Winter Wilderness Recreation

Backcountry skier skiing into a snowy bowl

Once the snow falls, wilderness areas don't just hibernate for the season. With a little planning, access and opportunities abound. Many of the same suggestions for summer wilderness trips also apply in winter, but here are a few things you need to know to recreate responsibly in wilderness this winter:

  • Destination: Whether you're visiting a wilderness for the afternoon or many nights, make sure you select the right destination for your skills and accepted level of risk, and know how to navigate winter travel conditions.
  • Gear: Know how to stay warm and dry. Bring the Ten Essentials as well to be prepared for emergency situations.
  • Risks: Educate yourself to prevent accidents from environmental risks like hypothermia and avalanches and be prepared for winter weather before venturing into the backcountry.
  • Behavior: Understand Leave No Trace, leave snowmobiles and snowbikes at home, and be a responsible dog owner.
  • Wildlife: Help lessen your impact on wildlife during winter.

Planning Your Winter Wilderness Trip

Students gathered in a group

From snowy peaks to powder-laden slopes, wilderness provides many opportunities for winter recreation. Make sure you're prepared by planning ahead for your visit.

Select Your Destination

Just like during summer months, recreate within your limits and choose a location accordingly. Be aware that many trailheads you drive to in summer are unreachable in winter because remote roads are not plowed. Check driving conditions and trailhead access in advance, and make sure you drive a winter-appropriate vehicle. Ice and snow generally lengthen travel time, so estimate conservatively and plan an overall shorter distance trip if you're uncertain. In northern latitudes, days are extra short, so always be prepared to travel in darkness. Evaluate your itinerary for your physical strength and stamina in cold weather (and your kids, pets or others in your party), difficulty of terrain specifically in winter, and winter-specific hazards like avalanches, extremely low temperatures and winter storms. Winter Backpacking, a blog from the Pacific Northwest, provides some great additional tips for winter trip planning. For your safety and the peace of mind of others, always tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back.

Consult Maps and the Weather Forecast

Online wilderness maps are great for advance planning and research, but there's no substitute for having paper maps in the backcountry. Paper map sources include: MyTopo, National Forest Map Store, USGS quads, and at your local sporting goods store. Check your watch and map regularly to keep track of your progress and remember that landmarks you might rely on in summer, such as trails or signs, may be burried in show. Check the weather before and during your trip, factor wind chill into your choices, and be flexible with your timeline to avoid extreme winter weather events. Know how to interpret weather in the backcountry, but always be prepared for unexpected winter storms.

Gear Up for the Cold

Woman hiking down a steep snowy slope

Depending on the expected weather and your chosen destination, you should properly prepare and bring extra items you might not generally have with you in the summer. Even if you are only planning to be out for the day, consider bringing gear to survive overnight (either with you and/or in your car) in case of unexpected weather. Consider the following:

