Snowshoeing by ourselves can provide a sense of peace and inner clarity. However, being alone can present additional risks if snowshoeing in the backcountry or on a remote trail.
Jack London opens his short story To Build a Fire with the words, “He travels fastest who travels alone.” If you do not know how that one ends, now is the perfect opportunity to find out.
So, do you want to go into the backcountry alone? As Ed Viesturs said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” Here are a few questions to help you decide.
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Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Snowshoeing Alone
Now, some would say that you should never go into the backcountry wilderness alone in the winter. However, at a minimum, you should ask yourself the following questions.
1. Are you planning on going into avalanche country?
If you are considering a trip to 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. These conditions can be very dangerous, especially if alone. But it bears mentioning, just in case.
2. How are your navigation skills?
Unless your answer to this question is, “Good to excellent,” you do not want to go 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 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.
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 the 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. So do not cut corners on your boot purchase. Depending on the temperature, a pair of insulated and waterproof boots (like these options) will keep your feet warm and dry.
Additionally, a hefty pair of gloves or mitts (like these options) is essential to maintain finger dexterity. You’ll need the dexterity to do things like, well, build a fire and keep your hands from turning into blocks of frozen meat if you end up out for the night.
4. Can you build a shelter?
If you don’t know how to build a snow cave or quinzhee, 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. So instead, practice building a quinzhee, snow cave, or emergency shelter close to your home before heading into the backcountry.
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. Campfires provide warmth and can serve as an emergency signal or beacon to help orient you.
As with building a snow cave, you need to know how before your life depends on it.
6. Do you own a reliable camping stove?
The chances are that you will run low on water if you end up hunkered down for the night. To stay hydrated, you need to melt snow using a stove such as the MSR PocketRocket Mini Stove Kit or the multi-fuel MSR XGK EX (read our review).
Furthermore, proper hydration is 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.
7. Do you own warm layers and a survival blanket?
A space blanket weighs next to nothing and takes up very little space. For such a small item, a blanket such as the SOL All Season Blanket can provide you the extra warmth if stranded in the backcountry.
Puffy jackets (which recently celebrated 100 years)—or belay jackets, if you want to be jargony about it—come in several varieties: down-fill and synthetic-fill or PrimaLoft.
Down-fill jackets compress 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 storing 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. Plus, puffies tend to last, and you can even repair them easily if needed.
8. Do you have a reliable pack to carry all the supplies?
A good backpack can make or break our snowshoeing outings, and there are a few features to consider when choosing a pack.
But owning and knowing how to use all the items mentioned above obviously does no good if you can not carry them with you (try these backpack options).
9. Have you told someone when to start to worry?
If you are convinced 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:
- Hand and email them a copy of your planned itinerary.
- Tell them when to expect a call from you.
- Let them know what to do if that call does not come.
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:
- A partner serves as a voice to help keep you honest about the following:
- your physical condition
- cutting the planned route short
- whether you need to hunker down for the night before things worsen.
- 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
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.
If you want to go easier on yourself, I suggest one or more of the following readings to prepare for going out alone.
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 and Other Stories. Bantam Classics. 1986.
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, –49. New York ; London: W. W. Norton, 2003. [Read a review at Nieman.Harvard.edu]
Have you ever snowshoed alone? What are your recommendations? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
This article was first published on January 13, 2014, and most recently updated and re-published on October 25, 2022.