How to Prepare for a Winter Hike in the White Mountains

Winter Hiking Tips White Mountains

A quick look at hiking forums online confirms what I am expecting… unprecedented new winter hikers will be visiting the White Mountains this winter. In order to help these newcomers more safely enter the sport of winter hiking I’ve compiled a list of resources and advice below.

Weather

Likely the single most over-looked piece of information prior for a first winter hike is obtaining an accurate regionally specific weather forecast. If you are planning a winter hike in the White Mountains you should consult the Higher Summits Forecast for a few days before your planned hike and the morning of! Things change fast in the mountains and the forecast is published around 4am which should be in time for you to get an accurate update before you leave the car.

Gear

The second most likely mistake to make is not bringing the right equipment. Every one on the hike should at a minimum carry “The Ten Essentials“. I’ll list some of my personal recommendations below and add some opinions/advice.

Cell Phone– While this one isn’t officially on the list it should be. The mistake is thinking this can replace any of the other 10 essential items. You should not rely on having service or any battery life left. A mapping app does not replace a physical map. The phone’s flashlight does not replace a real headlamp. Cell phones are susceptible to cold weather, so they should be kept warm, inside a chest or thigh pocket. Most importantly, leave the car with a fully charged phone and immediately put the phone on AIRPLANE mode! While on airplane mode you can still take pictures and use the phone’s GPS chip to track your hike if you are using pre-downloaded mapping apps. If you are not on airplane mode your battery we die quickly as your phone searches for a signal in out of service areas.

Personal Locator Beacon– With cell phone service not guaranteed many experienced hikers are choosing to invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB). While a bit expensive (what insurance isn’t) a PLB works through a satellite network so you can request help, or let worried family know you are just running a little late, from virtually anywhere. The best kind of PLB’s allow for two way communication and custom messaging. It’s much easier for search and rescue to respond when we have a message about what the actual emergency is. One of the most popular models on the market that can do that right now is the Garmin InReach Mini.

Headlamp– You might think you can finish the hike before dark but everyone in the group should carry their own headlamp. For serious winter hiking I like headlamps that can really throw some light and perform well in the cold, like the Petzl Swift RL Headlamp. A more budget friendly option would be the Petzl Actik Headlamp. I actually stuff a Petzl Zipka Headlamp into my first aid kit as a back-up headlamp for when someone forgets theirs. I also use lithium batteries in all my headlamps for long life and excellent cold weather performance.

Map– The AMC publishes 6 great maps that cover the entire White Mountain National Forest. You could also learn how to make your own custom maps for free on a website like CalTopo.com, if you have your own quality color printer (or have UPS Store/Staples print them for you). Do not solely rely on your cell phone app to keep you from getting lost. Battery life can quickly drain in cold temps and we do reach temperatures below the operating range of the phone display’s.

Compass– Figuring out direction is the most basic part of wilderness navigation and there is no better way to do that than to use a compass. A solid basic model is the Suunto A-30L Compass. My personal all-time favorite professional grade compass is the Suunto MC-2 Pro Compass. Don’t know how to use a map & compass together to properly navigate? Take a quality Wilderness Navigation Course and/or get a good book on the topic!

First Aid Kit– There are lots of commercial first aid kits of various sizes and quality. For the last two decades I’ve started with the Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight and Watertight Series, the .7 size, and supplemented it a little. I’m also happy with a new My Medic Solo First Aid Kit I’ve started carrying. Any first aid kit I grab I usually stuff some extra medications in it, a spare Petzl Zipka Headlamp, a small knife, a fire-starter, and some chemical hand warmers.

The rest of the list includes; extra clothes, food, water, sun protection, etc.

Timing

Many rescues, accidents, and near misses share something in common… late start times. Darkness comes quick in the winter months so an early start increases your overall safety and leave wider margins for unexpected mishaps. Many experienced winter hikers prefer to hit the trail right at dawn. Starting a 4000 footer at 11am is riskier than starting a 4000 footer at 7am.

Knowing when to turn back

One of the hardest skills to develop as a new winter hiker is determining when to turn it around and head back towards safety. We want to be challenged and meet success on our hiking trips but we must be careful to always balance the delicate risk vs reward scale. Many books and articles have been written on the topic of lost life in the Presidential Range and greater White Mountain Region. You can learn from these tragedies and remember to stay humble… we are all prone to making mistakes. Some books on the topic worth checking out:

Not Without Peril

Where You’ll Find Me <- my short blog post about this event is here

The Last Traverse <- currently reading to review

Guided Instruction

For many the best way to get into winter hiking is to do so with people who are already experienced at winter hiking. The Appalachian Mountain Club has a very long history of helping people learn to recreate in the mountains safely and responsibly. They have tons of courses and guided hikes designed for the aspiring new winter hiker.

