Snowshoeing Education 112: Safety First

Last year during spring break, my wife Liz and I flew from Wisconsin to Colorado to visit relatives. On a beautiful March morning we drove to Bear Lake. At 9,475 feet above sea level, this scenic haven is located in the Rocky Mountain National Park several miles out of Estes Park. I was chomping at the bit to experience some mountain snowshoeing for the first time, considering I only snowshoe in the Midwest. After a short trek around the lake, Liz decided to go back to the car to take a nap while I ventured off solo on a beautiful winter wonderland trail heading away from the heavily visited area.

I meandered off trail for a while to take in the excitement of snowshoeing on deep powder. Reaching a pristine location high above the lake, I decided to measure the depth of snow by pushing my hiking staff down until it hit rock. I was in chest-deep snow. Being a Midwesterner, I really didn’t understand that kind of depth. I then glanced back at the fairly steep incline of snow behind me and suddenly realized I should not be taking risks in areas in which I am not familiar. Although I read about deep high-altitude snow and avalanches, I have no experience in it. I gracefully bowed to the mountain and got back on the firmly established trail to enjoy the remainder of my hike.

Safety is always at the forefront of any adventure I take including something as seemingly low-risk as snowshoeing. In my adventure classes, I teach a unit on safety. I show students how to do a risk assessment by evaluating potential dangers that could be encountered on trail and in the backcountry. In snowshoeing, some of the potential dangers to consider include hypothermia, frostbite, injury from a fall, falling through frozen water, and getting lost. And in mountainous areas add in dangers of changing weather, avalanches and altitude sickness. I have students make a list of the risks and then identify measures they can take to prevent potential danger or prepare for managing emergencies.

At the top of my list is hypothermia, when your core body temperature begins to fall below the normal 98.6 degrees. This can be a dangerous situation in any winter activity. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, cold extremities and eventual apathy, awkwardness and irritability. Take action early on by giving warmth, food and warm liquids. Prevention comes in the form of dressing well for cold weather, keeping hydrated and well fed. You need water in winter just as much as in summer. Drink plenty of water and don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. You burn a lot of calories snowshoeing. So eat well and don’t underestimate your food needs.

Frostbite is the freezing of human tissue from exposure to the cold. The first signs of frostbite include pale color skin and numbness of extremities. You can prevent frostbite by keeping exposed skin covered. And you can treat onset frostbite by placing the affected extremity in a warm place, such as putting your fingers under your armpits.

The most common injuries while snowshoeing tend to be strains, sprains and breaks to lower extremities from snags, twists and falls. Watching your step and being cautious is good prevention. The best cure is to take a wilderness first aid course so you know how to recognize and treat injuries as well as cold weather emergencies like hypothermia and frostbite.

In the event you cross frozen water, use caution. I have only gone through ice once in a knee-deep creek. That was frightening enough. Pack a rope and a set of ice grips in case of an emergency. Ice grips are a pair of handles with a retractable plastic casing that when slammed into ice will expose a long sharp nail to aid in pulling yourself from the water. Also, loosen your snowshoe bindings for easy exit in case you go through. But the best recommendation is to avoid traveling on ice all together, especially on rivers and streams where there may be moving water hidden under snow cover.

In regard to keeping from getting lost, the trick is to know where you are, where you are going, and to competently know how to use a map and compass or global positioning system (GPS). Those skills can save your life.

Should you get lost, experts recommend that you stay where you are (and if you need to move remain close and take your gear with you); signal (such as by blowing three times on a whistle continuously; as three is a universal signal for being in distress); find or build a shelter; and remain calm. In June Fleming’s book “Staying Found,” she provides a further detailed plan for what to do in the event you get lost.

For those who snowshoe in the mountains, you will need to consult someone other than a Midwestern snowshoer. Take a course in wilderness safety through a reputable mountaineer outfitter or park program. Do some research on mountaineering. For example, Buck Tilton and John Gookin in their recently published book “NOLS Winter Camping,” devote an entire chapter on winter hazards focusing on avalanche safety.

Finally, pack the essential you need for the level of activity you are undertaking. If you are going out on a daylong hike, take a daypack with safety necessities. A list of “The Ten Essentials” is identified by the late snowshoeing author Gene Prater in the fifth edition “Snowshoeing: from Novice to Master” as edited by Dave Felkley. Those items include map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra food and water, extra clothing, headlamp or flashlight, first aid kit, fire starter, matches and knife.

To be sure I have a save adventure the next time I take a trip to the mountains to snowshoe, I will definitely be better prepared. I will first attend an avalanche education program and then take my first few hikes with a skilled guide. I too am always learning.

About the author

Jim Joque

Jim Joque is a Midwest writer on snowshoeing, backpacking and canoeing. He retired from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as director of disability services and adjunct adventure education instructor, having taught snowshoeing, camping, backpacking, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace.