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Planning for Hiking in Snow Conditions

If you are backcountry camping or hiking in areas with snow this summer (which looks to be just about everywhere), here are a few suggestions for how to deal with it:

  1. Don’t just walk on snow. Sliding and falling can have serious consequences. Kick your feet into the snow on each step to ensure a solid placement.
  2. If it just looks too dangerous – it probably is. Return the way you came and try again another time.
  3. If you have to cross a snow filled gully – first look up for avalanche/slide hazards and then look down for where you could end up. If either direction looks at all sketchy, consider bailing and trying again later. If you decide to cross - do it one at a time, watch each other and proceed very carefully.   
  4. If you have to cross a large snow patch,  keep well away from the edges – one meter minimum. The snow often melts under the surface at the edges and snow collapse here is very common and dangerous. You have no idea what is under the snow. There could be a sharp rock, a tree branch, an ankle twister, etc. Punching through snow can lead to very serious consequences. Avoid it if at all possible.
  5. Learn to read the snow slope like a valley and avoid the obvious drainage. There can often be a hidden stream under the snow and punching through here can be problematic.
  6. Pre-treat your leather outers before travelling across snow, otherwise you may experience wet feet. If your boots get soaked, try to bring them inside the tent with you overnight. Your body heat will drive moisture out of your tent making it slightly lower humidity than the surrounding outdoors which will give your boots the opportunity to dry slightly.
  7. Wear gaiters to avoid getting your socks wet. Wetting the tops of your socks will wick puddles down to your toes. Plus gaiters will protect your boots from ice and rock bits mixed in with the snow.
  8. Carry a shovel so you can clean residual snow off the tent pads. Even if you can set up your tent beside a snow pile, the melting snow will make it noticeably wetter and colder overnight.
  9. Beware the Refrigerator Effect. During the day when the sun is out, the snow is melting, and the vapors are rising and it can feel quite warm; but after the sun goes down there is a lot of moisture in the air and it condenses, cools and drops back into the low spots. This is much like the fog that falls out of your refrigerator when the door is open, hence the “Refrigerator Effect”.  If you anticipate summer snow near your overnight camp consider bringing an extra insulation layer. A down puffy jacket works great for enjoying these cooler summer nights outside and can also be worn inside your sleeping bag if it gets really cold.
  10. Beware the sun which reflects considerably off the snow – especially really white snow. Be sure to use sunscreen liberally and reapply as needed. Make sure you get good coverage on your face and ears, including under your chin. Consider long pants and long sleeves and a buff for your neck area. Also make sure to wear UVA and UVB protection sunglasses to protect your eyes. Treat walking across snow patches like walking across glaciers and take similar sun precautions or suffer the burns.

These are just a few tips, be sure to plan accordingly in snow laden mountain terrain. Remember that it’s always better to turn back than to have an accident.

Article Contributor: Pete Minions, Assistant Manager, Norseman Outdoor Specialist