Colorado Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing
What you need to know to go in 4 tips
Colorado is known for its hiking. But what about when the snow starts to fall? Time to huddle inside next to the cozy fire? Sure. But first, lets get out and explore that winter wonderland! Some of Colorado’s most spectacular moments are to be had in the otherworldly landscape of winter. From snowcapped peaks and frozen lakes to evergreens blanketed in snow—you don’t want to sit inside through the winter season. I promise.
All that being said, hiking in winter certainly presents new challenges and the opportunity to learn new skills to address them. It is safe to say that your average winter day hike is a step up from your average summer day hike. The reasons for this are many. Snow requires more effort to hike through especially if it is fresh. Your body simply uses more energy for its internal thermoregulation in the cold. You will likely be carrying more gear than you did in the summer making your pack heavier. Finally, the days are shorter giving you less time to achieve your objectives. And this is all part of the fun! That fire and hot coco will be all the sweeter after a good hike through the snow!
So you are convinced and are ready to forge into the great white expanse!? Great! Let me share some tips that will set you up for maximum success.
Tip #1: Consider the weather, your terrain and the kind of gear you need to access it.
Where do you plan to go hiking and what is the terrain like? What month is it and how much has it snowed? Is there a trail system and is it groomed for winter travel? All these things play into what may be the biggest gear choice you need to make: will you need some sort of snow flotation or traction device for your feet?
If it is early season ie, November and December and you are staying on a well defined trail you may need nothing more than a good pair of warm hiking boots and perhaps gaiters. Popular and established trails will become quickly compacted by regular foot traffic so you really won’t be dealing with more than the occasional pocket of fresh or deep snow. While not always strictly necessary I think it is always a good idea to bring along a traction device for your boots such as Yak-Traks or Micro Spikes. For those unfamiliar with these names they are lightweight metal chains or spikes that attach to the soles of your boots and are held in place by a rubber gasket that fits up over your toe and heel around your ankle. They provide great traction on icy trails, are lightweight and stow away small in your pack when you don’t need them. They come in a variety of styles from ultralight weight providing just a small extra bit of traction to heavier duty spikes that are not too far off from a lightweight crampon. Because you never know exactly what conditions you will encounter and because its pretty easy to slip and fall even on flat ground when its icy, some sort of traction device is part of a good winter hiking kit as soon as snow has begun accumulating on the ground.
In mid to late season (January – May) you way still be able to get away with your boots, gaiters and traction device if you are sticking to established trails and it has not snowed recently. If you are wandering off the beaten path, however, or if it has been actively snowing you will need a little bit more help in moving over the snow. At that point your options are snowshoes or skis. Or perhaps post-holing around through the snow could be your new plan to build incredible quadriceps.
(post-holing v. – the act of sinking deep into the snow, often above the knee, with each step you take; often accompanied by tears, foul language, bargaining with a higher power and any combination therein)
Snowshoes are the common next choice for the winter hiker to avoid the dreaded post-hole. They come in a variety of styles, sizes, prices and packages… and in a volume that can be overwhelming. But have no fear, for the most part they all will get the job done and you will be skipping over the snow without a care… sometimes. The reality is that the snowpack is constantly changing depending on weather and temperatures. If you decide to go out on a winter backcountry hike right after a blizzard dumps 5 feet of fresh powder on the mountain you may as well bring your snorkel because you are going to be swimming through snow no matter what you have on your feet. If a storm dumps a more manageable 2 to 3 feet you will start to notice your snowshoes make a difference. Don’t be fooled, you will still sink into the snow but the snowshoes should keep you from plunging in to your waist.
Snowshoes really show their stuff when you are hiking through less than 2 feet of new snow and are off the beaten path. In this case you are hiking on the seasonal snowpack which, in Colorado, can vary anywhere from a few inches to many feet deep depending on location and season. The average is somewhere between 4 and 8 feet in the mountains. At times, this deeper snowpack is not consolidated enough to support the weight of a hiker resulting in the dreaded post-hole, but if that same hiker slaps on a pair of snowshoes, their weight is distributed enough to remain entirely on the surface of the snow! It is important to note that there are multiple sizes of snowshoes and they do matter! The heavier a hiker the larger the snowshoe to further disperse that added weight across the snow. Most snowshoe manufacturers will have sizing guides and if you are renting your rental service should be able to advise on how to size their snowshoes. Here is the sizing guide that our friends over at Yukon Charlie suggest for their snowshoes.
