hiking-in-snowIn an unprecedented season, Old Man Winter has blanketed Portland in over a foot of snow. While the average year sees 3 inches, 2017 has reaped an average of 8-10 inches throughout the city. Storm after storm brought tons of the white stuff, causing significant delays and safety concerns. Schools have closed for a record amount of days, businesses have suffered tangible losses, and over 37,000 residents lost power. While many are anxious for the snow and ice to thaw, some more adventurous types are taking advantage of the natural beauty the snow has to offer by leaving the city and indulging in winter hiking.

If you follow any professional photography accounts based in Portland, you’ll see a myriad of mesmerizing images of frosted mountain peaks, waterfalls stopped in their tracks, and scenes straight out of Disney’s Frozen. What you don’t see are the preparation and risks these dedicated photographers have taken to capture them. If you’re hoping to nab some images yourself, you better be prepared for an above-average winter boasting below-average temperatures and plenty of snowpack to crunch through.

Tips for Safe Hiking in Snow

An awe-inspiring white winter in the Pacific Northwest is a dual-edged sword. On the one side, you relish in some of the most picturesque beauty the Cascades have to offer; on the other, there is heightened risk of danger. Short days, hypothermia, avalanches, or even a simple slip out of place can lead to serious setbacks.

Check the weather. Although weather is ever-changing, do your best to know what to expect on the trail you set out to hike. Whether it’s high speed winds, a sudden degree drop, or fresh snow is expected, you need to be prepared with the right gear. Your gear should accommodate a wide range of winter conditions, like temperatures of between -20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, wind speeds of up to 50 MPH, harsh sunlight, precipitation, and varying types of surface conditions.

Give yourself away. Before your departure, you should tell a friend or family member where you are going and how long you plan on being there. Give an approximate date and time when you expect to return. You will likely not receive a signal when you most need it.

Dress like an onion (or a cake). The key to preventing illness and hypothermia is to dress in layers. Layers should be light, warm, and easy to add and remove. They should also be made of synthetic fibers. Cotton, rayon, viscose, modal, tencel and lyocell should be avoided as they soak up perspiration and take long to dry. Start the hike with all your layers and remove them when you start to sweat.

Never go solo. All the risks that are present on a winter hike can be greatly reduced by taking a buddy along. After all, two sets of eyes and ears are better than one. The more people who hike together, the better your chances are of having a safe and fun hike. Experienced winter hikers know the right time to layer up or down, carry extra equipment, and know how to tell if conditions suddenly become not-so-safe.

Take advantage of the morning. In winter, daylight is a fleeting luxury. You want to get started as early as possible when you go on a winter hike, even if you’re going on your favorite trail. The earlier you go, the more solid the snow on the ground will be, reducing your encounter with energy-draining slush, the #1 cause of postholing.

Be comfortable reading topographic maps and compasses. Don’t expect your GPS to work in the Cascades, and don’t expect it to be reliable. You need an up-to-date topographic map to know exactly where you are and what your surroundings look like. You need to which way you are going at all times. With the amount of snowfall received this year, don’t be surprised if trail markers are completely buried.

Know the warning signs of hypothermia. Hypothermia is an emergency situation. It occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Warning signs include shivering, dizziness, hunger, nausea, rapid breathing, difficulty speaking, confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate.

Know the warning signs of avalanche. Even if you thoroughly research your trail and know which parts to avoid, an avalanche is not entirely preventable. Signs include: news about a recent avalanche in the area, a rise in temperature, increased snowfall, cracking snow, strong winds.

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