5 ways to Keep Your Family Safe on High Country Winter Hikes

As we finally enjoy the snow we so rightly deserve it’s a good time to remember a few practical tips to keep us safe in this all beautiful white stuff!

Hopefully you’ve already figured out that taking a winter hike in the high country takes a bit more planning than a summer day hike, especially if you have little ones in tow. You already know to bring the right gear and check your weather forecasts – so I won’t belabor those points. (Not sure? Check past articles.) 

Here’s a couple tips about the worst winter offenders to help keep you and your little loved ones safe: 

1. Melt/Freeze. Teach your little ones the relationship between snow and ice and how to recognize changes that can signal danger. Just because you crossed that slope in the bright midday sun does not mean that it will be traversable in the late afternoon. The day(sun)/night(shade) melt/freeze cycle can turn friendly white powder into something slick and deadly in a matter of hours. As soon as that snow exits direct sun, watch out!  That also goes for crossing from open to tree covered trail- any area of shade is a potential skating rink in the right conditions!

Pause early in your hike to have your little ones test the tactile difference between shaded snow and sun illuminated slush to help drive the point home.

2. Stay awake and aware. “A little bit of ice” is nothing to scoff at – it becomes especially dangerous on the steep slopes of the high country, where an ice chute can turn you into a human pinball, and not in a good way.

Being alarmist about this (or any) risk can intimidate kids about winter hiking- instead of attempting to scare, I prefer to teach awareness and involve them actively in the process of taking care of our little hiking “tribe”: “This can be dangerous, so I’d like to ask you to help me look out for it as a team”. Involving them in the responsibility of taking care of the group does a lot to develop skills that they can use in later solo adventures.

3. Choose your trails wisely! Don’t assume that lovely summer hikes are going to be just as much of a pleasure in the winter… Some trails are seasonal for a reason! Just because you have hiked it a thousand times (in the summer) does not mean it is a safe trail in the winter! Consider level of exposure to the sun, recent weather conditions and elevation (amongst many other things) in making your choice of trail! 

4. Turn back if you encounter conditions beyond your experience. And keep a close tab on the energy levels, enthusiasm, gear and overall condition of any little ones in tow.

It’s not worth it to push it- most of the time you will probably squeak by, but don’t let that make you get cavalier- when the time comes, the cost can be far too high.  I remember one Ranger Patrol on Ramona Trail- an ‘easy’ hike made deceptively dangerous by a river of ice that had formed on the trail! If you and your “tribe” don’t have the experience or get to safely traverse the whole range of trail conditions, and double your efforts to get back home- get your butt out of there!

5. Navigation Skills. fresh snow leaves a lovely white blanket across the land… Obscuring  every single detail of the trail that once seemed so familiar. Don’t just head out on a wing and a prayer (“I’m a local- I don’t need a map!”). Make sure and bring a Topo map and the navigation skills to appropriately use it. (It never hurts to plan in navigational experiences for your little ones as well.) And don’t just assume that you can always just track your self back – new snowfall can cover up your shoe prints in a matter of minutes!

Now that I’ve been a Scrooge about all your wonderful winter plans, I want to encourage you to get out there and enjoy with your tribe- just do so with forethought and safety! Happy hiking! 


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