Traveling through and spending time in the backcountry in winter can be one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have, but it’s certainly not without risks. While well-used routes are often “paved” with snow making the tread of the trail easier to negotiate than summer, the challenges offered by winter remain numerous. Cold temperatures, limited daylight, deep snow, slippery footing, cold-weather illnesses and injuries, and changing and varied conditions all conspire to test our knowledge and abilities. Here are a few fundamental concepts and tips for enjoying the backcountry in winter.
“Plan Ahead and Prepare” is the first principle of Leave No Trace and offers a strong, overarching concept for winter recreationists to consider. Sir Edmund Hilary said, “Good planning means living the experience in advance.” Envision what the trip may bring based on your plans, but also consider the unplanned aspects, the things that sometimes just happen. It’s important to know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit. Are skis and snowshoes required for certain conditions? Is the route you plan to travel prone to avalanches? What will you do if there are frozen water crossings that appear unsafe? Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies. Know what to expect, but be prepared for situations beyond what’s considered normal. What will you do if the snow turns to rain? What will you do if your route has areas of exposure that are icy? Be sure the trip is within the abilities of the participants. Develop emergency plans including evacuation routes, the location of the nearest hospital and who to call in an emergency, etc.
An effective tool for managing your risks is to leave a detailed itinerary at home with someone who’ll call for help if you don’t return when expected. Your itinerary should include the specific area you’ll be visiting, your planned route, when you plan to return, what clothing and equipment you’re carrying, and contact info for all parties (in the field, at home, and emergency response personnel). Don’t just tell your neighbor, “I’m headed to the Adirondacks!” as you peel out of the driveway and head off to the mountains.
Moderate your body temperature. Be active with your layering by removing and adding layers as necessary. Aim for feeling “comfortably cool”. Adjust your level of exertion and/or clothing layers to avoid or minimize perspiration as much as possible; remember, dry is warm. Have the proper clothing. Do not wear cotton; wool and synthetic materials are best. Many light layers offer more versatility to adapt to weather conditions than one or two heavy layers. Insulating layers should fit relatively loosely since the warm air trapped between the layers and in the fabric is what insulates, not the fabric itself.
Carry suitable provisions. Have plenty of water and food to hydrate and nourish yourself well and frequently before, during and after your trip. Dry air in the winter saps your hydration as much as sweating in summer. Bring extra food, water, and layers, as well as emergency shelter and other equipment such as a sleeping bag and pad to insulate a patient from the ground until help arrives, and a stove, fuel, pot, lid, gripper to help warm a person who’s cold or hypothermic. Of course, you should always use skis, snowshoes and traction devices (microspikes, crampons) when appropriate. Practice fire building so you can start one under any conditions in an emergency.
“Know what you know and know what you don’t know.” This quote from Paul Petzoldt, the founder of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and the Wilderness Education Association is famous among NOLS course participants and instructors as well as being fairly well-known by many other outdoor educators. His point was simple: Make good decisions. Do not overestimate your skills. Stay within your limits. There are plenty of organizations and schools offering trainings, so enroll in one to learn new skills or expanding existing skill sets. As with any new endeavor, it’s best to walk before you run.
There is a great deal of information available regarding safe and responsible winter travel. Dig in and educate yourself. Learn from someone else. Whether you’re a snowshoer, skier or ice-fisherman, considering these basic ideas can help maximize your enjoyment and minimize the risks of your winter outdoor activities.