“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.”
- Doug Larsen (1902-1981)
Hiking in snowbound terrain requires planning, the right equipment and an ability to distinguish variations in conditions. It also calls for a specific skill set, which can be acquired via basic mountaineering courses or multiple excursions into the snow with experienced friends or partners.
Snow conditions can vary dramatically depending on factors such as time of day, temperature and season. Before setting out for a hike in snowbound terrain:
- Check the weather forecast.
- Study the topography of your proposed route. Identify potentially hazardous areas such as those that may be prone to avalanches.
- Identify potential campsites. This will help you to “time your days” (see below for details).
- Identify potential evacuation routes in case of an emergency.
- Obtain as much up-to-date local information as possible in regards to current conditions.
Wilderness travel, irrespective of the season, can be unpredictable. Begin with a plan but always be flexible enough to adapt to whatever situation presents itself. Remember that Mother Nature does not have a copy of your itinerary.
Snow Travel – Tips & Techniques
Hiking on snow can be slow going. Your daily mileage will go down. Your feet may be soaked. Occasionally you will posthole (i.e. the process by which a hiker sinks lower than shin depth whilst walking on soft snow) up to your waist. All wonderful fun! Look at it as a challenge, be patient and retain your sense of humour.
- Apply sunscreen early and often. Don’t be fooled by cooler temps. The reflective quality of snow has caught many an experienced hiker unawares. Don’t forget to apply it in areas such as under your nose, ears and chin. If you are hiking in shorts, be sure to spread it liberally over the back of your legs.
- To continue on the solar theme, don’t forget to bring sunglasses! I kid you not, snow blindness rates right up there with a roaring case of hemorrhoids on the old fun-o-meter.
- Whenever possible, avoid routes that take you above or along the base of cliffs or bluffs. If you are hiking in a group and you have no choice but to traverse such potentially hazardous areas, always do so one at a time. Be patient, walk softly and try not to go first………just joking……….sort of.
- When crossing snowfields in the spring avoid going too close to rocks, where the snow will be softer due to warmer temperatures heating the rocks.
- If hiking in an area where you will be traversing steep slopes (see below) carry an ice axe. Hiking poles may also assist with balance and minimize the chances of slipping.
- When ascending a snow slope keep your steps short, decrease the gradient by zig-zagging and if the snow is soft enough, kick steps with the toes of your shoes.
- If the snow is too hard for kicking steps and you are not wearing traction devices such as crampons, instep crampons or microspikes, the alternatives are to either to bide your time or cut steps with the adze of your ice axe.
When descending a snow slope, assuming that the snow is not frozen solid, the ideal method is the plunge step. Landing heel first, let the weight of your body drive your foot into the snow. Keep your knees slightly bent to maximize balance and avoid hyperextension.
- If the snow is that hard that continuing any further could possibly result in a 300 foot ice slide, it may be a good time to drop your pack, take in the views and treat yourself to a lengthy breakfast.
Timing Your Day
- Mornings: When hiking in snowbound terrain, your cause will be aided considerably by making early starts. The snow is harder and the going is easier. As a wise old Norwegian once told me, “it’s a lot more enjoyable traveling on top of snow than wading through it.
- Timing your days is a big factor in hiking efficiently on snow. Case in point, ascending and descending snowbound passes. Avoid going over passes too early when the snow will likely be frozen (i.e. very slippery and difficult to gain footholds). Similarly, you don’t want to leave your run too late. By early/mid-afternoon the sun may have softened the snow to the point that you could spend the rest of your afternoon postholing down the other side.
- How does one time their days? In a word; preparation. Study maps before your trip. Be aware of the location of mountain passes as well as potential campsites in the vicinity. Whenever possible, aim to go over passes mid-morning.
When hiking in snowbound, mountainous terrain hikers need to be aware of the dangers posed by avalanches. Any snow slope, no matter what its gradient, has the potential to slide. The steeper the angle, the greater the probability. Avalanches most commonly occur on slopes ranging from 30 to 45 degrees.
For a general overview of avalanche basics, click on the following link from Princeton University’s excellent Outdoor Action website. Three points to consider :
- EDUCATION: Before embarking on a trip, educate yourself in regards to the different types of avalanches, warning signs, necessary precautions and what to do in the event of a worst-case scenario.
- UP-TO-DATE INFORMATION: Before setting out, check the latest weather forecast and consult with local authorities as to the current snow conditions and potentially hazardous areas.
- RECOGNITION & ADAPTABILITY: Theory is all well and good, but unless you can translate what you have learned out in the field, all your acquired knowledge will be for nothing. Keep your wits about you at all times, try to avoid walking in close proximity (be it above or at the base) to cliffs and bluffs and never be afraid to turn around and/or look for an alternative route if your chosen path appears to be overly dangerous.
When hiking in snow-packed, mountainous terrain you need to have an ice axe.
- SELF-ARREST: For hikers, an ice axe’s principal purpose is to arrest slips or falls when traversing steep, snowbound areas.
- PRACTICE: Taking a course on basic ice axe skills represents a good investment in your own safety and peace of mind. Failing this, check the internet for step-by-step instructions or ask for a lesson from friends with experience in self-arresting. Once you have the theory down, practice your self-arrest technique on progressively steeper snow slopes. This is not a skill you want to be learning whilst tip toeing across an icy 40 degree slope!
- POINTS TO REMEMBER: 1. An ice axe is just a pack decoration unless you have it in your hand when you actually need it; 2. Knowing how to self-arrest does not replace good judgement and footwork as your primary tools for safely traversing steep snow slopes.
- VIDEO: See the following instructional video from the British Mountaineering Council: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM3xLshmNnk
Glissading is going down a snow slope on your bum or feet. It is fun, fast and can potentially be hazardous to your health.
- Scan the slope. Check for protruding rocks. Assess the runout. If the runout is not obvious and safe, glissading is not a good idea.
- Visualise your route of descent.
- Descend with control. Dig your heels in (no microspikes or crampons!). Use your ice axe to control speed.
- A standing glissade is basically like skiing without the skis. Use the edges of your shoes to carve turns and/or control speed. If your balance is not good, better go with the sitting option.
Sources of Information
There is no substitute for practical experience, however, the following sources provide a good overview of the theoretical knowledge one needs in order to hike safely in snowbound terrain.
- Books: Two books immediately come to mind. The first is the authoritative, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Although written for climbers and mountaineers, this book/encyclopedia pretty much covers all the information hikers need to know for excursions into snow country (e.g. avalanche evaluation, techniques for efficient snow travel, glissading and self-arrest). The second book is Buck Tilton’s, NOLS Winter Camping (2005). Aimed more specifically towards backpackers, this books provides practical advice on clothing, safety, planning, travel and setting up camp.
- Online: For online information, try Princeton University’s Outdoor Action website.