Wilderness travel in winter conditions requires different knowledge, skills, and abilities than summer hiking so it is safe to assume that what works for the latter often may not work for the former. Winter hiking can be extremely challenging and dangerous even for the most seasoned hikers due to the dangers of extreme winds, blizzards, deep snow, and river crossings. A trail that is assumed easy or moderate at other times of the year can be much more difficult to navigate during winter conditions. Keep this in mind when planning your winter hiking trip and do your homework on time. However, hiking shouldn’t be an issue as long as you have adequate training and equipment to face the prospect of harsh weather and snow conditions. Additionally, you must be fully aware of the dangers that can have a big impact on a winter trip in the wilderness because your safety depends not only on the weather conditions but also on your judgment, your experience, abilities, and preparation.
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Winter hiking dangers you should be aware of
Changes in the weather
Do not underestimate the weather since one wrong judgment may have serious consequences for your trip and more importantly for your health. Weather can kill you. Before and during any backcountry trip, pay close attention to the weather forecast and study the weather closely. You don’t need any surprises related to the weather, because unexpected weather can be one of the greatest dangers when hiking up in the mountains. You probably know that mountains create their own weather (which can change very fast all of a sudden) thus valley weather is a poor estimator for the weather up in the mountains. Remember that predicting the weather for more than a day in advance often doesn’t work for mountain climates so be wary of relying on long-term weather forecasts. Ideally, only trust what the meteorologists say the current day is going to be like.
On the trail, be alert when sudden temperature changes occur because winter weather in some areas can rapidly change from being beautiful to being extremely rough. Blizzards, heavy precipitation, high winds, or extreme cold temperatures per se are dangerous enough, however, in the mountains, they can also contribute to the instability of the snowpack enhancing the risk of triggering an avalanche. This occurs when forces are applied fast as sudden stress causes snowpack to break.
Snow and ice
Snow can be a blessing or a curse in wilderness travel. With experience, you will recognize both the advantages and dangers of snow and learn to use the medium to make wilderness travel easier and more enjoyable. The following advantages can be outlined:
- Snow bridges provide easy access over streams, however, watch for depressions in the snow and variations in its color or texture. In addition, water emerging at the foot of a snowfield indicates the existence of a hole beneath the snow so be extra careful if you see or hear sounds of running water.
- It’s easier to get back by following your footsteps, though if it’s snowing and windy, footsteps can disappear in minutes.
- If the snow is deep enough, the ground will be covered making it easier to negotiate rough terrain.
The main disadvantages or dangers include:
- Trails are lost under snow so you can get lost easily, especially if it’s snowing and windy.
- Thin snow is unstable so unless you can avoid it, be extremely careful when having to negotiate terrain covered by thin snow.
- The snow next to logs and boulders often covers holes and soft spots (called “moats“).
- Boots may not be enough anymore, especially when negotiating rough terrain covered by ice or snow. In such cases, microspikes, snowshoes or crampons may be required for extra traction. They allow access to all kinds of spots in the winter you couldn’t get to otherwise and will also keep you from sinking in.
Low temperatures and heat loss
Your comfort in cold weather depends largely on your clothing, footwear, and their respective characteristics. Too cold weather and insufficiently for your needs can paralyze your ability to make a rational decision. Layering is the key to appropriate and effective cold weather hiking clothing. It 1) gives you the flexibility to donning and doffing garments/layers when needed, which is especially important during high-intense activities; 2) allows for better thermal insulation even in the presence of strong wind; 3) ensures protection from cold, wind, and precipitation without sacrificing too much comfort. As a rule, choose fibers that provide a balance between heat loss and body perspiration. They must also ensure functionality and high performance without increasing the risk of getting hypothermia at the same time.
In subzero temperatures, you need some boots (that fit well) that offer excellent grip and traction but can also keep your feet warm and dry. In addition, merino hiking socks will add to the effectiveness of your footwear, though the latter is much more important in really cold weather than the former. Three-season boots might be fine for day hikes in cold conditions, however, avoid them for winter hiking in the mountains since if you run into trouble and cannot go back as planned, wearing 3-season boots can exacerbate the situation further.
The presence of wind can be very dangerous because wind draws heat from exposed skin and cools it faster than if there was no wind. The resulting excessive cooling due to the heat transfer from the body to the environment is the last thing you’d want when having to cope with winter conditions. The windchill temperature (also known as the “feels like” temperature) is lower than the air temperature, and understandably, the lower the air temperature the bigger the effect. For example, if the air temperature is minus 29°C (minus 20°F) and the wind is blowing at 56 kilometers per hour (35 miles per hour), then the windchill temperature is below minus 48°C (or minus 55°F). At this temperature and at this wind speed, exposed skin can freeze in five minutes. Apparently, exposure to low windchill temperatures can be life-threatening so when going outdoors and windchill temperatures are low try to stay out of the wind. You can do the same calculation for any combination of temperature and wind speed using Figure 1 or Figure 2. However, keep in mind that windchill affects only exposed skin speeding up the relative cooling time. This means that if you’re properly dressed for the conditions of the environment (moisture-wicking base layer that’s comfortable next to the skin, a warm mid layer that provides good insulation, windproof outer layer, warm hat and gloves or mittens), the windchill effect can be negated.
