Winter Hiking Safety

Some of the best hiking can be done in the winter. Snowshoeing, skiing, and hiking in the winter open up a whole new opportunity for getting out and enjoying the outdoors. Even areas that are familiar in the warmer months will look and feel totally new in the winter.

There are, however, certain precautions and preparations that can keep you safe and happy. The following list is not exhaustive, but an introduction to important safety concepts for getting out onto the trails in winter. Think about the things that could get you into trouble, and take steps to minimize those risks.

Hike in a group. Never hike alone in the winter. The inherent risks are higher and the chances of other hikers coming along are fewer. A group size of at least four is recommended. Plan your hike to accommodate the experience and ability of all in the group. Anticipate that you may be out there longer than planned. Leave a plan with someone not hiking with you. Remember, daylight is much shorter in the winter.

Consider the trail. Plan on hiking a trail that is doable for all members of your group. Low lying or damp trails can be muddy or wet, causing snow or ice to accumulate under foot. Steep or rugged sections can be dangerous or impassable with snowshoes or skis. Mountain peaks can be windblown and icy. Trail markings, especially white blazes, can be difficult or impossible to see in the winter, and the trail itself might be obscured by snow.

Stay on course. It’s easy to get lost in the winter. GPS and other electronic gear can be very useful in finding your way, but always, always, always have a compass and a good map of the area, even if you know the area well. When possible, plan an alternate route.

Think about your gear. Unless you know the entire trail is hard-packed, and not likely to change, plan on bringing snowshoes or skis and poles. Postholing is exhausting, dangerous, and bad for the trail. Poles should be telescopic and have extra-large (powder) baskets. Also have crampons or other traction devices for icy conditions. Devices that slip on over boots can be found for as little as $20. I always take a pair with me in the winter, even if snowshoeing or skiing. If you hang them on a carabineer or stuff them in an outside pocket of your pack, they are easy to get to if needed. Make sure footwear is appropriate for the conditions, and that it has been treated some type of waterproofing.

This includes safety gear. These items will help in an emergency: Whistle (keep it tucked inside clothing so it doesn’t freeze), flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries, at least one small shovel (such as an avalanche shovel), first-aid kit, Coban or Vet Wrap (versatile and lightweight, it can be used for splints, bandages, and repairs; if space is an issue, Coban and duct tape can be wrapped around a water bottle or other rigid container); at least one saw in the group for clearing obstructing branches or trees, waterproof matches, a lighter, and/or better yet, a fire starter and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls or other fire-starting supplies (don’t depend on butane in the cold), a tarp, emergency blanket, or at the least a space blanket; a knife, or better yet, a multitool (or both), rope or cord (parachute cord is strong and lightweight), sunblock, Chap Stick, and glasses; hand/feet/body warmers are not 100 percent dependable, but can be quite comforting in the cold. If there is any danger of avalanche, everyone in your group will need avalanche rescue gear and training.

Food and water. Staying hydrated in the winter cold is as important as it is in the summer heat. Fight the tendency not to drink when it’s cold. Tramping through snow is hard work, and cold, dry air saps moisture with each breath. Bring plenty of water or fluid and make efforts to stay hydrated. Uninsulated water bottles and hydration pack tubing might freeze in cold weather. Water bottles tend to freeze from the top down, so consider carrying them upside down, just be sure they don’t leak. Hot tea, Tang, or chocolate in a thermos will help keep you warm, but avoid caffeine, as it promotes dehydration. Winter hiking burns more calories than summertime activities. This is not the time to diet. Bring and eat plenty of high-calorie foods to keep your energy and metabolism high. Chocolate, cheese, trail mix, jerky, and cereal or energy bars are good to pack. Consider cutting bars up ahead of time, as they are hard to cut when frozen.

Clothing. Dress like an onion, that is, in multiple layers. The base layer needs to be able to wick moisture away from your skin. Merino wool is my favorite, but polypropylene works well too. The next layer should be an insulating layer to trap heat generated by your body. Wool or fleece is good for this. The outer layer should be waterproof and windproof but breathable. The key is to stay dry. “Cotton kills,” it does not insulate when wet and does not wick moisture away. Try to stay comfortably cool; sweating makes you wet, which then freezes and leads to hypothermia. Remove layers before or during ascent to avoid sweating and then add layers when less active as needed. You should always have a warm hat and a couple pair of gloves/mittens. An extra insulating sweater, vest, or jacket may be lifesaving; fleece, wool, down, and fiberfill is lightweight and compacts nicely. Compartmentalize extra clothing in plastic or waterproof bags for convenience and just in case things get wet.

Exposure. Exposure to cold can lead to hypothermia and/or frostbite. Hypothermia is a lowering of body core temperature brought about by dehydration, fatigue, wet clothing, and cold. It doesn’t have to be bitter cold; hypothermia can happen in 50-degree weather. Signs are shivering, extreme fatigue, loss of fine motor function, slurred speech, forgetfulness, confusion, fainting, and then coma and death. Watch for the “umbles” (mumbling, fumbling, and stumbling). It is far better to prevent hypothermia than to try to treat it. Check each other frequently and treat early if any signs. Treatment starts with reducing the cooling (usually wet clothing and exposure). Get out of wet clothing, get dry, and get out of the elements. Then take action to warm the body with rest, hydration, and warmth.

Frostbite is freezing of tissue. Like hypothermia, it is best to prevent it in the first place. Exposed skin, wet and/or constrictive clothing, and dehydration can lead to frostbite. Some medications and a previous history of frostbite increase susceptibility. Unless refreezing is likely, treatment recommendations are to rewarm the body part and protect it from further exposure.

Sunlight reflects off the snow and can cause sunburn to exposed skin and “snow blindness” to unprotected eyes, especially at higher altitudes. Wraparound sunglasses or goggles with UV protection will help prevent retinal damage, and skin protection with sunblock (not suntan lotion) will help prevent serious sunburn from sun exposure.

The margin for error is narrowed by cold, wind, weather, snow, ice, and decreased daylight, but with proper planning and preparation, can be well worth it. If you are new to winter hiking, start on something easy, on a nice day, with a comfortable group. Pay attention to the weather, the trail, and each other, and have fun!