After a long, snow-filled winter, every hiker is itching to get out onto the trails without trudging through feet of snow. The spring is a time filled with temptation and desire to do the thing we all love to do the most: strap on our boots and get outside.
As the world begins to thaw, it’s of the utmost importance that everyone remembers how snow can still be dangerous, even when there isn’t much of it. If you come to a point on the trail covered in snow, is it safe to traverse across, or should you turn around and find another route?
There are dangers to hiking in the snow that can often be avoided. Sometimes the shortest way isn’t the best, and when you’re tired it can be tempting.
We’ll look into the ways to determine the safety levels of the snow, as well as how you can prepare for hiking in the snow. Many of these safety tips remain the same as if you’re hiking on a summer day without any snow in sight, but they are still important to keep in mind. If there’s one thing to remember here, know that in any scenario, it’s best to choose the least risky option and come back to try another day.
Hiking in the snow can be one of the most dangerous activities in the winter, especially when the snowpack is unstable. With the right training, any user can head out and determine safety levels and decide what they feel comfortable doing in the backcountry. Even users with a high level of training need to approach the trails with caution as avalanches can be unpredictable.
One of the best resources for any user hiking in the snow is the avalanche forecast. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) works closely with different snow forecasters across the state to obtain thorough information that can help keep people safe in the mountains.
The forecast is easy to read and incredibly helpful, even if you don’t have any formal avalanche training. Although the snow may be gone down low in the cities, the peaks hold onto snow for a huge chunk of the year, meaning avalanches are always possible.
Before heading out in the spring, the avalanche forecast should be the first thing you check while checking the weather forecast for the day. The conditions can change quickly overnight and throughout the day, so check again today, even if you went hiking yesterday.
Crossing steep terrain
Avalanches generally occur on specific angled slopes, which means crossing steep terrain becomes much more dangerous. Even without snow, steep slopes can be tricky and dangerous. This is likely to happen where the trail doesn’t get much sun, but the snow has built up on the trail that acts as a ledge on the steep hillside.
When crossing steep terrain, use your trekking poles to provide extra balance and use your feet to kick steps into the snow. This will give you better traction and control over how your feet are positioned.
Depending on how steep the slope is and how much snow there is, you may require crampons and an ice ax to self-arrest (stop yourself when sliding down the mountain). Generally, if a large amount of snow spreads down the mountain and you are not an experienced mountaineer, this is the time to head back and find another way.
Avoid taking risks on steep terrain. This is where you can slip and slide for hundreds of feet uncontrollably if you don’t have the proper training and gear. Please don’t risk it. Enjoy the view you have and turn back around to try another day.
Snow brings along several different changes in the terrain that you need to be aware of and look out for. You no longer know what you’re actually hiking on top of or how high you are from the ground. Air pockets can form under the snow, and as the temperatures rise, it can be easier to fall into these pockets and struggle to get out.
The three biggest dangers to be aware of are snow bridges, tree wells, and hazards due to spring melt.
Snow bridges form over creeks and other small spaces in the terrain. Running water and open-air will remove the snow near ground level, leaving a “bridge.” Unlike the Golden Gate, these bridges are highly unstable and often won’t support a single person, let alone a long traffic jam of cars.
If you see a snow bridge, try not to cross it. If you must, move slowly after testing each step and don’t let more than one person cross at a time. There are often better options around. You may just need to look.
In areas with high levels of snow, trees create spaces near their bases that can be incredibly hazardous for anyone moving through the terrain. The branches don’t let the snow gather as heavily underneath the tree, which leaves a gap that is a tree well.
Whenever hiking near trees with heavy levels of snow, stay away from the base of trees. It can look completely uniform but, in reality, has nothing underneath it. These wells can be impossible to escape, especially when alone, as hikers can become entirely buried. Give trees a wide berth when hiking in the winter.
A huge amount of Colorado’s water comes from the snow in the winter. The snow builds up and then quickly melts as the temperatures rise in the spring. This spring thaw or melt can often lead to dangerous flooding in communities and on the trail.
The increase in melting snow also creates more snow bridges and more open-air pockets underneath the top layer of snow. While these aren’t as deep and dangerous as tree wells, it opens the door to falling deep in the snow and struggling to get out.
Spring melt means that formerly frozen lakes that you may have been skating or skiing across may be deceivingly thin. Once temperatures start to rise, it’s best to steer clear of any large bodies of frozen water. Even when things look frozen, the thaw can be hidden underneath a thin layer that will break at your first step.
Choosing the right gear
If you’re going to choose to go out in the snow, it’s important to bring the right gear. One of the most important pieces of gear is some form of flotation.
Flotation refers to staying up on top of the snow rather than post-holing (walking in the snow up to your hips). Different forms of flotation can be snowshoes, cross-country skis, touring skis, or a splitboard. These gear pieces will help you stay on top of the snow rather than falling deep into any hidden air pockets.
Hiking poles with snow baskets are also an incredible tool for moving safely through the snow. As we mentioned earlier, they add a huge level of balance that can help you cross dangerous patches of snow and stay upright when you hit an icy spot. Even if you prefer to hike without poles in the summer, they make for a great addition in the winter.
Hike or stay put?
In the end, the decision to hike across a certain patch of snow is up to you. The best thing you can do is learn how to identify the dangers such as snow bridges, tree wells, steep slopes, and results of spring melt.
There’s no guarantee that any patch of snow will be safe to cross, but you can work to build up your skills and knowledge about snow travel. Provide yourself with a base level of knowledge in the morning by checking the avalanche forecast. This will give you a great starting point for making decisions in the snow.
Remember that the snow can be dangerous and unforgiving. If you are ever in doubt or uncomfortable with a situation, it’s time to turn back and wait a few more weeks for the snow to melt. The trail isn’t going anywhere, and will wait for your return with a snow-free welcome.