Is winter hiking safe?
With some research, planning and preparation, winter hiking can be FUN and SAFE.
I’m going to share with you how to stay safe when hiking in the winter, including safety concerns you’ll need to take into consideration when planning your hike, knowing what gear to pack, clothes to wear and tips on how to stay safe on your winter hike.
There are so many reasons why I love winter hiking.
Hiking in the winter gives me a new perspective on the trails I love hiking on during the summertime because they look so much different during the winter, especially when everything is covered in snow.
Winter hiking is a great way to train for the warm weather backpacking season. When you’re hiking in the snow, it’s challenging and can be a full body workout.
In fact, starting in December 2022, I began hosting Weekly Group Training Day Hikes for students of my online backpacking program, The Confident Solo Female Backpacker System. I did this for a couple different reasons.
First, I wanted to give my students a chance to apply what they have been learning in my program, out on trail in a safe, group setting.
Second, a lot of women in my program have never done any winter hiking before so this is a chance to introduce them to something new and help them get out of their comfort zone while helping to build up their confidence to plan and go on their own solo hiking and backpacking trips.
Another reason why I began hosting Weekly Group Training Day Hikes for students in my program this winter? So that my students and I can become each other’s accountability partners when it comes to preparing and training for the upcoming backpacking season.
I have a REALLY BIG trip coming up in 2023 and I know all too well how easy it is for me to talk myself out of getting to the trailhead for a training hike each week…and I LOVE hiking! By leading a Group Training Hike each week for my students, I know I’ll do that hike because my students are waiting for me to show up at the trailhead to go hiking with them.
And of course, getting out on trail with my students in The Confident Solo Female Backpacker System is a LOT of fun. We get to meet each other in-person, share stories, talk about our favorite gear, share with each other our experiences of going through our own solo hiking and backpacking journeys and inspire one another to keep going when our worried friends and family might wish otherwise.
Another reason why I love winter hiking is because it extends my hiking season, making it so that I get to hike year-round.
I also love that during the winter, trails that are normally packed during the summer are WAY less crowded. If you’re looking for peace and quiet out on trail, you’ll find it when out for a winter hike.
Winter hiking also means no bugs!
So let’s dive into how you can stay safe when hiking in the winter.
Is Winter Hiking Safe? Safety Concerns
When it comes to winter hiking, you’ll need to prepare for your hikes a little bit differently than you would during the summer. You’ll also need to add a couple different pieces of gear to help you stay warm and safe out there, BUT there’s no reason why you should have to wait for warm weather before you’re able to get back out on trail to go hiking again.
Here are some safety concerns you’ll need to take into consideration before getting out on trail during the colder months:
During the winter, there’s less daylight. In the morning, it gets lighter later and in the late afternoon, gets darker earlier. You’ll want to plan for that. This could mean starting a little bit later than you normally would in the summer AND picking an earlier turnaround time so you’re not hiking back to the car in the dark.
Be Prepared For Less-Than-Ideal Conditions
In the winter, the trails are more likely to be wet and slick from rain, mud, snow and ice. This doesn’t make the trails “un-hikable”, but you will want to prepare for hiking in these types of conditions safely by having the right gear like a solid pair of gaiters, a sturdy pair of trekking poles and traction devices for your feet if there’s going to be snow on the trail.
Check the Conditions
Conditions in the mountains can change quickly, especially during the winter. Before going out on any winter hike, you’ll want to check all of the conditions including road conditions, trail conditions, the weather forecast and the avalanche forecast for the area you plan on hiking in.
For road conditions, check with your state department of transportation for up-to-date conditions, especially if you plan on travelling over mountain passes to make sure the roads are clear and open for travel.
For trail conditions, you can look for current trip reports posted on websites like AllTrails or your state’s trail association. Keep in mind, if there aren’t any current trip reports for a trail you’re thinking about hiking during the winter, it could mean that there isn’t a whole lot of traffic on the trail, which may mean deep snow, hazardous conditions or inaccessibility during the winter months.
Here in Washington State, we have the Washington Trails Association, which is a fantastic resource for everything hiking here in the state.
You can also reach out to the ranger station located in the area where you plan on going on your winter hike to find out what the current conditions are for the trails and forest service roads to get to the trailhead.
You’ll want to make sure the road to the trailhead is open and maintained during the winter, check that the area you’re heading to isn’t in avalanche terrain and see if there might be any obstacles on the trail like water crossings, snow bridges or tree blowdowns.
