Don’t let winter intimidate you! Winter is a beautiful time to gain a new perspective on your favorite locations and discover new ones.
In places such as the Rocky Mountains, snow is a guarantee during the winter. Snow opens a REALLY BIG window of activities you can’t do the rest of the year. Between Cross Country Skiing, Slope Skiing and Snowboarding, Snowshoeing, Ice Climbing, and Backpacking, there is much fun to be had!
For guide to winter recreation, our goal is to put your mind at ease and show you how easy it is to plan your first winter outdoor adventures. From where to begin, what you’ll need, and how to stay warm, we have you covered!
Here’s our list of 7 common mistakes people make when they first start adventuring during winter…
1. Choosing A Sport Outside of Your Comfort Zone
The most important way to approach a frosty backcountry trip is to plan and prepare! If you are new to winter recreating, begin with a sport you are very comfortable with. This takes the stress away from the actual activity and allows you to become comfortable in the environment quicker. For example, if you are an avid resort/slope skier, cross country skiing would be a fun way to explore new trails!
It is also important to start small. Winter can be harsh and unforgiving at times, so it is best to test the waters and find where your comfort/skill level is before jumping into that 25-mile snowshoe/cross country ski multi-day trail.
2. No Map, Compass or GPS for Trail Finding
Trail finding will not be an issue if you are on a heavy-trafficked cross-country ski trail, but if you are venturing to an area less traveled, it is vital to bring a map and compass (and know how to use them).
Snow will typically be covering the trail that is normally obvious. Thick snow will also cover any landmarks you are trying to look for, i.e. creeks or cairns.
3. Not Bringing Adequate Winter Gear
Unlike the warmer months where you can get by with little, gear plays a key role in your comfort and capability in the backcountry during winter. Aside from the obvious gear like skis, snowboards, snowshoes, etc. there is other gear you will need if you are looking to move away from the heavily trafficked ski resorts.
Additional gear might include (but is not limited to) trekking poles with snow baskets, a snow shovel, avalanche probe, personal locator beacon, gaiters. If you are going to be doing overnight trips: a 4-season tent, a sleeping bag rated for low temperatures, extra food & water, first aid kit, and the list could go on for a while.
Not everywhere you go in the backcountry will put you at risk of avalanches, so do some light research to determine if this type of gear is necessary for the area and activity you are planning on doing.
4. Not Enough Food & Water
As with planning any trip, food and water is essential. Your body is working harder than normal as it expends a ton of energy just to keep you warm – while you’re doing strenuous exercise. Bring protein and carb heavy foods, even for a day trip.
And don’t forget to eat these protein and carb heavy foods! It is easy to get carried away with the day’s activities and forget to hydrate or eat throughout the day.
5. Not Being Fully Prepared For The Cold
Winter is cold. Plain and simple. And staying warm can make or break your time in the winter wilderness. Our bodies naturally produce heat, it is important to know how to use that heat as a valuable resource. Lighting a fire should not be our go-to answer to staying warm! Here are some tips to help keep warm.
- Layering is very important, and can be done wrong. So, think about your layers wisely. You want synthetic or wool materials to be your first layer. These materials wick away moisture, keeping your skin as dry as possible. The second layer should be insulating – this is where that nice puffy jacket comes in. The third layer is usually necessary in the Winter, as moisture is all around you. This will be your “hard-shell” that should be a waterproof or at the very least water-resistant material.
- Windmill your arms to keep blood circulating to your fingers when they get cold. This is something you can do while walking and should be done as soon as you feel them getting cold.
- Warm up before you get cold! Even if you aren’t cold yet, when you start to notice the sun dropping or the evening temperature beginning to roll in, put on your night-time layers. It takes longer and is way harder for your body to warm up after your core temperature has dropped significantly.
- Begin thinking about how you can warm clothes up before putting them on. For example, when you’re winding down for the night, change and put your pajama layer on under your outer insulating layers before the temperature drops. This way, you aren’t trying to change in the bitter cold of night, and your pajamas are already warm because you’ve been wearing them! Along with this, consider putting the clothes for tomorrow in your sleeping bag with you through the night. This will make them warmer when you go to put them on (this is great when your clothes are still clean and don’t smell).
- Hot drinks are wonderful! Between tea or hot cocoa at night and coffee in the morning, these are sure fire ways to warm up your core temperature. Hot caffeinated beverages have the added benefit of opening your airways – helping your body take in more oxygen while being at higher altitudes and exerting energy.
- Mittens are making a comeback, and we couldn’t be happier! Mittens keep your fingers grouped, allowing heat to be shared and stored in the surrounding air in the mitten. Gloves take this air away and separate your fingers, making it hard for hands to stay warm for long periods of time. You can bring a thin pair of gloves in your pack for when you need some extra dexterity.
- If your base layers get wet, you should change immediately. That moisture will cool your core temperature at a dangerous rate and could potentially lead to hypothermia. Change into a dry layer and be sure to hang those clothes up by the fire at night to dry them.
Learning how to keep warm is the main obstacle of winter recreation. If you lose your ability to stay warm, it will be detrimental to your situation, and potentially, your health. It is valuable to learn the symptoms of hypothermia to better assess situations in the backcountry. The more you know, the more empowered you are to make decisions.
6. Ignoring Leave No Trace Principles
If you are already familiar with Leave No Trace principles and abide by these outdoor ethics, I commend you and urge you to keep doing so! Each environment and ecosystem is different though, and LNT varies in different environments. For example, digging a cat-hole for human solid waste is acceptable in forest environments, but not in desert landscapes (Here is more info on this side note).
Snow creates a new factor in an environment, so LNT ethics change a bit. The Leave No Trace Center is a great resource and I recommend using its website to help plan for any trip. They have made this short list of tips to minimize your impacts in the winter backcountry. You can also find more comprehensive information Here.
- Plan ahead and don’t travel alone! Although traveling in large groups is not preferred and definitely leaves an impact, traveling alone in the winter is dangerous. Leave a detailed itinerary with your family or friends.
- “Know how to go.” As usual, pee 200 feet away from any water source, even if that source is covered in snow. Pack out all toilet paper. Plan to pack out all solid waste! Would you want to be on this trail when the snow melts and find human poo all over?
- “Stick to deep snow.” Avoid walking in muddied areas; this will further erosion and widen trails. You can damage the underlying vegetation by walking on snow that is only a few inches deep. If you are camping, only pitch a tent on deep snow, rock, or mineral soil.
- Leave wildlife alone. They are out in this weather everyday…which makes them more vulnerable and/or aggravated.
- Be courteous to others on the trail. Yield to those moving downhill. Don’t hike on trails groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Post-holing a smooth trail is less than preferred.
7. No Avalanche Awareness/Education
Activities like backcountry skiing and snowboarding will (typically) put you at more risk of being in avalanche territory than snowshoeing on a trail lower in elevation and away from a large peak. So, depending on the area, you can be clear from this threat.
The internet makes it easy to learn some quick tips when identifying avalanche risks, so here are some resources worth checking out:
If you are wanting to pursue winter recreation in steep, snowy mountains, I highly suggest taking a winter backcountry travel course or avalanche awareness course. Colorado Mountain School offers a free Avalanche Awareness Clinic that will provide a great introduction into your avalanche awareness.
Backcountry activities might seem daunting, but simply requires more planning. Winter outdoor travel is also a great way to develop outdoor knowledge, skills, and competency. So, stay warm and get outside this winter!
Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.