Hiking in the Snow | 11 Tips to Avoid Catastrophe in the Mountains

Winter is coming! While most people hang up their hiking boots for the season, there’s no reason you need to stop hiking when the snow begins to fall. In fact, most trails and peaks are much quieter in the winter, and the views are prettier as well. There is nothing like a mountain vista with snow-covered mountains and forests. I highly recommend giving it a try. With these hiking tips and advice you can hike in the mountains all year round. Here are my 11 top tips for hiking in the snow.

1. Check the snow and avalanche conditions

A lot more research is needed during the winter due to the hazardous weather, snow, and ice. Specifically you need to check both the weather forecast, recent snowfall in the area, and the regional avalanche forecast. If any of these sources suggest your hike would be dangerous or risky, you should probably delay your trip until conditions and the forecast improves.

2. Bring a pair of microspikes and trekking poles

Slippery snow and ice on the trail is the most obvious risk while hiking in snow. The key is increasing your traction with the trail surface using special winter hiking gear. Microspikes are chains with small steel teeth on the bottom of your shoes that grip the ice and snow. Trekking poles are like large ski poles, letting you have four points of contact while crossing snow and ice. I recommend using both when hiking in the winter. You don’t need to invest in an extremely expensive pair – something simple will work to get started with.

3. Use an insulated water bottle

I love using a camelback style hose to keep hydrated in the summer, but during cold winter months this system stops working. Water begins freezing and clogging the hose and tube. Instead, rely on an insulated water bottle to keep your water in a liquid, drinkable state. I also recommend bringing a thermos with coffee or hot chocolate. It’ll come in handy when you are frozen on the summit! If you think you will need to get more water while hiking in the snow, bring a small backpacking move. You will need it to melt snow and ice!

4. Time your hike to avoid afternoon slush

The sun is much more powerful at high elevations in the mountains. Even during the middle of winter it is possible to end up with wet, unsupportive, and potentially slushy snow by the afternoon hours. Start your hiking early during the winter and spring months to avoid this problem. As an added benefit you will have more time to get back before nightfall if you make slower progress than expected.

5. Pack hand and foot warmers. Trust me.

While you may feel warm in your core, your fingers and toes are especially susceptible to frostbite. Even if you are wearing gloves and warm socks it is a good idea to check on your extremities while hiking in the snow. I recommend bringing along some hand warmers and foot warmers. The extra warmth they provide is a valuable luxury during a cold winter night in the mountains.

6.Wear gaiters to keep your feet dry

There is nothing worse in the winter than wet socks and wet boots. The easiest way to do this is to allow snow into your shoes on accident as you hike. A good pair of waterproof gaiters deal with this quite effectively by covering the gap between your boots and the end of your pants to keep your socks warm and dry. If you expect to be stepping into deep snow, get a knee length pair. Otherwise something just above your ankle will do while hiking in the snow.

7. Be prepared to navigate without a clear trail

If you expect to have a clear trail to follow while hiking in the snow, think again. While busy trails may have a packed down path to follow, it is much harder to read than a trail, and could lead you to the wrong place. Bring a GPS unit or app on your phone, along with a hiking map of the area to help you navigate even if you find no path to follow, or it disappears along the way. I prefer to hike trails I know well from before in the winter to make navigating easier.

8. Leave your itinerary with someone dependable

Even with all the right preparations and gear, it is still possible to get yourself into trouble in the mountains while hiking in the snow. This is why you should always leave your plans and itinerary with someone dependable back home, so they can seek help if you don’t get back when you said you would. The more info you can leave, like your vehicle make and model, what you’re wearing and what gear you have with you assists rescuers should the worst occur. It is especially important when hiking in the snow where you can quickly become buried in powder, making it critical for rescuers to know what color clothing you have one.

9. Wear more layers than you think you’ll need

Wearing layers of clothing will help keep you warm during cold winter hikes, while allowing you to adapt to changing conditions. In general, I see far more people in the mountains underdressed for the elements than those wearing too many layers. Bring at least 1 to 2 more layers than you think is necessary while packing at home. You may very well get out of your car at the trailhead and realize you underestimated the cold.

10. Bring the ten essentials with you

The ten essentials are the key pieces of gear and equipment necessary to stay alive in the mountains of something we’re to go wrong. Never go hiking in the snow without the ten essentials. They include:

  1. Navigation Gear
  2. Headlamp and Extra Batteries
  3. Extra Food
  4. Extra Layers
  5. Firestarter and Ignition Source
  6. Water and Filter
  7. Knife or Multi-tool
  8. Sun Protection
  9. First Aid Kit
  10. Emergency Shelter

11. Make sure you can reach the trailhead

Do not assume you can still reach your favorite trailhead in the winter. Many county and forest roads do not get maintained or plowed after snowfall begins in the fall, adding miles to the normal trip length. Research the conditions at your trailhead before you leave, and have an alternative option in mind as a backup in case you find it unreachable in person.

Hiking in the Snow: Leave No Trace

One of the benefits of hiking in the snow is the limited impact on the land! While walking on the trail causes some erosion through wear and tear, the snow essentially shields the ground from the impact of your movement. As a result you can hike and camp nearly anywhere so long as the ground is covered by at least six inches of snow. If there is less than that, your microspikes could still rip up the ground, so try to stay on durable surfaces. Otherwise, hiking in the snow has very little impact and you shouldn’t have much to worry about.

Hiking in the Snow: Now You Know

The winter is one of my favorite times in the outdoors. Instead of hanging up your hiking boots, try hiking in the snow this year. Whether its in the mountains or just in your local park, you’ll have a great experience if you follow all of these tips. Share a comment with your tips and experiences related to hiking in the snow down in the comments below. I would love to know more about your experience. Safe travels on the trail this winter!

More Resources About Hiking in the Snow

Still looking for more resources and information about hiking in the snow? Here are some good articles and links related to hiking in the snow to get you started.

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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