  • Clothing: Dress in a multi-layer system that includes a base-layer to wick away sweat, a mid-layer that insulates you from the cold, and a shell-layer that protects you from wind and moisture. With layering, you can add and remove layers throughout to stay warm and comfortable without overheating and getting sweaty. Sweaty clothes do not dry quickly on your body in the winter like they can in summer, so avoid cotton in your layering system. Down is a good choice for outer layers when it is dry and cold while synthetic insulation is a better choice when wet weather is expected. Break in your footwear beforehand to avoid blisters, and consider wearing gaiters or snow pants that clip onto your boots to keep your feet dry when traveling through snow or slush. Bring goggles or sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun and wind. Cover your head and face. Face coverings like neck gaiters or balaclavas can help keep your face warm, especially when there's wind. Frostbite often affects hands first, so wear gloves or mittens if temperatures are at or below freezing. Bring extra sets of dry gloves for sweaty hands and consider a multi-layer glove system to ensure your hands stay warm and dry throughout your trip.
  • Winter Camping Equipment: For a successful winter campout, you'll want to build on your knowledge from summer camping but prioritize gear that is warm and tough. For high winds and heavy snowfall, a 4-season tent is recommended because these types of tents have sturdier poles and stronger fabrics that can withstand powerful gusts of wind and the weight of heavy snow. Depending on the depth of the snow, you may need to pack it down under your tent to create a flat surface. If you anticipate camping in deep snow, bring a sturdy shovel and know how to build a safe snow shelter or wind break, if that is needed. Remove as much evidence of your snow shelter as possible when you leave. A warm sleeping bag is essential—use a bag that's rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect. A sleeping bag liner can provide extra warmth as well. Beneath the sleeping bag, use two full-length pads to keep from losing body heat to the snow. Use a closed-cell foam pad next to the ground and an inflatable pad on top to get enough insulation from the cold ground.
  • Specialized Recreation: If you're winter hiking, consider wearing microspikes (or other winter traction footwear slip-ons) and using trekking poles with snow baskets for added traction and balance. If you're ice climbing, backcountry skiing, Nordic or cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing, make sure you include any specialized recreational gear. Be mindful that many of these activities occur in avalanche terrain, so venture out with a beacon or transceiver, shovel and probe in your pack, and make sure you have practiced rescue techniques with your group ahead of time. The best defense against avalanches, however, is to avoid them through thorough education enabling you to correctly assess winter snow stability and travel risks.
  • Food: High-calorie, easily-accessible foods—that don't degrade when cold or frozen—provide energy during colder, wintertime adventures. Small chunks of hard cheeses and salted meats (ex. salami or pepperoni), bagels with peanut butter, trail mix, dried fruit, and jerky are good winter food choices. When it's cold outside, you might be less inclined to stop for food and water, so consciously consume a steady supply of calories to stay warm. Consider bringing a thermos, or insulated water bottle, of hot liquid, like coco or tea, to drink throughout the day. Keep snacks and water within reach so you can eat and sip regularly during short stops that allow you to keep moving to stay warm. If you're venturing out on a multi-day winter trip, consider hot meals for breakfast and lunch that contain extra calories. Make sure you test your backpacking stove in cold temperatures before your trip since those that rely on pressurized liquid fuel (including fuel canisters) can have trouble or stop performing in single-digit temperatures. You may discover that you need to take steps to warm fuel canisters next to your body or keep them in your sleeping bag. Bring more than one stove for your group, take extra fuel for all stoves, and make sure all stoves have a wind screen.
  • Water: With the possibility of cold weather, be mindful of your hydration options. Hydration bladders with hoses are known to freeze and clog. Instead, use a widemouthed bottle if freezing temperatures are expected. If you will be melting snow to drink, bring a backpacking stove and a large pot. If camping overnight, take steps to make sure that any water in your water bottles doesn't freeze by keeping them in your sleeping bag.
  • Fire Starter: In the event of an emergency in the winter, you may need to build a fire to keep warm. Bring at least two types of fire starters such as simple lighters, waterproof matches or flint to ensure you have a backup if one fails. Also consider bringing a fire starter tinder or cube, or make one at home.
  • First Aid Kit: Stock your first aid kit and know how to use the items in it for minor injuries like cuts, scratches, burns, and ankle sprains. Hand and toe warmers are an important addition to your kit for winter. Consider carrying a small sleeping bag in case of emergencies.
  • Navigation: Whether you use a paper map and compass, a GPS or another digital navigation device, make sure you know where you're going and how to get there. Always bring extra batteries for digital devices. Some batteries do not fare well in the cold. To get the most out of your batteries and electronics, store them close to the body where it is warm and sleep with your electronics at night so that they don't loose their charge.
  • Human Waste Disposal System: Due to the cold temperatures and conditions in the alpine zone, human waste is slow to break down and presents a persistent sanitation hazard on routes and at campsites. Drinking or cooking with water melted from contaminated snow can result in intestinal disorders, vomiting and diarrhea. Protect the snowpack as a water source by packing out human waste from areas above treeline. Check with the local agency office to find out whether Blue Bags, W.A.G. bags, Clean Mountain Canisters, or other methods, like depositing waste in a crevasse, are recommended or required.

While recommendations on specific types of gear are not provided here, outdoor brand websites and media provide helpful advice on how to choose the best gear for you. Test your new and used gear at home before any trip to identify what may be missing or broken and to be sure you know how to use the gear before you are miles from the trailhead.

Winter Recreation Risks

People assessing snow depth with probes

Visiting wilderness at any time of year can be risky. However, environmental dangers associated with cold weather, ice, and snow require additional consideration and planning.