To check the weather forecast, look up the weather forecast for the area you plan on hiking in by using websites like NOAA, Mountain Forecast or if you use Gaia GPS for navigation, you can also look up the current weather forecast for any given area directly on the map, as long as you have cell or WiFi service.
Also, if you’re using the Gaia GPS app, you can add a layer to any of your maps that will give you more detailed information about the trails you plan on hiking like snow depth and even a precip forecast.
Some ideal conditions to look for when checking the weather forecast before going out on a winter hike would be low to no wind, little precipitation and clear skies. You can certainly hike through less-than-ideal weather conditions, but you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared for the forecasted conditions with the gear you bring and the clothes and shoes you wear for your hike.
To check the avalanche forecast, you’ll want to look for an avalanche center located in the region of where you plan on going for your hike. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have NWAC or the Northwest Avalanche Center, which provides detailed avalanche forecasts, weather data and mountain forecasts both through their app and on their website.
Pro Tip: Local avalanche centers are known to host free (or low cost), online and in-person winter safety and avalanche awareness classes throughout the fall and winter season. These classes can provide valuable information if you’re considering hiking out in the snow during the winter. As someone who has taken several avalanche safety courses over the years, I can honestly tell you learning this information never goes out of style. It’s always a good idea to refresh yourself with this type of information at least once a year if you plan on adventuring out in the backcountry during the winter.
Know How to Find Your Way in the Snow
Another winter hiking safety concern you’ll want to be aware of is to know how to find your way in the snow. It’s much easier to get lost out on trail during the winter when everything is covered under a blanket of snow and cloud cover.
Consider taking a wilderness navigation course or even a winter skills course to help build your confidence when it comes to navigation and route finding during the winter.
Also, you’ll want to be aware of possible obstacles and potential dangers out on trail during the winter such as downed trees, water crossings, trail washouts, tree wells, which is the hollow base of a snow-covered tree and also snow cornices, which are brittle ledges of snow and ice. Know how to spot these obstacles and avoid them.
And with winter hiking comes the potential for traveling through avalanche terrain. Avoid hiking in avalanche terrain at all costs. Some of your favorite summer trails might not be safe enough to hike during the winter.
Is Winter Hiking Safe? What To Pack For A Winter Hike
It’s important to know what kind of gear you should pack for a winter hike. For the most part, you’ll probably bring with you a lot of the same gear you’d use on a summer hike. Be prepared to carry a heavier pack than you would in the summer because there’s some winter specific gear you might want to bring with you.
When I pack my gear for a winter hike, I always make sure I pack gear to help keep me safe. I always want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, which means always packing the right gear for the right conditions.
Starting with the 10 Essentials
Always pack the 10 Essentials, no matter what time of the year it is. The 10 Essentials include: Navigation, illumination, shelter, extra clothing, extra water, extra food, sun protection, fire, knife and gear repair and a first aid kit.
CLICK HERE to learn more information on the 10 Essentials.
Other pieces of gear that help keep me safe when out winter hiking include:
- traction devices like microspikes or snowshoes
- a pair of trekking poles
- a butt pad for when taking breaks to help me stay warm and dry
- extra clothes as part of my winter hiking clothing layer system made of materials that help wick sweat and moisture away from my body
- a headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries in case I get caught having to hike back to the trailhead in the dark
- plenty of water and snacks because you will get thirsty and burn a lot of calories when you’re out hiking in the rain, snow and mud
- a satellite communicator or PLB
- hand warmers and toe warmers for if my fingers and toes get cold
- AND an emergency shelter, just in case I get stuck having to stay out on trail overnight
To see what I wear for a winter hike including my clothing layer system and all of the hiking gear I bring with me on a winter hike, check out my blog post, Winter Hiking | What Hiking Gear to Bring and What To Wear
Is Winter Hiking Safe? How to Stay Safe When Hiking in the Winter
Here are some tips on how you can stay safe when hiking in the winter:
When planning a winter hike, start small. Look for a trail that has lower mileage and little to minimal elevation gain than you’d normally hike during the warmer months.
Pick a well-traveled, well-marked, well-maintained, familiar trail that’s close to home. Choose a trail that’s easy to follow and has a fair amount of traffic during the winter. This way if there is snow on the trail, it will be well packed and easier to travel on.
If you’re looking to avoid hiking in the snow, choose a trail that’s at a lower elevation. Hiking in the snow is harder and generally takes longer. During the winter months, you’ll have less daylight, so take this into consideration when choosing a hike.
