10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

Most Coloradans consider “14er season” to be June through September, but such a viewpoint is severely restrictive. The fall, winter and spring months are often the most rewarding times of year in the high country. There’s nothing quite like having a popular summit such as Quandary Peak to yourself, looking out over a sea of white-capped mountains as you sip hot tea that warms your body from the inside out. Like many novice mountaineers, a few short years ago I viewed the gap between summer and winter climbing as insurmountable. I had too many questions, and the answers were too hard to find. The truth is, like many things in life, it really doesn’t have to be that difficult.

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1. An introduction to winter layering

This was one of the most confusing aspects to me when I was starting out. Hard shell or soft shell? Down or synthetic? How many layers do I need to carry? This stuff isn’t cheap, and with my limited disposable income, making the right choices was crucial. Everyone has their own system. I’ll offer mine as a guide, along with the reasoning and a more general perspective.

  • Polyester/spandex short-sleeve T-shirt: Avoid anything with cotton. I don’t like long sleeves here because it’s uncomfortable when you’re layering on top of other pieces, which are almost all long-sleeve as well.
  • Fleece 1/4-zip pullover: This is my outer layer most of the time in winter. A simple T-shirt and a fleece gets it done when I’m moving, even in frigid temperatures. The other stuff piles on only on the windiest, coldest days or when there’s precipitation.
  • Midweight synthetic pullover: Down would be fine here as well, but I prefer synthetic because it might get a little sweaty if you’re working hard. Synthetic insulation stays warm even when wet. I leave this one behind to save weight when the forecast is warm and dry.
  • Soft shell jacket with hood: Hard shells are fine too, but soft shells are generally more breathable. A cheap hard shell is often like wearing a garbage bag, and you want to avoid sweating as much as possible in the winter. Soft shells hold up just fine in Colorado’s dry snow.
  • Down over-it-all puffy with hood: Wearing a down jacket over a shell seems kind of weird, right? It’s not. I promise. This is the jacket that will stay at the bottom of your pack 95 percent of the time, but will become your best friend during long rest breaks, on summits or in an emergency situation. Don’t skimp. Again, synthetic works fine, but in general down is warmer and lighter.

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2. Basic avalanche education is free

Several local organizations, such as Friends of Berthoud Pass, offer free one- or two-hour avalanche awareness seminars. A proper AIARE Avalanche 1 course wouldn’t be a bad idea, but as a hiker the most crucial piece of your avalanche training is learning what terrain to avoid altogether. Don’t go out in the winter without at least attending one of these free classes. I highly recommend Mountain Rescue Aspen’s Public Avalanche Seminar, which is held every year in January. For just $30 you get a three-hour lecture followed by an on-snow day practicing terrain recognition, beacon searches and more. Can’t beat that.

3. Winter is ridge season, spring is couloir season

People often equate winter with ice axes and crampons. Most of the time, that’s simply not true. You’re far more likely to use snowshoes and trekking poles than technical gear. Ascending wind-swept ridgelines keeps you out of avalanche terrain. Just look out for cornices and make sure there’s terra firma under your feet. Snow-climbing season typically begins in April or May, when it’s time to bust out the ice ax and crampons for those tasty couloirs. Microspikes are likely all the traction you’ll need in winter and snowshoes with a heel-lift and built-in crampons are the way to go for steep ascents.

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4. OpenSnow.com and the CAIC are your friends

Check these two sites daily, even if you’re not planning on heading out. It’s incredibly beneficial to your overall education and awareness. OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz provides spot-on weather forecasts and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center posts updates daily on avalanche conditions.

5. Water freezes

No duh, right? But it’s shocking how often someone will be stuck four miles from the trailhead with a solid chunk of ice as their water supply. This is easily avoidable. For starters, leave the Camelbak bladders at home. Water will almost always freeze in the thin hose and block your access, even if you have an insulator sleeve. I prefer to keep a Nalgene, turned upside down, in an insulated sleeve clipped to my pack’s hip belt for easy access. My other water bottles are in my pack, wrapped in extra layers and pushed against my back for the additional body heat. A bit of Gatorade powder (or vodka, for the adventurous) also protects against freezing.

