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Is Solo Winter Hiking Safe?

Ambition Can Blur Decision-Making in Winter
Ambition Can Blur Decision-Making in Winter

I was reminded of the dangers of solo winter hiking while climbing Mt Avalon (3, 442 ft) in Crawford Notch. There’s a balance between ambition and self-preservation that one needs to be cognizant of if you hike in the mountains or any remote area in winter.

Mt Avalon isn’t normally a difficult climb, except for some steep bits in the last half mile. It’s located right off the frequently visited A-Z Trail that starts near the AMC’s Highland Center and provides access to spur trails to Mt Willard, Mt Tom, and Mt Field.

I figured that the A-Z and Avalon Spur Trails would be well broken out when I arrived on a Friday morning, before the long holiday weekend. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Fresh snow had fallen and and it was easily three feet deep.

I stood there for a while trying to guess whether the Mt Field spur, a mile father along the A-Z trail would be broken out. My original objective for the day had been to bag Avalon and Field, which is an easy 3 season hike. Field is an unpopular 4,000 footer, and I decided that it probably wasn’t broken out. So I stood there, and pondered whether I should break out the Avalon Trail and try to summit.

Mt Avalon Trail
Unbroken trail

Then I did something, which on hindsight, was more chancy than I prepared for. I decided to go for it. The reasons are complex, but ambition is certainly one of them. I wanted to summit at least one peak that day. I had driven up to New Hampshire, leaving at 5 am for the 3 hour drive, and I didn’t want to “do nothing” that day.

The Dangers of Breaking Trail Alone

Breaking a Leg

While, snowshoeing on broken trail can be pretty tame stuff on level ground, it’s not without risk in the mountains. Occasionally, you’ll post hole through the surface into a stream or shrub pocket beneath the surface. While you can usually extricate yourself with a little patience or an ice axe, there’s always the danger that you could break a leg.

Exhaustion

Breaking trail alone is a hazardous proposition if you do it for any length of time. First off, it’s extremely exhausting. My wife was shocked to learn that you sink into powder, despite the fact that you’re wearing snowshoes. It’s true. When I was breaking trail on Mt Avalon, I was sinking at least 2 feet down with every step. It’s just as exhausting as post holing in boots, but when you are wearing snowshoes, you need to lift another 2 lbs of snowshoe with every step you take.

Hypothermia

Breaking trail is extremely hard work and you will sweat a lot in the process. Unless you are an expert at layering your clothes, and have all of the layers required for winter hiking with you (base, insulating, shell, puffy) and multiple pairs of gloves, it is easy to get cold when you stop moving. I had all of this gear, but I did completely wet out 3 pairs of gloves on my hike.

Route Finding

Trail finding can also be quite difficult if it has snowed heavily. When there’s a lot of snow on the trees, trail blazes can be covered and very difficult to see. It’s also quite easy to get lost by following something that looks like a trail but isn’t one. Things can really snowball, after that, if you don’t have a map and a compass.

Spruce Traps

Like many White Mountain and AMC-maintained trails, the Avalon Trail is poorly blazed. I ended up missing a turn on my climb and wandered off the track along what looked like a path up a steep slope. It wasn’t and I wandered into an area with spruce¬†traps. These are pockets of snow that surround the base of trees. If you fall into one, there’s a chance that you won’t be able to climb out and that you’ll freeze to death. They also form around the base of spruce trees and are called spruce traps.

Mt Avalon, Breaking Trail to the Summit
Spruce Traps

Winter Risk Mitigation

These are some of the risks of solo winter hiking and snowshoeing in mountainous terrain. While the best way to mitigate them is to hike in a group, if you decide to hike alone, it behooves you to make very conservative judgments when weather or snow conditions do not pan out as expected.

In addition to bringing extra layers and a full compliment of winter gear, one thing I always do when I hike solo, is to bring enough overnight gear that I could survive an unexpected night out. This includes packing a sleeping pad and a bivy sack, and sometimes even a lightweight sleeping bag.

In addition I always carry a satellite-based personal locator beacon on winter trips, most often a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. While not perfect, this device gives me some assurance that I’ll be able to signal for help, if I’m conscious and keep my wits about me. My wife insists that I carry one on all solo trips, year round.

If you hike or climb mountains in winter conditions, there will come a time when you do a solo hike and you will push the limits of prudence. The important thing is to learn from the experience, and to remember it the next time you go hiking solo in winter.

