Winter Hiking Safety Tips

Snowshoeing up the Polecat Trail

Snowshoeing up the Polecat Trail

Winter can be a dangerous time to hike or camp in the backcountry, but with planning and proper preparation, a winter hike can be a safe and enjoyable experience. Please keep the following in mind when planning an outing:

  • For safety, never hike alone in winter. The potential consequences are simply too high.
  • Daylight hours are short in the winter and the sun goes down quickly. Begin your trip early in the day and be prepared with a headlamp and extra batteries. Lithium batteries are more reliable in cold weather than alkaline ones.
  • Leave a trip itinerary with a friend who knows who to call if you are late in returning.
  • Deep snow may obscure trail blazing or trail markers. Topographical maps, a compass, and knowledge of how to use them is essential. Do not rely on a GPS.
  • Be prepared to keep warm with nothing more than the equipment you can carry. Dress in layers and assess whether it is prudent to bring along extra clothing or an emergency shelter in your pack.
  • Make sure you understand avalanche dynamics and know how to safely travel in avalanche terrain. If you are traveling on snow, be constantly aware of what is happening to the snow around you. If this all sounds foreign, take a class with a local club that offers winter hiking training and offers excursions to practice these skills.
  • Never count on a fire or stove to keep you warm. Learn how to build an emergency shelter.
  • Stay alert for the signs of hypothermia, frostbite or trench foot. Know the signs and symptoms and how to treat them before you set out. Take a Wilderness First Aid class to prepare yourself better.
  • Use skis or snowshoes. Post-holing is tiring and makes the trail unpleasant and dangerous for the next hiker.
  • If you are not an experienced winter hiker, make your initial trips day hikes in areas that you are familiar with. Go on trips with experienced winter hikers who are familiar with the area and local conditions.
  • Dress in layers. While you are hiking add and remove clothes to minimize sweating.
  • Eat and drink frequently. Dehydration hastens the onset of hypothermia. Do not underestimate the amount of food that you’ll need. Snowshoeing for example, burns about 600 calories an hour and winter backpacking requires 4,000-5,000 calories a day.

Here are some additional references to help you prepare for a safe winter excursion. I highly recommend these books if you want to learn how to go winter hiking and backpacking safely.

Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book: Traveling & Camping Skills for a Winter Environment

NOLS Winter Camping

NOLS Wilderness First Aid

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5 Responses to Winter Hiking Safety Tips

  1. amclthiker November 1, 2008 at 5:36 am #

    You point out several of the key points about winter hiking. The Boston Chapter of the AMC is offering a five week program on winter hiking starting Tuesday evening, November 18. In their program, or by reading the book Don't Die on the Mountain by Dan H. Allen, you will have it drummed into you that there is no adequate substitute for an early start.

    You will not learn much about trench foot. True trench foot, or immersion foot as it is also known, requires at least twelve hours of continuous immersion and is not commonly found in recreational winter activities.

  2. Earlylite November 1, 2008 at 5:56 am #

    I wish that class was held anytime other than 7pm in downtown Boston, but I'm still thinking about showing up. I think the best part of the course would practicing on real trips. Just that getting from Waltham to Joy Street and parking is well nigh impossible unless I leave at 5pm or earlier. I threw trench foot in there because I've come close to experiencing it myself (or imagined I had) bushwacking and postholing at the base of Mt. Sunapee in deep spring snow. A scary time.

  3. jdw01776 November 1, 2008 at 8:52 am #

    If you have the vacation time, try the ADK Winter Mountaineering School. The program looks like it has changed a bit in the 27 years since I took it, but it was a great experience.

  4. Earlylite November 1, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    That's a great suggestion and I might just go. The problem I have is getting the gear together and breaking it in before January 30th: plastic boots, crampons, different stove, heavier sleeping bag, ice axe, water bottle insulation, face mask, and ski goggles. Besides being a considerable investment, I don't know how to evaluate this gear to get the best stuff (for me). That's why I'm somewhat resigned to winter hiking and snowshoeing in familiar terrain and learning more about winter backpacking a little more gradually.

  5. Rick-Pittsburgh February 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Lets see..

    I am a violator of the first point(hiking alone) on a regular basis lol. I am almost always solo.

    Another mention would be some type of traction device. Micro-spikes, etc. (I personally use the Hillsound TC Pros.)

    This will save your tail from a fall on the trail and keep ya from crackin the bean on a rock etc. which could be a life or death situation in itself. Let’s face it. A dusting of snow can hide ice.

    And dependent upon conditions/remoteness SAR may not be able to get to ya for awhile.

    On my last 6 day trip I was happy to have my spikes. I almost bit the dust as soon as I got on the th.

    Plus noone wants to do an unintentional glissade on a descent. Pinballing off of trees and underlying rocks etc is not fun and very dangerous.


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