Outdoors tips: Winter backcountry navigation

Winter backcountry navigation demands preparation (and mindset) different from that required by summertime treks. Whether you are going in on foot or by machine, when entering snow country both your equipment and decision-making need to be adjusted to the elevated level of risk involved.

Experts such as the instructors for England's Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre, advise having backups for specific critical gear as well as training.

They also suggest that leaders adopt more group-oriented, thought-filled deliberations in where and how route and destination choices are made.


Having two (or three) of each essential gear piece spread throughout the party is a critical element of safety and survival. Trip leaders should have extra encased map sets and compasses.

Also, given that conditions could cause parties to become split, Plas y Brenin mountaineers suggest that all party members have their own map and compass kits, plus the training to effectively use them. Given that days are shorter, extra headlamps and batteries should be taken.


Group leaders or individuals must do more thinking ahead on winter excursions. Slopes that are directly negotiable during stable snow periods or in the summer may be unsafe in winter, forcing long detours.

Ensure that everyone knows at all times where they are and what the destination is. Decide what the group's capabilities are if travel must done in darkness or whiteouts. When preparing a trip route, mark on your map zones of anticipated hazards such as avalanches or streams.


In harsh weather seek shelter, even a natural lee space such as behind a big boulder, where adjustments in the route or destination out of the wind or precipitation can be made. Be aware of potential exposure to avalanches when selecting such a place.

Unless keeping moving is necessary, stop long enough to eat and drink something. Also make sure everyone has a good set of anti-fogging goggles (in a rigid carry case) for circumstances where it's windy.


Additional skills required for winter navigation include avalanche assessment and the mindset to make multiple periodic trenches to evaluate snowpack stability. These should be done whenever elevation, slope aspect, steepness or snow accumulations change.

The group dynamic also requires that everyone accept the same judgment criteria and goals for the outing. When a few want to forge on when some need or want to turn back, the safety of all members is compromised.

SOURCE: Plas Y Brenin, the British National Mountain Centre