26 comments

  1. I would not dispute any of those dangers, which is why I tend to hike less in the winter (along with the logistics involved). The most important danger to me, though, is that second one. Once you become exhausted, your ability to deal with all the other dangers drops considerably. Avoiding exhaustion is the most important safety measure as far as I'm concerned. Just like your best piece of first aid equipment is your brain :)

  2. Good Post. Anytime you go solo, caution is the rule.

  3. Just come hike down here in the South. Our peaks are higher, and less dangerous in Winter.

  4. Chris – You have no idea the fun you are missing! The danger/skill balance is what makes hiking up here all the more thrilling. I love winter up here. Wouldn't miss this for the world.

  5. Guthook – absolutely right on there. Got to take care of your brain. Sometimes taking a zero is the best thing you can do.

  6. Agree with danger with injury. Hiking in winter increases this danger many-fold. There are inherent risks to hiking – solo or with a group – in winter or other seasons. I hike solo a lot. If you are hiking with the only goal of summitting, you are in danger at any time. The mountains are dangerous at any time of the year. I never hesitate to turn around.

    Disagree that blazing equals a well-maintained trail. Is blazing in winter all that useful – especially if white? A well brushed / blowdown free corridor is the best help in route finding IMO.

  7. Interesting, you mentioned the Spot (smart move) but not any use of GPS. Having a mapping GPS, with a 24K topo map on the background and mainly the planned track drawn on top of it, might have prevented the little jog off the trail you took to the pine traps.

    GPS can also fail, due to lack of batteries among others, but it complements map and compass and really facilitates things when visibility becomes low, especially on snow covered terrain, where features have already become "flattened".

  8. I've been up 10k+ peaks in the snow, so I have a general idea of what it's like. The snow out West is very different than what we get on the East coast though. I much prefer the dry stuff out there.

  9. Good point about the GPS. I'm really not into using them because they take so much time to program and I am trying to maintain my distance from electronic clutter when I'm outdoors. But, in certain very dangerous conditions, they can be invaluable.

    I doubt however that a GPS would have prevented my detour: we're talking a 25 foot divergence. It would not have been even noticeable on the GPS screen. Even worse, it would have provided a false sense of security. What tipped me off was the sensation under my snowshoes.

  10. Good points about safety.

    Always err on the side of caution when you are not sure. I've got horribly lost in white outs on small ridges that I know intimately!.

    Never just plod on regardless!

  11. I headed up Kinsman one March about 7 years ago. I hadn't realized how much snow there would be as I got higher (I was in law school at the time and my brain had melted). I won't tell you that I was wearing jeans (they were stretch jeans, which in my mind back then made it ok) over my long underwear. I did have a pack full of winter clothing but I get quite hot when I hike so I was just in a tee shirt, long underwear top and a hat. I was post-holing for most of it, following a set of tracks that seemed fresh. When I got to the top I came across 2 hikers decked out in Gortex head to toe, hiking poles, the works. They looked at me like I was crazy, then quietly waited for me to head back down and followed me at a distance.

    I remember thinking that I felt safe since I'd been up the mountain a bunch of times before and knew the trail, and would have turned back if there hadn't been signs of other people hiking that day. And the dog from the B&B I was staying at had followed me.

    Of course now I wouldn't dare do that – the jeans or the solo snowy hiking. But somehow it seemed right at the time. And thankfully I didn't snap a femur.

  12. I do a lot a solo 4 season hiking in the white mountains and communicate regularly with members of various search and rescue teams. One thing I find to be most important no matter what time of the year you hit the trail is documenting your itinerary. Where are you going, how long you intend to be gone, start/ end location, possible alternative routes, emergency contact, weather/ trail conditions you expect to encounter, etc… This information not only helps others locate you if something goes wrong or if you don't return, it also forces you to take a few minutes and review your own trip plan. Leave this info with a friend or someone you trust.

  13. George – great advice. My wife makes me do this for every trip/hike I take, and it really is a good idea. It's got everything. Routes, possible changes, time estimates, elevation change, weather – and then I also send SPOT messages at designated times to give her a position fix.

  14. I love solo winter hiking and go out as often as I can, but I always carry my PLB with me, leave detailed itinerary, plan less ambitious routes, and leave lots of extra time so I don't need to rush and overexert myself. The price for mistakes in the winter can be very high and keeping that sobering fact in mind while out there alone makes all the difference.

