The Reality of Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing

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It’s cold, well below freezing. You’re a few miles in and the weather is starting to roll in quick. 40-50mph freezing winds whip down the steep face of the mountain your hiking next to. You lose sight of your partner in front of you. Despite the seemingly brutal conditions you’re warm. The wind actually feels good. You’ve been working hard through the drifts. You stop, look at the swirling landscape around you and you’re overcome with pure joy, even though you know you can’t go on. You aren’t making it to your intended destination a mere 1.5 miles ahead. In that moment, you realize that you’ve arrived at the day’s destination. You are here. Winter hiking and snowshoeing is an incredibly rewarding experience, it reminds you of who you are.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - storm blowing in

Captivated by my environment up Herman Gulch

Winter hiking and snowshoeing are definitely more difficult than hiking around on a perfect summer day. There’s a lot at play. For starters, the ground moves. One gust of strong wind can easily eliminate a trail, including the one behind you. There is a significant amount of sinking involved, even on snowshoes. And don’t forget about the avalanche danger (seriously, if you don’t know what you’re doing get proper training before heading into any avalanche prone area). The weather can kill if you aren’t prepared. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from getting out there and enjoying it, but I am saying that there is a little more planning, and a little more risk involved. For a comprehensive guide to winter hiking and snowshoeing I highly recommend the Trailmaiden.com post on the subject here. Instead of diving into how to do it, I want to touch on the mental reality of the sport.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - Dillion

Winding my way up Buffalo Mountain.

In the past month, I’ve gone on three winter backcountry excursions. Of those three I have turned around exactly three times. To be completely honest it frustrated me. However, it reminded me of the real reason why I have such a passion for the outdoors.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - braving the wind

Breaking trail and fighting 40 mph head winds = time to turn around.

Winter Hiking up Buffalo Mountain

It all started when I set out to summit Buffalo Mountain at the souther end of the Gore Range about a month back. I got to the parking area only to realize I didn’t have my hiking poles. I figured it would be no big deal – wrong my friend. Little did I know I would be hiking up substantial grades covered in 2-3″ of slick, wet snow. It’s like trying to walk up steep ramp with a polished wooden floor in socks. Traction wasn’t too helpful either, as the ultra wet snow caused my Microspikes to ball up terribly. It felt as if I was walking on poorly made platform shoes that grew in both height and weight with every step. My buddy Buttons and I managed to survive the slip and slide and reach the boulder fields. We made it part way through the boulder field when it turned into my first attempt up Mt. Guyot all over again – the dogs just weren’t having it. We made the call and turned around.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - Buffalo Mountain

Navigating boulder fields on Buffalo Mountain

Oddly this felt like a failure to me – I didn’t summit. I immediately equated this to “I didn’t succeed.” This thought bothered me. Turning around wasn’t a tough choice, it made sense. No summit is worth the safety and welfare of yourself or others. It isn’t about getting to the top, that’s just the icing on the cupcake. It’s about having fun and challenging yourself. It’s about getting out into the wilderness and connecting with the vibrancy around you.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - Mohawk Lake

The trees opened up on the route to Mohawk Lake and this appeared.

It’s Just fine to Turn Around

Winter hiking and snowshoeing connect you with yourself like nothing else can. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other over difficult terrain forces you to come face to face with yourself. Winter amplifies this with the element of cold. Conditions are harsher. It’s more dynamic. Sure, you’d love to make it to your planned destination, but that isn’t always possible – winter reminds us of that.

IMG_5467

Turning back on Mohawk Lake after post holing through deceivingly thigh deep snow. My postholes clearly visible in the shadows.

Letting go of the destination is an important lesson. When you let go you live in the moment, instantly everything becomes more clear. You truly become a part of the environment around you, living it. You become part of that series of moments; fleeting, ever changing, and beautiful.

If you’re looking to get into winter activities in the backcountry, you should. And good for you, seriously. It takes some guts to put yourself into a less forgiving environment, but it’s worth it, always.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - windet storm

Winter travel is challenging, but phenomenally beautiful. Being chased out of Herman Gulch by the early arrival of a blizzard.

