Navigation: Getting There and Back in Winter

By Phil Romig Jr


Cold, wet weather in the summer can cause discomfort or even hypothermia, but the extreme cold temperatures of winter can be life-threatening. In addition, winter snows create dangerous situations, from unstable snow (including avalanches) to snow cover that obscures trails and landmarks and hides other hazards.


Fall and spring weather can be unpredictable, changing dramatically in a matter of hours. Recently, during an early October llama pack trip in northern Colorado, we went from 60 degrees and sunshine in the morning to below-freezing temperatures and several inches of snow by evening.


The mantra of winter navigation, then, is be prepared. This article will highlight a couple of winter hazards—unstable snowpack and snow cover—and emphasize the need to prepare for them when planning a trip.


Avalanches and Snowslides/>
People are killed by avalanches every year in Colorado, so we are aware of the risk in mid-winter. However, most of us do most of our hiking and packing during the summer, so we tend not to think about avalanches when planning a trip in the fall or spring. Mountain snowstorms are often accompanied by high winds, and even a single snowstorm can create avalanche conditions given the right combination of terrain and wind conditions. Being above, on, or below an avalanche chute can be deadly any time snow is present.


On my first late-spring hike as a newcomer to Colorado, I did everything wrong: I didn’t check the weather forecast before starting out, I didn’t know what conditions to expect on the trail and I didn’t know what to do if there was a problem. Near the end of the loop I was hiking, I came to a snowfield that sloped down to a lake. I figured crossing the snowfield to finish the loop was safe. An acquaintance of mine wasn’t as lucky. Shortly after my hike, he went fishing and didn’t return. A month later, he was found in the water at the foot of a similar snowfield.


Snow Cover
If a section of trail is no more than a stretch of worn ground in an area without much vegetation, fresh snow can make it difficult or impossible to see the trail. Even worse, keeping our sense of direction and recognizing landmarks may not be possible while snow is falling. Any time snow is a possibility, it is essential to have a backup plan to get where you’re going without a trail.


Snow cover can make even short distances unrecognizable. A few years ago, a friend and I were the only ones camped in an established campground in the mountains. The bathroom was about a hundred yards away. It had electric lights and was easy to find in the dark, but when I headed back to the tent, I got lost. With the fresh snow covering everything, nothing looked the same as it had during the day. The trail to the bathroom, to the other campsites and even to the campground road had disappeared. I quickly realized I needed to go back to the lighted bathroom and then backtrack along my original footprints to the tent, but I’ll never forget how much the fresh snow changed the appearance of everything and how disorienting it was.


Limited visibility is not the only hazard associated with snow cover. A few others are:

  • Snowdrifts can block a trail, making it impassable.
  • Fresh snow can hide holes, loose rocks, tree stumps and other obstacles that can sprain ankles or break legs.
  • Breaking through snow- covered ice in marshes or rivulets can result in being soaked with freezing water.
  • The risk of slipping and falling or sliding downhill is always present when crossing a slope with ice or loose rock under the snow.

When planning a trip, prepare for fresh snow:

  • Study various maps, guides and satellite photos until you feel like you know as much as possible about the trail and the conditions you will encounter.
  • Make prints of landmarks from internet photos and mark the locations on the maps.
  • Trace your intended route on maps and satellite photos.
  • Study the maps and photos for possible hazards that might be created (or exacerbated) by snow and plot alternate routes.
  • Pay careful attention to any section of the route that is on or near a slope. Again, plot alternate “snow routes.”
  • To prepare for the possibility of snow cover or poor visibility, plot frequent waypoints and make a list of compass bearings and distances between them.
  • Load the route, alternates and waypoints onto your GPS unit.

Pre-trip preparation can help you get to your destination, but to ensure that you will be able to find your way back out, you also should plan to take extra steps on the way in:

  • Use both dead reckoning and your GPS to verify that the route and waypoints on the map match the trail on the ground.
  • If you have to deviate from the route at some point, make notes on the map concerning the location and nature of the deviation.
  • A growing problem in many areas today is deadfall. If you must go around deadfall and it snows, you may not be able to see the trail on the other side. Mark (on the GPS and the map) a waypoint where you leave the trail. Send one person around the deadfall until they find the trail again (or until your compass or their GPS says they are near it). Take a compass bearing from one person to the other, estimate the distance between them, and record the data on the map. On the way out, reverse the process to find the trail again.
  • As you walk, imagine the trail covered with snow. If it might be obscured, use a digital camera to take pictures looking back and mark their position on the map.
  • On the way out, you can match the pictures to the surroundings to find the trail.
  • Watch for landmarks that can be recognized in the snow. Mark their location and make notes on the map.

While we all want to feel self-reliant and competent, it is foolhardy not to take a few simple precautions on every hike or pack trip, especially during the winter.

  • Take an emergency satellite communication device with GPS capability. I carry a SPOT satellite communicator on every trip, both for safety reasons and to let my family know where I am and that I am okay.
  • Take a weather radio. We carry walkie-talkies with built in weather radios.
  • Take mobile phones and check the coverage before leaving on the trip. If you have to send someone for help, it can shorten the distance (and time) they have to go before they can call for help.
  • Batteries lose capacity when they get cold. Take spares and keep some of them warm in a pocket.
  • Mobile phone batteries do not last long, so take a solar or hand-cranked charger.

For experienced packers in their home territory, many of these precautions seem unnecessary. I used to feel the same way. After a few close calls, however, I began to realize that a few extra hours of planning before the trip and recording information during the trip are worth it to increase the probability that I will return safely.