Before Snowshoeing Alone, Ask Yourself These Questions

Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory. – Ed Viesturs

Snowshoeing by ourselves can provide a sense of peace and inner clarity. However, if snowshoeing in the backcountry or on a remote trail, being alone can present additional risks.

Jack London opens his short story “To Build a Fire” with the words, He travels fastest who travels alone. On the off chance that you do not know how that one ends, now is the perfect opportunity to find out.

Do you really want to go into the backcountry alone?

Read More: Emergency Tips From Snowshoer Stranded For 30 Hrs In Washington

Catskill High Peaks

It’s sunset, and you are miles from the trailhead. Do you feel prepared or terrified?

Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Snowshoeing Alone

Now, some would say that you should never go into the backcountry alone in the winter. However, at a minimum, you should ask yourself the following questions.


1. Are you planning on going into avalanche country or on making the Presidential Traverse?

If you are considering a trip in any location where there is a danger of an avalanche, or if you are considering a strenuous and unpredictable journey like the Presidential Traverse, then the emphatic answer is, “No, you do not want to go alone!

It is as simple as that. If you know anything about either of the two examples above, then you already know that, of course. But it bears mentioning just in case you do not.

Read More: Avalanche Safety Basics For Snowshoers: Warning Signs & Danger Zones


2. How are your navigation skills?

Unless your answer to this question is, “Good to excellent,” you do not want to go out snowshoeing alone. And I mean good to excellent with a map and compass, not with a GPS or smartphone.

Batteries die, cloud cover interferes with satellite signals, and there may or may not be cell reception out in the woods. One recommendation is to use an app such as HikerAlert or messaging from SPOT. However, do not entirely forget the analog navigation aids, regardless.

Read More: Compass and Map Reading 101

compass and map

Knowing how to read a map and compass is imperative when traveling alone in the backcountry. Photo by Jim Joque


3. Do you own proper winter boots and gloves/mitts?

When the body starts to chill, it prioritizes blood flow to the vital organs, and extremities are left to fend for themselves. Your footwear is arguably your most crucial piece of cold-weather gear because if your feet go, so does your ability to walk. Do not cut corners on your boot purchase. A pair of insulated and waterproof boots will keep your feet warm and dry.

Additionally, a hefty pair of gloves or mitts are essential to maintain the sort of finger dexterity to do things like, well, build a fire, and to keep your hands from turning into blocks of frozen meat if you end up out for the night.

Read More:
Covering The Extremities: Prepare For The Snowshoe Season
Essential Gear For Snowshoeing


4. Can you build a snow cave?

If you don’t know how to build a snow cave or quinzhee, you need to learn before going out. A snow cave will not keep you comfortable, but it will keep you alive.

As with a knot, it is something you need to be comfortable making long before you need it.  Imagine yourself cold, hungry, and anxious. That is not a good first time to do anything, much less something your life depends upon for survival. Instead, practice building a quinzhee or snow cave close to your home before heading into the backcountry.

Read More: The Snowshoe & Quinzhee Experience

Jim in front of a quinzhee- snowshoeing alone

An example of a quinzhee, one option for a snow shelter when snowshoeing alone. Photo by Jim Joque


5. Can you build a fire?

When I talk about building a fire, I mean in the snow and wind, out of wet wood, and with numb fingers. As with building a snow cave, you need to know how before your life depends on it.


6. Do you own a stove?

The chances are that should you end up hunkered down for the night, that you will have run low on water. To stay hydrated, you will need to melt snow using a stove such as the MSR PocketRocket Mini Stove Kit or the MSR XGK EX.

Furthermore, proper hydration is a key to staving off hypothermia.  Warm liquid is a great physical and mental comfort, and tea or coffee can help deliver caffeine to fend off sleep through the night.

Read More: MSR XGK EX Review: The Rugged Backcountry Stove

MSR XGK EX

Using the MSR XKG EX to boil water. This stove can melt snow in emergencies as well. Photo by Paul Wowk


7. Do you own a puffy layer and a mylar blanket?

A space blanket weighs next to nothing and takes up very little space. For such a small item, a blanket such as the Space All-Weather Blanket can provide you the extra warmth you need if stranded in the backcountry.

Puffy layers—or belay jackets, if you want to be jargony about it—come in two varieties: down fill and synthetic fill or PrimaLoft. Down fill jackets compress down more than synthetic fill jackets and have a superior warmth-for-weight ratio. However, down insulates poorly when wet, so if you go that route, be sure to keep your coat stowed in a dry bag. Alternatively, there is no harm in stowing a synthetic jacket in a dry bag. Synthetic fill does insulate better than down when wet, but not as well as when they are dry.

Read More: What To Bring When Snowshoeing: Accessories For The Day Hiker


8. Do you have a pack to carry all the supplies?

A good backpack can make or break our snowshoeing outings. Owning and knowing how to use all of the items above obviously does you no good if you can not carry it with you.

Read More: Choosing A Backpack For Your Snowshoe & Backcountry Skiing Needs

backpack

A reliable backpack is essential in the backcountry. Photo by Matthew Timothy Bradley


9. Have you told someone when to start to worry?

If you are convinced that you can give satisfactory answers to all of the above, there is a final and non-negotiable task before going snowshoeing alone. Find a conscientious person you trust and do the following:

  1. Hand and email her or him a copy of your planned itinerary.
  2. Tell him or her when to expect a call from you.
  3. Let her or him know what to do if that call does not come.
snowshoeing with friends

Snowshoeing with a partner or two is helpful in emergencies, but can also be a great bonding experience! Photo by Tanya Koob

Benefits of Partnering Up

Even if you can answer ‘yes’ to all the questions above, there are still some benefits to consider by taking a partner with you on your backcountry snowshoeing outing.

Why partner up? There are two big reasons:

  1. A partner serves as a voice to help keep you honest about:
    • navigation
    • your physical condition
    • cutting the planned route short
    • whether you need to hunker down for the night before things take a turn for the even worse.
  2. If you suffer an injury, a partner can:
    • provide first aid
    • help you remain mobile if your condition allows
    • put in a call for search and rescue (SAR), if you have been rendered unconscious and signal communication is available
    • walk to alert a SAR team of your condition if signal communication is not an option

Read More: Take Your Friends Snowshoeing (Really They’ll Love It)

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Scared Straight

The cold has a force all its own. You can negotiate with fatigue, hunger, and pain. You can not negotiate with the cold. Surviving an unplanned night out will convince you of that fact. But experience is a hard teacher. First, she gives you the test, and then she gives you the lesson.

Have you ever snowshoed alone? What are your recommendations?

Read More: Survival Tips For Snowshoe Enthusiasts


If you want to go easier on yourself, I suggest one or more of the following readings.

Giesbrecht, Gordon G., and James A. Wilkerson. Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue, and Treatment. 2nd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2006.

Howe, Nicholas S. Not Without Peril: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire. 1st paperback ed. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2001.

London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” The Century Magazine 76 (August 1908): 525–34.

Roberts, David. Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Stark, Peter. “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow–first Chill–then Stupor–then the Letting Go.” In Outside 25: Classic Tales and New Voices from the Frontiers of Adventure, edited by Hal Espen, [438]–49. New York ; London: W. W. Norton, 2003.

Matthew Timothy Bradley


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About the author

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Matthew Timothy Bradley

Born and bred in Southern Appalachia; currently residing in lovely Southern New England. Follow @MateoTimateo and my blog The Human Family; circle +MatthewTimothyBradley.

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