Winter Hiking & Navigation Hazards ~
While winter can be wonderful time to go hiking, there are winter hiking & navigation hazards you should be aware of and some extra safety precautions you should take. Winter hiking and navigation differs from hiking in any other season largely due to snowy conditions. You may face extreme weather, deep snow and even avalanche conditions. Being aware of these winter hiking and navigation hazards is important, be prepared and factor in these conditions as you plan your hike.
One thing to keep in mind while planning your route is that depending on how much snow has fallen, trail signs and junction signs can become buried making it more difficult to find your way. Unless you are already very familiar with the trail, your best bet is to choose more popular trails where the snow will most likely have already been broken out by other hikers. It’s also a good idea to carry a map, compass and/or GPS device to help guide your way. Also keep in mind, deep snow can create void spaces around trees and other vegetation. It’s all too easy for a hiker to fall into one of these voids and become trapped. Staying on a known trail is a good way to avoid these hazards.
Another hazard to consider is lack of light or low light and protective clothing that might make it difficult to see. For example, wearing goggles while hiking above tree line can hinder one’s peripheral vision or fog up, making it hard to see side trails; especially in blowing snow. Low light or foggy conditions can create a “whiteout” or lack of contrast between the ground and sky. Even seasoned winter hikers may find it difficult to navigate the route in whiteout conditions. Also keep in mind that the daylight hours are shorter in winter months. Plan you hike accordingly and don’t get caught in the dark unexpectedly.
Deep snow can also pose a hazard to winter hikers. Trails can become impassable when there is several feet of snow on the ground. You may also find yourself walking through tree branches that normally you would be passing under on a summer or fall hike. Gear can get caught up in these branches making it more difficult to navigate the trail. You may find it easier to detour off the trail just a bit to avoid getting caught up. It’s also good to keep in mind that hiking in deep snow, whether you are snowshoeing or postholing it, you are going to use much more energy. It will also likely take you a lot longer to cover the same amount of ground as you would if hiking in the summer.
Some of the more hazardous conditions you might come across while hiking in the winter are river and stream crossings and avalanche conditions. Rivers and streams become even more dangerous due to colder temperatures, the risk of getting wet and developing hypothermia. You also need to be aware of ice conditions. Ice bridges and snow shelves can give way. Even if you fall into shallow water, there is the danger of being swept under the ice or snow and drowning. Avalanches also pose serious risk to hikers. It’s important to be able to identify avalanche terrain and determine if there is a danger. If you’re going to be winter hiking in the backcountry, it’s recommended that you take an avalanche awareness course. Learn how to monitor weather and storm activity, avalanche forecasts and learn how to traverse across avalanche terrain without triggering one. Here in Crested Butte this winter, there are several avalanche classes being offered.
While hiking in the winter can be a wonderful experience, keep in mind these winter hiking & navigation hazards. Alway remember to tell someone your plan and most of all, stay safe and have fun.
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