Snow can be both boon and bane for outdoor travelers. When nice and firm, it can be a pleasure to scuff along, above all the terra firma messiness of brush, gravel, or deadfall. When soft and powdery, it invites long cross-country ski or snowshoe outings.
But then there’s the flipside: the half-melted slush absolutely exhausting to traverse for long distances, the rock-hard, ice-glazed slopes, the deep, brittle-crusted drifts you maddeningly posthole your way through. Not to mention, of course, all the outright hazards of the snowscape: crevasses, cornices, avalanches, weakly frozen-over bodies of water, etc.
Here we’ve rounded up a general assortment of snow travel tips: advice on everything from basic gear to rewarding route-finding. We hope you'll find something useful for your next adventure out in the white stuff!
Hiking in winter or snowy country any time of year means—no surprise—layering. You obviously need to keep warm, but you’re also going to be working up a mean sweat through the basic exertion of traveling across the snow. Insulate yourself while managing moisture by packing snow hiking essentials: a base layer, midlayer, and outerwear, including an upper and lower shell that can stand up to inclement weather.
Regarding snow hiking pants, you’ll want some layers to play around with: a full-leg base layer (such as long-underwear bottoms), a pair of softshell pants, and shell pants, which might include fleece-lined or otherwise insulated material. What you wear depends on the conditions and your body’s perspiration production. Peel down layers when trekking to help lessen sweat, and layer up when stopping for a break to maintain body heat, which helps keep muscles from stiffing in the cold air.
Waterproof and insulated winter or mountaineering boots, either leather or plastic, are best for snow travel. If you’re going to wear snowshoes or crampons during your trek, you’ll obviously want to ensure your boots properly fit their bindings.
Invest in a pair of gaiters, the full-length kind being best for serious winter hikers. Gaiters provide a layer of insulation for those shins and calves of yours that will be (short of your feet, of course) the most snow-exposed part of your body. They also prevent snow from getting into your boots and cushion against the crust, logs, rocks, and other potentially painful obstructions.
Use ski poles whether you’re cross-country skiing or not: for balance, testing snow conditions, and maybe even erecting a rough-and-ready shelter. An ice ax serves snow hikers, mountaineers and mountain climbers in both rough terrain and technical climbs. We’ll cover some ice-ax basics later in the article.
Snowshoes and cross-country skis are classic winter travel aids, of course, but you may also consider traction devices for your boots. Snow spikes for hiking (aka microspikes) work best on fairly level terrain; if you’re dealing with gnarlier slopes, you might want to invest in a pair of crampons. Strap-on hinged crampons with horizontal front points lend themselves best for winter hiking and general, non-technical mountaineering.
A snow shovel is a versatile and potentially life-saving tool in the snowy backcountry, serving as a means of testing snowpack stability, building a snow cave or other emergency shelter, and excavating buried avalanche victims.
In a recent blog post we covered the basics of avalanche safety, which we encourage you to read through; depending on where and when you’re going snow-adventuring, you may well want to pack avalanche-specific equipment such as a transceiver and avalanche probe.
Mountaineers bring along wands (store-bought or homemade) for retracing their way back over trackless snowfields or in whiteout conditions, and less technically inclined snow hikers might also consider these route finding aids if they plan on doing a lot of major backcountry trekking.
As we alluded to at the beginning, snow can make cross-country travel easier by blanketing over obstacles, from jungly shrub thickets to scree slopes. Not insignificantly, it also generally lightens the impact of off-trail hiking: Snow is a Leave-No-Trace-friendly substrate.
If you are traveling by trail, keep in mind that it may be difficult to follow under a snowpack if no one has hiked or snowshoed across the trail recently. Obviously, this is more of a concern for a lesser-used National Forest route, for example, than a well-marked trail such as state park or county recreation area. Maintaining orientation skills like map reading and compass navigation skills (plus a GPS) are mandatory.
Atmospheric conditions affect how snow crystals form and once on the ground the snowpack changes over time, sometimes very dramatically. The myriad of snow and snowpacks often raise a challenge to hikers traversing trails and routes. Here are some general approaches for safely and comfortably traversing the variable and evolving snowscape:
Ski poles provide much-needed support when you’re crossing, climbing, or descending a snow-covered hillside. Among steeper, taller mountains, though, you may be thankful for the extra assistance of an ice ax. If you’re sidehilling or angling upslope, place one step at a time and anchor the ax above you when doing so.
If you’re climbing a straight slope uphill, you may be able to use the ax in the same sort of “cane” position if the angle is fairly shallow. On steeper snow surfaces, though, you may want to employ a two-handed grip—the “stake” position—or hold the ax horizontally in front of you and drive the pick into the snow with one hand while pushing the shaft against the slope with the other.
On a descent, you might “plunge-step” with long, heel-driven steps downward, or opt for the much more thrilling (but potentially risky) glissade route.
(Learn more about ice-ax use in The Mountaineers’ classic Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, which illustrates the above techniques.)
In snowy winters, streams may run beneath snow bridges or become almost wholly buried for long stretches. Be wary crossing snow bridges: Test their stability with your ski poles before taking each step. When in doubt, it may be best to ford a clear section of the stream rather than trust a dubious snow arch.
Don’t cross streams or rivers on ice if you can avoid it: the risk is just too steep.