Winter Hiking

Blindly going into a winter hike is one of the worst things to do. In the summer, there’s more daylight, more people hiking, and overall safer conditions. That’s why I wrote this post – to help keep people aware and safe, but by no means does following this guide prevent all scenarios. And if you’re looking for a couple PNW ideas, here’s a short list of some of my favorite winter hikes.

weather

This is possibly the most important issue. Weather is what creates winter, the snow, the ice, the cold. All factors that come into play when determining what hike to do. Snow slows you down when going uphill, no matter what. And it gets exhausting. If you’ve ever played MarioKart, it’s like driving on the road and then suddenly you’re stuck in mud or whatever is not the normal path. It’s slow going, right? Same thing with winter hikes.

Weather will also be a factor in deciding what gear to bring, what layers, etc…. Always bring the layers you need if you stop for a long time. You won’t need them while hiking, but it’s safer to have options to warm up without having to be on the move.

how to prepare for weather

Begin by checking the weather forecast. I like using weather.gov. You can click on the area (remember city is different than mountains) and look at both radar and hourly forecasts. Another great resource is Windy, a more interactive map, where you can drop pins and see how it changes. It’s super easy to use to check on clouds and rain level. And a third place is Mountain-Weather. It’s decent at giving the forecast for different elevations on any given mountain, but generally is the least reliable.

And given the weather, bring appropriate layers. In the PNW, it’s a given that you’ll bring a waterproof shell unless you want to risk getting soaked and cold. A waterproof jacket is also great to shield yourself from the wind, which can nib your body heat even with many warm layers. A general rule of thumb for me is the bring as many layers as I think I’ll need if I have to sit on the summit for a while.

Personally, I’ll have at least one warm long sleeve layer (like thermal underwear), a down jacket, and a rain jacket. Sometimes I’ll throw in another layer or so – it doesn’t get terribly cold in Washington and moving can keep you warm. Try to remove layers as you go so you don’t sweat. Sweat can be a big culprit in feeling cold in the winter! And for bottoms, I’d wear a thick pair of leggings (2 if it’s real cold) and depending on conditions, bringing rain/snow pants. And also something warm for the ears/head so you don’t lose body heat there!

Trail where there’s little snow, normal hiking shoes are fine. But overnight trail may refreeze so microspikes would be helpful the next day.

daylight

In the winter, daylight is shorter and the sun is always low if you’re up north (Washington vs Southern California). It’s harder to navigate in the dark if the trail isn’t obvious, so plan to pick a hike that fits the 8 hour daylight time frame. And even better, plan for a shorter one, just in case you decided to take longer at the top, or you get a little lost, or even if the ice makes you walk a little slower than normal.

At least, one perk of shorter days are later sunrises if you’re wanting to chase some sunrises. And earlier sunsets, so you don’t have to wait till 9pm to see it. And speaking of sunrise/sunset, it’s common for trails to warm up during the day, especially with the warmth of the sun. And come sunset, the trails can refreeze, which could be a slip and slide if you decide to hike back later. And you can definitely start counting the sunset as sun behind whatever mountain you are hiking near. Not only does it get cold immediately, it starts to get pretty dark even before true sunset.

how to prepare for daylight (or lack thereof)

Check when sunset is if you’re leaving later so it doesn’t catch you by surprise. Most weather apps show this. If you’re in a valley, the sun will likely set over the mountains before true sunset and forests are often darker than open areas. Bring a headlamp if you’ll run into low-light conditions (but I’d always advocate to bring one). Phone flash light can work, but can also be cumbersome if you need your hands for poles and such.

Deep snow warrants snow shoes and gaiters or snow pants

 

snow travel

Sometimes traveling in the snow is fun, and other times, it’s a pain. Many of the popular trails in Washington are well-travelled, so the snow is always packed and the trail is easy to follow. It can still get nasty when too many people tread on the snow pack, melting the snow and the air re-freezing it. This creates an icy mess, where certain steep sections of trails are difficult to pass over. It may be fun to skate down hill on the snow and ice, but remember, it makes it all the more dangerous and slippery for hikers going up. When you can, avoid slipping and help keep the trail in good shape. But in the case of ice, micro spikes would be a great investment. They easily attach to any shoe and add more traction than a normal hiking shoe.

