Every season in the mountains has its own beauty. Summer is typically the favorite time of the year for a mountain adventure as it has the lowest requirements for hiking equipment and hiking experience. As a result, when the winter comes, many people stop hiking and wait until the snow disappears.
However there is unique winter beauty in the mountains, and it’s definitely still possible to go hiking in the snow. While hiking in snow is not as easy as in summer, if you come prepared you can have some unforgettable experiences.
Planning For a Hike in the Snow
Planning a hike in winter is not like in summer. There are more variables that require consideration and that means a bit more preparation, knowledge, and experience. Before you set out on a winter hike, try and practice in the summer or fall when the weather is still optimal.
Time your route
When you plan your winter hiking route, have in mind that your speed can be lower (sometimes much lower) than in summer. For example, if you walk on a 10 mile route in summer for 4 hours, now it can be for 5, 6, or more hours because you’ll be walking through and on top of snow and this can severely slow you down. To try and gauge how long your hike will be it’s best to access snow conditions.
Pay Attention to Snow conditions
The best situation would be if you know someone who has already been on your planned route, or if you have the necessary information from a website, trail map, or guide book. If you are staying in a popular area consider stopping by the tourism information center for some up to date info. There is typically someone in the office who can assist with hiking and terrain info.
Make sure to always watch and follow the general weather forecast from the region of the mountain or trail you plan to hike is located. Although they would not necessarily announce the snow condition, you can get information about the recent precipitation and temperatures.
Knowing the approximate temperatures in various altitudes, and the general altitude range of your route can give you an idea of whether the temperatures have risen above freezing, or has remained constantly below this point.
You can then predict whether you should expect freeze/thaw conditions. Even if the temperature has remained below freezing, snow still becomes denser and thinner with the time.
Having in mind all these factors- the number of snowfalls, their intensity and length, the pause between them and the temperatures, you can predict approximately the condition of the snow. Then, you can predict your walking speed. If you gather that your hike should take you four hours, plan for six just for good measure in the winter.
assess the Avalanche danger
Assessing Avalanche conditions and the terrain is critical for hiking in the snow. There are a lot of variables that can cause an avalanche. It’s advised not to hike in avalanche terrain, which is easily defined by slopes greater than 25-degree angle. So, when you plan your route and predict the snow condition, consider these factors and look at topography maps. If you
There can be many layers of snow, in different conditions. Sometimes, especially after heavy snowfall, the contact between the new layer and the older lower layer can be too weak. It is possible even when snow is not too deep. In such situation, snow layers are unstable, and the new layer can easily collapse.
Other avalanche factors are the slope steepness, and lack of trees. If the slope is steeper than 30°, and if the average distance between trees is more than 20 feet, you have to be cautious. You can read up on Avalanche Knowledge here. Everything can look calm and quiet, but an avalanche can happen suddenly, often without warning. If you’re going hiking in avalanche terrain I highly suggest taking an Avalanche Safety Course in your area.
How to Avoid Avalanches
If you’re in avalanche terrain you can never guarantee you won’t be caught in one, but there are measures you can take to try and avoid them. To avoid avalanches, take note of the difference between summer and winter trails. While summer trails are designed to pass on the easiest and most convenient way, the goal of the winter trails is to protect you from avalanches.
To do this, they are established on summits. It’s not 100% safe on the summit , but much better than the middle of a slope.
Keep in mind that noise and wind can cause avalanches when snow is unstable. If you see a snow path made by someone in an avalanche risky place, don’t follow it!
It already contributes to the instability of the snow, and you could make it even more unstable. Again your best bet to mitigate the chance of an avalanche is to take a proper avalanche safety course, or hire a guide to take you into hazardous terrain.
pay attention to the Snow path and number of hikers
The number of people in your group is important in certain snow conditions. For example, if you are alone and walk on a deep snow and are sinking every step you take, you will get tired very soon. If you are hiking in deep fresh snow it’s best to bring a pair of snowshoes on your adventure.
If you are a group of several people, the first one will make a snow path, and the others will easily follow. When the first one gets tired, the next one can replace them. The whole group (or at least the stronger participants) can rotate to prevent everyone from getting tired. It’s best for the strongest hiker to be at the front when hiking in the snow.
When you make your path, try to walk in the forest (if you are in the forested zone), because snow is often thinner there. If you walk in open places like meadows, especially on summits, snow is deeper and there can be driven by winds snow too. It’s best not to walk straight up and rather take zig zags through the snow as you gain elevation.
avoid Slipping by getting proper equipment
There are other kinds of snow conditions that can cause slipping. Usually, it is when the upper snow layer is hard, after a long time without snowfall. The surface can be especially bad if there are some warmer periods resulting in ice and rain. If you are on a steep slope with little snowpack, slipping can also occur. Slipping down a steep slope can be dangerous if you cannot stop. Microspikes can prevent this on easier hikes, while crampons and an ice axe can be essential on certain terrain.
check the Weather Forecast
I hate to sound like a broker record, but always watch and follow the weather forecast. If you see a snowstorm is on it’s way it is best to postpone your hike.
Snowstorms can be very dangerous as winds are stronger and much more powerful, you’ll really feel the temperatures when wind gusts are pounding your face.
When there is a strong storm the snow condition causes sinking and low walking speed, your movements that can warm you are more limited. With heavy wind and snowfall the avalanche danger is much higher during snowstorms.
During snowstorm everything becomes a messy white hell where you can easily lose sense any orientation and your vision is servery reduced. It can be a very stressful sitation.
