Safe Winter Hiking and Camping

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Winter hike on Mt Ranier.
Winter hiking on Mt. Ranier. Image credit: NPS.

A nature hike or campout during the winter months can offer the entire family a thrilling experience. It gets you out of a stuffy house, avoids the summer tourist crush and allows you to linger within a kind of natural beauty that many people never experience.

Of course, a different type of thrill awaits you after falling into a drift or your tent blows away in a windstorm. So, let’s discuss what to wear, what to bring and how to prepare for a journey into snow country.

Winter Hiking

Have you ever wanted to experience a long walk through the wilderness among blankets of gleaming snow and lakes frozen into mirrors of ice? Start with a solid safety plan to protect your health and improve your confidence.

“With the right clothing, equipment and training, you can get out and reap the physical and emotional benefits associated with staying active while embracing the unique beauty of the winter landscape,” says Aaron Gorban, Director of Outdoor Leadership Training at the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Dress up and gear up properly

Make list of appropriate clothing, equipment and behavior. If you’re also planning to hike away from your campsite or vehicle, even if only for the day, also backpack in or wear at least some of these items:

  • Bright colored clothing, (so companions or rescuers can see you)
  • Extra set of dry clothing
  • Sunglasses with side shields, or sun goggles
  • Emergency shelter, such as a tarp, sleeping bag or space blanket
  • Water, tin cup (unmelted snow is too cold to ingest)
  • Twice as much food and salt as you think you’ll need
  • Matches, candles, fire starter, portable hiking stove
  • Portable shovel, collapsible saw
  • Avalanche beacon (helps rescuers to find you when buried under snow)
  • Whistle or other signaling devices
  • Map, compass

Learn how to use your compass. A topographical map by itself isn’t very useful after snow has obscured landmarks and clouds have hidden mountain peaks.

In fact, Gorban stresses the importance of learning as much as you can, including weather, first aid, avalanche and related skills. “Often, bad outcomes in the wilderness tend to involve individuals without sufficient skills and expertise to recognize the numerous risk factors they are encountering,” he says.

“For example, an individual fails to check the weather forecast and snow conditions. The weather is fair initially, but the winds increase and the temps plummet as a front passes. Perhaps this individual is not adept at understanding weather patterns and failed to recognize the telltale wind shift associated with the passage of a cold front.”

The Cold Can Kill You

Monitor your body closely for indications that it has been overexposed. “The margin for error is often diminished as the temperature drops,” says Gorman.

Two of the most serious conditions are hypothermia and frostbite. The former occurs when the body can’t generate enough energy to keep itself warm. The latter appears when the skin and underlying tissues freeze, usually in an extremity like the toes or nose. Watch for symptoms and treat both of these potentially dangerous conditions.

Wear your sunglasses or goggles on sunny days or if there is only a thin cloud cover. Otherwise, reflected glare from the snow can give your eyes a sunburn. They’ll start feeling dry and irritated 8 to 12 hours after being exposed. Apply cold compresses, avoid light and don’t rub them.

Forcing your eyes open during strong winds can freeze your corneas. If this happens, close your eyes, place a warm hand or other warm object over them to warm up as quickly as possible. You’ll also need to cover them with eye patches for 24 to 48 hours.

If just your eyelashes freeze, you won’t need the eye patches. Just warm them until you can open your eyes again.

Slip and slide

Whether it’s over frozen ground or a frozen lake, learning how to walk on ice without falling takes practice. Before setting out, try it at home or another safe location. If you expect to hike over ice, bring along:

  • Traction boots or boot attachments
  • Hiking poles, to navigate overland
  • Ice picks, nails or screwdrivers, in case you fall into water
  • Flotation device
  • Rope

Sometimes, says Gorman, “(inexperienced hikers) don’t have appropriate traction devices for their boots. As the day progresses, so does their fatigue, making a slip and fall more likely.”

Don’t walk over an iced-over lake or pond without an experienced companion to help you test it for thickness. If you fall through the ice, detailed instructions from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resouces advise that you:

  • Don’t remove your heavy clothes (they will help you to float)
  • Turn and face the direction that you came from
  • Get your arms, hands and picks onto the unbroken surface
  • Drag yourself up with the picks and kick against the water
  • Lie flat and roll away from the water
  • Get yourself warm and dry immediately

Wear the right clothing, bring the right gear, develop good habits and enjoy your winter hike.

Safety Tips for Winter Camping

While not as strenuous as hiking, sitting around a campfire or sleeping in a tent requires no less diligence to protect your health and safety.

Health Risks

Even if you’re in a tent and not hiking in the open ear, one of the most deadly risks to your health will be hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. It occurs when your body has remained cold for so long that it can no longer produce enough internal heat to stay warm. Victims can become disoriented and lose consciousness.

If you find yourself shivering, then your body is telling that you that it’s time to warm up as soon as possible. Build a campfire, drink a cup of coffee, turn on your car heater (see below for safety tips) or do whatever it takes to put yourself close to a source of heat.

