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Risk Management for Winter Hikers

Molly Herber | Oboz Ambassador

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Just because winter and piles of snow are coming doesn’t mean you need to hang up the hiking boots for the season.

In fact, winter can be one of the best times of year to hike—there are usually fewer people on the trails, and snow totally transforms the landscape into a beautiful, new place to explore.

Like any hike, hitting the trail in the winter is best when you have a plan and good risk management.

Now, what’s risk management? In simple terms, it’s planning ahead so you minimize your chances of getting into a sticky situation, and being prepared just in case something does go wrong. This is especially important in winter conditions, when bad situations can have higher consequences. 

Imagine spraining your ankle on a summer hike: You can stop, sit in the shade, and wait until someone comes along to help you back to the trailhead, or you recover enough to get yourself back. While it isn’t convenient or comfortable, it likely is not a terribly high-consequence event (as long as you have snacks and water).

But in the winter, temperatures are colder. Days are shorter. And there are fewer people on the trail. Now, the prospect of sitting on cold snow while darkness creeps in—not so good.

To help make sure that doesn’t happen to you, read on for how to have good risk management while on a winter hike.

Planning for a Winter Hike

1. Brainstorm the possible hazards

When I’m making a hiking plan, I usually start by thinking about the hazards I could encounter. 

At NOLS, where I learned most of my wilderness risk management as an instructor, we talk about objective hazards (things external to me, like the environment, features of the trail, etc.) and subjective hazards (things internal to me or the people in my group, like our level of experience, communication skills, and how hungry/tired we might be). Doing this while looking at a map of your hike usually helps.

In the winter, your objective hazards may include things like:

  • Snowy trail conditions
  • Cold temperatures

And subjective hazards may be:

  • Inexperience hiking in the snow (for beginners)

2. Make a plan for these hazards

Once you figure out what the likely hazards are, you can plan for each of them. When you’re making your plan, it’s helpful to think about how likely it is you will encounter them, and what the consequences would be if you did. 

Snowy Trail Conditions

Possible problems: 

  • Wet feet
  • Slippery footing caused by icy trails
  • Slower travel time
  • Difficulty seeing the trail

How to plan:

  • Pick the right footwear: While you might love your ultralight trail shoes, on snow they likely won’t have enough traction or keep your feet warm enough. Pick footwear that insulates well, has good traction, and will keep your feet warm and dry, (to date, my feet have never gotten cold in the Oboz Juniper 8" Insulated boot)
  • Take your time: Expect to work harder and move more slowly when you’re winter hiking (and factor the extra time into how far you plan to go).
  • Know the route: Even familiar trails can be difficult to navigate in the winter. Bring a paper map or use a navigation app—and know how to use them—to stay on track.

Cold Temperatures

Possible problems: 

  • Hypothermia
  • Frostbite
  • Frozen snacks or phone

How to plan:

  • Bring a Variety of Clothing: You want to bring clothing that helps you stay warm, but not sweaty (getting sweaty means you’ll be even colder when you stop). You will probably start your hike cold and warm up the more you move. So, start off with the clothing that will keep you warm, and when you feel yourself getting too hot, stop and take off a layer (or and add another if you’re still cold). Cotton clothing is usually not a good choice for the winter, since it will not continue insulating if it gets wet.
  • Eat Snacks and Keep Moving: Hypothermia (loss of body heat) is a slow-moving condition; it comes on slowly, but is slow to fix once you are dangerously cold. Prevent hypothermia by continuing to move, and add insulating layers when you take a break to hold in that warmth. Equally important, keep your body well-supplied with calories by eating a big meal before your hike and snacking or drinking calorie-filled drinks throughout the day (yes, drink all the hot cocoa). And remember: It’s much easier to stay warm than to get warm.
  • Keep Skin Covered & Check on Your Extremities: People get frostbite from cold exposure. Staying warm and paying attention to your body is the main way to prevent it. But if your toes or fingers are getting numb, stop and look at them. Turn around and end the hike if they don’t warm up or appear red and numb (an early sign). For exposed skin, keep an eye on your friends’ faces and check your own for small, numb white or red patches. Stay covered as much as possible and, as always, wear shoes that will keep your feet warm and dry.
  • Keep important items near your body: Keep things you don’t want to freeze, like snacks or your phone, close to your body in an inside pocket or inside your sports bra. While it doesn’t seem like a big deal, you certainly don’t want frozen snacks or a phone with a dead battery early in your hike.

Inexperienced Winter Hiking

We all start somewhere with hiking. It might seem like there’s a lot to think about while going winter camping, but there are plenty of ways you can get more experience while minimizing your exposure to serious hazards:

  • Start small: For your first hike, try keeping the distance and time shorter than you think you need. This will help you manage any unexpected events that come up on the trail, and helps you manage the slower time and fewer hours of daylight that come with winter hiking.
  • Go somewhere you’re familiar: Knowing the area will help you stay on the trail, even if it’s covered in snow. 
  • Bring friends: Going with a group means helping hands if needed, especially if they’re comfortable winter hiking. Plus, it’s fun to share the experience with friends!

Winter Hike Packing List

Here’s what your backpack might look like for a day hike in the snow (you’ll notice it’s pretty similar to a backpack you’d bring on any hike). Plan to bring a pack that’s big enough for these items, as well as any jackets or other clothing you might put on or take off during the hike.

  • Snacks
  • Thermos or water bottles
  • Cell phone with navigation app set to the area
  • Extra clothing
  • Sunscreen
  • Small first aid kit 
  • Small piece of foam or cardboard (Something to sit or stand on during breaks)
  • Care package for the car: Leave yourself some dry socks and a t-shirt, as well as snacks, in the car

What's Next?

If you like what you’re reading, take a look at NOLS’ new Wilderness Safety Training course: it’s a two-day course designed for outdoor recreationists and trip leaders that teaches these principles in more depth. If you’re thinking about taking on bigger hikes or wanting to lead groups, it’s a great entry point.

Molly Herber

Name: Molly Herber

Hometown: Lander, Wyoming

Where I’ve Been: I grew up in Minnesota and first got outside on summer trips to the Boundary Waters wilderness area. Exploring new ideas through school took me to Indiana and Spain, and exploring in the outdoors has taken me from my home base in Wyoming to the Wind River Range, North Cascades, Arizona desert, and many places in between. I now work as a writer and backpacking instructor for NOLS.

Why I Hike: Because taking those first steps in the early morning makes my whole body tingle

Where To Next? Explore more remote corners of my adopted home state, Wyoming

Find Me:

Instagram: @mgherber

Facebook: @roamingpeaktopeak

Blog(NOLS): https://blog.nols.edu/

Blog(Personal): https://roamingpeaktopeak.word...

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