If you feel that snowshoes do not provide enough flotation for powdery days, your next option is skis. There are multiple types of skis including cross-country skis and alpine touring (AT) skis and even some fancy new fangled contraptions the wizards over at Black Diamond concocted called Snow Trekkers. Cross country skis are much skinnier (40 – 70 mm wide) and are designed for flat to undulating terrain and not long steep downhills, while AT skis are wider (85 – 130 mm wide) and are able to walk or “tour”, but also function similarly to the downhill skis you would use at the ski resort on long steep descents. Travel on skis begins to step out of the world of hiking and into its own category with specialized gear and techniques so we shall leave that for another article. Suffice it to say: it’s out there if you want it!
Tip #2: Make sure to dress for success… and for surviving when less successful than anticipated.
Even more important perhaps than your traction/flotation device, is how you dress for your winter outing. That’s right, style matters. And what is stylish is warm, fast-drying, insulating, water-resistant clothing in multiple layers and obnoxiously bright colors. Ok, the last one is not as important but a lot of outdoor clothing tends to be quite colorful. In all seriousness, if you are hiking any more than a few hundred feet from the vehicle it is of utmost importance to dress in clothing that is going to do a good job of keeping you warm (not boiling hot) and dry. Learning to dress well for physical activity in the winter backcountry is really one of the things that helps begin to make the difference between “surviving” your winter hike and having a blast on it. So how do you do it?
Keep the feet dry: One of the most important things for staying safe and enjoying your winter travel is appropriate footwear. Good warm/waterproof boots with good tread are a must. Summer hiking shoes? Nope. My Nike sneakers? Nope. My high-top backpacking boots? Maybe…, if your feet get cold easily consider an insulated winter boot. The point is if your feet get wet and cold they will stay wet and cold until you get home. This may not be a huge issue if everything goes to plan, but if it doesn’t, this can very quickly become a serious problem. High top, waterproof and maybe even insulated boots are the way to go to make sure your feet stay warm and happy. My wife and I both use Salomon Quest series hiking boots as our winter snowshoeing boots. While they are not insulated, they are high top and waterproof and we size them with plenty of room for thick socks so they keep us nice and warm.
Once you have your boots picked out you need to pair them with some warm socks! Some folks (yours truly) like one pair of really thick socks, other strange folks (my wife) like to layer socks. It really is a matter of preference. The important thing is your feet stay warm and you are comfortable. Make sure the they are not cotton (cotton + water + cold = bad) and, if you layer your socks, make sure they are not too tight so as to restrict blood flow to your feet as this will also make them cold. Merino wool? Synthetic? Either way! Just not cotton.
Working higher, how should you clothe your lower body? Most days you will want a simple insulating base layer (outdoor lingo for – NON COTTON long underwear) and an outer waterproof/water resistant layer. Base layers come in a variety of weights from very light to thicker and heavier. If you are purchasing for the first time… start in the middle! Remember that hiking is an aerobic activity and you will get warm while moving… and then cold again when you stop. We are trying to strike a balance between both conditions. For your outer layer you can use anything from light quick drying hiking pants to your insulated ski/snow pant. Our go to are mid to heavy-weight softshell pants that provide a good level of water resistance and insulation without being too hot or bulky. For colder and wetter conditions you can always throw a pair of rain pants or hard-shell pants in your pack as an extra layer of protection.
On the upper body we will follow a similar system as the lower body but with a few additional layers. You will again start with a non-cotton base layer. Long sleeve, short sleeve, it’s up to you! Next we recommend a light to midweight fleece, again, non-cotton. Over your fleece we recommend an insulating layer like a light to medium weight down or synthetic “puffy” jacket. Unless it is really windy or actively snowing these will likely be your "active" layers that keep you warm but not too hot while moving. Then, in your pack, you should also have a waterproof shell and an extra medium to heavy weight puffy jacket. These are for when you stop moving as you will cool down quickly. Put them on before you feel cold. They are also your storm and emergency layers for if you get stuck out in the backcountry for longer than you expect.
Finally, you will need accessory items for your head and hands. As with everything above there are multiple ways to approach this. For the hands I generally carry 3 pair of gloves/mittens for all but the warmest of days. One pair of light liners or minimally insulated gloves for mild conditions. One pair of mid to heavy gloves for cold weather. And a pair of heavy mittens for very cold conditions and emergencies. For my head I like to bring a buff or balaclava, a ball cap, a beanie, sunglasses and sometimes ski goggles. The buff protects my face and also keeps drafts out of my neck in cold weather. The ball cap is for sunny weather to shade my face and minimize sunburn risk. The beanie is to keep my head and ears warm in cold weather. Sunglasses protect from blowing snow as well as, obviously, the sun. Finally, ski goggles are for stormy conditions where blowing snow can make it difficult to see and sunglasses will frost over. I have had my eye lashes start to freeze my eyes shut together once when I forgot my googles and we were caught in an unexpected blizzard. It was fun… but not the kind of fun I want to repeat.
