I remember the first time I hiked in the snow. I was apprehensive, cautious and slow. I didn’t know exactly how deep the snow was and I didn’t even have much winter hiking gear with me. It was a rookie mistake, but sometimes you have to learn by doing.
If you’re an avid hiker, then it’s likely you’ve either hiked in the snow already or you will at some point in your outdoor career. After all, tackling different climates, terrain and conditions is just part of hitting the trails in the great outdoors. However, it certainly pays to be more prepared than I was.
So, can you hike in the snow? Yes, you can hike in the snow. Snow or ice on the trail doesn’t have to stop you from getting outside. However, in order to make the experience more enjoyable and to reduce your risk of injury, it’s important to be well prepared for winter hiking with the right knowledge, experience and equipment. The things I didn’t have when I waded through snowy trails for that first time!
Knowing when to consider adding traction to your boots as well as general safety tips for winter trekking are all important if you plan on becoming a four-season hiker.
How much snow is too much for hiking?
Is there a limit on how much snow can be on the trail before you call it a day? Well, this really depends. Winter trail conditions can vary between fresh powdery snow to packed, more icy coverage, which alters how you should approach your hike. The depth of snow is also an important consideration and can vary depending on recent snowfall and how much foot traffic the trail receives.
If you’re walking in your regular hiking boots, then you will likely begin to sink in fresh or soft snow. This means that with every step you’ll be expending more energy and tiring more quickly, similar to walking in sand. If the snow is deeper than 6 inches, then it’s also likely that it will be seeping into your boots making your feet damp and cold. This is when you’ll know that you need the support of extra winter hiking gear.
How to hike in deep snow:
If you do decide to hike in deeper snow, there are a couple of things that can help you navigate the terrain more easily.
Use hiking poles – Hiking poles are essential for trekking through snow. If the snow is deep and you are sinking with each step, poles can help your balance and reduce the risk of slipping and falling. They can also be used to check the depth and softness of snow ahead of you, as snow cover can change depending on the terrain underneath and how much sun it gets.
Wear gaiters – Wearing gaiters on your hiking boots will also help keep snow from seeping into your boots. This will ensure your feet stay dry and warm, which is important to reduce your chance of blisters and keep your blood circulating.
Follow an established path – If the trail has seen recent foot traffic, then there will likely be footprints and parts on the trail where the snow is more packed down from other people. It’s a good idea to use this as a guide when placing your feet, as it will be easier to follow where other people have been with the snow generally more solid in these parts.
Appropriate traction – However, trekking through deep snow in hiking boots can be extremely exhausting, both physically and mentally, and even dangerous, as conditions can change quickly. There are ways of making your winter hike more enjoyable and safer such as having better traction underfoot.
When to consider traction for hiking boots:
Even if you use walking poles, hiking boots will struggle to grip on a lot of snow, especially if it is packed down from frequent traffic and slightly icy. There are ways to add extra traction to your boots which can help reduce your risk of slipping and keep you moving at a quicker pace.
Traction options start at pull-on coils, like Yaktrax, which are stretched over your hiking boots and have stainless steel coils underneath. They are generally lightweight and can be worn over any footwear, meaning you can carry them with you and just put them on when the snow cover gets more than a few inches.
However, if the trail has frozen over or there is wide coverage of ice across the snow, then you may need to consider more serious options.
Microspikes and crampons:
Microspikes and crampons are more heavy-duty and aggressive options for traction. They are designed for icy trails and steep terrain and can vary in design, weight and grip. They generally have teeth made from aluminium or stainless steel along the balls of your feet as well as your heel.
Microspikes – These are lighter than crampons and are generally similar to Yaktrax in that they slip over your hiking boots. However, microspikes are made from chain and have small teeth for gripping into ice and packed snow. They weigh more than Yaktrax but will generally be better for gripping to icy trails.
Crampons – On the other hand, these are more heavy-duty and provide longer, sharper teeth underneath your feet for digging into ice for stabilization. They can be heavy to carry and more awkward to put on, but they are ideal for smooth ice or any inclines or mountain slopes that have icy trails.
While microspikes are more flexible, their shorter spikes don’t offer the best grip for climbing steep sections. Crampons, however, can help you dig into rock and ice to help you climb steadily upwards. So, which one you choose to take really depends on the kind of terrain you’re covering.
