10 safety tips for winter hiking

by Megan Jones

Thanks to Canada’s diverse geography and variable climate, many of the country’s best hiking trails stay open year round, which means your wanderlust need not come to an end during the winter months. Here’s how to stay safe and dry while on a day hike this winter. [Photo credit: iStock.com/svetikd]

10 safety tips for winter hiking

Do your research before you leave

Parks boards will only close trails when they’re unsafe or when ecosystems are vulnerable to hikers. The former is more common, and often takes place in wintertime. Visit websites in your region that list year-round routes, and check out online forums such as Live Trails that allow local hikers to leave notes for each other in real time – such as warnings about extra slippery descents or washed-out boardwalks.

Stay home during storms and heavy snowfalls

Pay attention to weather in the days leading up to and on the morning of your hike. If a storm is brewing or the forecast is calling for heavy snowfall, leave your exploring for another day.

Purchase proper footwear

Comfortable, durable and waterproof hiking boots that offer ankle support should – depending on the brand – allow you to march you through mud, snow, and uneven ground. If you plan to wade through rivers or high drifts of snow, choose boots with thick insulation that cover your calves, ideally with a drawstring under your knee, to prevent snow from getting inside. Removable ice picks are ideal for icy trails, and trekking polls ensure stability on even the rockiest terrain.

Don’t go it alone

There’s safety (and higher morale) in numbers, so be sure to enlist a friend, family member, or co-worker to join you on your outdoor expedition.

Dress in layers

Weather patterns can change frequently and drastically – especially in coastal regions – so that means it could be sunny and dry when you leave, and snowing by the time you reach the trailhead. Plan accordingly by dressing in removable layers; start with a base layer (anything but cotton will do), followed by a fleece, which is easy to remove and stuff away, and finish with a waterproof jacket, gloves and a toque that covers your ears. An extra pair of socks could come in handy if your feet get damp (and can double as mittens in case of an emergency).

Phone a friend

Tell someone you trust exactly where your hike begins and ends, and when you plan to return – either by telling them directly or by filling out a safety plan online, which will automatically notify your contact by email if you haven’t returned by your specified time.

Pack an emergency kit

Each hiker in the group should pack an emergency kit with items such as:

  • Map and compass: These age-old instruments will help you find the way long after cell phones lose coverage and GPS batteries run out of juice
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Pocket knife
  • Flare and whistle
  • Two litres of water
  • Fire starter and matches
  • High-calorie, dense foods such as protein bars and trail mix: Always pack more food than you need for a day hike, just in case weather conditions keep you out longer than expected
  • Wilderness first aid kit: These kits can be found at most outdoors stores; Mountain Equipment Co-op has several that vary in weight and supplies. Make sure your kit includes the essentials, including an emergency blanket, sunscreen and standard medical equipment such as bandages and slings.

Stay hydrated

Hikers often experience less thirst when out in cold weather. However, it’s important to drink at least one litre of water throughout the day, as your body is very likely to sweat under all that fleece. Tip: mix in electrolytes for a mini boost, and carry your bottle inside your jacket. Both methods help prevent your water from freezing.

Be mindful of hypothermia

Warm clothing does not necessarily prevent hypothermia. Without room to evaporate, sweat can gather and freeze on your skin, putting you at risk of hypothermia – especially when you take a rest break. The solution? Add and remove layers of clothing as you go, tailoring your dress to your body temperature.

Leave no trace

Prioritize the environment’s health and safety as much as your own by leaving no trace as you move along the trail. Dispose of garbage in designated areas, use biodegradable soap, travel on durable surfaces to prevent erosion, and avoid behaviour that interferes with the natural ecosystem such as picking up rocks and feeding wildlife. For even more ways to lessen your impact, check out the Centre for Outdoor Ethic’s The Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

Winter hiking is a great form of exercise and can help combat cold-weather blues. If you’re ready to brave the great outdoors this winter, make sure you pack the right supplies, dress accordingly and research your route ahead of time to ensure your time on the trail is fun and safe.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
Close menu