Hiking in the winter can be a beautiful experience, with peaks covered in snow and scenery like from a fairytale. Walking or snowshoeing in fresh snow is something that every hiker needs to experience in their lifetime but please ensure you know how to hike safely during winter.
As beautiful as it is, winter hiking comes with its own set of dangers. Winter is unfortunately much less forgiving than summer in the mountains. That is why every hiker needs to know the basics of how to hike safely during winter, moving in the mountains during the winter months can be a little daunting but don’t fear because the experience is worth it if you take a little extra care.
Let us talk about gear first. If you have read our Hiking safety 101 article, you`re already familiar with the hiking essentials, but winter hiking requires some modification depending on the type of route you`re planning to do.
Winter essentials list:
- Winter hiking boots
- Water and windproof jacket and pants
- Hiking backpack (size depends on the planned route)
- Mobile phone
- Map and compass
- First aid kit with survival items (matches, knife)
- Sun protection and sunglasses
- Enough food and water
- Extra layers of clothing
In the wintertime, good quality hiking boots that protect your feet from the cold are an absolute must. Buy the best you can get, but be careful not to go overboard with the type of boot. If you do not plan to climb serious mountain routes, you will be much better off with semi-rigid boots that are warm enough, rigid enough to wear crampons, but still cozy enough to wear for a long time while walking, not climbing steep stuff.
An essential part of your equipment for winter hiking is waterproof clothing that will protect you from snow and cold. There is a vast number of different models of jackets and pants. It is best to research reviews and outdoor store sites before deciding what to buy. You don`t have to spend a ton of money to get solid gear.
Extra layers of clothing
In the wintertime, this part of your equipment is essential. Experienced hikers never go to the mountains during winter months without a down jacket. You usually don`t wear it while you`re walking, but always have it in your backpack for unexpected circumstances.
Other layers of clothing include warm baselayers, different types of fleece jackets, vests, etc. An important thing to do in winter hiking is to wear layered clothing, so you can adjust fast to the changes in your body temperature. If you wear too much clothing, you will sweat a lot and risk hypothermia. This is something that is different for every person and learning the best way to layer is something that comes with experience.
Sun protection and sunglasses
Many people don`t realize it, but winter sun can do a lot of damage. That is especially true for higher altitude mountains, where solar radiation is stronger. Always wear sunscreen to protect your exposed skin from sunburns and sunglasses to protect your eyes. Snow blindness is a very unpleasant condition that occurs when the sun rays reflect from the snow and damage your eyes. It is temporary but very unpleasant.
The first thing that comes to mind when someone talks about the dangers in mountains during winter months. They are an unpleasant sight to see, they are very dangerous and they always happen when the conditions are met.
They usually happen on the 30 to 45-degree slopes, but they can occur in slopes that are of a higher or lesser degree. Avalanche safety is a science of its own, so we will talk only about the basics here.
Few important things to remember about avalanches:
- they occur after big snowfalls
- 30 to 45-degree slopes are most susceptible to avalanches
- they can be triggered by human activity, but can also occur naturally
- big groups of people have a much higher chance of triggering an avalanche
- warm temperatures have a negative effect on snowpack stability
Mountain areas publish avalanche bulletins in the wintertime, so hikers and mountaineers can use that information to adjust their plans for activities in the mountains at that period. Avalanche bulletins are based on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the safest. One thing to mention here is that even when the forecast says that the danger is 1, you have to know that you are not completely safe and you should be careful with your planning. The bulletins are a good start, but always use information about the route if available, before you make a final decision.
The last important check of the conditions is when you arrive at the bottom of your route. Always check for yourself if the conditions are right. Deciding what are good and bad conditions gets easier with the experience, so it is important to have an experienced hiker with you if you are a novice yourself.
An important piece of gear you should not travel without in the mountains during winter months is avalanche safety equipment. Equipment includes a shovel, a probe and a transceiver. Although some people carry only one or two of those three, they work only when you have all three. Avalanche safety equipment is similar to the first aid kit – you have to know how to use it, otherwise, it`s useless.
It is defined as a subnormal body temperature that occurs when you lose heat faster than your body produces it. In winter it is usually caused by too much exposure to cold weather conditions. It can be accentuated by wind chill, but for hikers it is also very important to understand that factors like overt exertion or inadequate hydration can have their role in it, too. One thing worth noting here is that hypothermia isn not a winter-specific occurrence. It can happen anytime that you are exposed to wet, cold and windy weather conditions, even in summer.
Prevention includes adequate hydration during your activity, regardless of your feeling that you don`t need to drink much. Exposure to cold weather and wind can be prevented with adequate clothing. The important thing is to move constantly, not letting your body relax and drop the temperature.
Some of the symptoms include shivering and loss of dexterity in fingers, as a sign of mild to moderate hypothermia. With hypothermia progressing you get symptoms like muscle rigidity, shallow breathing and weak pulse.
When you start feeling the symptoms of mild hypothermia, try to move or move faster if possible, pick up an additional layer of clothing or whatever you can to raise your body temperature.
It happens when a part of your body is exposed to very cold weather and the tissue starts to freeze. It usually happens on toes and fingers, less on the nose and ears.
Signs of frostbite:
- cold and pale skin
- tingling and numbness in the frozen area
- soft skin if partially frozen and hard if completely frozen
Frostbites can be treated by covering the affected area and warming it as fast as you can. If it`s serious frostbite, it is best to see a doctor.
As with hypothermia the best treatment is prevention with adequate clothing.
General winter hiking tips
To conclude, we have created a list of general tips to follow while hiking during the winter months:
- remember that days are shorter than in summer, so plan accordingly
- bring enough food and water
- bring a hot drink in a thermos (tea etc.)
- wear water and windproof clothing
- wear good winter hiking boots that protect your feet from the cold
- winter hiking is harder than summer hiking, so put some time in the preparation and planning
- tell someone about your route, so they know where you are in case something happens