You may not need every single piece of the above mentioned gear on every outing. Check the forecast and research your route then choose accordingly. That said, if I am planning to be out all day, I will often bring all of my gear as I will want all my options available should I end up being stuck out at night or an unexpected storm roles in.
Tip # 3: Bring a backpack - there are other things you will want (the 10 essentials plus).
In addition to your attire there are a few other items it is always smart to bring along into the backcountry in winter.
1. A Pack: You will need to carry some gear on your winter missions so a good solid pack is a must. I recommend a water resistant material with a hip belt and adjustable straps. For half day hikes 15 – 30 Liters is a good size and for full days you will want 30 + Liters.
2. Navigation and communication: As I mentioned earlier, everything is a bit harder in the winter and the consequences when something goes wrong are also more severe. Having navigation and communication options for emergencies is always smart. This can be as simple as the map downloaded on your phone with a back up battery pack. With subscriptions becoming more affordable, more and more folks are wisely carrying personal locator beacons and satellite messengers which can give search and rescue teams your pinpoint location in the event of an emergency. Finally, you can never go wrong my carrying a good old fashioned map and compass, just make sure you know how you use it!
3. A Headlamp: Headlamps weigh very little and are invaluable should you need to hike after dark.
4. First Aid: There are plenty of great light weight kits on the market with just about everything you could need. One thing to add for winter is chemical hand warmers. These can be finger savers if your gloves are too light for the conditions.
5. Fire: A lighter and matches. I carry both in a zip lock bag to keep them dry. This is one of your top survival tools if you get stuck out overnight.
6. Knife: From cutting cheese slices to creating tinder for a fire, there may not be a more versatile tool.
7. Shelter: I recommend a lightweight emergency bivy sack. This is basically a waterproof bag made out of the same material as a tent fly that is big enough to fit a human in a sleeping bag. This can be the difference between life and death if you have to spend a night out.
8. A stove: A light weight canister stove for melting snow and making hot drinks is an excellent idea. Both for emergency situations and for making pipping hot backcountry hot chocolate!
9. Sun protection: An extra pair of sunglasses and sunscreen. I have gotten the worst sunburns of my life hiking on the snow in the full sunshine.
10. Extra food, water, and clothes: Bring more than you think you need. If you plan on a short half day excursion, pack for a long full day. If you plan on a long full day, have gear that will help you overnight.
Tip #4: Winter Backcountry Safety: Avalanches, Medical Emergencies and Education.
Above we have covered the basics that will set you up for successful winter travel but there are two broad topics I want to touch on.
Avalanche Danger: While avalanches might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about winter hiking they present a significant risk to backcountry travelers, especially those navigating through steep mountainous terrain. Even well established winter trail systems can wind through dangerous avalanche terrain so it is important that winter backcountry travelers know how to recognize and avoid this risk. Getting caught in even a small avalanche can be fatal. A full discussion of travel in avalanche terrain is beyond the scope of this article but you can click here to learn more. In general though, if you find your intended travel route is taking you across or below steep snowy slopes of 30 degrees or more (roughly equivalent to a blue run in a ski resort) you are most likely entering avalanche terrain. You should make sure you have the appropriate training, skills, and gear to safely navigate such terrain.
Medical Emergencies: As I have already mentioned multiple times, everything is slower and harder in the snow. This means that when something goes wrong, even something as minor as a sprained ankle, it is all the more serious. Beyond carrying appropriate gear for winter travel and survival, training in wilderness first aid or even basic first aid is a huge asset to backcountry travelers. If you spend a lot of time hiking and accessing the backcountry, I highly recommend pursuing basic medical training.
Education: As you have seen there is much know and remember when traveling in the winter backcountry. One great option to begin acquiring these skills in a safe manner is to go out with a guide! At Sojourner Mountain Guides we provide affordable private group instruction that is specifically tailored to each group’s experience and interests. We would love to coach you to your next step in becoming an experienced winter backcountry traveler. Click here for our winter hiking and snowshoeing tours. Backcountry Skiing and basic avalanche education is also available.