6 Winter Hiking Safety Tips: Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst

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winter hiking tipsBeing prepared can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to staying safe outdoors during a winter trek. While avid hikers don’t let a little winter weather keep them from enjoying their favorite mountain trails, it can be a lot more dangerous in harsher weather conditions. Preparing for a winter hike takes considerably more planning than summer hiking.

Start off on the right foot by packing the essentials. We like this list from the Washington Trails Association:

  • Adequate Extra Clothing – Stay dry
  • Headlamp or Flashlight – In case night sneaks up on you
  • Plenty of Extra Food – for all those calories your burning
  • Plenty of Water – drink before you feel thirsty to avoid dehydration
  • Emergency Shelter and Sleeping Bag – in case you get lost
  • A Portable Shovel – for avalanche and emergency shelter
  • An Avalanche Beacon – make sure you know how to use it

We gathered our own SC Expert winter hiking safety tips for some of the most common and dangerous scenarios you could face. Here are six hiking hazards to avoid with some smart preparation.

1. Avalanche Danger

When an avalanche hits, victims can be swept away in a thunderous mass of snow moving up to 62 miles per hour. Death is often the result of suffocation. The news was recently flooded with video of a backcountry skier in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains being caught in an avalanche. The sparkly, untouched powder of the backcountry is very tempting, but can quickly turn into a fight for your life. The skier was saved by a specialized avalanche airbag and the preparation of other skiers around her.

This example just goes to show that even the most experienced person can be caught off guard by an avalanche and that the proper preparation before heading out can save your life. Make sure your backpack contains avalanche survival gear and you know how to use it. A few basics to consider:

  • Shovels
  • Probes
  • Water
  • Warm clothing to avoid frostbite (see tip #6)

The all-in-one CamelBak Gambler Total Eclipse was designed to carry a shovel, avalanche probe, skins, and other essentials. Most importantly, don’t forget to check information on local trails before deciding on a hike to ensure you’re hiking in a safe location. View more emergency survival gear here.

2. Hiking Alone 

You’re an independent individual that likes to take on the trails alone, for peace of mind or pace, right? Play it safe and let someone know where you’re going and how long you plan on being out. Also, taking along some type of GPS (like SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger) can help you in an emergency and is a critical element to any safe hike, but especially vital if you’re going it alone.

3. Icy Terrain

While a stable hiking boot is key to winter hiking, adding spikes will take away the worry of slipping and let you focus on the beautiful view around you. Spikes are great for wearing while hiking in snow and do an excellent job creating stable and comfortable traction when walking in icy terrain.

4. Strong Winter Rays

Cold weather doesn’t prevent sunburns. In fact, it increases your risk because the sunrays reflect off the snow and ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels are higher in alpine regions. A lot of people don’t think to put on sunscreen during winter sports and we’ve all seen the person walking around with goggle/sunglass burn lines. Applying a healthy dose of sunscreen with added windburn protection will protect the sensitive skin on your face, while your exposed to the elements.

5. Snow Blindness

Skin isn’t the only part of your face that will burn. If you’re hiking on a sunny winter day, remember that snow reflects UV light and can cause temporary eye damage called snow blindness. A pair of dual lens sunglasses like Nike Show X2 Sunglasses provide 100 percent protection from harmful UV rays and are great for winter sports.

6. Frostbite

Layering is always the answer when heading out into harsher elements. Hiking involves your whole body and it is easy to get overheated, get wet or freeze. The right gear will help you keep proper body temperature.

  • To stay dry, invest in quality base layers, mid layers and outer layers (yes- three layers!).
  • Have good quality gloves and a hat to help maintain a healthy body temperature. Gloves can also prevent cuts in case you slip.
  • Winter hiking pants need to provide you with warmth and protection from slips without impeding your movement. A pant like the Adidas Outdoor Winter Lined CPS Pant addresses all these concerns.
  • Wear moisture wicking socks to keep your feet warm and comfortable. Look for a versatile sock that will support the ball and heel of the foot, and reduce shock, impact, shear and blisters.

Keeping warm and dry while staying safe equals a win for your winter workout. Enjoy those chilly trails and the amazing winter wonderland view that awaits you at the top!

Sport Chalet

We’re experts on a mission to help you excel at all the things you’d rather be out doing. Sport Chalet has 54 retail stores offering the hottest brand name apparel and equipment for beginners to pros.

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