Spring Skills: Tips for Hiking on Snow
Traveling safely across snow is an essential skill for many hikers and climbers—even in the spring and early summer months. Use the following tips from author and mountaineering educator Mike Zawaski to travel more safety across snow fields in Washington—which can linger long into summer.
If you want to learn even more about kicking steps, crampons, ice-axes and hiking over snow, you can buy Zawaski's new book, Snow Travel: Climbing, Hiking, and Crossing Over Snow, from Mountaineers Press.
Snow travel: a good skill to add to your backpack
- A snowy pass can provide a significant and dangerous obstacle for the unprepared hiker traveling in the high country. Even if you don't aspire to climbing peaks, it is definitely worth your time to learn how to kick good steps and travel with an ice ax.
Hiking on snow can reduce your impact
- Having the confidence to travel on snow allows you reduce your impact by walking on snow instead of around it, a practice which can create additional trails and destroy vegetation.
Travel on firm snow reduces risk from avalanches
- Late spring and early summer can be a great time to climb snowy routes on peaks, but avalanches are still a hazard. Reduce your chances of getting caught in an avalanche by climbing and descending your route while the snow is still firm. For east-facing routes, this may mean completing much of your ascent before sunrise.
Look ahead to spot hazardous transition zones
- Common places where falls occur are transition zones. These are places where the terrain or characteristics of the snow changes and climbers fall because they fail to adjust their equipment or technique. Avoid these hazards by looking ahead and preparing for changes before you encounter them. For example it may be much easier to put on your crampons on a low angle section instead of waiting until you are starting to slip because the snow is too steep or too firm.
How to kick steps in snow
- Kicking steps with your feet is more complex than most books make it seem. The two tips I commonly offer are to 1.) choose the step that gets the most of your boot’s sole in contact with the snow (if you're worried about falling) and 2.) not to tiptoe around when kicking hard-firm snow.
Old footsteps can be icy: you may be better kicking your own steps
- Beware of following an old set of footsteps across a snowy slope. These may be very icy, especially on a cold morning. If you are proficient kicking steps you are much more likely to find a better route or travel more safely across pre-existing steps.
Getting technical: crampons, ice axes and rope teams
- While ski poles or trekking poles may help you maintain balance while kicking steps across a slope, an ice ax is superior for helping you self-arrest if you fall. Self-arresting with ski poles is possible, but it is much more difficult and you will slide further than if you are using an ice ax.
Crampons: only to be used on firm snow and ice
- Crampons are an amazing tool that give your feet traction, but they should only be used on very firm snow and ice. The danger on soft snow is that snow will build up under your boot so that your points fail to stick which may cause you to fall.
To learn more about kicking steps, using crampons, and using an ice ax for going up, traversing, resting, and descending on snow, check out Mike Zawaski's Snow Travel: Climbing, Hiking, and Crossing Over Snow.