All trips into the wilderness come with dangers and risks as well as rewards. Mitigating risks involves gathering information, careful planning, bringing gear suitable for any conditions, and avoiding mistakes.
Trip planning starts with these considerations:
- Reviewing the avalanche forecast. Is it safe to be in the backcountry?
- Reviewing the weather forecast. Will snowfall levels be manageable or too heavy to reach the destination or exit the parking spot at the end of the hike?
- Finding accessible trailheads. Can the trailhead be reached? Are the roads open or can they be hiked?
- Winter trail evaluation and route finding. This involves looking for routes with manageable risks. 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? Is the destination worth the effort and will there be views?
- Winter gear adjustments. Based on snowpack, weather forecast, and time of year, what gear will be needed, such as avalanche gear, wind and UV protection, insulation, or traction?
1. Reading the Avalanche Forecast
Check the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) avalanche forecast here: https://www.nwac.us/
Note the danger level and type of avalanche risks. Click the zone and note the danger level, problem type, aspect/elevation, likelihood, and size. Read the “Forecast Discussion” and look at the photo and videos provided. This is an excellent way to learn about avalanche signs to watch for while hiking.
Unlike Skiers, who ski the steep open slopes, we will be looking for snowshoe routes that avoid avalanche terrain as much as possible.
You can begin learning about how to read avalanche reports by watching these tutorial videos:
Even when the forecast says the risk is low, it is always best to carry three essential pieces of avalanche gear: A transceiver, a probe, and a shovel. Check the transceiver batteries and functionality before heading out. Turn on the transceiver at the trailhead and leave it on at all times. Wear your transceiver under your outer clothing so it cannot be knocked out of you. Hopefully, you will never need the transceiver or probe, but the rescue shovel will be useful when you need to build a snow wall for wind protection, level a tent spot, dig a cooking pit, or clear a passage through a snow bank, such as to reach a lower log bridge.
2. Reading the Winter Weather Forecast
Always check weather temperatures and wind speeds, not just cloud cover.
An easy way to check the mountain weather conditions is the Mountain Forecast website: 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.
Interpreting the Mountain Weather Forecast
Why Rain Gear is Always Mandatory
There are two reasons to always carry rain gear:
First, even on clear days, you must be prepared for moisture. 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.
Second, rain gear is essential for wind protection. It is important to consider not just snowfall, but wind conditions. More about planning for wind here: https://winterbackpacking.com/preparing-for-winter-wind/
3. Finding Accessible Trailheads
In the winter months, trailheads are often closed and/or covered in snow. This means the accessible trailheads tend to be near major roads or ski resorts.
The first major consideration is the snowpack. If the snow is deep and not yet compacted, snowshoe travel is difficult and can even be impossible. However, if snowshoe travel is possible, the question is whether a trailhead can be reached by either a plowed road or a snow-covered forest road that is short enough to add to the trail hike.
Elevation changes affect snow the level of snow on the road and trails. 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. In some cases, the trailhead can be reached even if the forest road is closed.
Resources for determining access to trailheads are listed below.
Washington State Department of Transportation (wsdot)
For mountain pass road closures, use the Washington State Department of Transportation (wsdot) website for updates and information: https://www.wsdot.com/traffic/passes/
National Forests in Washington State
Resources for checking road and trail conditions and closures:
- USDA Forest Road & Trail Conditions
- USDA Forest Road Map for Washington
- USDA Forest Trail Map for Washington
- USDA Alerts and Notices
Gifford Pinchot National Forest
- Washington Department of Transportation
- Washington Department of Forestry Fire page
- Washington Office of Emergency Services
- Game Management Units (GMUs) Maps
- State Highway Maps (PDFs)
Ranger Station Contact Information
- Forest Headquarters
- Mt. Baker Ranger District Offices
- Glacier Public Service Center
- Heather Meadows Visitor Center
- Darrington Ranger District Offices
- Verlot Public Service Center
- Skykomish Ranger District Office
- Snoqualmie Ranger District Offices
- Enumclaw Office
- Silver Creek Visitor Center
- Cowlitz Valley Ranger District
- Mt. Adams Ranger District
- Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument
- For road updates, visit @MountRainierNPS on Twitter.
- Road Status list (NPS website)
- Road status map and text-only link
- Winter Recreation Webpage
- Winter Camping Information (PDF)
North Cascades National Park
For the North Cascades Visitor Center, Park and Forest Information Center (Sedro-Woolley), Wilderness Information Center (Marblemount), Golden West Visitor Center (Stehekin), Methow Valley Ranger Station (Winthrop), and the Skagit Information Center, click here.
