Trekking in snow can be extremely thrilling. Yet, one wrong foot can send you tumbling down several feet. It’s important to know how to walk in snow, whether you’re trekking in peak summer or winter. There are different snow conditions you may be dealing with, and different weather circumstances.
And that’s why, from using the right gear, to packing enough layers - it is important to understand the nooks and crannies of trekking in snow.
In this article, you’ll read about the different types of snow, necessary gear to carry, methods of trekking in snow, and of course, how to keep yourself safe. Don’t forget to look out for the advanced tips from trekkers!
“Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together. - Vista M. Kelly.
First, understand the different types of snow
If there’s a snowfall when you arrive at the mountains, you know that it’s good. No scratches or scrapes for a while. Then you hear someone talking about crud snow. But what does that mean? Isn't all snow just the same?
Once you learn more about snow trekking, you realize that not all snows are of the same type. Then you begin to wonder - how do you trek on different types of snow? What techniques are you supposed to use?
To begin with, let’s understand the two primary types of snow you will encounter during your trek, and how to tackle them.
The two main types are fresh and hard-packed snow.
- Fresh snow, as the name suggests, is newly fallen, cold, dry, and has not been compacted. Sometimes, when the snow is fresh, you sink in all the way to your knees or calf. Lifting your leg from the deep snow to take a step every time can get tricky, to say the least. So, you might have to create a path by plowing through it.
- Hard snow, on the other hand, is the product of snow accumulating and becoming firmly packed due to the cold climate. On hard snow, you might need to learn some specialized skills. As the snow hardens, your shoes must find a grip on the hard surface that can help you move in balance. We will cover more about this in the next section.
Other varieties of snow also exist depending on multiple factors such as the altitude and temperature. When the heat or wind melts the upper layer of snow powder, cold air temperature may soon follow, thereby creating a crust. Crust snow has a hard surface on top of powder snow. But what is powder snow? It is quite easy to spot: powder is fresh, untouched, and feels soft. They appear in the form of tiny flakes that create a smooth surface on the mountains.
Imagine a lot of trekkers walking on powder snow. The snow will eventually get piled up at certain spots and become hollow at the other points: this is a type of snow called crud. The snow goes through a lot of phases too. So when the temperature becomes slightly warmer than the freezing point, the crud snow starts melting. You will see the snow crystals slowly become large packs of ice: this is when a slush forms.
Can you guess the next phase of snow? It’s ice! Although you will rarely come across real ice on the slopes, the ice you find is usually due to the change in temperature. The ice you see occurs when the snow melts and freezes over and over again. When that happens, a hard surface of snow forms which we refer to as “ice”.
Since there are many different forms of snow, you should also be aware of what type of gear to use and when!
Basic gear required to trek in snow
We notice several trekkers making a mistake here. They treat all kinds of snow similarly, often using the wrong gear in the wrong kind of snow. For instance, very often we see trekkers using microspikes in very fresh snow, which doesn’t create any extra traction.
Keep reading to find out how to plan your gear.
1) Microspikes: For hard-packed snow, it is advisable to use microspikes. While your normal trekking shoes stop providing traction in ice, microspikes give you Spiderman-like grip in snow.
2) Trekking poles: Using trekking poles gives you extra support and balance. It is so very effective to propel yourself forward when you are stuck or feeling tired. Make sure your trekking poles have their baskets on, to keep them from sinking into snow.
3) Gaiters: When you climb on fresh or semi-fresh snow, you will find that a lot of snow enters your shoes from the top. This is a worst nightmare for a trekker. Snow starts entering your shoes, making your feet cold, wet and numb. Even worse, it never dries for the rest of the trek. Wearing gaiters creates a seal around your shoes, and will keep the snow from entering in.
4) Gloves and mittens: Trekking on snow can be very fun, but the chances of tripping are high. Although it is fun to fall on snow and feel the fluffiness, you don’t want your hands to meet the cold surface. On hard snow, you might even end up scraping yourself. To avoid all of this, always carry extra gloves.
5) Sunglasses: During your trek, if you notice the sun shining, immediately wear your sunglasses. The reflection of sunlight on bright white snow can damage the eyes and cause snow blindness. Ensure to wear sunglasses with UV protection to protect your eyes.
What are the different methods of trekking in the snow?
Similar to choosing gears, there are different methods of trekking based on the type of snow. Sometimes, you may also have to choose a combination of methods to reduce risks and increase the level of effective trekking.
1) Kicking steps: In fresh snow, you will need to use your trekking shoes to kick with your toe box and create small dents in the snow. With every step, you’re creating a small, flat resting spot for your foot. However, when the snow gets too thick or if it is too difficult to kick steps, you can use a crampon.
2) Stomping steps: When the snowpack are much wetter, you may need to stomp on them to climb comfortably. Here’s how you do it: stomp the sole of your feet on the snow to support your weight or use a combination of this and kicking steps.
3) The French technique: If you are planning to follow this, be assured that it is an invaluable technique to climb big mountains. In essence, French technique means you have to keep your crampon flat on the snow surface, instead of kicking your toe area into the ice. You need to place your foot flat and make sure that all points of the crampons are in contact with the ice. (Keep in mind, do not use this technique when the slope is too steep).
4) Crampon: While trekking on snow, you may sometimes have to cross glaciers, snowfields or icefields. Crampon is a device that you attach to your boots. It gives you incredible traction in these snow conditions, and improves your mobility during the climb.
How to ensure safety on steep inclines?
Although we covered the logistic areas like types and gears, the most important thing to keep in your mind is safety. While ascending, the biggest challenge you will face on fresh snow is your footing. Here is a classic tip to tackle the situation: cut through the fresh snow using ice axes to move freely. Cutting through the snow will also help you stay in balance — a key factor!
On the other hand, when you descend the slope, the snow might become slippery. To avoid any risks, we provide microspikes to trekkers to ensure that everyone has a good grip.
Slippery snow also means that you can slip or slide down the snow. To avoid this, do not hesitate to use your full body. It is quite common when trekkers feel embarrassed to get on all their fours to slide down. But really, it is the best way to minimize risks and use our body to the fullest potential.
And lastly, here are some advanced tips for trekking in snow!
1) Snow in the mountains can wipe out everything sometimes. Yes - including the trekking trails. It might become too hard if you lose sight of the trails, so always stick with the team and follow the path of the trekker who is in front of you. But what if you are a solo trekker? Well, we have answers for that too.
2) When it comes to solo or DIY treks, a smart idea would be to book your trekking slots cautiously: either before, during, or after Indiahikes treks. We recommend this because if Indiahikes is trekking on similar dates, you can immediately reach out to them if you face any difficulties during your trek.
3) Here are some simple but effective ideas to stay warm throughout the trek. Keep sipping warm water at regular intervals, and place the bottle inside your sleeping bags. You can even keep them near your feet. Your body will stay warm due to the lukewarm water. Remember the classic tip? - it is always easier to stay warm than to get warm!
4) Here’s a great tip from one of our trek leaders: work hard on your leg muscles. Winter trekking might be just a little harder than what you experience on summer treks. Your primary balance and weight will be on your legs and you really need to strengthen them up! So, other than ensuring that you have the basic fitness, try to focus more on those leg muscles too.
Trekking in winter is a great experience! You will do great if you learn how to trek in snow and if you keep the advanced tips in mind.
Let us know in the comments section if you have any questions (or more tips to add), and we’ll be happy to answer you. Happy trekking!