6. Pluck the low-hanging fruit

Many of the same 14ers that are considered easy in August are still considered easy in January. Mt. Elbert, Mt. Sherman, Quandary Peak and Mt. Bierstadt don’t require much more mileage or elevation gain than they do in the summer, and there are virtually avalanche-safe routes on each. Search the 14ers.com Trip Reports section for your intended mountain and click only the checkboxes for the winter months. There are dozens of quality TRs on the easier peaks in December, January, February and March.

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7. You don’t need $500 mountaineering boots

Sure, they’re yellow or orange or some other fancy color, and they make you feel like a badass. They’re also overkill for winter hikes and surprisingly not all that warm. Run-of-the-mill winter hiking boots are cheaper, lighter, warmer and more comfortable. As long as they have insulation and come up to your ankle or above, you’re golden. Such boots are even compatible with strap-on crampons. The big caveat is that you’ll want at least a heel welt, and likely both a heel welt and a toe welt, if you plan to try climbing ice. Those are for attaching hybrid or step-in crampons, which are more secure. Expensive mountaineering boots are also more rigid, saving your calf muscles while standing on vertical ice.

8. The “Other” Four Essentials

The 10 Essentials list is even more important in winter, when the stakes are higher. I’d like to add four more: a thermos, a Buff, goggles and mittens. The thermos might be a luxury, but there’s nothing better than hot soup or tea on a cold, windy day. I often joke that a thermos is the best gear purchase I’ve ever made. A Buff is a close runner-up. These little pieces of fabric have myriad uses, including as a facemask. You need to be able to cover every inch of exposed skin in the winter to prevent frostnip or frostbite. That’s where the goggles come in, too. You need to see even if it’s windy and dumping snow. No need to break the bank here, a simple $20-30 pair will suffice. Finally, buy a good pair of mittens. Even the nicest gloves can’t compare to mittens for warmth. I recommend Black Diamond Mercury Mitts to anyone who will listen.

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9. The sun is your enemy

OK, not really. The warmth of the sun feels pretty damn good in the winter. It’s just doubly important to have proper sunglasses and apply SPF30+ sunscreen every two hours. The sun reflecting off the snow is lethal, and if you don’t take the steps to protect yourself, you’re in for a world of pain. I’m speaking from experience. Pack sunglasses that cover your full field of vision (glacier glasses are best, and they’re really not that expensive). Keep sunscreen easily accessible, such as in your pants pocket, to limit the excuses against applying it regularly.

10. Carry enough to survive a night out

Like a layering system, this will vary depending on a person’s risk tolerance, attitude and experience. The key is being confident in your ability to live through a night in the open. For some that means a tent and a sleeping bag, for others a bivy sack, and for still others simply extra layers. I fall into the latter category. It would be far from comfortable, but I trust my down puffy (on top of all the other layers I carry) to get me through a winter night. I also carry a tarp/blanket to wrap myself in should I need protection from the elements.

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3 thoughts on “10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

  1. Eric: Thanks for your comment. Gear preferences are formed based on one's own experiences and needs, and I stand behind this article 100 percent. I hike exclusively in a softshell in winter, including overnights and in bad weather, and I'm still breathing. I've never even been uncomfortable. A well-constructed softshell blocks the wind and sheds snow just fine. The boot advice is widely accepted and was passed down to me from a man who climbed all the 14ers in winter. I also completely disagree with your parting comment about the hood — I'd never, ever (ever) buy a puffy without one. That doesn't mean you're wrong. Like I said initially, gear preferences are personal and there are many arguments where both sides can be correct.

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  2. Just a toss out- you can save money buying extra nalgene or thermos etc and keep the camelback bladder. Stuck the hose down your shirt and it won’t freeze. Tried and true!

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