- What to KNOW before you go
- What to CARRY when you go
- What to WEAR to make sure your day is great
- What to EAT to keep your energy up
- What to THINK ABOUT while out there
- What to DO if everything falls apart and you need help.
In winter, some aspects of each of those topics change a bit. Let’s assume you’ve read all of the links above (and if you haven’t you should). What becomes different in the winter, by category? We’ve partnered once again with KCMR and thank Darren Vonk of that team for the assistance in preparing this material.
What to KNOW before you go in the winter
This is all about planning your adventures. First up is weather-related issues:
- Pay special attention to the forecast overnight lows. Your risk of overnighting if something goes south increases drastically for reasons outlined below. Do you have enough gear to handle those overnight lows?
- Heavy snowfall can bury your tracks, the tracks of others, trails themselves, and make route-finding difficult. Deep fresh snow is actually quite tiring to break trail through on snowshoes. Fresh snow dramatically increases avalanche risks.
Social media is no place to ask if a route you want to go on is free of avalanche risks. That assessment needs expert knowledge, and social media is home to a lot of armchair experts with not enough knowledge. Anyone recreating in the outdoors in winter should take an Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 Course. That course will teach you how to assess avalanche risk for yourself.
Some apps can provide information on whether a slope could be an avi slope, but that’s not a substitute for checking the avalanche report. Avalanche forecasts are regional; there is NO source that gives an avi forcast for a specific trail. As a general rule, OFFICIAL trails that are open are free from avi risk, but there are some notable exceptions. Any time you are on an unofficial route, your chances of entering problematic terrain rises.
Travel on anything except skis is slower in winter than hiking or biking in summer. Your expectations for the distance you can cover, and elevation you can gain, should be dialed down. Days are MUCH shorter than in summer, with just 6 hrs of sunlight in December. So not only will you go slower, you’ll have less light window to do your adventure in.
What to CARRY in the winter
While you still need an emergency kit, it needs to be beefed up.
- You should add a lightweight tarp that you can use as a personal shelter;
- If you are benighted, building a fire is much more important in winter than summer. Consider adding a fire starter, such as cotton batten covered in petroleum jelly, stored in a pill bottle. More on fire building below;
- A few handwarmers don’t weigh much, but could save your fingers and toes.
Beyond the emergency kit, a few other items become necessary to carry:
- Perhaps consider carrying a small stove and pot, or at least a pot or metal cup to use on a fire. Stoves put out a LOT of heat. You can even defrost or warm up frozen food using them;
- Having water is very helpful; it takes a lot of heat to melt snow, and a pot, too. But you need to ensure the water you’re carrying can’t freeze. Insulated bags help here. Metal water bottles freeze faster than plastic ones. And your water will stay liquid longer if you start your day with hot water;
- Phone batteries and backup batteries HATE being cold. Consider a little bag for your phone that can also fit a handwarmer. Have a bag and handwarmer for your inReach, too. Zoleos, inReaches and SPOT devices aren’t rated for less than -20°. Keep all critical electronics close to your body core, not in an outside pocket;
- The headlamp you should be carrying becomes essential to carry in the winter. Nights are very, very long;
- An ice axe. If the slope you’re on looks like it would be a great toboggan run, you need an ice axe, and know how to self arrest.
- Some folks think that they don’t need their bear spray in winter, because the bears are asleep. Well, you could accidently wake them (it happens every year or so), and there are other critters out there, too, such as cougars. Keep carrying it;
- Cold weather tends to be harsh on gear. Where will you be if you break a binding for those skis or snowshoes? Can you improvise a fix? There are ways to carry duct tape, and it could save you a lot of grief.
What to Wear in the winter
Proper footwear remains critical in the winter. The need for ankle support doesn’t go away, and having a good tread is even more important. They also need to be well insulated, and waterproof, too. Some sort of good ice grippers are essential. The cheap ones from Canadian Tire fall off, and don’t have big enough teeth to dig in. Invest in good ice grippers that fit properly, and strap securely to your feet.
Your warm layers need to be warmer, and have to stay dry. Many folks dress for when they’re working hard in the winter. When they stop, they cool down fast. XC skiers in particular need to carry multiple extra layers. Fleece is more forgiving than down in winter.
Being wet is the enemy: water saps heat, freezes, is uncomfortable and can render down useless. Waterproof outer pants are nearly essential. But when in doubt: layer, layer, layer. Take more layers than you need, and change them if they get damp. Hats and gloves are notorious for getting damp from snow or sweat. Carrying 2 sets of each (plus the ones in your emergency kit) is smart.
