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Top Ten Winter Hiking Mistakes

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Five hikers in deep snow walking near a forest in the mountains.

Winter hiking often has two very special highlights: Magical views and fewer people. For those that are willing and able to venture out into the snowy mountains, the views can be spectacular. For those folks that like a little more solitude on even the most popular trails, winter hiking usually deters the larger crowds. However, and this is a big ‘however’, there are some serious issues that should be taken into consideration when hiking in winter.

Here are the top ten mistakes folks make when winter hiking.

1. Not properly researching the trail or route before setting out. It's important to know the conditions of the trail, including any potential hazards such as ice or avalanche risk. Spend a while reading trail reports and weather forecasts. Check the local ranger site too.

2. Building on #1, not checking the weather forecast and being unprepared for the conditions. The weather forecast you’re reading is usually for the town near where you’re going hiking. It’s likely the weather will be different on the trail than in the town nearby. Remember, in the winter, the weather can be unpredictable and can change quickly. It's important to be prepared for the potential for extreme cold, snow, and wind. This is especially true if you hike in the mountains. I have had the weather go from a balmy 50F to 30F in under 30 minutes.

3. Not carrying enough water or food. It's important to stay hydrated and fueled up, especially in cold weather. Bring extra water and high-energy snacks in case your hike takes longer than expected. A couple of Snickers bars are good to bring. You’ve got lots of sugar in them to fuel your body.

4. Not telling someone where you are going and when you plan to return. It's always a good idea to let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back, in case of an emergency. Leave them a map of where you’re going too.

5. Not wearing appropriate clothing or footwear. Layering is key for winter hiking, as is having proper footwear with good traction for walking on snow and ice. (You want that moisture-wicking base layer, a thermal layer, (maybe two), and a weatherproof layer. Oh, and no cotton.

6. Not bringing a map and compass (or knowing how to use them). In the winter, trails may be covered in snow, making them harder to follow. It's important to bring a map and compass and know how to use them in case you need to navigate off-trail. Download AllTrails or some similar hiking app then download a copy of the trail you plan to hike. Check your progress often and make course corrections as needed.

7. Not knowing how to handle an emergency situation. Cold weather can be dangerous, and it's important to know what to do in case of emergencies, such as frostbite or hypothermia. Take a class on wilderness first aid, and do some research on what to do in case of frostbite or hypothermia. Bring along one of those $4.99 thermal reflective blankets.

8. Not being aware of your surroundings and potential hazards. In the winter, there are additional hazards to be aware of, such as thin ice on lakes and rivers, and tree wells (holes around the base of trees filled with snow). Use your hiking poles to check the snow, especially if you’re venturing into areas no one else has hiked. Listen and look at the slopes around you.

9. Not being respectful of the environment and Leave No Trace principles. It's important to practice Leave No Trace principles in the winter to protect the environment and prevent damage to fragile ecosystems. Often those winter trails aren’t quite the usual trail. The snow will obscure the official trail and you’ll be tramping over bushes, small trees, etc., that would usually be left unmolested.

10. Not being prepared for the physical demands of the hike. Winter hikes can be more strenuous due to the cold weather and potentially challenging trail conditions. It's important to be physically fit and prepared for the hike. A four-mile hike uphill in snow shoes is a very different hike than your normal hike. You will burn a lot of calories and work up a serious sweat quickly. Be aware of your body’s limitations and respect them.

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