Winter Trip Planning

Key considerations

All trips into the wilderness come with dangers and risks as well as high rewards. Mitigating risks involves careful planning, bring gear suitable for any conditions, and avoiding mistakes.

Trip planning starts with 1) reviewing the weather and avalanche conditions, 2) finding accessible trailheads, 3) looking for routes with manageable risks, 4) planning destinations that are worth the effort, 5) and kit adjustments.

Or put another way, we need to consider questions such as:

  1. What are the weather and avalanche conditions?
  2. Can the trailhead be reached? Are the roads open? Will snowfall affect our ability to safely exit the trailhead area at the end of the hike?
  3. Where does the route cross dangerous avalanche slopes and how can these be avoided? What are the snow conditions at the elevations along the route? What distances are involved and how will snow levels affect travel speeds?
  4. If we reach the destination, will there be views?
  5. What gear will be needed, such as avalanche gear, wind and UV protection, and insulation?

Avalanche conditions

Check the avalanche conditions here: https://www.nwac.us/

Note the danger level and type of avalanche risks.

You can learn about how to read avalanche reports in these tutorial videos: 

If you are new to snow conditions and avalanche dangers, I also recommend the classes offers by NWAC, especially those designed for snowshoers. You may also find their tutorial helpful.

Winter Weather Data

Always check weather temperatures and wind speeds, not just cloud cover.

Check weather conditions here: https://www.mountain-forecast.com/

I recommend bookmarking specific mountains.

Pay attention to each elevation you will be in. Sometimes there will be rain at low elevations and snow and wind at higher elevations. Conditions around freezing are common in the Pacific Northwest and make staying dry difficult. Ideal winter travel tends to be in colder conditions 15–25ºF, which is cold enough to stay dry, but not so cold as to require expedition level gear.

mountain weather elevation chart
This image points out some of the key features of the Mountain Forecast website. The selected page shows the mountain weather forecast for Mount Adams. The forecast indicates the impossibility of being on the summit on the dates shown. The wind speeds at the summit is too high and the snow falls indicate heightened avalanche risk. Each page also has a weather map feature that shows clouds, rain, and wind.

Why Rain Gear is always Mandatory

Even on clear days, you must be prepared for rain. The sun can melt snow in the top of the trees causes what is equivalent to a major rain shower coming down in the forest. Rain gear is essential for wind protection too.

It is important to consider not just snowfall, but wind conditions. More about planning for wind here: https://winterbackpacking.com/preparing-for-winter-wind/

Winter Trailhead Accessibility

In the winter months, trailheads are often closed and/or covered in snow. This means accessible trailheads tend to be close to major roads or ski resorts.

parking near trailhead
Parking on a plowed road near a trailhead in winter. Notice that the plow has gone around our vehicle because we were there overnight.

A major consideration is the snowpack. If the snow is deep and not yet compacted, snowshoe travel is difficult and can even be impossible. Elevation changes can also affect snow levels. Some routes, for example, might have 4 miles of a closed forest road with little snow followed by 4 miles of snow deep enough to require snowshoes.

For mountain pass road closures, use the Washington State Department of Transportation (wsdot) website for updates and information: https://www.wsdot.com/traffic/passes/

Winter trail evaluation and route finding

In the shoulder seasons, the snow is high up and trails can often be approached by using the forest roads. Day hikers are often fooled by the clear conditions at the trailhead only to find themselves in deep snow, slippery ice, and windy conditions as they move a few thousand feet higher up the trail. Not being prepared with rain gear, gaiters, microspikes, trekking poles with baskets, can place you at risk.

Once the forest roads close or get covered in snow, the forest road can only be hiked if the distances are short enough. Bear in mind that some forest roads are scenic, but most are not, so in most cases you want to avoid hiking long forest roads. Many people go on snowshoe hikes on forest roads, but there are better routes.

In most instances, the routes I hike in winter are routes I have already hiked in summer and the shoulder months. When the trails are covered in snow, it is good to already be familiar with the route, the terrain, and general directions. Be mindful that in winter it is not always possible to see the sunrise, sunset, or north star. 

winter trip planning
Its important to know how to orient and read a map. A good map can help you recognize glaciers from snowfields and find water sources, shelter from wind, and alternative routes.

