Safer Winter Hiking
Enjoy a backcountry trip through snow and ice — just know how to return home safely
Have you ever wanted to experience a long wilderness hike through untouched fields of snow? Start with a solid safety plan to protect your health and improve your confidence.
“With the right clothing, equipment and training, you can get out and reap the physical and emotional benefits associated with staying active while embracing the unique beauty of the winter landscape,” says Aaron Gorban, director of outdoor leadership training at the Appalachian Mountain Club.
First, smarten up
Learn how to use your compass. A topographical map by itself isn't very useful after snow has obscured landmarks and clouds have hidden mountain peaks.
In fact, Gorban stresses the importance of learning as much as you can, including about weather, first aid and what to do in an avalanche. “Often, bad outcomes in the wilderness tend to involve individuals without sufficient skills and expertise to recognize the numerous risk factors they are encountering,” he says.
“For example, an individual fails to check the weather forecast and snow conditions. The weather is fair initially, but the winds increase and the temps plummet as a front passes. Perhaps this individual is not adept at understanding weather patterns and failed to recognize the telltale wind shift associated with the passage of a cold front.”
What to wear and pack
- Brightly colored clothing (so companions or rescuers can see you)
- Extra set of dry clothing
- Sunglasses with side shields or sun goggles
- Emergency shelter, such as a tarp, sleeping bag or space blanket
- Water, tin cup (unmelted snow is too cold to ingest)
- Twice as much food and salt as you think you'll need
- Matches, candles, fire starter, portable hiking stove
- Portable shovel, collapsible saw
- Avalanche beacon (helps rescuers to find you when buried under snow)
- Whistle or other signaling devices
- Map and compass
Don’t let the weather give you the cold shoulder
Monitor your body closely for indications that it has been overexposed to the cold. “The margin for error is often diminished as the temperature drops,” says Gorban.
Two of the most serious conditions are hypothermia and frostbite. The former occurs when the body can't generate enough energy to keep itself warm. The latter appears when the skin and underlying tissues freeze, usually in an extremity like the toes or nose. If you notice signs of either, get out of the cold and wind as soon as possible. If your clothes are wet, change into dry ones. Try to raise your body temperature with a hot beverage or warm compresses to the center of your body.
Related: Stay Safe in Crazy Cold Weather
Wear your sunglasses or goggles on sunny days or if there is only a thin cloud cover. Otherwise, reflected glare from the snow can give your eyes a sunburn. They'll start feeling dry and irritated eight to 12 hours after being exposed. If that happens, apply cold compresses, avoid light and don't rub them.
Forcing your eyes open during strong winds can freeze your corneas. If this happens, close your eyes and place a warm hand or other warm object over them to warm them up as quickly as possible. You'll need to cover them with eye patches for 24 to 48 hours, according to experts at Princeton University's outdoor education and leadership development program.
Avoid a slip and slide
Learning how to walk over frozen ground or ice takes practice. Before setting out, try it at home or another safe location. If you expect to hike over ice, bring along:
- Traction boots or boot attachments
- Hiking poles
- Ice picks, nails or screwdrivers
- Flotation device
Sometimes, says Gorban, “[inexperienced hikers] don’t have appropriate traction devices for their boots. As the day progresses, so does their fatigue, making a slip and fall more likely.”
Don't walk across an iced-over lake or pond without an experienced companion to help you test it for thickness. If you fall through the ice, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says:
- Don't remove your heavy clothes (they will help you to float)
- Turn and face the direction that you came from
- Get your arms, hands and picks onto the unbroken surface
- Drag yourself up with the picks and kick against the water
- Lie flat and roll away from the water
- Get yourself warm and dry immediately
Looking for other tips and tricks to get through the winter? Get more advice in our Cold-Weather Survival Guide.