Even if you manage to control your overall body temperature, your extremities may still be at risk from frostbite. This occurs when one part of the body freezes, losing feeling and color. It usually affects fingers, toes, ears or face.

While the mildest cases of frostbite are only temporary, the most severe ones can result in the loss of body parts to gangrene. Symptoms vary from person to person, so read through this list of possible symptoms and stay alert throughout your trip.

On a related note, don’t let gasoline, alcohol or cold objects like ice or metal, come into contact with your bare skin. They can accelerate the loss of body heat.

Finally, cold weather makes the heart work harder, so people with heart disease or high blood pressure should take it easy in the great outdoors. If you are unsure of the risks, consult with your physician.

Injuries

Avoid a sudden dunk into winter waters. Before your walk over a frozen lake or pond, test the thickness of the ice. A small group of people should have at least three inches of it under their boots.

Set up your campsite away from windy areas, such as ridge tops, hill tops and open fields. Your tent might not survive the gusts, plus waking up to find yourself trapped in a tall snow drift can put a real dent in your morning schedule.

When making your way through a forest wonderland, look up as well as down. Dead branches can break off and fall without warning.

Most avalanches are caused by humans, not nature. Don’t camp or hike on steep (at least 25 degrees), snow-covered hills or mountainsides, or in gullies. The safest places are where other campers and hikers regularly visit.

Be very careful when snowmobiling in avalanche country. Allow only one vehicle at a time to approach any questionable terrain, with your buddies remaining behind for a possible rescue. Keep a shovel, probe and transceiver handy for emergencies.

Weather Reports

Check for weather conditions before — and if possible during — your trip. Most communities have a radio station that broadcasts regular reports. If your campsite has phone or wifi service, find a site or app that tracks local conditions.

No phone service? Looking for serious, continuous reports around the clock? The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) broadcasts local conditions 24/7 via a nationwide network of radio transmitters. Called All-Hazards Radio, you will need to purchase a special special type of radio receiver to hear it.

Automobile

Don’t get stranded in a snowstorm! Whether you plan to sleep in your car or in a tent, take special care when driving on country roads or parking in rural areas. prepare your vehicle for slick ice patches and other winter hazards. Install winter tires or chains, don’t drive with nearly-bald tires, and check tire pressure.

A traction mat can get you unstuck if snow, mud or other soft surfaces grab your wheels. An ice scraper will clear your windows before you start driving. Also keep a lock deicer in your purse or elsewhere on your person, in case the locks freeze shut.

Also check fluid levels, especially antifreeze and windshield wipers. Brakes, lights and exhaust should also be in good condition. Then tell your friends or family where you are going.

If you should become stranded:

  • Raise the hood (unless it’s snowing) and decorate the antenna with anything that might attract the attention of rescuers.
  • Move anything that you will need from the trunk to the cabin.
  • Unclog any snow or obstacles from the exhaust pipe, open the windows a crack, and then run the engine, with the heater on, for approximately ten minutes each hour. This will keep you warm, while protecting your from carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • If it’s snowing or the wind is blowing, periodically recheck the exhaust pipe for obstructions.
  • Wrap up, huddle with your companions, periodically move your arms and legs around, and stay awake.
  • Don’t eat unmelted snow; it’s too cold.

Clothing

Pack extra warm clothes, blankets and bedding. If your regular set should get wet, the spares could make a difference between a comfortable camping trip and a trip to the hospital.

Recommended clothing includes:

  • mittens;
  • a scarf or knit mask;
  • a hat or cap;
  • sleeves that are snug at the wrist;
  • thick socks;
  • water-resistant outer layers and boots;
  • long underwear;
  • a second, dry set of long underwear for sleeping.

Wool, silk and polypropylene fabrics provide the best insulators.

You can actually overheat in cold weather. If your clothing insulates a little too well, your body temperature rises until you start to sweat. The sweat dampens your clothing which in turn makes you cold again.

One solution is to wear clothing in layers. If you feel too warm, peel off a layer. If you feel too cool, put one on.

Equipment

An appropriate tent should be dome-shaped with three or four poles. Every door, window and screen should have a solid, zippered flap to keep the elements out.

Keep the floor dry by placing a plastic ground cloth underneath it. A secondary “fly” cover set over the top of the tent will protect it further.

Secure everything to the ground with long “snow stakes” instead of old-fashioned wooden pegs.

Every sleeping bag should have a temperature rating. Look for one that is rated for the lowest temperature that you expect to encounter. Place at least two insulated pads under your bag to keep the cold ground at a distance.

If you bring a heater that burns any kind of fuel, such as wood or kerosene, keep it outside. No matter how tempting it may be to fire it up inside of the tent, the fire danger poses too great a risk.

Even if you don’t plan on burning fuel, pack some candles, a fire-stater and plenty of matches. Add to the list chapstick, flashlight and extra batteries, sunscreen (snow on a sunny day can give you sunburn), map and compass, and extra food.

Then ask an experienced winter enthusiast what they bring along. After all, you won’t know what you’ll need until you need it.


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.