Because of low temperatures, your GPS battery can quickly drop, making it easy to get lost and a situation can turn deadly.
If you get caught in a snowstorm you’ll need to make a shelter quickly. If you get caught in this situation first, try to not stay on a summit, but choose this side of the summit where you will be protected from the wind.
characteristics of Snow
Depth of snow cover
Snow cover varies in-depth and types of snow. It can be thin- just 2-3 inches, or it can be very deep- several feet. Obviously, walking in thin snow cover will be much easier.
On the other hand, it looks like deep snow should be extremely difficult to walk through. But this may not always be the case. Deep snow covers are not created in one snowfall, but usually are a result of multiple cold and snowy waves that alternate with sunny weather. Creating many snow layers with varying thicknesses. When walking through deep snow you’re not hitting the ground, but instead one of the lower layers.
If you’re in deep fresh snow it’s advisable to hike with snowshoes.
Keep an Eye on Temperature
Temperature is crucial for the snow condition. If it rises above the freezing level (0°C ), the snow will begin to melt, which is only amplified by the sun’s rays. When the snow melts, it becomes wet and slushy. When night falls, the temperature often drops below freezing. As a result, the wet snow layer freezes and it’s no longer that fresh white powder that is so fantastic.
This process can repeat several days and nights, and snow gradually turns to firn- dense granulated snow until another fresh dump of snow comes along.
Every snowfall creates a new snow layer. This layer changes the snow quality, depending on the type of snow that creates it, the quantity of the snow, the weather between snowfalls, and the length of the time to the next snowfall. Melted snow surface also becomes a new sub-layer, and can become a firn layer.
This can be good or bad news for hikers in the snow. In some cases the upper layer can become hard and thick, so you can walk on it without sinking. But in other cases, this upper layer can be not enough thick, and the layer below can be soft.
The result is “trap-snow”- in some steps you still walk on it (if you step more carefully), and in other steps you suddenly sink deeply. Sometimes you sink in every step, snowshoes help tremendously in this scenario.
In other cases, snow can be soft and fluffy, and if it is too deep, hiking can be a challenge. Deep sinking is inevitable, and even snowshoes can’t help too much. This usually happens during constant cold weather patterns with temperatures staying below freezing, often with heavy and long snowfalls.
Hiking gear for snow
If you plan a hike in the snow, you definitely need good equipment. Without it, you not only would walk slower and with more difficulty but most importantly, you risk your health and even life. Your feet or fingers can freeze resulting in frostbite, or hypothermia can set in.
Winter gloves and Hat
If you walk in the snow, especially deep snow, you would often touch the snow. Thick gloves are essential for extreme temperatures. When temperatures start to walk up in the spring you can switch to thinner gloves so your hands don’t get too hot.
You’ll also need a good winter hat to protect your head and ears from getting cold. I love Buffs around my neck as well.
Don’t venture into the mountains with a cotton shirt, and a heavy and thick coat over them. Instead, bring proper thermals and a mid-layer. Layers are essential for hiking as your body will be constantly changing temperatures and you will want to shed a layer and put a layer on when this happens.
Avoid cotton shirts at all cost as they trap moisture and is not a quick drying material. Wool is the best material to buy when hiking in the snow. I’ve found the best pants for hiking in the snow are the Fjallraven Kebs.
I carry a packable down jacket on me on every hike. They are lightweight, heavy duty, and the down fill makes them extremely warm. My favorite is the Arc’teryx Cerium.
Make sure to get proper hiking boots that have Goretex and have a high ankle. You can see some of the best hiking boots here.
Gaiters are an important winter hiking essential, even if the snow is not too deep. Most hiking boots are not high enough to keep snow from sneaking its way into your shoes and making your socks and feet wet. Gaiters are an inexpensive option for protecting your feet from getting wet.
Again- wool! Even if you wear good hiking or mountaineering boots, your feet still can get very cold and even freeze. See the best hiking socks here.
Ultraviolet rays are terrible for your eyes causing temporary or constant blindness. The bright snow only intensifies this as there are billions of snow crystals that reflect the light, including the invisible part of the light.
If you are in the forest hiking it’s not a huge problem, but if you are in an open space where you can’t see anything but only glazing snow under the harsh sun, it can be dangerous for your eyes.
Snow glasses are expensive but are the best at protecting your eyes. If you plan to do a lot of hiking in the snow I think they are worth the investment. If you are only planning on doing a few snow hikes every season, proper hiking glasses should suffice.
Something hot to Eat and drink
Bring something that can hold eat or supply heat. Hot tea or soup in a Stanley insulated Container can make the difference between a good day in the mountains and a bad one. I love to bring miso soup in a container on a hike to warm up, or sometimes will even bring a backpacking stove to boil up something really fast outdoors.
Hiking in the snow can be extremely beautiful, it just requires more preparation and planning than hiking during the summer months. By following these tips and staying up to date with the weather and avalanche forecast in your area you can easily feel much more confident and safer in winter conditions.
- Enough food and water for a few days
- Hiking Poles
- Garmin In Reach
- Hand and feet warmers
- Pocket knife
- Emergency Blanket
About the Author
Krasen Jelyazkov is a travel blogger from Bulgaria, the voice behind the blog Journey Beyond the Horizon. He is passionate to explore the Earth, enjoying our planet’s geography and history. He has traveled in Europe and Asia, mainly in off-the-beaten-path regions, together with his travel mate and spouse Ying Ying from China, and they are glad to share it in their blog.