Here are a few additional steps to follow when checking out a route on a map for winter trips.

  1. Start by checking the avalanche forecast and slope aspect information.
  2. Check slope angles on a topographical map, such as Caltopo. (Here’s a tutorial for using Caltopo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2188-p_uFMY)
  3. Check where the trail is in the higher risks slopes (30–55º slopes) and use satellite imagery to evaluate tree cover and how anchored the snow may be. Look for alternative routes or ways to navigate around these danger areas.
  4. Check the sunlight position on the trail. Google Earth allows you to see sunlight on 3D images of the landscape. This means you can evaluate the amount of sun on slopes at the time you plan to cross those slopes. You can also identify whether your planned campsite will be in the first morning light.
caltop map example
Notice the Slope Angle shading feature in the sidebar and on the topographical map. The red shading shows the highest avalanche risks. To help evaluate this risk, refer to satellite imaging to see if the area is anchored in trees or are in more open slopes where the danger is higher.
Caltopo image
Caltopo satellite feature is not always very clear. I prefer to use Google Earth’s 3D imaging (shown below).
Google Earth 3D satellite imaging
In this image, we can visually see the trail running across an open slope area. The avalanche risk looks highest in this area, so we planned a route over the top of the ridge. At one point, the ridge drops off sharply, but with a large buildup of snow, it was possible to safely descend and carry on to the summit. Had a safe descent not been possible the views from the top of the ridge would have been an excellent stopping point.
avalanche slope danger scale

Winter Kit Adjustments

Here are some basic notes for each month of the year to help you gauge what to expect and what gear to add on to your usual winter kit. While you will want to adjust your gear list based on weather, snow conditions, terrain, and trip duration, your basic kit needs to include gear suitable for unexpected cold, wind, and visibility conditions.

September–early October: An occasional early season snowfall can provide snow camping opportunities in September and October. Expect temperatures above freezing at lower elevations.

Changing snow conditions
Weather conditions can change dramatically between 2000 and 6000 feet. Sometimes the snow above is visible from the trailhead but other times it is not. These photos are from the same trip.

October–November: These months are often the most challenging because the weather is wet and cloudy and not quite cold enough to stay dry. It is essential to always stay dry in winter to avoid hypothermia risks. For this reason, few trips occur in November, unless the weather is colder and drier than usual. In these conditions, it is often better to use gear that works in wet conditions—synthetic insulation rather than down, wool baselayers rather than nylon.

early winter backpack
Early snow often doesn’t require snowshoes, but you should carry them anyway unless you know the weather is clearing.

December and January: These months tend to be cloudy and daylight hours are fewer. Distances usually have to be short because the snow is deep and travel time is slower. Trip planning is difficult, but some of the most amazing heavy-snow trips occur during these months. There are many cloudy days in the winter and the few that have sunshine are not going to always fall perfectly on the weekends. If you are flexible about when you can go, I can sometimes reschedule for a bluebird weekday, which is better than canceling. Short snowy trips in December are good opportunities for people new to snow camping to test gear and learn techniques. Most routes require snowshoes, trekking poles with snow baskets, and avy-gear (shovel, probe, and beacon).

camping in deep snow
Snowshoeing in deep snow is strenuous making long distances often impossible. These trips, however, provide unmatched beauty.

February to March: Opportunities for longer trips on compacted snow increase. Snowshoes may be needed so these need to be strapped to pack.

snow travel
As snow consolidates it is possible to travel on it without snowshoes.

April–June: There is still abundant snow at high elevations. The days are longer, the weather clearer and the snow consolidated making longer and more frequent trips possible. Microspikes and/or crampons can usually replace snowshoes.

July–September: The snow melts out and snow camping is only possible on the higher elevation destinations.

high elevation snow in summer

I have had some great trips in mostly cloudy whiteout weather, but generally speaking, I am more inclined to go if there is at least some partially clear conditions in the forecast. Unfortunately, that partially clear sky sometimes turns into sustained whiteout conditions.

whiteout conditions
You can never be certain what the weather will be like. Be positive and make the most of it. This looks rough, but it was a great trip.

I will be updating and improving this page. Any suggestions you have are welcome.

snowshoeing in the cascade mountains