Olympic National Park
- Olympic National Park Winter Road Closures and Recreation page
- Current conditions
- Hurricane Ridge Weather Station
- Waterhole “Snotel” Site
- Hurricane Ridge Webcam
- Lake Crescent Webcam
- Quinault Climate Reference Network Station
How to View NOAA Snow data on Google Earth
You can load the latest NOAA Snow Data into Google Earth to get an idea of where recent snowfalls are heaviest and what roads are affected.
The data comes in a Keyhole Markup Language (KML) feed and is a compressed (KMZ) file.
Download the latest National Snow Analyses here: https://www.nohrsc.noaa.gov/earth/. Mac users can then drag and drop onto the Google Earth icon to launch. For more instructions, visit Connecting Google Earth and Maps to NDFD Web Services (https://graphical.weather.gov/xml/mdl/XML/Design/Google_example.php).
Gear for your car
- Windshield ice scraper
- Cable chains
- 30″ bow saw
Always bring cable chains for your tire. Many mountain roads are steep and have no guardrails. I usually bring pliers and gloves to help with the cable installation. Another useful tool is a 30″ bow saw. These saws are incredibly fast and effective for cutting way down trees. Sometimes the snow will cause trees to fall over the road, blocking your route home after a hike. Because this is the Pacific Northwest, some old-growth trees may be too large to clear. But most forest roads go through areas where old-growth is rare and the trees are smaller.
Winter Driving Safety Tips
- Carry tire chains in both winter and spring.
- Keep extra distance between vehicles.
- Stay back when following plows.
- Never stop or park in a traffic lane (you may be hit by sliding car).
- Practice installing chains before you need them.
- Avoid setting the emergency brake when parking because it may freeze.
- Be extra cautious crossing bridge surfaces because of icy surfaces.
- Make sure snow is not blocking the exhaust when parking overnight or in snowfall.
4. 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 have scenic views, but most are lined with trees. In most cases, you want to avoid hiking long forest roads. Many people choose forest roads for snowshoe hikes hoping to avoid avalanche dangers, but this does not always eliminate avlanche dangers, and with careful planning there are scienic wilderness destinations beyond the forest roads.
As a general practice, it is best to hike to planned winter destinations 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 orientation is more difficult in winter and the trail can be hidden many feet below the snow. It is not always possible to see the sunrise, sunset, or north star. Things will look different and your safest winter route may involve avoiding the established trail.
Here are a few additional steps to follow when checking out a route on a map for winter trips.
- Check the avalanche forecast.
- 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). 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.
- Check slope aspect. The aspect is the direction of the slope and relates directly to such issues as sun and wind exposure. The avalanche forecast will indicate how each aspect is affected by each avalanche issue.
- Check the sunlight position on the trail. On the trail, you can view the sun’s position, a GPS or compass to determine which aspect you’re on. But prior to the start of the hike, you can use Google Earth to see sunlight on 3D images of the landscape. This means you can plan your route with sunlight effects in mind prior to being there. You can evaluate the amount of sun on slopes at the time you plan to cross those slopes. On the trail, you can also identify whether your planned campsite will receive early morning sunlight.
Creating a Winter Route
The winter offers opportunities not found any other time of the year. Wet and marshy areas can become wide-open areas when covered in deep snow. Popular trail viewpoints that are crowded in the shoulder and summer seasons are sometimes completely empty when covered by winter snow. Areas too rocky to camp on can be smoothed over with snow. Lakes can freeze over solid enough to camp on. All of these reasons can justify winter route changes.
The most common reason to avoid established trail routes is exposed or loadbearing slopes with increased avalanche dangers, such as cornices and visible crowns. In such instances, it is better to find a route that is anchored by trees or on a windward slope with consolidated snow.
These next three map screen images illustrate an example of winter route planning (see captions for explanations).
5. Winter Kit Adjustments (Month-by-Month)
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.
An occasional early season snowfall can provide snow camping opportunities in September and October. Expect temperatures above freezing at lower elevations.
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.
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).
February to March
Opportunities for longer trips on compacted snow increase. Snowshoes may be needed so these need to be strapped to pack.
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.
The snow melts out and snow camping is only possible on the higher elevation destinations.
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.
For more about winter gear see:
I will be updating and improving this page. Any suggestions you have are welcome.