Winter Weather Hiking
Hiking in all seasons can lead to dangerous situations. The summer has pop-up storms, lightning, and hail. The fall has unpredictable weather, high winds, and wide ranges in temperatures. Winter on the other hand looks so peaceful but the soft snow and cold have their own dangers. Personally, winter weather conditions are the scariest so I decided to speak to a meteorologist to get some questions answered and he responded with some great information!
Matt Makens is a NWA, AMS and CBM certified meteorologist who is the Lead Meteorologist for KWGN in Denver. Matt is a Colorado native, growing up near Castle Rock, who loves to hike with his family and take in all that Colorado has to offer. He is also active in charity work and is on the Board of Advisors for the National Kidney Association. Growing up in rural Douglas County, he’s seen some dramatic weather across the spectrum.
Disclaimer: This is for general education purposes only. This is not a forecast for any particular day and should not be taken as such. Make sure you have up to date forecasts, snow, ice, and avalanche conditions before any winter hiking.
Winter Weather: Cold
Fatman: Matt thank you so much for joining me. When I think of winter hiking I think of beautiful fields covered in snow but they can also be dangerous. Snow, wind, ice, and cold can all be issues. I want to start with the cold because that is universal in winter. I feel tired quicker when I hike in the winter, does cold air have a different effect on breathing, hydration?
Matt Makens NWA, AMS, CBM: Exposure is the biggest issue in winter, so preparation is key. And, critical to that effort is hydration. In colder weather, the air can’t hold as much humidity as in the warmer temperatures, so winters are quite dry and that can lead to dehydration quickly if you aren’t prepared.
Cold and dry air can lead to rapid moisture layer dryness in our lungs and can create an inflammatory response so it’s best to know your physical fitness level and also keep in mind these issues if you have asthma or COPD. Hydration is very critical though, we lose a lot of water to the dry, cold air.
Air Temperature vs. Wind Chill
FM: Lets talk about wind chill. I hear about wind chill on the news but I have always wondered. Is this just about the feel on skin? If it is 38 degrees with a wind chill of 25 could my water freeze because of the wind chill?
MM: Correct. The wind chill is a way of relating the temperature and wind to a ‘feels like’ temperature. Our skin and hair can provide a layer of protection and warmth, but increase the wind and that protective layer of heat will quickly go away. Since we are talking about taking heat away from bare skin, it is recommended that you cover all exposed skin when it’s windy and cold so that your body doesn’t lose too much heat.
The wind chill is a perception; it’s how a human quantifies their bare skin feeling colder in stronger wind. Since it is a perception, it doesn’t change inanimate objects like water. Drinking water will stay liquid until its actual temperature hits 32 degrees and colder no matter what the wind chill reading may be.
FM: Speaking of water freezing. I have had my water freeze inside my water tube which makes it impossible to drink. It didn’t feel that cold out. Does water freeze quicker at higher elevation?
MM: Very technically, the elevation can change the freezing point of water because higher altitudes have decreased atmospheric pressure, but you aren’t really going to perceive the very slight difference with a water bottle experiment. The water will freeze at 32 and colder.
Your perceived temperature is warmer due to sunshine or your working hard and feeling warmer, but to the water 32 is 32.
Winter Weather: Avalanches
FM: Snow is beautiful on a hike but it can also be dangerous. Numerous people die each year because of avalanches. What causes avalanche conditions that I should look out for while planning on where to hike?
MM: Most hikers don’t have to worry about avalanches thankfully. Most of Colorado’s usable winter trails aren’t steep enough to have that concern, but with that said be careful of a couple of things. First, anyone attempting a winter summit of one of our peaks will have to take avalanche risk into serious consideration, but if you are one of those people you are prepared.
Second, some of our mountain trails, snowshoeing routes, etc, may cross below a known slide area. You’ll know these based on the trees cleared in channels at the base of many mountains. If your trail crosses a known slide area you better be looking uphill as you cross.
Avalanches can form in multiple ways, the basic summary comes down to snow layers though. Every snow event is different and will produce different depths of snow and different snow-to-water ratios leading to different weights.
These layers grow through the season with each passing storm and periods of sunshine in between to melt and create harder layers. These layers will become unstable, especially as the angle of the slope increases. We can measure, and estimate, the strength of snow layers and be able to accurately predict regions where avalanche conditions are quite dangerous.
My example of this, take 12 books and magazines from your shelf. Stack them up on a coffee table. That is our multiple snow layers. Now, begin tipping one side of the stack to mimic an increased slope representing our mountains. At some point you know it’ll all slide down and crash to the floor. Any hiker in steep terrain should know avalanche risks, preparations, and keep a constant eye on avalanche conditions via the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Avalanche Warning sign
FM: What if I am already out on a hike. Is there something I should look for in the snow if I am on a hike that is a warning sign for avalanches? Any other clues like noises?
