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Winter Safety Tips

Winter backcountry exploration can present dangers that far exceed those of hiking in the summertime. Always check avalanche conditions, choose your destinations wisely, let someone know where you are going, pack properly for winter, and bring navigation skills.

Snowshoe Mt. Rainier
Be prepared out there in the winter! Carry the Ten Essentials and winter survival gear in your backpack when snowshoeing and hiking. Photo by DC.

Winter backcountry exploration can present dangers that far exceed those of hiking in the summertime. Heavy snowfall followed by slow warming and rain can progressively load and stress a multitude of buried weak layers, creating dangerous avalanche conditions that not even the most experienced backcountry hikers should attempt.

Hikers and snowshoers need to do plenty of advanced planning and take every precaution before hitting a trail in winter months. Here are some tips for safer backcountry exploration in winter:

Always check avalanche conditions

Avalanches can strike even the most prepared winter hiker. Before going out on a snowy trail, definitely check the Northwest Avalanche Center online to determine local mountain weather and avalanche conditions.

There are no shortage of good online sources for mountain weather and road condition. For mountain forecasts, try NOAA's Washington Mountain Weather site. And the Northwest Avalanche Center's website provides not only detailed avalanche forecasts but also comprehensive weather data and forecasts for the mountains. To gauge snow depth, check out this Washington snow map from the National Water and Climate Center.

For roads conditions, WSDOT has up-to-date mountain pass conditions, including cameras on five well-traveled routes. It is also wise to call ahead to the ranger station where you plan to hike or snowshoe to determine current conditions, especially the local roads where storms or fallen trees can shut off routes unexpectedly. If you're planning on visiting the Snoqualmie Pass area, for instance, call ahead either to the North Bend Ranger station at 425-888-1421 or the Cle Elum Ranger station at 509-852-1100.

Choose your destinations wisely

Popular summer hiking trails such as McClellan Butte, Granite Mountain, or Snow Lake become deadly avalanche hotspots in winter, and should never be considered as snowshoe destinations. Don't assume an easy summer day hike will make a good snowshoe trip. Consult a guidebook to find the best low-risk snowshoe routes. And remember that there are other snow risks beside avalanches - getting stuck in a tree well (the hollow in snow at the base of a tree) is a surprisingly common cause of injuries and fatalities in winter recreation.

Let someone know where you are going

Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return (and call them when you do return!). You can find a trip plan form here to print, fill out and leave behind with someone you know before your next hike. If your destination changes, follow up and let someone know.

Always pack the Ten Essentials & a few extra winter ones on any hike

The Ten Essentials include a topographic map, compass, extra food, extra clothing, firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit, and flashlight.

Some of these are extra important for winter hiking and snowshoeing:

  • Adequate extra clothing - plenty of layers made of materials such as wool or polypropolene that wick sweat and moisture away from your body.
  • Headlamp or flashlight (and extra batteries) are especially important in the winter, since days are short and night comes quickly.
  • Plenty of extra food - snowshoeing is strenuous exercise and you burn a lot of calories, so bring along plenty of extra food and keep your energy level high.

In addition, snowshoeing requires much more energy than hiking, so keep your mileage goals small, and turn around when conditions are beyond your skills or your energy level is low. A few extra items to put in the winter backpack include:

  • Plenty of water - keep hydrated by drinking often.
  • Emergency shelter and/or sleeping bag - seriously consider carrying these in case you have to spend a night out there.
  • Portable shovel - a critically important winter survival tool, which will assist you in digging snow caves in which you can survive a bitter, cold night.  And, it's nearly impossible to dig someone out of an avalanche without a shovel.
  • Avalanche beacon - in avalanche country, consider carrying an avalanche beacon. And know how to use it properly.

Bring navigation skills

Remember that it's much easier to get yourself lost in winter - snow tends to make the landscape look uniform and obscure landmarks. It's not easy trying to find your way on an unfamiliar backcountry trail using only a topo map when the trail is covered under a thick blanket of snow, and clouds obscure the identifiable peaks around you. This makes map and compass skills essential for winter backcountry travel. Take the Mountaineers Club's wilderness navigation course, which is a bargain at only $35 per person, considering it could help save your life.

Snowshoeing is great fun and a wonderful way to explore outdoors in the winter. But it's essential to take several extra planning steps beyond what you'd do for an average summer day hike. That means a heavier pack, and a little more preparation time. But that just means you'll burn more calories on your trip, and you'll be more likely to return safely to your car, where you can warm up with a hot chocolate and extra whipped cream on your way home.

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