When to wear snowshoes for hiking:
When the snow is soft and powdery and more than six inches deep, however, even traction on your shoes won’t stop you from sinking into the snow. To keep yourself afloat on the trail and reduce the tiring trudge, you can opt to use snowshoes.
Snowshoes increase the surface area of your feet like skis, up to four times more than hiking boots. They help you stay afloat in soft powder, which means you can conserve more of your energy. When used in conjunction with hiking poles, they also save you from the risk of post-holing, which occurs when your foot slips through a thin crust of snow up to your thigh or waist.
The risk of post-holing is generally high if a trail has not seen a lot of foot traffic, making it difficult for you to judge the depth of snow. It’s also common on sections of a trail that see more sun than others or in Spring, when the snow begins to soften with the warmer weather.
There are different sizes of snowshoes, with various widths and surface area coverage. The size you need depends on your body weight and how deep the snow is that you’ll likely be facing. There are also snowshoes with added traction like spikes so you can navigate off-trail, although they will not be as useful as crampons if you hit exposed rock or steep inclines.
Staying warm while hiking in winter:
Although your footwear is considered the most important thing when hiking through snow, what clothing you decide to wear is equally important to keep yourself warm and dry. Frostbite and hypothermia are two significant conditions that you can succumb to if you have not chosen proper clothing.
Wearing layers is the best way to add warmth and be able to cool down as you get moving and start to sweat. In winter, your base layer is very important and should be a moisture-wicking thermal. It’s best to stick to synthetic materials or ideally, merino wool, as this will provide the best insulation while keeping you dry.
Your mid-layer should be a fleece for ultimate warmth and your outer shell will need to be weather and windproof for battling winter conditions.
For extremely cold environments, you can wear a thermal base layer underneath your hiking pants and investing in waterproof pullover pants is also a good idea to keep your legs dry.
Consider wearing two pairs of gloves, one being thermal and the other providing a weatherproof layer, as your fingers are particularly prone to frostbite. A balaclava or neck gaiter and an insulated hat are also important for keeping heat in.
Winter hiking safety tips:
Here’s some more general safety tips for hiking in winter, including essentials you need to carry and things to consider before hitting the trail…
- Know the trail conditions BEFORE heading out – Find out what to expect on the trail before your hike which will help you make a better-informed decision as to what kind of footwear would be most suitable and safe. For example, if there is a lot of deep, soft snow you might consider snowshoes, or if the trail is more icy and well-used then you may think about Yaktrax or microspikes.
- Find out the weather forecast – In winter the weather can offer some increased risks for your hike, such as snowstorms or avalanches. This can either pose direct risk to yourself or make navigation more difficult, so it’s best to check the latest information.
- Hike with buddies – It’s always safer to hike in a group, however, in winter it can be even more important if levels of winter hiking experience or knowledge varies. You can help each other by filling in each other’s knowledge gaps.
- Tell someone where you’re going – This is a safety tip for all four seasons, but winter brings some heightened risks in terms of conditions and navigation so always tell someone where you plan to go.
- Start early – The challenges of navigating snow or icy trails means it often slows down your pace. Take this into account and start your hike early to ensure you have plenty of daylight to complete it.
- Always take hiking poles – Even if you’re not a huge fan, in winter they are essential. No matter what footwear or traction you decide to use, hiking poles will help keep you balanced and can be useful to test depth of snow ahead.
- Carry an ice axe, if necessary – This can be a useful tool to have whenever you tackle snow or icy conditions. It can cut into solid snow and help on steep ascents and descents to arrest any falls. Although, make sure you have experience or practice in using one first.
- Carry an emergency beacon – In case of a crisis like injury or an avalanche, you may need immediate attention or help, and this is sometimes the only way to get it in remote areas.
- Keep batteries warm – In extremely cold environments, batteries die more quickly. If possible, keep anything with batteries close to your body to keep them relatively warm.
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Elisha is an Australian freelance writer and photographer, having written for Lonely Planet, Remote Lands, Matador Network and Travel Play Live magazine. You’ll usually find her in offbeat places, hiking wherever there are mountains and always with a camera in hand. She also documents her travels and treks on her blog called Going Somewhere.