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.

Winter Gear Prep Part 1- The Essentials (2017)

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are falling and it’s time to start planning for all the snowy and icy adventures that await! Thanks to reader Paul for reminding me I never finished this multi-part gear prep series from last Fall! I’ve gone through and edited Part 1 to reflect what is actually in my pack this season. I will update Part 2 this week and finish Part 3 & 4 in the next two weeks!

Winter Gear Prep
What’s in your pack? photo by Brent Doscher

(Originally posted October 2016, now updated October 2017)

Every year around this time I start getting excited about the arrival of my favorite season, Winter! To help fuel the stoke I go through my gear closet and take stock. What’s worn out and what needs replacing? What’s good to go for another icy season? I thought it might be helpful to provide a gear checklist with recommendations on what I use in all categories. In this first segment I’ll cover “The Essentials” a personally modified list of the classic “Ten Essentials“.

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The Essentials

Maps– I use the free online mapping software CalTopo for all my mapping and trip planning needs. This powerful software has so much potential every outdoor adventurer should familiarize themselves with this tool! If you’d like to take a course that covers survival navigation and these advanced navigation skills go here!

Compass– I love my Suunto MC-2 compass which I reviewed in full detail here.

Buy on Backcountry   Buy from EMS   Buy on Amazon

If you’re looking for a smaller more affordable compass I also highly endorse the Suunto A-10 Compass.

Buy on Backcountry   Buy at REI   Buy from EMS   Buy on Amazon


Headlamp– I recently upgraded my headlamps and currently carry the Petzl Zipka 2 and the Petzl Actik. You really can’t go wrong with a Petzl headlamp.

Buy the Petzl Zipka 2 on Backcountry, Amazon, REI

Buy the Petzl Actik on Backcountry, Amazon, EMS, REI


Batteries– I put fresh lithium batteries in my headlamps every Fall. Days are shorter and I am much more likely to need a headlamp. Lithium easily out performs alkaline in cold weather so the Energizer AA’s and AAA’s are always on hand. The best deal I can find on these batteries is on Amazon which is linked here.


First Aid Kit– I start with the Adventure Medical Kit .7 then modify it a little. I add more gloves (acquired from visits to the hospital) and a bottle of iodine tablets (for emergency water treatment and wound irrigation), and a small refillable bottle of Advil.


Knife– Colonial makes dozens of great models like this one.


Bivy Sack– I carry a AMK Heatsheets Emergency Bivy on every single outing. It only weighs a few ounces and is worthwhile the extra insurance!


Handwarmers– I always carry 6-8 hand warmers in my winter pack. Pro-tip: If you need to use them… place them under your glove on your wrist, right where that artery is. Much more effective than placing it in the palm of your hand which reduces grip on ice axes/ski poles. Usually the glove can hold it in place though sometimes I’ll use a little athletic tape.


A “Buff– A very versatile clothing accessory! I have a few so I can wash them occasionally and always have one ready to go.


Glove Liners– I usually need to purchase a couple pairs of these because I do wear them out within a year or two. Totally worth the cheap price though!


Dermatone Sunblock– I always have a tin of this stuff with me in the winter.


Neoprene Face Mask– I like this simple style. It works well in combination with the Buff and my hat/hood. Bigger “fancier” ones make it difficult not to over heat. Pro-tip, if you have fogging issues when used with your goggles take a pair of scissors and enlarge the mouth holes.


GogglesRevo Capsule with the Green Water Lens. The one “essential” category I don’t skimp on. I need quality breathable goggles for the mountain work I do and this pair has not disappointed. As a Revo ambassador I’m able to extend a 20% discount on these to any of my readers! All you need to do is order them directly from http://www.revo.com and enter promo code “ALPINESTARTF&F” and you’ll get 20% off the purchase!


Well that’s it for my “Essentials” list. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below!

Part 2 will focus on my various clothing systems specific for ice climbing, mountaineering, and back-country skiing.

Part 3 will focus on ice climbing gear and maintenance.

Part 4 will cover ski gear and maintenance.

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See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer- Every product mentioned above except the goggles was purchased with my own money. This post contains affiliate links that help support this blog.

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start