Top 10 Tips for Winter Hiking

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Although most people try to avoid the cold as much as possible, there is something special about winter’s blissful solitude, brilliant blue skies, and familiar landscapes blanketed with snow. Kananaskis Country shows winter’s beauty in its true form, with winter hiking offering snow smoothed trails, moments to connect with family and friends and take a step out of the (home) office.

Hiking in the snow and cold weather presents different challenges than warm weather treks. Below are 10 tips to follow for winter hiking readiness.

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1. Begin with an Easy Trail

Picking your trail determines whether the rest of your pre-hike planning is successful. Choose a trail you feel confident on, perhaps one that you hiked in warmer months. For beginners, we recommend your first winter trails being shorter with little elevation. Explore Kananaskis has a list of trails with details of their location, difficulty, distance and surrounding attractions and lodges to choose from. Troll Falls is an excellent 3.4 km easy winter hike, taking 1-2 hours to complete. Remember that trail terrain in the winter varies from deep snow, bare rock and soft as well as hard ice. Depending on snowfall, visibility can vary. 

2. Know Your Group’s Skill

Being able to hike with your friends and family across the snowfields is what makes winter hiking so special. If your group does not carry the same level of winter hiking skill, choose your trail’s difficulty based on the least experienced hiker. Aside from assessing your hard limits on the trail, know your group’s limits. Have you reviewed the trail map and noted any places your group may need to turn around or slow down? It’s always better to start easy and spend your time thinking about which pictures to take! 

3. Sign Up for Avalanche Training

If you are going to hike in winter, you must know the necessary information about avalanches. Safety is first, and there is no better way to learn than from the experts. Avalanche Canada Training Courses are the national standard for resource and avalanche training. Take the Avalanche Skills Training 1 Course with your groups to learn how to companion rescue and how to spot avalanche terrain.

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4. Check the Weather

Begin checking general weather updates for the location of your trail a week prior to have ample time to plan. 48 hours before your hike, regularly check for updates or changes to the weather pattern, avalanche warnings/trends and trail reports. Looking at the avalanche forecast shows the hourly weatherly warnings of a trail. To assess your avalanche terrain skills, use the Avalanche Terrain Ratings to learn about the simple, complex and challenging terrain criteria. Checking these reports is a key indicator of how safe it is to hike, but keep in mind that even with the weather, avalanche and trail report knowledge, you should still prepare for changes in the weather conditions on your hike.

5. Communication

Prior to leaving for a day in the snow, inform a family member or friend about your day’s activities. Let them know your departure time, your trail, as well as the time you expect to be finished your return trip. Knowing that people know where you are is a guaranteed safety net should anything go wrong. Usually, hikes within Kananaskis Country lose cell reception. Have every group member keep a loud whistle, such as a Fox 40 whistle, should a member stray from the group. Investing in a Garmin inReach Mini is recommended. A life saving satellite messenger with 50 hours of battery life, you can send and receive satellite text messages, view weather reports and send an SOS alert to a 24/7 emergency response team.

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6. Equipment & Safety Gear

If you’re planning a longer, more challenging hike, pack as if you’re staying the night. You’ll need to bring additional equipment for the icy terrain as well as avalanche safety equipment, emergency gear and navigation backup. A 55-65L backpack that includes a shovel pocket is recommended. 

Winter Equipment:

  • Microspikes 
    • Intended for icy areas.
  • Walking poles
  • Snowshoes
    • MSR snowshoes are popular for their light weight and high traction. 
  • Crampons
    • Some brands that fit generalized hiking boots. 

These pieces of winter equipment should be looked into before embarking on a winter hike. Not all equipment on this list is necessary for each hike. Crampons used on loose snow increase the chance of slipping and should only be used on hard packed snow or ice. Unlike crampons, snowshoes should only be used on flat terrain with lightly packed snow. If you choose to wear crampons or snowshoes, have previous practice before hiking. 

