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Hike Safely on Snow

Posted by Anna Roth at May 26, 2017 10:30 AM |

Springtime and early summer can be a tempting time for hikers. The mountains may be calling, but high temperatures and sunny skies at the trailhead are no promise for perfect conditions higher up. Snow sticks around at high elevations, sometimes all year round.

Springtime and early summer can be a tempting time for hikers. The mountains may be calling, but high temperatures and sunny skies at the trailhead are no promise for perfect conditions higher up. Snow sticks around at high elevations, sometimes all year round. And no matter the season, it's important to be aware of the inherent dangers of hiking on snow.

CAUTION: Notice the air gap below the two hikers at the far rightIt can be hard to know where dangerous air pockets have melted out. Photo on the trail to Lake 22 by Ken Giesbers

Always pack the Ten Essentials, leave your itinerary with family and friends, check the trail conditions before you head out and establish to a turnaround time. While a summit may look attainable at lunch, crossing snow to get to it often takes longer than most people plan on, because of obstacles and less-than-ideal conditions. Sticking to your preset turnaround time helps you makes good decisions when the summit sirens are calling.

Postholing

Spring weather makes snow less reliable. A trail over snow that supported hikers last week may not hold your weight today. Snow melts out from the ground up, and softens as the day progresses. If you're hiking on a trail like this and your leg punches through a thin crust of snow, you're postholing. Aside from being an exhausting way to hike, postholing could cause a scraped shin or twisted ankle.

Avoid postholing by traveling early in the day, before the sun has warmed and softened the snow. Test the snow with your trekking poles, travel in shady areas where the sun is less likely to warm the snow, or avoid a snow-covered route altogether.

Snow Bridges

Hollow underneath the snow, be careful, by Emmele PhotographyIt can be hard to see hollows under snow from above. Photo on Mount Pilchuck trail in May by Emmele Photography 

Snow bridges form over creeks, crevasses, and other openings in the terrain. While these often look stable, they can give out without warning, and hikers can plunge into icy water or a crevasse. Avoid crossing snow bridges whenever possible. If you must cross a snow bridge, test it for stability before starting across, and never have more than one person on a snow bridge at a time.

Tree Wells

As snow gathers around the base of a tree, the tree branches and snow form a depression that can be quite deep. Because the snow is loose, a person who falls into one can become completely buried. Typically this is more of a concern for winter travel, but hikers should be aware of these and avoid approaching trees while there is still snow around them.

Crossing steep slopes

Hiking on steep slopes isn't always a breeze when the trail is clear, and the presence of snow makes the tread even more treacherous. Use your trekking poles to keep your footing sure, and learn how to kick steps into snow. More tips on crossing snow safely is available in Mike Zawaski's book, Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking, and Moving Across Snow.

Packwood Lake by Kjmartineau
Even trails without much snow can pose slipping hazards, like this stretch on the way to Packwood Lake in late April. Photo by Kjmartineau

Glissading

Once you've attained the summit, it can be very tempting to whiz back down the mountain on your backside. But without proper equipment and know-how, glissading can be a dangerous endeavor. Trees and rocks sticking out of the snow can cause injury, and an uncontrolled slide doesn't always end where you want to. So think twice before you make the slide.


Resources: Read more about hiking safely, both on snow and off.

And remember, if conditions are not ideal for your hike, don't hesitate to change your plans. The trail will be there waiting for you on another day.

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