Top Winter Hiking Safety Tips
Hikes range in length and intensity but even a day hike can turn into an overnight when an unexpected event occurs such as an avalanche or simply taking a wrong turn. A smart hiker is always prepared, especially when undertaking a winter hike. Hiking safety tips are especially important when winter hiking because daylight hours are short and there is a risk of hypothermia.
Winter Hiking Safety Tips
- Research hikes to find the best fit for you group, keeping in mind that if you are out of shape or new to hiking the easy to moderate trails will be best. Also be aware of which hikes are best suited to winter hiking. Backpacker Magazine, The National Park Service, and the National Wildlife Federation are all great sources for finding hikes around the country.
- Preferably you will prepare for your hike physically by taking outdoor walks on a regular basis. If you are planning to do a steep hike, workouts that increase strength and flexibility in your legs and core will be very helpful.
- Break in your running sneakers, trail shoes, or light to heavy duty hiking boots by wearing them around town. Heavy duty boots with good ankle support are best suited for tough hikes.
- Check the weather forecast before heading out on the trail and stay home if there is a prediction for heavy rain or a snow storm, or especially if lightning is predicted.
- Wear appropriate clothing-several layers starting with a moisture wicking under-layer. Wool, fleece, and microfiber are ideal for staying warm and dry on a wet hike, while cotton should be avoided. Bring a hat and jacket on a winter hike.
- Use the buddy system-never hike alone and also let someone know where you will be going and what time you are expected home.
- Study up on safety precautions if hiking into an area known for poisonous snakes, bears, mountain lions, or other potentially dangerous wildlife. You will also want to study up on avalanche dynamics and how to travel safely through avalanche terrain.
- Bring your hiking backpack with essentials for the day as well as the unexpected.
Navigation-decrease your chances of getting lost by bringing a trail map, compass and/or GPS. A GPS radio is particularly handy because it helps with direction and allows you to stay in touch with your group mates should you get separated. A topography map is useful for winter hikes as it can give indications of where snow levels will be the highest.
Sun protection (even on a cloudy or cold day)-always pack sunscreen, a hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses.
Extra layers of clothing-always pack a few layers of extra non-cotton clothing. You never know if you will get wet or end up stranded and need more layers.
A light source-even if you’re only planning a day hike, it gets dark early in the winter and a wrong turn or accident could mean you are stuck in the woods past dark. Bring a headlamp or lightweight flashlight with fully charged lithium batteries, as these are better suited to cold weather.
Fire-making supplies-should include waterproof matches and/or a lighter.
Repair kit-should include anything necessary to repair trail gear, including a Swiss Army Knife or other multi-tool, duct tape, shoelaces, needle and thread, scissors, wire, rope, etc.
Food-pack enough protein rich foods to get you through the hike and overnight, just in case. Trail mix and protein/energy bars are great hiking foods.
Hydration-pack water to replenish the fluids that you will lose while hiking. Bring multiple quart-size water bottles per person. Bring a water purification system such as iodine drops, chlorine tablets, or high-quality water filter in case you find a stream and need a refill.
Emergency shelter-pack an emergency space blanket, tarp, and an extra-large trash bag.
Toilet supplies-a trowel, toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
First-aid kit (note that you can buy pre-made kits from camping supply stores):
- Bandages and gauze (can be useful for cuts but also for blisters)
- Alcohol wipes
- Small roll of medical tape
- Antibiotic ointment
- Anti-inflammatory/pain medication (ibuprofen, acetaminophen)
- Antihistamines (for bee stings or bug bites)
- Non-latex gloves
- Eye drops
- Bug spray
- A card with all personal and contact information for each hiker
- Photo ID, medical insurance card, and credit card for each hiker
- Bear spray (if the hike is in an area with bears)
- Snake bite kit (if the hike is in an area with poisonous snakes)
- Any personal medications including an Epi Pen for a person with serious allergies
Tips While out on a Winter Hike
Pay attention to the sun-a winter hike should start at sunrise because of short daylight hours. Through the hike, watch the position of the sun, trying to make sure that you will be back to your vehicle by sundown.
Be aware of the snow-if hiking in the snow watch for danger signs of avalanche or holes in the snow.
Consider hiking with cross country skis or snow shoes in the snow.
Never count on a fire or stove to keep you warm. Learn how to build an emergency shelter.
Keep your energy up-take breaks as needed and stop for water or snacks. Note: dehydration will speed up the onset of hypothermia. Also, do not underestimate the amount of food that you’ll need. Snowshoeing burns about 600 calories an hour and winter backpacking uses 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day.
Pay attention to your feet and hands-stay alert for the signs of hypothermia, frostbite, or trench foot. Know the signs and symptoms and how to treat them before you set out. If your foot or hands start to hurt, take your boots or gloves off and check for blisters or wet feet that could be causing frostbite or trench foot.
Stay safe-watch out for potential dangers such as wild animals and don’t touch, pick up, or eat any unfamiliar plants, flowers, fruit, or animals.
Protect against bugs and insects-keep skin covered with long sleeves, pants and hats. Long pants should be tucked into socks. Wear bug spray and check for ticks at the end of each hike.
Practice fire safety-only use designated fire pits, clear away flammable leaves and pine needles before striking a match, and make sure the fire is fully out (and the ground in the fire pit is cool to the touch) before moving on.
Pro tip: Take a Wilderness First Aid class to prepare yourself for winter hiking.
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