Another type of terrain you may encounter is deeper snow. Perhaps you were the first after a snow storm passed or just exploring a less popular trail. You might end up knee-deep in snow, which can be a lot more effort to lift your legs up and out of each post hole. This is where snow shoes would come in handy. They’re essentially flotation devices that help you stay on top of the snow. It is still work and you will still sink, but at least you won’t sink all the way down. Think about how a larger surface area redistributes your weight better than just the small area of your feet. For more gear info, check out my gear page.

how to prepare for snow travel

Sometimes is best to go in a group and with people who’ve been on snow. The goal is to make wise decisions about comfort levels before going further. Having the right gear can make or break a good day in the mountains. And in my mind, warm and happy feet make for happy hikers.

To prevent snow from getting into the shoes above the ankle, wear pants that cover your boots, or try some gaiters. Bring an extra pair of socks or foot warmers in case socks get too wet to warm up again. Using wool socks is key to keeping your feet warm even when wet. Both polyester and wool can dry quick enough after a little soak. A wise friend once told me that you also don’t want to over sock because if the shoe becomes to tight over the multi-layered sock business, you might cut off some blood circulation, creating colder feet. 

Depending on the type of snow, you might also need snow specific gear. In deep, fluffy snow (after a cold snowstorm), snowshoes will be most effective. They act as a floatation device and usually have a fairly solid under side that grips ice if you happen to step deep enough. You may also see backcountry skiers walking uphill near you – they’re also on a flotation device – the skis. Careful not to step into their “skin” uphill tracks. Deep holes in their tracks can cause their skis to get caught.

Another traction device you might consider getting are microspikes. They come in various forms, but they all achieve the same goal – providing extra traction to your hiking boots. It’s like chains on a car but for your feet! This is best used when the trails are packed and icier and are almost useless if you’re in deep snow.

Other equipment you might hear about are things like ice axes and crampons. These are for more intense, steeper, icier climbs, which won’t be necessary if you’re just on a normal graded hike. Ice axes are used to prevent yourself from sliding down the slope should you slip, and also provide a way to help pull yourself up too. Crampons are like intense microspikes, providing a very solid grip on the slickest of ice even if the slope is steep.

My most recommended item, however, would be hiking poles. They’re great for stability and also for offloading some weight to make hiking a bit easier. They’re also great for summer, especially for the downhill to save your knees from the high impact on the ground.

Below is a summary of gear I’d use. Sneakers can often work, but make sure they still have tread on the bottom! Waterproof shoes and gaiters are just for if you prefer warm, dry feet. Instead of gaiters, you could also use pants that cover the tops of your boots. For most casual hikers, microspikes, poles, and good hiking shoes are enough.

Condition Example Sneakers Waterproof Boots Gaiters Microspikes Snowshoes Crampons Poles Ice Axe
Popular, packed down trail, possibly snow-free Mt Si        
Popular, packed down trail, possibly icy in spots Serene Lake        
Less-traveled trail or first person after snowfall Talapus Lake      
Snowshoe trail/above tree line/deep snow Artist Point        
Unpopular trail or steep climber’s trail/scramble, esp after heavy snowfall Snoqualmie Mountain    
Unpopular trail or steep climber’s trail/scramble, esp late season or no recent snow, icy Vesper Peak    
 
Learn to recognize avalanche hazards even as a hiker!

avalanche

Avalanches are real dangers, and often, people are unaware until it’s too late. They can be set off by both people and natural events. If you get caught in one, they move so quickly that often you have literally split seconds to figure out what to do and move out of the way. In no way am I trying to scare anyone away from going on a snowy hike, but there are definite risks. On the other hand, many risks are mitigable and avoidable. There are avalanche courses from awareness to rescue training, especially useful for those going more backcountry. But for the typical hiker, the best practice would be to simply avoid avalanche risk zones. However if you’re winter hiking, there’s always the slight chance one occurs near or over the trail. 

So what hikes are okay to do? Often, the avalanche risk is higher for steeper hillsides, so summit hikes must be taken with caution. I’ve created a short list here and suggesting lake hikes as safer options in general. There are still hikes that pass by more avalanche prone regions, such as Snow Lake in Snoqualmie. So, it is important to read up on each hike to get a better understanding. A good guideline is the more popular a trail (based on trip reports and such) in the winter, the likelier it is avalanche free. But as always, know current conditions above all else.

how to prepare for an avalanche

First of all, I personally think it wise to avoid avalanche territory. And even if you’re just a hiker, and especially if you’re considering going to more backcountry hikes, taking an AIARE class would be an important investment. Having at least a basic understanding of snow movement in the mountains could prevent a disaster. NWAC is a great resource for forecasting the avalanche risk in Washington before you head out. I believe every region has its own forecasts through the US National Forest like Colorado and Montana. Taking an AIARE class can help you understand the forecast, but generally, you can see what generic areas or sides of a mountain are higher risk than others and make an informed decision from there. I highly discourage going out when the risk is high.

