Tips for safer outdoor winter trips

Staff reportJanuary 5, 2014 

Cross-country skiers work their way up a hill on a backcountry skiing trip near Stevens Pass. Skiers and snowshoers are advised to take precautions before venturing out into the wilderness during winter.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER FILE

Now that snow is building in Washington’s mountains, people are planning and taking snowshoe and backcountry ski trips.

But heavy early snowfall followed by slow warming and rain can load and stress buried weak layers, creating dangerous avalanche conditions that not even the most experienced backcountry hikers should attempt, according to the Washington Trails Association.

Hikers and snowshoers need to do plenty of planning and take every precaution before hitting a trail in winter. Here are some tips from the association for safer backcountry exploration in winter:

PACK THE 10 ESSENTIALS

The 10 Essentials include a topographic map, compass, extra food, extra clothing, firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife, first-aid kit and flashlight. But some of these are extra important for winter hiking and snowshoeing.

Adequate extra clothing: Plenty of layers made of materials such as wool or polypropylene that wick sweat and moisture away from your body.

Headlamp or flashlight: These are especially important in the winter because days are shorter and night comes quickly. The sun will set, for example, at 4:23 p.m. Sunday and Monday. Also pack extra batteries.

Plenty of extra food: Snowshoeing is strenuous exercise, and you burn a lot of calories, so bring extra food to keep your energy level high.

In addition, snowshoeing requires much more energy than hiking, so keep your mileage goals small, and turn around when conditions are beyond your skills or your energy level is low. A few extra items to put in the winter backpack include:

Plenty of water: Keep hydrated by drinking often.

Emergency shelter and/or sleeping bag: Seriously consider carrying these in case you have to spend a night out there.

Portable shovel: A critically important winter survival tool, which will assist you in digging snow caves in which you can survive a bitter, cold night. And, it’s nearly impossible to dig someone out of an avalanche without a shovel.

Avalanche beacon: In avalanche country, consider carrying a beacon. And know how to use it properly.

USE COMMON SENSE

Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return — and call them when you return. If your destination changes, let someone know.

While in the backcountry, you might face some developments. Is it getting late in the afternoon? Is snow starting to fall in earnest? Is the trail hard to follow, or does it pass by a steep slope that could pose a risk of avalanche?

As tempting as it might be to push on to your destination, experts stress the importance of knowing when to turn back. Attaining a summit or making it to a lake isn’t worth risking a night out in the cold or getting lost in a whiteout.

It’s OK to turn back. You can always return another day.

BRING NAVIGATION SKILLS

Remember that it’s much easier to get yourself lost in winter — snow tends to make the landscape look uniform and obscure landmarks, the association cautions.

It’s not easy trying to find your way on an unfamiliar backcountry trail using only a topographical map when the trail is covered under a blanket of snow and clouds obscure identifiable peaks around you. This makes map and compass skills essential for winter backcountry travel.

Consider taking a wilderness navigation course or other winter skills course.

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