If you’re new to backpacking in snow conditions, here are a few things you can do to help minimize some of the common dangers.
A few safety tips
Winter backpacking is like driving a car. There are always dangers, but there are ways to reduce those dangers. After all, we want to make sure we get a chance to backpack another day.
Avoid traveling alone. Hike in a group when possible and keep in eyesight of each other. If you think you may get separated, carry walkie-talkies.
Do day-hikes in the snow to learn about the seasonal differences in snow conditions and also how snow changes in the course of the day effect travel and gear requirements (snow is usually harder in the morning and softer as the day progresses). This way you can get to know conditions for different types of gear, such as micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. It will give you an opportunity to learn how to layer clothing and what levels of warm clothing are needed for different temperature ranges. Being too hot—overheating and sweating—or being too cold can both lead to hypothermia.
Give greater attention to trail navigation, before and during hiking. Know how to orient a map, use a compass, and spots reliable natural markers. Consider bringing a GPS, but don’t be reliant on electronic devices or batteries which may fail, especially in cold weather. Don’t depend on clear visibility, or expect exposed trails, or footprints in the snow for directions.
Carry appropriate gear (layers, insulated clothing, non-cotton clothing, and gear suited for the condition and weather, such as the snowshoes with side walls and a four-season tent that sheds snow). Always be prepared for conditions colder than anticipated. It is good to have a sleeping bag that is 10–20 degrees warmer than what you expect. If you’re just out for a day hike, carry emergency shelter in your day pack.
Expect to get wet and be prepared to deal with it. Even though it is winter, you will likely sweat a lot while hiking. Snow may melt on your books and gloves. Wear gaiters to reduce snowmelt getting your boots wet. Bringing extra pairs of socks and gloves to replace wet ones.
Attend avalanche classes. Learn how to identify risks. (There are often free classes available, such as those hosted by REI.)
Check weather and avalanche forecasts before leaving. If things look worse than anticipated, know when to turn around.
Carry and know how to use basic avalanche safety gear (transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel) when traveling in areas with avalanche risks.
Check wind conditions and generally be prepared for high winds (goggles, balaclava, gloves, windbreaker, insulated jacket with hood).
Learn about common dangers such as tree wells, snowbridges, and crevasses.
Carry multiple fire-starting devices, but don’t rely on fires for warmth. Collecting and starting a fire is difficult, counter-productive (you expend valuable energy and often get wet in the process) and environmentally unsound. Fires are for emergency situation. Your warmth comes from within your own body. The art of staying warm involves preserving the warmth your body generates. The secret to being warm is eating, circulation, and insulation. Tents, sleeping bags, and jackets don’t create warmth, they preserve it.