If you’re familiar with my blog or follow me on Instagram, you know that Ryan and I are head-over-heels infatuated with winter hiking. The powdery white snow, chilly temperatures, and the sheer fun of hiking in the snow create an ineffably enjoyable experience. To make the most of winter hiking, we’ve learned how to balance staying safe on winter hikes with making the most of the beautiful mountains near us.
When you choose to opt outside in the winter months, you need to exercise extra caution for staying safe on winter hikes. Don’t let the potential risks of winter hiking deter you from enjoying the beautiful outdoors; instead, be smart about how you prepare for your next hike.
You wouldn’t go running down a busy street in the middle of the night with no reflective gear; likewise, you don’t hike in winter without being aware of avalanche risks, dressing appropriately, and bringing enough food and water.
4 Tips for Staying Safe on Winter Hikes
Be Aware of Avalanches
Ryan and I went hiking on Saturday and turned around halfway up the trail to Annette Lake. Why? We could have kept trekking (even though we hit a point where we needed snowshoes), but we also knew that the Annette Lake Trail included a few boulder fields and avalanche chutes in the final mile.
If it’s windy or recently rained or snowed, the snow on mountain is less stable and therefore more likely cascade into an avalanche. If these are the current weather conditions, it’s better to stay inside than risk being caught in an avalanche.
You should also keep an eye out for the telltale signs of unstable snowpack. If the snow rolls down a slope, cracks underneath your feet, or you hear the sound of falling snow, turn around and return to the trailhead. You can learn more about how to reduce the risk of snowfall from REI’s series on avalanche safety.
Bring Enough Food
I recently wrote about the importance of choosing nutritious and satisfying foods to fuel your hiking, and never is this more important than in winter. You could easily lose your path in the snow and extend your hike by a few hours, so the last thing you want is to run out of food.
I always pack more food than I think we need, and not just because of some hangry moments I experienced when I was training for the Portland Marathon and hiking. The energy costs of hiking can be unpredictable, as the elevation, distance, duration, weather, and various other factors impact how many calories you burn.
I usually stuff our bags with peanut butter sandwiches, homemade trail mix, organic jerky, and any nutritious and whole food bars we may have on hand. Even if we don’t eat it, I’d rather carry a few extra ounces in my bag than have low energy from not consuming enough calories.
You should also make sure you pack plenty of water! The cold winter air doesn’t make you as thirsty as a hot summer’s day, but you still need to hydrate to thirst during a hike. Ryan and I each carry a Platypus 3-liter hydration system in our bags; rarely do we drink that much water, but again, it’s better to have extra than not enough.
Yes, microspikes and snowshoes are quite the investment, but the cost is worth staying safe on winter hike where you trek through snow and sometimes even ice. The last thing you want to do is wear tennis shoes, as those will soak through (and you don’t want cold feet!) and provide little traction.
Microspikes function just as the name suggests: they have tiny metal spikes (usually just under ½ inch in height) on the bottom. You strap them onto your shoes for better traction and stability in the snow and ice. No slipping, less sinking, and more soundness of mind. Plus, a good pair of microspikes such as Kahtoola MICROspikes Footwear Traction will last years and easily slip onto any pair of hiking boots.
Even with microspikes, Ryan and I postholed several times on our most recent hikes (postholing is when you step on a soft patch of snow and end up hip deep in the snow), and that was our signal to turn around. Since postholing can increase your risk of injury and leave an dangerous trail for hikers after you, if the snow is powdery and very deep, you should opt for snowshoes. Snowshoes provide a wider base of stability and allow you to walk on deep powdery snow without sinking down every few steps.
Dress in Layers
Beyond the discomfort of being cold, not dressing appropriately in cold weather can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, and other problems. However, since you are exerting yourself, you also want to avoid bundling up so much that you sweat. Too many layers trap sweat, and then it cools against your skin, which means you’ll actually feel colder than if you wore less layers.
In winter, you want to make sure that your outer layer is at least water-resistant, if not fully waterproof. Any precipitation or eve snow melting from trees can soak through down or non-water-resistant synthetic outer layers.
A good rain jacket makes a huge difference! After our North Face Venturas soaking through on a few snowy hikes (not a great feeling), Ryan and I both switched to the Marmot Precip Jacket (which I’m wearing in the photo below), which is made for hiking and other endurance sports, and noticed an immediate difference in how dry it kept us but how breathable it was.
And, as you would for running in the winter, be sure to wear gloves, ear warmers or a hat, and a balaclava or neck gaiter.
You can read my post on how to dress appropriately for winter hikes for more tips!
Of course, these tips just scratch the surface on staying safe on winter hikes. You can learn more about winter hiking safety from the Washington Trails Association’s guide to winter hiking precautions, including tips such as always packing a sleeping bag and letting someone know where you are hiking.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links of products that I find valuable for safe hiking. Thank you for your support of This Runner’s Recipes!
What’s your favorite piece of winter running/hiking/snowshoeing clothing or gear?
Is it snowing where you live?
Do you err towards the side of caution or take risks?
Am I supposed to bring enough food for the bears as well? I could potentially barter with them. And you know that I would bring enough food 😀
Naaw, they’re sleeping! 😉
We haven’t seen any bears yet, if you believe that! Although I read a story in the news once that the bears out here steal campers’ beer. 😀
RISKS! But I think, no I KNOW I’d be freaked out to do much of anything out there in the wilderness. I remember the boys going snowshoeing with their school and they sent home a notice for me to sign and I read about those tree holes they can fall into and stuff. So scary! Boys loved it though, of course.
Ps. I love your new selfie!
It is so scary what can happen out there! I try not to think about it too much otherwise I panic. And thank you so much! 🙂
Have you guys looked into getting thin puffy jackets too? We use ours all year long, they take up so little room in the pack and keep us warm on winter lunch breaks and on summer mountaintop sunsets.
Now that we have a baby, I’ve started bringing a sleeping bag with us if it’s cold as well…just in case something happens and we end up staying out later than we planned.
We have REI Co-Op down jackets as well, but we are considering investing in a nice Patagonia thin jacket. What brand do you recommend?
We love our Montbell jackets, but we bought them in…2009? So there’s probably lots of other stuff on the market now. 🙂 But we use them aaaall the time, so it’s a testament to their quality that they’ve lasted this long!
That is a long time for a jacket to last! Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂
It isn’t snowing here at the moment but it’s really cold and only getting colder! I saw close to zero on Saturday with windchills well below. Ugh!
Zero?!? That’s insane. It’s February! Stay warm!!
Its not snowing here at the moment but it did on Tuesday and we are expecting some other snow/ice combo early next week. Plus its supposed to be like 0 degrees or something all weekend. I think I need to move somewhere warm!
Not more ice and snow! Seattle is warm – the coldest it’s been this month is 35 – you should move here! 🙂
Love these tips! It’s hard to hike right now in Alaska with our lack of snow and overabundance of ice (stupid warm weather and rain) but I really do love winter hiking. I need to get a pair of Kahtoolas!
The Kahtoolas are awesome! They’re supposed to last for years also so they’re definitely worth the investment, and while they don’t provide as much stability as snowshoes they make winter hiking so much easier – especially if there are patches of ice!