If you’re goal is to travel above treeline in the winter there are a host of well established guide services that offer quality programs and can rent you the specialized equipment you might not want to purchase yet as you’re just dipping your toes into the sport of winter hiking (like plastic mountaineering boots, crampons, mountaineering axe, etc). Better yet their guides will teach you how to properly pack, adjust layers during the day, walk with crampons on, self arrest, with an axe, etc).

Here’s is a list of some of the most known companies that run trips in the White Mountains;

Northeast Mountaineering <- disclaimer I work for this company

EMS Schools

International Mountain Climbing School

Ragged Mountain Guides

Synnott Mountain Guides

Redline Guiding

Chauvin Guides

Acadia Mountain Guides

REI Adventures

(if you are a guide service that leads winter hikes in the White Mountains and were not included in the above list please contact me to be added)

Get Educated

Other than the knowledge you can gain from the above guided experiences there are two skills every hiker should obtain early on in their hiking career, Wilderness Navigation Skills and Wilderness First Aid Skills. While you can learn some of these skills from sources like YouTube nothing beats hands on training with quality instructors.

More Info

Check out the Hike Safe website. It has great information to help you plan your hike including “The Code“. Also please consider purchasing a Hike Safe Card from New Hampshire Fish and Game. This purchase adds crucial funding to a very tight budget for search and rescue in NH and might help you avoid incurring the cost of a rescue should you need one.

From NHFG website:

It is important to note that people may still be liable for response expenses, if they are deemed to be reckless or to have intentionally created a situation requiring an emergency response.

Summary

Winter hiking is an amazing sport and one I have enjoyed for over thirty years. It can be magical, beautiful, spiritual, exhilarating, and grandiose. It can also go from a fun outing to dangerous and deadly quite quickly. My best advice is to start off slow, read some books or articles on it, seek advice from quality outdoor retailers, join a hiking group, start with smaller hikes and save Mount Washington or the Franconia Ridge for when you’ve got some experience under your belt. Maybe hire a guide or instructor and take a formalized course. Most importantly though… please come home at the end of your hike.

Winter Hiking Tips White Mountains
The author enjoying a cold day up on Mount Washington a few winters ago

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer: Affiliate links above support the content created on this blog. If you make a purchase through one of them the author receives a small commission at no additional cost to you. The author is also a guide who works for Northeast Mountaineering, which was listed alongside other guide services in the area. You are responsible for your own safety. The use of any information in this post is at your own risk.

What’s your first aid kit look like?

With the current COVID-19 crisis we are trying to be prepared as possible for the foresee-able future. One aspect of self-reliance that might be over looked is being able to deal with small medical emergencies at home. Any trip to a hospital will likely put further strain on an already stressed medical system. To that end now is a good time to take inventory of your home medical supplies.

My Medic is a first aid supply company that has an amazing variety of medical supplies. It can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide what first aid kit you should start with so they have a handy “kit finder” that will help you narrow the selection. Our home kit is the basic “MyFAK” model. Then we have one Solo kit in each of our cars.



While having a properly stocked first aid kit is important knowing how to use what is in it is even more important.

The SOLO School located in Conway, NH offers some of the best wilderness medicine training anywhere. While they are closed until at least May 1st once they are back running courses consider enrolling in one of their programs (classes are offered all over the country). There are also a half-dozen or more free online first aid classes. While stuck at home you could brush up on skills through websites like FirstAidForFree and the Red Cross.

Wilderness First Aid Medical Training
“The path to helping others”- photo by Peter Lewis, SOLO

Wilderness First Aid Medical Training
Hands on medical training- photo by Peter Lewis, SOLO

Accident prevention is high on our priority list right now and being able to deal with small injuries without visiting the hospital means we are more self-sufficient. I’d encourage every one to adjust their personal level of risk acceptance until we get through this crisis. Our family is limiting our exercise to short nature walks and bike riding around our neighborhood. Bike gloves and helmets are a must when riding. Make sure you are getting an hour of responsible outdoor time every day! We hope everyone stays safe and sane during these difficult days!

Northeast Alpine Start



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Tech Tip: Optimizing your First Aid Kit

Adventure Medical Kits Wilderness First Aid


We all carry a first aid kit with us on our adventures right? For today’s Tech Tip I want to share what first aid kit I use and how I customize it with a few extra items. While you can go to a pharmacy and piece together your own kit I prefer to start with the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .7 Medical Kit as it’s a solid foundation to build upon. Here’s the details on the kit:

  • Designed for life in the bottom of the pack, zippered rip-stop silicon nylon outer bag has 2 inner DryFlex™ watertight pouches to ensure contents are kept clean and dry
  • Wound care items: 3 butterfly closure strips, 2 triple antibiotic ointments, 3 antiseptic wipes and 1 pair of nitrile gloves
  • Bandages: 8 sterile dressings, 2 non-adherent sterile dressings, 2 conforming gauze bandages, 5 adhesive bandages and 3 knuckle bandages
  • 10 yards adhesive tape, 1 elastic bandage, 11 pre-cut and shaped moleskin pieces and 3 alcohol swabs
  • Medications: 6 ibuprofen, 2 aspirin, 2 antihistamine and 2 AfterBite® sting-relief wipes
  • Other equipment: splinter picker forceps, 3 safety pins and a 26 x 2 in. roll of duct tape