Happy hiking and stay safe!

Hiking in snow

FAQ

What are good ways to monitor trail conditions and weather?

In Washington, my favorite go-to is WTA and searching for the most recent trip reports and finding the ones that are closest to the trails I want to explore. There are also a bunch of facebook groups for hikers/climbers that are friendly and responsive to posts asking for recent conditions. The National Forest Service updates trail and road conditions on their websites, specific to each forest. The Baker-Snoqualmie NF even has an interactive map! For weather, I check many forecasts to get different perspectives. Generally, I use NOAA and windy.com.

How do you route-find in the snow?

GPS tracking with a map showing the trail is my favorite way to route-find in snow. Sometimes it’s not enough to just follow someone’s tracks unless it’s a super popular trail and you can tell many people have been by (like Franklin Falls in Washington). If it hasn’t snowed too much, you can also see faint signs of tracks by the divot in the snow.  Sometimes there are trails where you can kind of make up your own, but use your own discretion to travel safely. Some of my favorite apps are Gaia, Hiking Project, and Caltopo.

Will you die in an avalanche?

There is no guarantee that you will survive from an avalanche or not. But they do come in a variety of sizes and sometimes they are benign. Taking an AIARE class can help you be more aware of the situation and avoid avalanches, but it’s always good to be prepared in case you are suddenly caught in one.

How do you keep your feet warm and happy?

Wearing waterproof boots and gaiters are essential to keeping snow out and your feet dry. Some people may find it beneficial to wear sock liners too, but on the flip side, wearing too many pairs of socks may also cut off circulation in your feet. You can also try to use foot warmers!

When do you need snowshoes? Microspikes?

This is probably the most common question asked of winter hiking. In general, this depends on your comfort level with different types of conditions. The purpose of snowshoes is for flotation, so it’s best used on deeper snow when you’re one of the first people to ford the way. If you’re only sinking into 4 inches of snow, snow shoes are basically useless. If the snow eats up half your leg, that might warrant snowshoes (and gaiters will be helpful too!).

Microspikes come in all sorts of sizes/types. Some are more heavy-duty than others and give you a better grip on ice than just your shoes. If the trail you’re on is slippery, microspikes would be extremely helpful. But if it’s also knee-deep snow, then maybe reconsider snowshoes.  Most trails aren’t steep enough to warrant crampons, which are spike attachments more grippy than microspikes.

What are all the tracks I see in the snow?

On any given trail, you might see a multitude of tracks. Some may be animal tracks and others humans. Animal tracks are fun to look at! Most common you’ll probably see rabbit, squirrel or deer tracks. And if you see random tracks that stray from the main trail, could possibly just be someone’s dog!

But let’s talk about human tracks. Most likely you’ll be hiking on normal foot paths, packed down by snowshoers and also by boot packing. However, in an area like Artist Point, you may see more tracks going in many directions. The narrow, shallower tracks are likely those created by people walking uphill on skis (backcountry skinning). Be careful not to step into these whether you’re on snowshoes or by boot. These tracks are specifically made by skiers to efficiently travel through the mountain and without large flotation that skis (and split boards) provide, you’ll likely sink deep. Try finding a path that matches the footwear you have! Likewise, if you’re just using boots (and likely post-holing, or sinking deep for each step), try staying off the snowshoe tracks. This way, everyone has their own lane of travel and random sink holes won’t be a hazard.

How do you assess hazardous ice conditions? What do you look for?

Personally, hazardous ice conditions are simply anything more than you’re capable of handling given the gear you have. If you’re wearing sneakers, any sort of ice will be difficult to navigate. And the steeper it gets, the harder it gets too. But if you have microspikes, then that gives you more capability to go on steeper, icier terrain. But then, if the trail is sheer rock-hard ice, microspikes might not cut it and crampons are needed (most Washington winter hikes will not require crampons). So with the right gear, ice isn’t hazardous, until perhaps you get into ice climbing which is another topic itself. All in all, most trails are hike-able with at least a good traction shoe with poles and/or microspikes!