  • Expected and Unexpected Weather: Know the weather forecast and monitor the weather during your trip. Winter weather can include heavy, wet, deep or blowing snow, sleet, rain, ice, hail, lightening, sheering or gusting winds, white-out blizzards, and below-zero temperature drops that occur quickly. These types of winter weather conditions can make it more difficult to stay warm and dry, cover ground, navigate, and stay hydrated and energized. Knowing the expected weather will help you prepare for the conditions. Planning for unexpected "what-if" weather will help you avoid discomfort and the need to be rescued. Winter conditions make wilderness rescues treacherous for search and rescue personnel, and may mean that rescuers can't reach you until after a storm breaks.
  • Frostbite: Frostbite is the freezing of tissue and is most common on fingers, toes, and ears. Any skin that is exposed to freezing temperatures and cold wind is prone to frostbite. Signs of frostbite include cold, waxy or pale skin and tingling, numbness or pain in the affected area. Mild forms of frostbite can be treated by covering up the exposed skin and taking the time to warm the affected area. Placing cold fingers in your armpits or your toes on a partner's warm belly are both effective techniques. Do not rub the cold skin or place it in hot water because the tissue is very susceptible to damage. For all but the mildest cases, you should go to a doctor for treatment as soon as possible. To prevent frostbite, cover exposed skin and put on warmer layers. Moving faster may also increase blood flow to extremities, keeping them sufficiently warm.
  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when the body's core temperature drops below normal. Typically, it occurs in winter, but a cold fall rain or a brief unexpected dip in a frigid river in spring can be enough to cause a drop in body temperature. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, lack of coordination, confusion, disorientation, and mood swings. The first step in treating hypothermia is to change the environment and do what you can to get away from whatever is causing the cold. If you're wearing wet clothes, swap them out for dry clothes and make sure you are well-insulated. Eat some food so you have enough energy to shiver, which is your body's natural way of producing more heat. Get moving, as this is the best way to warm your body. Anyone with severe hypothermia—anything more than mild, temporary shivering—should be evacuated as soon as possible. To avoid hypothermia, make sure you dress in layers, add layers as needed, and regularly consume calories.
  • Avalanches: With snow-covered mountains comes the risk of avalanches. You might think that only extreme backcountry skiers need to worry about them, but even winter hikers need to be able to identify avalanche terrain—anywhere an avalanche can start, run or stop. With education, you can begin to identify where and why avalanches occur in order to avoid them. Learn to identify terrain features—paths, cornices, steep slopes, and unstable snow—where avalanches are likely, and read the avalanche forecast before heading out into the backcountry.
  • Thin Ice: With cold weather, ice-covered rivers and lakes may be attractive destinations for your hike or ski trip. However, no ice is 100% safe. Never walk out onto ice-covered water. If you fall through the ice, yell for help from others in your group and kick your feet while getting your hands and arms up onto thicker, safer ice. Try to "swim" up onto the ice far enough to crawl or roll-out to safer ice. Immediately return to shore and find a way to warm up and change into dry cloths. Keep your dog leashed or under strict voice control at all times near ice-covered water. Dogs that fall through the ice may not be able to climb back out onto the ice and can drown or die of hypothermia while continuously swimming in cold water.

Behavior and Rules for Winter Recreation

Skiers hiking behind a wilderness sign

Wilderness is a place where humans have agreed to tread lightly. This is just as important in winter as it is during the summer.

  • Leave No Trace: All of the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace still apply during winter, with a few specific applications:
    • Stay on deep snow whenever possible.
    • Unless rangers advise you otherwise, pack out human waste and toilet paper.
    • Keep ski and snowshoe tracks separate. Do not hike on ski or snowshoe tracks.
    • When ascending trails, keep clear and yield to downhill traffic. When descending, always stay in control, go one at a time, and slow down near other people.
    • In popular areas, "spoon" downhill tracks so others can also enjoy fresh snow.
  • Leave Snow-machines at Home: Leave snowmobiles, snow bikes and fat-tire bikes at home, as they are prohibited in all wilderness areas and fines apply. It is your responsibility to know where wilderness boundaries exist if riding in the backcountry where deep snow can hide trails, boundary signs, and other landmarks. Snowmobiles, even operated near the wilderness boundary, can disturb wildlife and the solitude and quiet that wilderness winter recreation provides.

Lessen Your Impact on Wildlife

Bison in deep snow

Winter is an already stressful time for many animals since calories are scarce and winter travel is hard. Many animals gain extra weight in the summer to use during the winter, but if disturbed, they use up their stores too quickly. If large animals, like moose and deer, repeatedly run through deep snow when startled by backcountry skiers or other winter recreationists, they tire and can ultimately die of malnutrition before the end of winter. Bears and other hibernating animals can awaken if winter recreationists pass too close to their dens. Female bears may abandon cubs, if spooked from their dens early. Repeated disturbance in winter habitat can cause animals to abandon an area altogether, which can prevent their access to scarce nutrition in winter. It's therefore even more important to minimize your impact on wildlife in winter when recreating in wilderness:

  • Respect area closures, as they may be in place to protect animals during winter.
  • Avoid places where wildlife gathers, including where you see tracks or traces of animals. Contact the agency office in the area you want to visit to inquire about known animal dens and feeding areas and adjust your route to avoid them.
  • Stick to already-existing ski, snowshoe or hiking tracks, where possible, and pass through forested areas as quickly and safely as possible, without unnecessary stopping.
  • If you encounter an animal, stop immediately and observe from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee, especially through deep snow. Give animals ample time to move away without feeling like they are being chased, or take an alternate route around the animals.
  • Keep your voice quiet at all times.
  • Keep your dog leashed, or at home, to minimize disturbances to wildlife. Never let your dog chase wildlife.