Navigation Backup

  • Extra Trail Map 
  • Compass 

Emergency Survival Kit 

  • Emergency Shelter 
  • Compact Insulated Sleeping Bag 
  • Compact Sleeping Pad 
  • First Aid Kit 
  • Pocket Knife 
  • Headlamp 
    • Carry extra lithium batteries in case the ones in the headlamp fail 
  • Hand/Foot Warmers
  • Lighter
  • Matches
  • Emergency Fire Starting Kit 
  • Extra Protein Bars and Energy Chews
  • Aquatabs 

Avalanche Safety Equipment 

Prior practice with avalanche safety equipment is recommended and provided in Avalanche Canada’s Avalanche Skills Training 1 Course. 

  • Avalanche Transceivers 
    • Everyone in the group should have one set to broadcast.
  • Shovel 
  • Probe 
  • Airbag 
    • Each group member should carry one. If an avalanche did occur, when pulled, the airbag would create a level of space and add air around you while help comes.

7. Layer

Winter hiking doesn’t have to be cold – as long as you layer correctly and bring an extra pair of clothing. Although it may seem that you want to wear as many layers as possible to fight the cold – sweating is not the goal. Once clothing becomes wet – either by moisture from sweat or the weather, it won’t dry. Staying dry is essential to ward off the winter chills. Clothing should be worn in three layers:

Base Layer 

This first layer is meant to wick perspiration away from your body and includes clothing such as a long sleeve jersey, long underwear and wool socks that don’t hinder circulation. Merino wool socks are inexpensive and keep your feet cozy warm. 

Mid Layer 

The mid layer insulates from the cold. A fleece jacket, headband/winter hat, neck gaiter, light gloves to go under your mitts and hand/arm/footwarmers are recommended. 

Shell Layer 

Now that you are dry and warm, the shell layer is the outermost layer that protects you from the winter wind, sun and moisture. The shell layer includes a waterproof coat, hardshell pants, insulated hiking boots, mitts and goggles/sunglasses. 

Remember to cover your skin to prevent frostbite. Sunscreen should be worn on exposed skin. Bring an extra pair of gloves, wool socks and backup hand/arm/foot warmers in case a pair gets wet. 

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8. Start Early

Less daylight in the winter means that you need to start your hike early and plan to finish early. Ensure that you’re giving your group enough time to complete your hike as with the snow and ice, you have half the time to do twice as much. 

9. Stay Hydrated

Staying hydrated during a winter hike can be challenging. Hydration is key to keep your body running warm to sustain its energy. To avoid having your water freeze, use a 2-3L insulated water bottle, preferably wide-mouthed. If you don’t like drinking warm water, try mixing it with decaffeinated tea or add a flavoured recovery drink mix such as Cytomax. During your hike, turn your water bottle upside down to keep it from freezing at the top. In case of an emergency, carry Aquatabs with you for water purification. 

10. Remember to Eat

Eating engages your metabolism which creates internal body heat. Stock up on snack foods that are high in protein, carbs, fat and sodium (electrolytes and energy!). Even packaged items can get brittle in the cold; some foods will require insulation. If you want to limit the insulation you bring – keep protein bars and snack sized packages in your pockets to stay warm. 

Recommended Foods:

  • Granola Bars
  • Protein Bars
  • Peanut Butter
  • Beef Jerky 
  • Hummus 
  • Seeds 
  • Trail Mix 

Bring extra protein bars and electrolyte chews – Honey Stinger Energy Chews taste great, don’t freeze and can be eaten on the go with your gloves on. 

All hiking enthusiasts should feel safe when planning winter hikes. The key to winter hiking starts with choosing an easy trail. By staying within your zone of comfort, being ready and remaining aware, winter hiking is just as rewarding an experience as summer hiking, with fewer crowds and just as incredible scenery! 

Photo Credits:
Erik McRitchie @erikmcr
Travel Alberta / Stevin Tuchiwsky
Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Noel Hendrickson
Paddy Pallin
Kurt Morrison @kurtmorrison