Figure 1: Celsius Wind Chill Chart
Source: Internet Accuracy Project
Figure 2: Fahrenheit Wind Chill Chart
Source: National Weather Service
In addition to the potentially life-threatening windchill effect, high winds are often among the main forces that cause avalanches in the mountains.
Dehydration is one of the most widespread conditions in cold environments. The reason for this stems from the fact that in cold weather, people tend to eat and drink less than they should and, as a consequence, they become dehydrated. While this might not be a big problem in everyday life where mild dehydration simply causes discomfort (thirst), in the outdoors fluid loss can have serious consequences since it can easily and quickly cause fatigue, disorientation, and headaches. If that’s not enough to concern you, remember that dehydration is a factor in a number of mountain maladies such as altitude illness, hypothermia, and frostbite. Keep water handy and drink a generous quantity of water immediately before and during winter hiking trips to reduce the consequences of losing moisture into cold and dry air. Also, consider replacing electrolytes lost due to excessive sweating during heavy-exertion trips on the trail. Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink – at this time the process of dehydration is already well underway.
Carry enough water for your day hikes depending on the availability of water sources in the area you will be hiking in. If it has abundant streams and snowfields to replenish water supplies, you don’t really need to bring all the water with yourself. However, ensuring enough water supplies for a multi-day trip is usually more difficult and laborious task since water can be scarce in some areas, especially in winter when temperatures are very low and the only source of water on the trail is snow. Then you’ll have to melt snow. Whether you melt it under the sun or use stove with cooking fuel is up to you. However, when using the second method, you need to always have a little water already in the pot when starting to melt snow. Otherwise, the pot can burn if it contains only dry snow.
No matter how you obtain water on the trail, always treat it to guard against pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and large parasites. See our article on water treatment for more information about the various ways to purify water in the wilderness.
There are so many reasons why people get lost:
- Some people travel without a map, especially when they have done the route before or think that they can orient themselves easily.
- Some people trust their instincts over the compass.
- Some people don’t do their homework and neglect the peculiarities of the physical features of the area.
- Some people don’t pay attention to the route on the way in to be able to find it on the way out.
- Some people rely entirely on their hiking partners (hiking groups of two or more rarely become dangerously lost unlike solo hikers or those who become separated from the rest of the group).
Winter hiking adds at least another reason to this list since route finding is very different in the winter – when everything is covered by heavy snow, the landmarks and features of an area may become unrecognizable. This can cause you to miss a turn/campsite and get lost. If this happens and you’re lost alone, stop and look for other members of the group. If you don’t see anyone, shout and listen for answering shouts. If nothing happens, the next step is to blow your safety whistle. Again, if no one answers, try to calm down in order to assess the situation objectively. Then start working on your rescue. Look for an open area and spread some brightly colored clothing or other material to give searchers some clue where you can be. If you can determine where you are and you have a map, plan a route home in case you don’t connect with the others from your party. Before dark, prepare for the night by finding water and shelter. Try to stay busy the whole time as this will raise your spirits. Try to start a fire – it provides utility and can be a psychological boost. After a night alone, you have two options:
- Hike out to a baseline feature – hill, stream, lake or highway – if the terrain isn’t too difficult for you to travel alone.
- Concentrate on letting yourself be found (someone who stays in one place in the open is way easier to be found than someone who is panicked and roams from one place to another).
Remember that even the most experienced hikers can get lost, however, they are usually prepared to meet adversity in a sensible way. Carrying enough food, clothing, and gear can be essential for surviving a few days of temporary confusion and they know that.
Let’s face it, winter hiking offers beautiful sceneries and spectacular views, however, this often comes at a price. Wildlife is fascinating and often charming, however, don’t forget that it should be watched from a reasonable distance. Do your best to avoid dangerous wildlife encounters during your winter hikes. Try not to surprise wild beasts because in case that a wild animal such as a bear feels threatened in some way, she may feel forced to defend herself or worse – her cubs if they’re nearby. You can do the following to avoid unpleasant encounters on the trail:
- Don’t go through brushy ravines with poor visibility but go around instead.
- Stay out of the “personal space” of bears and make plenty of noise in unavoidable lower-visibility areas.
- Always carry bear spray, use common sense and be aware of your surroundings to mitigate risk.
- Avoid hiking after dusk, especially if alone.
- Store your food properly and keep your campsite clean.
If despite all your efforts you surprise a bear, a cougar or a wolf, don’t turn and run. This will trigger predatory chasing instincts. Moreover, you can’t outrun such an animal. Stand your ground instead and face the animal. Take out a bear spray (or any other weapon you may have at hand) slowly and prepare to defend yourself if necessary. Talking may be a good idea as well. If you decide to step back, slowly edge away while still facing the animal. It’s extremely important that you never turn your back on predators because this can turn into a life-threatening situation quickly. Keep in mind that wild animals are unpredictable and always stay alert when approaching wildlife.
Winter hiking isn’t for everyone. You can’t just put a pack on and go unprepared because, in winter conditions, this is a recipe for a disaster that may cost your life. In winter, as long as you’re properly equipped, have the right skills, attitude, and knowledge of winter travel, you are in a good position to have an enjoyable hiking trip in the wilderness.
Try it! But be safe. Don’t ignore the risks and dangers that await you in the outdoors, know your limitations, respect nature and be prepared to face some challenges along the way.