How to safely hike on snow

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The onset of winter doesn’t have to put an end to your outdoor adventures, even if you are not a skier. Walking comfortably on the snow will open up a new world of hiking potential all year round, from winter forest hikes to mountaineering goals to crossing spring and snowfields on high peaks. A successful snow trip depends on your ability to understand the terrain and move around effectively. Learn how to do it safely with these strategies from Colorado Mountain School guide Ian Fowler.

Rise

Before climbing a snowy slope, assess the risk factors. Is an avalanche possible? Has the sun turned snow into melting snow or is it frozen with an icy crust? Getting around is easier on firm snow, but not rock hard. In winter, wait for the sun to soften the icy spots. In the spring, start early before the slopes turn to slush. “Nothing drains efficiency like soft, hard-hitting snow,” says Fowler. If you are sure you can continue to climb safely, choose from the following techniques depending on the slope and quality of the snow.

The duck walk

On low to moderate slopes that seem slippery to climb normally, part your feet outward so your heels are closer than your toes. This maximizes the surface contact between the soles of your boots and the snow. Take wide steps and launch yourself down the slope with the inside edge of your foot for a better buy.

The American stage

When the slope becomes too steep for flat-footed travel to feel safe, use this technique to continue climbing: face up, spread one foot outward (like duck walking), and strike with the other toe. Alternate sides when one leg gets tired.

Kick Steps

To start short slopes in soft snow, strike twice, perpendicular to the slope, to create a platform for your foot. Straighten your back leg after each step to lengthen the contracted muscles and “rest” your weight on your bones.

French technique

On steep and hard snow, when you put on crampons (see below), save energy and calf muscles with the French step. Make long laces and use a cross step to avoid wearing out your leg going uphill. Point both feet slightly down to ensure maximum surface contact between your crampon tips and the snow. Bring your back foot, plant it upstream and in front of your front foot. Use an ice ax for balance.

Descent

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Downward momentum gives more consequences to falls, so always stay alert when descending. Before getting off, check for suspenders, clothing, and loose laces that could trip you up. Before setting off, familiarize yourself with self-stopping techniques so that you can stop in the event of a fall.

Diving stage

For direct descents in soft snow, facing the slope. Dig your heel into the snow and point your toes skyward to avoid slipping.

trample

In the firm snow, spread your feet like a duck and stomp. “Keep a flexion in your knees and your nose on your toes,” says Fowler. Return to steep inclines and tackle the incline if you don’t feel safe.

Have a hold

While your regular hiking or mountaineering shoes may be grippy enough for short snowfield crossings or moderate climbs, hard snow, patches of ice, and steep slopes may require extra traction. There are many options; here’s how to choose the best one for you.

Chains

Ice cleats or devices like Yaktrax are best for trails or snowy flats, especially when running or moving fast. The chain-type traction usually doesn’t have the bite required for icy hills, so get something more substantial for real alpine missions.

Microtips

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These work well for hikers exploring icy terrain or gentle inclines with safe drop areas. They can give a false sense of security and are not intended for steep, firm terrain, so be especially careful when wearing them.

Crampons

For hard snow, steep slopes, and drop-free areas, you need top-level traction. Wear them with mountaineering boots and use an ice ax for protection and balance.


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