperature to drop or to be caught in a storm. This is pertinent as you hike to high elevation areas. Any exposed skin is at risk of becoming intolerably cold and frostbitten. Cover up and be sure to bring the below:
- Sunglasses (helps with snow glare)
- Warm Face Mask
- Insulated Gloves
- Scarf or Neck Gaiter
- Warm Hat / Beanie
- Foot Gaiters (keeps snow out of boots)
Layering For Cold Weather Should Include The Below Items:
- Base Layer - worn against skin and should essentially wick sweat away. Polyester or wool are ideal since they retain head but do not retain moisture.
- Mid Layer- Insulating layer over your base layer. Fleece or other warm jacket and insulated pants.
- Shell Layer - Worn over your clothing to protect you from rain and wind. This includes moisture resistant pants.
Pro Tip - Avoid Cotton at all costs - It can hold moisture and make you freeze while hiking in cold snowy weather.
7. Keep Your Feet Dry And Warm
- Be sure to bring traction devices - Microspikes and crampons are the best solution for traction and are 100% necessary if you are hiking on an incline on icy or snow packed terrain. Microspikes are ideal for mixed terrain if you are hiking on ground and snow. Crampons feature larger spikes and are good for icy terrain hiking. For deep snow, snowshoes are your best bet as long as the terrain is somewhat flat .
- Wear the correct hiking boots that are waterproof if possible. They make waterproofing spray that is an easy way to make any pair of boots waterproof. This will help ensure your feet stay dry. Foot gators will also help with this.
- Wear wool socks. Wool socks will keep your feet warm and not retain moisture. This is critical to keep your feet warm. It is always recommended to bring a second (even third) pair of socks incase your socks do get wet.
8. Know What The Weather Conditions Will Be Like
Check the weather conditions the day you leave so you are aware of any updates. If dangerous conditions are indicated, or you do not have the adequate gear, postpone the trip for a later time. Safety comes before all else.