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. It’s not accurate enough.
- 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.