    An instructor in an avalanche class I once attended said that solo backcountry travelers are statistically safer because they are less likely to get caught up in "group think", more likely to abort if something doesn't feel right, take fewer risks because they know no one is there to dig them out, etc. I'm not sure if I bought the "safer" bit, but I suspect that on balance the risks for reasonably educated and cautious individuals are not all that much higher than for those traveling in a group…

  15. It’s all about risk mitigation. I think of my abilities, equipment, and the environment each in tenths. The environment has no mercy or conscience and in more extreme conditions the bigger the demand on reserve ability and equipment to compensate for fluctuations. The Arctic tundra and winter mountain rescues I’ve been a team member on rarely ended well for the victim. The adrenaline rush of playing on the edge can push one from their planned calculated risk to making a gamble (i.e. bet on an uncertain outcome). Same trap happens to rescuers pushing to save a life. Thin margins in winter and if the injury doesn’t outright kill a person the hypothermia usually does. Things are never so bad that they can’t get worse… IMO.

  16. While you might not care to navigate with a gps you might consider marking your parked car on one and tossing it into your pack just in case.

  17. If there's one thing I'd add to this solid list of recommendations, it's this: Fuel. I always pack way more fuel for my stove that I think I will need on my winter solos. If the worst happens, then dehydration will finish you off pretty quickly (maybe quicker than – and will certainly contribute to – hypothermia).

  18. Chris – I was just talking to a trip leader/uber mountaineer I know about his day hiking safety gear and was surprised to learn that he caries a stove. It's not something I've done, but I may start. I also recently ran out of white gas on a trip, so bringing extra is a good precaution, particularly if snow melting is called for.

  19. GPS:

    They are not hard to program and it takes little time. I do that for SAR, draw a track on the trail as it shows on the mapping software on the computer, sometimes using a topo map, sometimes aerial pictures. With a little practice, it is a matter of minutes and it is time well spent on studying the map too.

    Modern GPS units will also show you 24K topo maps and aerial photography (not helpful while in the woods but much more in the open). Depending on your zoom level, 25 feet might quite well be noticeable. Mine, a Garmin 62s shows me on the correct side of my street, and it is not that wide a street!

  20. I'm doing a 3 day mountaineering course in the Whites next month. I've been hiking quite a bit on local trails in MD, trying to do lots of switchbacks etc. I was thinking of doing Mt. Rogers or Pine Knob in WV but I would have to go solo. I think I'll wait until I have a bit more experience-and gear.

  21. Or find a good group to go with.

  22. Philip,

    With regards to hiking with a SPOT and/or GPS, I agree I try to avoid adding electronics and batteries to the outdoors equation.

    Something I'd like to see would be a small LCD on the SPOT that displays your UTM Coordinates/Lat & Long. It supposedly already has that information, I just want to be able to see it so I could pinpoint myself on a map in the case of wandering off the trail.

    I haven't sprung for a SPOT yet, but that could get one on my shortlist.

  23. Great post Philip. While I've never solo hiked in the winter, I've especially never hiked in major snow. We really don't get much of it here in East Tennessee, at least in our little area. We could go to the Great Smoky Mountains or Cumberland Gap, but we really don't have the gear for it.

    But with any kind of hiking, whether it be solo or not, being prepared and sticking to plans are the best ways to ensure a safe return home. Also it never hurts to leave your plans with someone at home so if you don't show up at a certain, they know where to start the search.

  24. Well we don't have mountains up here in southern Wisconsin, but we do have stupidly cold temperatures. The threat of breaking a leg or falling off a cliff is pretty much nonexistent. It can be dangerous solo hiking depending on where you go and how long you are out for. I would never do a week long winter hike in Wisconsin. Day hike on trails I am familiar with? Definitely. Use your brain, stay away from lakes and rivers that you aren't sure of how frozen they are, dress appropriately, and let people know where you are and when you expect to return. Can't stress that enough in any season really.

  25. My major winter solo started as a quick afternoon stroll fourteen years ago on the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. My wife and I stopped and decided to hike the Parker Ridge Trail to view the Saskatchewan Glacier, a 3.2 mile round trip and about 900' elevation gain. There was no snow on the ground when we started but it commenced snowing big time on the way up. The wife, who hadn't fallen on her head as much as I did as a child, quickly gave up and went back to the car and brewed up hot chocolate while she waited.

    Summit feverish, addled grandpa slogged on to the top of the ridge to view the glacier and couldn't see a thing for all the snow falling. On the way back down, it was chest deep in places. Even though I've lived in Alberta, Colorado, and Wisconsin, I don't think I've ever seen snow pile up that fast. Once I plowed my way back to the car for that delicious hot chocolate, I told my wife that I was pretty sure we were the last ones to do the Parker Ridge Trail that season.

  26. I think the answer to this question is "no". But that's a very generalized answer, and covers solo hiking in all seasons. Any time you go into the woods, you should be prepared to stay there, if necessary. That rule applies to all seasons, and applies twofold if you are going solo.

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