MM: You may hear cracking, settling, and snowpack adjustments like that. If you hear a louder crack and roar, you are in trouble. The best thing for hikers/snowshoers is to know the slopes they are on, not too steep – take it easy.
Winter Weather: Snow
FM: Avalanches aren’t the only risks of snow in the winter. What other risks can snow present when I am hiking?
MM: Exposure to cold is the biggest thing to protect yourself from. That means more than just extra clothes. That means protecting yourself from the wind as much as possible and sun protection too. It also means you don’t want to sink down fighting deep snow which will exhaust you – grab some snowshoes or find another route.
A factor many people don’t consider is wind-blown snow can create visibility issues even on the sunniest of days, so again be careful if the forecast calls for wind. Great mapping and apps can help make sure you are on the trail too. Sometimes I’ve caught myself losing the trail when the trail has been covered in new snow – in that situation, a good trail map or app can really help.
Winter Weather: Wind
FM: Ok I’m out on a hike, the snow seems safe. I’m really bundled up in layers and I’m nice and warm, even have a sweat going. I pull down my face mask or take off my hat to cool down. Can I get frostbite or exposure damage even if my core is warm but I have exposed skin like that?
MM: Potentially yes, depends on how cold and how long you leave your skin exposed. So make sure it isn’t long at all. It’s also best, going back to your dehydration question, to try to not sweat at all, it strips your body of water faster, and it’s a cooling response for your body so if you are in the cold you don’t want your body trying to sweat and strip your body of the heat you need.
FM: What other risks can the wind create? Is it wind or snow that causes whiteout conditions?
MM: Whiteout conditions can be caused by several things: an incredibly heavy snowfall, a combination of falling snow and wind, or just wind blowing snow off the ground to impact visibilities. Usually, folks heed warnings when heavy snowfall is forecast but may not think about a windy forecast leading to lots of windblown snow.
FM: Here is an example of how quickly weather can move in during the winter. This hike wasn’t even that high in elevation but just got caught in a bit of a storm.
Winter Weather: Ice
FM: Frozen lakes and streams are beautiful and look rock solid. Is there anyway to know if a frozen body of water is safe? Should they be avoided in a forest/back country setting?
MM: I always use the rule, don’t know don’t go. So, if it’s not a maintained lake where the depth of ice is tested by a trained individual it’s best not to go out onto it. Luckily we have lots of trails that pass lakes that may be used for ice fishing, etc. and you’ll be able to see others out on the lakes. Anything in the backcountry, streams, rivers, etc. should be avoided. Falling in would definitely be a life-threatening ordeal. Even partially slipping into a stream will lead to rapid body heat loss and you’ll have to hike back out before you’ll be able to dry your clothing and warm back up.
FM note: The day after this interview with Matt I shot this video. It is easy to think that a river is iced all the way over but you can see how fast the water is moving under the ice. While the ice is about 6 inches thick in area’s, it was also thin enough to melt through in others.
Winter Weather: Traction
FM: Ice is obviously slippery for anyone who has ever driven or walked in the winter. I have been on trails that were easy to deal with in the morning but terribly challenging in the afternoon as they start to melt. What are the risks of changing conditions to the snow and ice as it heats and thaws?
MM: Always good to have great traction and the ability to add some better traction if conditions warrant. I hear a lot of folks that twist an ankle or knee or totally fall and hurt themselves more severely without the foot traction they probably needed.
The ice is one thing, the slushy and muddy mess can make even a level hike trickier. Hopefully, your footwear is waterproof and you have traction plus some poles that help keep your balance. In the spring, it is important to keep an eye on snowmelt in steeper terrain as rapid afternoon snowmelt can lead to stream/creek/river swelling and also the threat of mudslides.
Winter Weather: Final Thoughts
FM: Any last thoughts or anything that I am missing you would like to pass on to the readers?
MM: We all love and want to enjoy Colorado. Being prepared is the best way to tackle the winter trails. Footwear, clothing, hydration, and wind and sun protection are key to enjoying the state’s trails. I will finish by saying that a person should never be afraid to ask about trails, trail conditions, etc. from people who were just there – social media is great for that. It’s also important to not rely on a hike’s weather forecast from an app. Connect with a local weather expert or the government weather resources and have access to a couple/few of those resources if you plan a more intensive hike and when weather may play a role in your enjoyment of that hike. You don’t want to be caught off guard by a bogus app forecast.
Matt, thank you so much. This has been some terrific information for me as a new winter hiker. Hiking in the winter is a great new experience for me and I feel a lot more comfortable after talking to you!
Hopefully you found this information helpful as well. Maybe it even put some of your fears to rest about hiking in winter. If you are looking for more Getting Starting Tips such as Summer and Fall weather, Winter Clothing, or some exercises to get you started, they can be found on my Thoughts page.
If you have a question for me or something you would like me to pass on to Matt feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!