STEPS TO STAY SAFE ON WINTER BACKPACKING TRIPS
Words and Photos from Rebecca Sperry @sockedinhikes
In the last month, two hiking deaths have occurred in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One was a very tragic incident involving a young woman who died on a popular loop–Franconia Ridge–and the other happened just a few weeks later when a well-known individual who worked for the Cog Railway, fell off of another very popular summit, Mount Willard. While these two individuals couldn't be less similar in age and hiking experience, they both passed away at heavily trafficked locations and in winter weather conditions.
Grieving their losses as a community, I couldn't help but notice the significant amount of comments in the 4000'er Facebook group regarding what steps could've been taken by the young woman, specifically, who passed away. While giving gear and hiking advice on these public forums can reach upwards of 50,000 people or more, I wanted to put together a more permanent post. The following suggestions outline some of the steps that can be taken by people who intend on hiking in the winter, specifically to lower the risk of needing rescue or recovery.
STEPS TO TAKE PRIOR TO YOUR HIKE
• Check the weather at elevation and the trailhead
• Check trail conditions (if possible)
• Check to make sure you have the right gear
• Leave your itinerary with someone, and do not deviate from it without notifying them first
• Have a bailout plan if you need to get off a ridge
Winter conditions can be seen as early as September on the higher summits in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I recall a few years ago when snow fell on the top of Mount Washington in early September, and as a four-season hiker, I always start carrying some of my shoulder season gear around that time of year if I am heading out on the higher peaks. One of the most important things you can do before deciding to do a hike, especially in the winter, is to check weather conditions at elevation and at the trailhead, as well as recent trail reports. (Also, check out windy.com for your route's location - often very helpful - ed.)
There are two websites that are the gold standard for weather across New England; Mountain Forecast and Mount Washington Observatory higher summits. Although things can change within minutes on a summit, I rely on them before every hike (even those that are not going to take me to the top of a mountain) to get a good idea about what kind of weather I will be facing–especially in winter.
Suppose the peak you're hitting isn't generating a forecast on either site (Mountain Forecast doesn't show summits that aren't high enough in elevation). In that case, I recommend checking the weather forecast using any weather app for the town where the peak or trail is located. Sometimes I will even check the higher summits forecast for a peak in the area where I will be hiking to get an idea of what the forecast will be like, as well as the Weather Channel app.
Once I know that the weather is going to cooperate, I check trail conditions. New England Trail Conditions, TrailsNH, the 4000'er Facebook group, or any of the other Facebook groups for hiking are great places to get recent crowdsourced information. Checking these sites will give you a better indication about whether or not you will need snowshoes or just spikes or if a water crossing is doable or not. I try to take everything I read on these sites with a grain of salt, but it's better to have some information than no information.
The information I glean from these sources gives me a better idea about whether or not I will head to a trail. Once I decide to go, it is up to me to carry what I need to keep me alive if something happens, whether that is an injury or unexpected weather.
The Ten Essentials are what the National Park Service recommends every person carries on a hike, regardless of length or location. They are the bare minimum items you should have in your backpack (you should be carrying one of those, too!) In New Hampshire, if you are not carrying them and need to be rescued, you may end up paying for the cost of the rescue due to not being prepared.
An example of what I carry and wear in winter is as follows:
CARRIED CLOTHES (WHEN NOT BEING WORN) -
Puffy Jacket (insulating layer)
Windbreaker Jacket (wind/rain layer)
Midweight Jacket (mid-layer)
Wind Pants (outer layer)
Long sleeve shirt
WORN CLOTHES (IN WINTER CONDITIONS) -
Wool knee-height socks
Salomon trail runners
Smartwool 250 long-sleeve shirt
CARRIED GEAR -
Swiss Army knife
Chapstick w/ leukotape wrapped on it
Two pairs of hand warmers
Tylenol & Pepto Bismol
Red glow stick (helicopters can see this in the dark)
Extra food & water
Snowshoes (as needed)
Garmin Mini GPS
Headlamp & Extra batteries
The heaviest things in my kit in winter are the snowshoes. They weigh roughly four pounds. When I am not carrying them, my kit is no more than 10 pounds, including food and water. I carry 64 oz of water on every hike and enough food to get me through the night if needed.
The most important thing to remember in any emergency situation is not to panic. Our instincts tell us to flee, but one of the worst things you can do is start heading downhill if it means getting off trail. Check-in with yourself. Slow down. Breathe. Reach out to someone via phone (if you can) because sometimes all we need is that time out to be reminded that we are ok and just scared.
If you are in an emergency situation and need to be rescued, you want to be prepared to be as comfortable as possible while waiting. This is why you need to carry enough gear to keep you alive while you wait for rescue (which can and probably will take at least five hours). We live in a world where we are used to immediate responses, and when you're afraid or hurt, the last thing you are going to want to do is patiently wait. This is what you will have to do, though, if you get hurt or lost.
Spending so much time hiking in winter (I am going into my seventh winter season) and being friends with several people on Search and Rescue has given me a lot of interesting tips and tricks that every hiker should know.
• Carry a packet of Jello in your pack and add it to hot water in an emergency to keep you warm and give you the sugar you'll need to maintain your body heat while awaiting rescue.
• Put wool socks onto your water bottles for insulation.
• Carry your water upside down because the top freezes first.
• Bring an extra shirt so that you have something dry to wear on the hike back to the car or in case of emergency.
• Spray cooking spray onto the bottom of your traction to keep snow from balling up on it in sticky snow (do this before the hike every few hikes).
• Carry two pairs of goggles for above treeline ventures in case one pair gets broken or lost.
• Keeping your electronic devices (including GPS devices) close to your body or with a hand warmer on them will slow down battery drainage.
• Check all electronics (and your entire kit) before going hiking every time, and replace depleted batteries.
• Carry zip ties in case your spikes or snowshoes break.
What are some things you've learned after spending time hiking in winter conditions?
Rebecca Sperry is an avid hiker who spends the majority of her free time either hiking in New England or writing. In 2020, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and continued to hike throughout an entire year of aggressive treatment. She is a strong proponent of the importance of staying active, especially as a way to alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment. You can follow her journey on Instagram @sockedinhikes, or her website: rebeccasperry.com