Winter hiking navigation is different than three-season navigation because easy trails can become unsafe from avalanche danger, deep snow, or dangerous weather conditions. When planning winter hiking routes, it’s important to factor these hazards into your route plans and preparation, even if it means taking a longer and safer route.
Here’s a list of the common navigation challenges you are likely to face on winter hikes:
1. Trail Junction Signs are Buried or Hidden
If your idea of navigation is following the signs at trail junctions, you’re in for a rude surprise since signs can be buried by snow or hidden from view when trees are covered in snow. Your best bet is to hike on more popular routes where deep snow has already been broken out by other hikers so that the trail is clear, or get really good at following trails using a map, compass, altimeter, GPS, or navigation apps when signs and trails are buried and invisible.
2. Protective Clothing Makes it Difficult to See
It’s often necessary to wear ski goggles, a balaclava or a face mask when you hike above treeline in winter to protect yourself against frostbite. Unfortunately, this can make it very difficult to see side trails or snow-covered cairns, especially when your breath fogs your goggles. However good preparation and hiking in a group can help mitigate these risks
3. Lack of Light Contrast Makes it Difficult to See
When the fog drops down and the world is covered in snow and ice (whiteout conditions), the lack of contrast between ground and sky makes it increasingly difficult to relate your map to what you can see in the world around you. Most three-season hikers don’t realize how important good visibility and light contrast are for determining distance or slope angles until they hike in winter when the world around you is mostly white.
4. Forested Trails Become Impassable Due to Snow Depth
Forested trails that are easy to walk on in three-season conditions, can become impassable when there’s six feet of snow on the ground. Instead of passing effortlessly below tree branches, you have walk in them, wreaking havoc on your gear, and slowing down your forward progress. The solution isn’t much better. You need to walk around them off-trail or pick a different route, one that’s been trampled down by other hikers, so you can pass under the tree branches as usual.
5. Hiking in Deep Snow Requires More Time and Energy
Hiking in deep snow, regardless if you’re wearing snowshoes or postholing, requires a lot more energy than three-season hiking and a lot more time to cover the same distance. My hiking speed is often half of what it is in winter compared to the rest of the year, because I have to carry a lot more gear, and because walking on snow and ice require heavier footwear and more coordination.
6. Fewer Hours of Daylight
Why are shorter days a navigational challenge? Try hiking at night in winter and you’ll quickly find that it’s harder to confirm where you are and see where you’re going, even when you wear a bright headlamp. For safety’s sake, try to finish your hikes before sunset or at least get back to a well-known, packed-out section of trail that you can follow to your destination. There’s a big difference between 9 hours of daylight in winter and 14 hours the rest of the year, when you can hike all day without worrying about being “benighted,” the term used in accident reports to describe hikers who unexpectedly find themselves hiking after sunset.
7. River and Stream Crossings Become More Dangerous
Crossing rivers and streams become much higher consequence in winter. In addition to the danger of getting wet and increased hypothermia, there’s also the danger of crashing through the ice bridges and snow shelves that span the water and form along the bank. If you fall through, even in shallow water, there’s a serious chance you’ll be swept under the ice or snow and drown. Scout all crossings very carefully and don’t be afraid to detour around crossings that are too dangerous.
8. Avalanche Terrain
It’s important to learn how to identify avalanche terrain in the backcountry and to be able to determine if it’s a danger to you. This includes monitoring regional avalanche forecasts, monitoring snowstorm activity, understanding avalanche danger signs, and learning how to walk across avalanche terrain without triggering one.
9. Vegetation Traps and Voids
When snow covers bushes and small trees, voids are formed underneath them that can trap hikers who fall into them. These are difficult to anticipate when snowshoeing across open terrain, so your best defense is to hike with other people who can pull you out if you fall into one. Staying on trails, if you can see them is a good way to avoid vegetation traps, but can limit your choice of destinations.
While winter is a glorious time to go hiking, there are many places where deep snow and hostile terrain are best avoided in order to increase safety. Even then, the unexpected can happen. Your best defense is to hike with other knowledgeable and experienced winter hikers and to carefully plan your routes in advance with these hazards in mind.