Adventure Medical Kits Wilderness First Aid
Manufacturer Image

Technical specs

Best Use
Hiking, Backpacking
Material(s)
Silicone nylon pouch
Dimensions
8.5 x 6.5 x 2 inches
Weight
8 ounces

This is a great start for only 8 ounces! AMK markets this as ideal for 1-2 people for 1-4 day trips. While I do find the suggestion a bit arbitrary I feel this is a great size for a group leader or guide to start from. There is a .5 version that weighs less than 4 ounces that would be good for trail running, casual hiking, or just to keep in the glove box. A very minimalist .3 version is better than carrying nothing.

Now let’s get into what I add to this kit to make it a bit more capable of handling any situation. The first thing I add is a Petzl Zipka Headlamp. This 2.5 ounce headlamp has great light output and the retractable cord keeps it from getting tangled with other things in the kit. I consider this a bit of a “back-up” headlamp. If I know I’ll be out after dark I bring my Petzl Actik Core Headlamp and have the Zipka available to loan to someone who forgets their headlamp.

Adventure Medical Kits Wilderness First Aid
Adventure Medical Kits .7 First Aid Kit and every else I squeeze in there!

I then add a simple small knife that can be used for cutting bandages, duct tape, and clothing to make slings & swathes if need be. Occasionally it might even have to cut some summer sausage and hard cheese.

Then I add a fire starter, usually just a small Bic lighter but you can go for a fancy windproof one if you want!

Next I drop in a little bottle of Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets. I use these to treat water in an emergency.

Then I have a small travel size Advil bottle that I carry extra Antihistamines (Benadryl) and pain/fever reducers (Advil). I prefer to use this bottle and refill it from home when needed and save the prepackaged medications for when I forget to refill this container. Don’t forget to check the expiration dates on the prepackaged medications!

I also squeeze in a small notebook with a pencil. This is important for writing SOAP notes or sending detailed information with someone. On longer trips I carry a Rite in the Rain Notebook separate from my first aid kit.

With still room to spare I now add my two EpiPens. While I haven’t been tested for a bee allergy I feel it is a good idea for me to carry Epi after getting swarmed and stung by over a dozen yellow jackets last year. There’s also the fact that some one in my care may have a unexpected severe reaction when we are over an hour away from definitive care and having Epi in the party could be a life-saver. I also add a super light disposable CPR Face Shield.

Finally I add about 3 extra pairs of Nitrile gloves in addition to the one pair that comes with the kit. It has been my experience on multiple rescues that one pair of gloves is never enough in the mountains as they will definitely tear while dealing with a patient, and bystanders who might be able to help often don’t have their own gloves.

These additions bring my first aid kit up to one pound 5 ounces. Considering that if I grab my first aid kit I have 5 of the “Ten Essentials” I’m more than ok with that weight! I also carry either my SOL Escape Bivy (summer) or my more durable Ortovox Single Bivy (winter or while on rescues).

Adventure Medical Kits First Aid Kits
Bigger more rugged bivy in the winter or when out on rescues… smaller lighter bivy for summer/day use…

I’ve also taken to sliding a Saywer SAM Splint down into the back panel of my pack. While I can improvise splints from my wilderness medicine training a real SAM splint is really nice to have for quick ankle/wrist fractures or as an effective neck collar.

I feel the above set-up is quite adequate for the amount of time I spend in the mountains both guiding and recreating. For expedition leaders or large outing club type groups I’d suggest looking at the Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight PRO Medical Kit. It’s quite all inclusive with a SAM Splint, EMT Shears, precision forceps, and more.

Summary

Undoubtedly carrying a first aid kit in the mountains is a very good idea. Accidents will happen. The longer your recreate in the mountains the more likely you, someone in your party, or someone you come across, will need a touch of first aid. Hopefully it’s something minor like a blister or small scrape. Unfortunately we can’t remove all risk from our outdoor hobbies and will are going to break some bones, or worse. There’s two things YOU can do to make these situations better.

#1 Carry the right gear

#2 Get some training

Wilderness First Aid
Image from soloschools.com

Wilderness First Aid
Image from soloschools.com

Wilderness First Aid courses are offered all over the country! Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO) teaches Wildness First Aid (16 hours), Wilderness First Responder (72+ hours), and Wilderness EMT (170+ hours). If you have zero medical training, and wish to play in the mountains for decades to come, do yourself a huge solid and sign up for one of these courses! You’ll be more prepared to handle what comes your way!

I hope you found this helpful. If you did please let me know in the comments below. If you carry something different or I missed a key item please let me know! Just so you are aware the links above (except for SOLO) are affiliate links. That means if you click on them, and make a purchase, a small commission is earned. That really helps keep this blog going, so if you do make a purchase thanks! If not maybe just share this article with someone you think could benefit from it!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start