What to Eat in the winter
Your caloric burn rates rise even higher in the winter, as you’re burning more inner fuel to stay warm. So take more food than you would in summer. Try to carry things that can’t freeze, or will at least remain edible and can be eaten if frozen. Start with your food in small portions, so you don’t have to bite frozen chunks off.
Even though you do sweat in the winter, you often don’t feel it. The cold air dries you out as you breathe and exhale. So winter dehydration is a big risk, and worse than the summer. Fluids are often more important in winter than summer. Carry wet foods like oranges or grapes. Thermoses of hot soup, tea or water are great ways to combat the dehydration.
What to Think About in the winter
Winter increases your need for situational awareness. Sudden winter storms can bury your uptrack. Thin snow on scree can look safe, but makes for VERY challenging footing. Your risk of slipping and sliding on the way down something increases, and the consequences of doing so also increases.
Your eyes and ears, if they are trained, can help alert you to avalanche risk. Cracks, whoomphs and thuds in the snow pack can alert you to danger. Breaking through a crust under the powder on top can be a red flag for an unstable layer that could slide. Watching the wind whip up a cornice above you can be a big signal to stay away.
What to do when you’re really in trouble in the winter
The general rules of what to do, and what happens, that we wrote about here don’t change. But a few things do change, notably the timing.
Short days mean fewer available helicopter flying hours. If that helicopter hasn’t found you by 4:30 pm, it won’t be there until 9:30 AM the next day. This is why your risk of being stuck out for a night in winter goes up. It also really increases the value of having a communications device, such as an inReach. Because it is so critical in the winter that you be found fast, leaving a trip plan with someone matters more than ever. We still strongly recommend downloading our Emergency Plan Sheet to fill in and e-mail to a friend. Your friend can start the rescue efforts if you’re late.
The importance of fire
Because the temperature can drop so fast at night, and because the consequences of very cold temperatures are so high, fires become almost essential in winter. If you are lost, stuck or injured, DO NOT WAIT to light a fire. The sooner you collect some wood and get a fire going in the winter, the better. Finding wood in the dark is difficult. On the bright side, fires are really easy to put out in the winter; just dump snow on them. To build a fire in the winter:
- Clear away the snow, and expose the ground. It would be great if you could build on dirt, but it’s not that important. Don’t bother collecting rocks, and don’t build a rock ring. If it’s too deep to find the ground, pack the snow down in a spot as hard as you can.
- Because there will be more moisture than you want in all your combustibles from melting snow, collect more small twigs and kindling than you expect to need.
- Fire starter is VERY useful. Bring some, as noted above. Stuck for fire starter? Use Usnea.
- Avoid trying to burn anything too big; use sticks you can break over your knee, and collect a LOT of them.
- Green things make smoke and don’t burn well. Burn only deadfall. On the bright side, K-Country is full of deadfall.
- Collect a LOT of wood before you start. Try to collect one to two hours of fuel, and more if its late and you want to try to keep the fire going for a while
- Make the smallest fire you can that does what you need it to do. Big fires consume a lot of wood. Try to minimize how much wood you’ll burn.
- There is no point in trying to make a smokey signal fire to say you need help. No one will see it.
What are the most common winter problems?
Even though the risk of avalanches is so high and well discussed, it is not a common cause for rescue. Avalanches with human involvement are generally rare, but if you’re caught in one, the consequences are generally very severe. With avalanches, you’re FAR more likely to be recovered than rescued, so not getting caught in an avalanche is imperative.
Far more common winter incidents in K-Country are:
- Being long overdue and stuck/lost in the dark because the objective took longer than there were daylight hours to do it in (results from bad planning);
- Slips, falls and slides from improper footwear on icy trails, or sliding off steep snow faces without an ice axe to self-arrest (results from bad clothing and poor equipment choices);
- XC skiers with leg injuries. These usually aren’t that severe, but they’re travelling light, and don’t have the right layers to spend the several hours before being rescued (results from not carrying sufficient extra clothing);
- Problems that get worse because underprepared folks had to overnight, especially when the weather turns south. This includes hypothermia and frostbite (results from poor planning and not carrying the right gear).
Accidents do happen. But there are ways you can minimize their impact by carrying the right gear and doing the right things.
We once again acknowledge the Kananaskis Country Mountain Rescue team, and thank Darren Vonk in particular for the assistance in preparing this material.
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