Do Your Research
Before going on any hike, especially a hike during the winter months, check all of the conditions including road conditions, trail conditions, the weather forecast, and the avalanche forecast for the area you plan on hiking in.
Choose Your Destination Wisely
Look for low-risk winter routes. Also, make sure the road to the trailhead is accessible during the winter. Remember, some of your favorite summer trails might not be safe enough to hike during the winter.
Pick A Good Start Time
Don’t forget, the days are shorter during the winter so pick a good start time. Don’t choose a start time that’s so early, you start hiking in the dark. But also, don’t pick a start time that’s so late, you risk hiking back to the trailhead in the dark. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete your hike during the day, based off your anticipated pace along with the planned mileage and elevation gain for the hike.
Set A Turnaround Time
Even if you picked a good start time, you’ll still want to pick a turnaround time for your winter hike and stick to it. Otherwise, you risk hiking back to the trailhead in the dark.
Things can happen out on trail that might make your hike take longer than anticipated like the weather changing, navigating around trail obstacles, or you took more breaks or a longer lunch than you thought you would.
Always be okay with turning around earlier, even if you don’t make it to your intended destination. This is especially important if conditions change like heavy snowfall, which can make the trail hard to follow, the snow on trail gets deep and hard to travel through, if you come across a steep avalanche slope or pass through what could be an avalanche runoff area or if you end up getting too cold or wet during your hike.
Listen to your gut. If it doesn’t feel safe, turnaround. You can always come back to hike the trail again another day when there’s better, safer conditions.
Put Together A Trip Itinerary
Always put together a trip itinerary for your hike. Make sure you leave your itinerary with someone at home whom you trust, before getting to the trailhead. It’s also a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary hidden somewhere in your car when parked at the trailhead.
If no one knows you’re missing, they won’t know to come looking for you if you don’t return from your hike. If you plan on doing a solo winter hike, always tell someone where you’re going, when you plan on returning and then don’t forget to call or text them to let them know once you’ve returned back from your hike safely.
Be Bold, Start Cold
When hiking during the colder months, avoid sweating at all costs. The goal when hiking during the winter is to stay as dry as possible.
Always start from the trailhead feeling a little colder than you’d like because this helps reduce the chance of sweating underneath your base layers and prevents you from overheating. Sweat and moisture will make you feel cold quick. As soon as you start hiking, your body will warm up naturally.
If you find that after you start hiking, you’re still cold, you can always adjust and add more layers as you go. If you’re all the way down to your base layer and are still sweating, slow down your pace until you stop sweating.
Stay hydrated and make sure you drink enough water before, during and after your winter hike. Staying on top of your hydration is much more challenging when it’s cold out. Get in the habit of taking a sip of water every time you stop for a break. Also, consider bringing more water than you think you’ll need and carry a water filtration system with you as a backup, just in case you need more drinking water when out on trail.
Snack often whenever you’re out winter hiking. Fuel the furnace. You’ll burn a lot of calories when hiking in the cold. The easiest way to do this is to make it a habit to snack every hour when you’re out hiking or eat a quick snack each time you stop for a break, Also, pack the food and snacks you love because you’ll be more likely to eat them.
Stay On Trail
Make sure you stay on trail throughout your entire hike. Pay close attention to trail markers and trail junctions. Consider taking pictures of these types of landmarks to help retrace your steps on your way back to the trailhead.
During the winter, everything can be covered under snow and low cloud cover making the trail and landmarks hard to see. Always carry a navigation system like a map and compass or a navigation app and be familiar with knowing how to use these tools before getting out on trail.
I hope you found this blog post helpful with learning how you can stay safe when hiking in the winter and are now excited to plan your next winter hike.
- Do you have backpacking goals you want to achieve this year like getting out for a solo backpacking trip?
- Or learning how to take a more leadership role with planning a group backpacking trip?
- Or maybe you need help planning and preparing for an upcoming trip out in the backcountry this year?
I’ve helped women all over the country achieve their backpacking goals through my online program, The Confident Solo Female Backpacker System.
Whether you’re a beginner or well-seasoned female backpacker, this program will walk you through, step-by-step, everything you need to know in order to plan, prepare and build up your confidence to comfortably go out for your first or next backpacking trip.
If you’re serious about working towards achieving your backpacking goals this year and need help getting there, CLICK HERE to schedule a one-on-one Zoom call with me where you’ll talk to me live about your backpacking goals and I’ll share with you how I can help you turn your solo backpacking goals into a reality.
CLICK HERE to learn more about The Confident Solo Female Backpacker System.
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