Hiking in the winter is a different ballgame. There’s the low temperature to deal with, for one. Then there’s the bulkier baggage and attire and the snowy terrain, which brings a new set of risks that require more preparation and caution than trekking in the summer or fall.

Considering winter has its own set of challenges, you need to develop specific skills to ensure your winter walks will still be safe and enjoyable.

Starting a Fire and Melting Snow

In wintry conditions, you’ll need an expanded set of survival skills. The process for starting a fire in chilly conditions, for example, is a lot different than the one you normally go through in drier and warmer weather (you need to dig into the ground, for one). You also need warmth more than ever, so it’s crucial to be a confident and knowledgeable fire-starter when you’re hiking in the winter. This skill also comes in handy when you need to reveal your position to rescuers or fellow hikers.

You will also need to learn of various ways to melt ice so you have an alternative source of hydration in case yours run out. Putting ice on a hot stove is not the only way to do that – you can also put some snow in a water bottle and melt it by putting it in your coat, for example.

Snowshoeing and Using Crampons

Photo taken at La Berarde to Pilatte

Although snowshoeing is pretty easy – if you can walk, you can snowshoe – it would be better if you practice using snowshoes before your trip. This way, you are more likely to avoid accidents and also get to conserve your energy better.

You should also know how to use crampons and practice putting them on and using them. You will need to prepare your body for this task by doing squats and lunges as you’ll need to keep the center of your gravity low when using crampons and traversing through icy inclines. You also need to develop a good feel on keeping your weight balanced so you avoid falling.

Doing Self-Arrests

Snowy slopes are tricky, and sliding down some of them is part of the game, whether accidental or not. Sometimes, you may need to intentionally do a slide in order to move forward and conserve energy at the same time, depending on the route or the slope. However, stopping yourself in the middle of your fall is one skill that you need to practice in order to pull this off safely.

Basically, you let yourself slide down the slope feet first with an ice axe in hand. You can also practice face-first falls, which should come after you’ve got the feet-first scenario down. You will need to use friction and forceful hitting of the pick of your ice axe into the snowy slope in order to stop your slide.

When you fall feet first, you will need to maneuver yourself so your face is upwards, making it easier for your to shift to your front and then hit the ice axe into the snow to stop your fall. You will need the guidance of someone skilled in self-arrests in order to practice this skill properly, so seek out a friend or an instructor who can help you out on this before you attempt the slides.

Navigating by Map and Compass or GPS

Photo taken at Kandersteg

Every hiker is expected to know how to use a map and compass. However, some rely on modern technology in order to find their way through trail routes, which is pretty dangerous due to potential electrical malfunction or battery drain. Using a map and compass is even more critical in winter as the trails are likely covered by snow and visibility is not as good. Snowstorms also aggravate the already challenging situations. As such, it is crucial to learn using map contours, pacing, timing, and other aspects associated to navigation.

The GPS should be your back-up option, not your main tool. If your trip is lengthy or will take you through remote areas, you should bring a GPS satellite communications device so you can be easily found in case you need assistance when bad weather threatens to ruin your outdoor adventure.

Most, if not all, of the skills mentioned are actually survival skills, which says a lot about the challenges of hiking in the winter. However, winter walks have their own allure and offer you a different trekking experience like no other. You can start with easier, short walks that take you through scenic landscapes if you are new to this kind of adventure and proceed from there.

Have you gone winter hiking lately? Tell us about it!


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