A few safety tips
This is a concise list of safety tips for beginners who want to start winter backpacking.
- Avoid traveling alone. Hike in a group when possible and keep in eyesight of each other. If you think you may get separated, consider using walkie-talkies.
- Learn about snow. Start with short snowshoe day-hikes. Learn about the seasonal differences in snow conditions, from deep early season fresh snow to late-season consolidated snow. Learn how snow changes not just over the course of the season but of the day and how these changes affect travel speeds and gear requirements. Get to know which conditions require micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. Learn how to layer clothing and what levels of insulation 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. Know how to orient a map, use a compass, and spot 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. Both wind and fresh snowfall can obscure your tracks quickly. Learn more about trip planning here: Trip Planning.
- Carry appropriate gear suited for the conditions and weather. Make sure you have the appropriate type of snowshoes for the terrain, the necessary sleeping bag and sleeping pad ratings, a tent that sheds snow, etc. Bring essentials such as first aid, headlamp, extra food and water, rain gear, etc. Have a gear checklist and do a visual inspection before leaving home. Avoid cotton clothing because it doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin making it harder for your body to retain warmth. 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 if it happens. Even though it is winter, you will likely sweat a lot while hiking. Always be able to change into dry clothing. Snowmelt can cause your boots and gloves to get wet. Wear gaiters to reduce snowmelt getting into your boots. Bring extra socks and gloves to replace wet ones. Carry rain gear even on clear days because the snow melting in the trees above can create rain showers in the forest that quickly soak your pack and clothing. Protect your sleeping bag, base layers, down jackets, and extra clothing with dry sacks inside your backpack.
- 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 avalanche safety gear. Bring a transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use this gear when traveling in areas with avalanche risks. Practice beacon recovery with friends.
- Be prepared for wind. Check the wind forecast and carry wind protection, such as rain pants and jacket, goggles, balaclava, and extra gloves. Learn more about winter winds here: Preparing for Winter Winds.
- Bring UV protection. From January to July, UV reflection from the snow intensifies and can cause severe sunburns and snow blindness. Bring category 4 sunglasses (Glacier Glasses) to protect your eyes. Bring sunscreen and be able to cover exposed skin. Even the bottom of your nose and lips can get blistered from UV exposure on the snow.
- Learn how to avoid common snow dangers such as tree wells, snow bridges, cornices, and crevasses.
- Carry a stove and multiple fire-starting devices. Don’t rely on fires for warmth. Collecting wood and starting a fire in deep snow is difficult and often counter-productive because you expend valuable time and energy and often get wet in the process. It is also environmentally unsound in high elevation alpine areas. A stove is a faster and far more reliable way to generate warmth, resupply water, and heat food. Tents, sleeping bags, and jackets don’t create warmth, they preserve it. Your warmth comes from within your own body. The first rule of staying warm is to not lose body heat. While hiking you will wear fewer layers of clothing to avoid sweating, but once you stop moving you must layer up quickly to avoid core heat loss from your body. Once you lose warmth it is hard to recover it. Avoid staying in the wind without wind protection and sufficient layers. Being able to use a stove to create hot water bottles and heat food is important to generating, sustaining, and recovering warmth.