Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How to walk across snow, ice - without falling - during a winter hike

Hiking through snow and ice
doesn't have to mean falling or
cold and wet feet.
When hiking during winter, any trail north of the Mason-Dixon Line almost certainly is covered in snow. That means a higher chance of slipping and injuring yourself. Or of getting snow in your boots so you have wet and cold feet. Or of just making a winter hike so exasperating that you instead stay inside and gain 20 pounds until spring arrives.

But you can avoid slipping, can keep your feet dry and toasty warm, and can even lose 20 pounds…if you know how to best cross snow and ice.

Having spent most of years in Wisconsin and Minnesota – where there are two seasons, winter and road construction – I’ve had lots of experience hiking over snow and ice. It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen, too (There, I just jinxed myself).

Proper footwear
The first step (pun intended) for safely walking across snow is to ensure you have the right footwear. The soles of your hiking boots ought to be nicely grooved. This gives you better traction. Waterproofing them as well as wearing a sock liner will help ensure your feet stay dry. Rather than cotton socks, which absorb moisture, go with wool socks, which are better at keeping snow off your feet and add a layer of insulation.

Here’s another trick: buy a pair of wool socks that color match your boots and pants. Cut off the socks’ foot and slide the remaining sock over the top of the boot with a little bit covering the pants. This keeps snow from sneaking into your boot (OK, the cut socks don’t have to color match, but let’s not have any fashion faux pas on the trail, either.).

Slow your pace
The next step (pun still intended): walk slower than usual. If you plant your foot on a slick spot while walking fast, your body won’t be able to balance itself as quickly than if you were going slow.

In addition, walking fast through snow likely means you’ll exhaust yourself sooner. Crossing snow is somewhat akin to walking through mud – as your foot presses against it, some will fall back onto your toe and you must lift your foot through the resisting force as it angles up and forward. Your leg also may need to raise itself higher than usual as you press into the snow.

Thin, hard snow
Most winter hiking trails double as cross country skiing or snowmobile trails, so the snow likely will be packed and hard. Or you may just be excited after the first snowfall, and the amount of snow on the trial is thin.

In either case, take shorter steps. This ensures your foot won’t plant itself with as much force as when you take a long step, which in turn decreases the chances of slipping…and increases the odds of keeping your balance in case you do slip.

How not to sink
Wearing snowshoes is the only way to avoid sinking in deep snow. Snowshoes work because they redistribute the body’s weight over a broad area rather than concentrating all of your step’s force on a single foot.

Of course, there may be times when you encounter a drift on a trail of otherwise packed snow. In such a case, carry your body so it mimics the redistribution power of a snowshoe. This can be done by leaning forward slightly so that less of your weight comes down when your foot plants on the snow. In addition, hold your arms out slightly from the side so that your body is balanced over a wider area.

Icy patches
Though your trail probably is covered in snow, there may be icy patches or spots where ice is hiding just underneath a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. Ice on the surface usually is shiny; if ground is showing that surface will appear darker than usual. Any spot where water might collect during a thaw that preceded a snowfall likely contains ice just beneath the surface. Such spots include beneath tree branches or points where trails dip.

To avoid slipping on ice, stay off it by watching the ground a few steps ahead of you. You’re always better to go through deep snow rather than over thin ice; not only are the chances of slipping lower, but should you fall at least deep snow offers a cushion. If you must walk on ice, look for tree trunks that you can grip for balance and take extremely small and slow steps.

The key is to exert as little energy as possible on each step. That means taking shorter steps than when hiking uphill in summer. In addition, always choose the spot where you plant your foot, as this can help you maintain your balance and prevent ankle twists.

Another strategy is to let your arms do some of the work by grabbing hold of tree trunks or saplings with each step. Let your arms pull you upward so that the legs don’t have to bear all of the burn. Then enjoy that great vista you worked so hard for.

What goes up must come down. Attack a snowy incline by edging yourself down sideways. That is, plant your feet across the trail. This allows you to place each foot on a more level surface, hence ensuring you better maintain your balance.

Keeping your knees bent slightly also is good for balance. This lowers your center of gravity and if you do fall will keep you from pancaking forward into the snow.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.