I live in Alaska, where two things are inevitable: Snow and mountains. Even in the middle of spring, it's still common to see lingering patches -- or swathes -- of snow across my favorite trails. But that's no reason to stay inside! Here are my favorite tips for a safe, comfortable hike in the snow:
Understand Avalanche Hazard
I'm not the savvy-savviest of hikers, but that's okay because I've had enough training to know my limits. I usually have a pretty good idea of where the line is between a fun winter hike and getting in over my head. The more training you have, the closer you can get to that line without actually stepping across it.
Repeat after me: I will not wear cotton in the mountains. I will not wear cotton in the mountains. You should, however, dress in wicking, non-cotton layers that you can adjust to suit your activity level. Start with a thin base layer (long underwear), add a heavier insulating layer on top of that, and then a weatherproof shell for an outer layer. Mix, match, or add additional layers as needed. Remember, your mission is to suit not just current conditions but anticipated conditions too!
...because few things are worse than snow down your shoes/boots and up your pants. No gaiters? Put on socks, stick your feet in plastic bags, rubber-band (or duct tape) the bags in place, and you've got makeshift gaiters/waterproof boots.
A word to the wise: You need some pretty big rubber bands to make this work -- if they're too small they can cut down on your circulation. Not a good thing in the mountains! You can, if you like, put another pair of socks on over the bags to help hold them in place instead.
Close the Gaps
...in your layering system, that is. Leave the scarf at home but do wear a full-coverage hood, balaclava or neck gaiter to keep your neck and face warm if/when the wind kicks up. Gaiters perform a similar function for where your pants legs meet your socks and footwear. Wear gauntlet gloves or make sure your sleeves cover your gloves securely.
Carry Extra Socks
...because cold, wet feet can happen in any season. And just like the rest of your body, stay the heck away from cotton. That includes cotton-blend socks so, if you're buying something labeled as wool socks, always double-check to make sure they're actually 100% wool (or wool blended with synthetic).
Get a Grip
That blanket of snow sure looks sweet and innocent, doesn't it? But it can hide anything from fresh powder to a slippery, icy crust or primo postholing conditions. Just because the snow starts out firm enough to walk on doesn't mean it's going to stay that way -- so research your route, consider current and potential conditions, and bring ice grippers, full-on crampons, or snowshoes as needed. Sure, carrying extra gear is no fun -- but it's better than slogging through thigh-deep snow or sliding headfirst down a mountain.
That sparkling white snow? It's beautiful, yes -- but sometimes so bright that it hurts. No, really -- it could leave you snow-blind. Wrap-around shades that cover your eyes from all angles offer good protection from that painful brightness. Bonus: They keep the wind out, too. If you're heading into really foul conditions, goggles may be more appropriate.
Lisa Maloney is an avid hiker and freelance writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. She's the author of 50 Hikes Around Anchorage and writes for About Hiking. You can follow Lisa's hiking adventures on Twitter at @About_Hiking or on Facebook.