The Ultimate Lesson of the Backcountry

The backcountry has so much to teach us, no matter what time of year. So get out there. Let that 40mph freezing wind blow through your hair. Post hole up a steep grade, realize that’s a sucky way to travel, and turn around.  Lose the trail and stomp around trying to find it only to end up retracing your steps and head back. It’s not failure, it’s the journey and everyone knows the journey is always worth more than the destination.

winter hiking and snowshoeing - herman gultch

Smiles for miles while enjoying the journey back down Herman Gulch

What are your experiences facing the challenges of winter hiking and snowshoeing? Have you ever felt the same way? Differently? I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below or reach out via one of my social media outlets.

Winter Hiking and snowshoeing - pin me

Pin me!

Happy adventuring!

Fox

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27 thoughts on “The Reality of Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing

  1. Nicole Anderson

    What a great post. Aside from the really important information regarding safety, I loved how you made the point that there is no failure associated with turning around and no one should feel bad about that. The focus is on the beauty around us and taking in all nature has to offer. Thank you so much for this article.

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Thanks Nicole! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Our culture revolves around results that are black and white. That pass/fail mentality doesn’t matter in the outdoors and that’s part of what makes outdoor experiences so special.

      Reply
  2. kallsy

    I’ve been researching winter hiking lately and this was just what I needed! First of all, I need to get the proper gear in order to do so safely but I also am glad to hear that even seasoned hikers should call it quits at times. My husband and I hike a lot and this summer we had to call it quits whenever he hurt himself on a hike in Colorado. We both are rather stubborn so it was hard to turn back but we also knew that it would be worth letting him rest so we didn’t ruin the rest of our trip.

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Hi Kallsy,
      Glad you enjoyed it! I don’t think it matters how experienced you are, there are always good reasons to turn around. Injuries are definitely one of them! I totally understand being stubborn, it is what prompted me to write about turning around. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and have fun out there! Winter is awesome 🙂

      Reply
  3. Josie

    LOL – I was out at the first sentence – I can’t stand the cold! In fact, I have never even seen snow. I couldn’t even contemplate attempting something like this. Your photos make me want to though. Some of those views are simply breathtaking.

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Haha Josie, no worries! But you should see snow sometime! It’s very peaceful. It dulls the sound and noise around you and has a rather relaxing effect. There are definitely days in the dead of winter where I would love nothing more than to be relaxing near some amazing beaches soaking up alllllll the warm!

      Reply
  4. Andreea Bujor

    I just loved what you said there: “when you let go you live in the moment.” This is very true, I m living now in the desert and by your post I just wanna travel and hit the mountains hahaha. Keep up your good work! I’ll hit the follow button as well.

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Thank you so much Andreea. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Being in the outdoors, no matter what the climate, always reminds me to live in the moment, that the world is so much bigger than anything any one person can truly contemplate. Where do you live in the desert? I’m headed to Dubai in 2 months. I’m really excited to see the desert – just booked a sunrise hot air balloon ride :). I can’t wait to see the sea of sand. It looks so serene.

      Reply
  5. Claire

    Great post! I’m out in the USA at the moment and even though its December I really wanted to go Hiking so my friend and I went to Up State NY to find somewhere to walk. We didn’t attempt any mountains as we aren’t very experienced and didn’t know the area. But it was so nice being outdoors at this time of the year and its so beautiful with the ice and snow. I think I almost prefer it to summer walking. Especially when you get home to a open fire and hot tea!

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      I love upstate!!! I went to uni there and it’s so beautiful! You can go to alltrails.com and find some easier walks and hikes. You definitely don’t have to be in the mountains to enjoy winter. I almost prefer it too. I love how the landscape changes across the seasons. And yes! You can’t forget to warm up next to a nice fire :). If you ever venture out west feel free to reach out to me. I am based in Colorado and would be happy to answer any questions. Cheers!

      Reply
  6. Alison

    Wow. This really reaffirms my desire to never try and go hiking in the winter. XD I couldn’t even walk down the main street of Sapporo in the snow without almost dying (ok, I was drunk and in heels, but still).

    Despite my aversion to it all, it was a great read. You said that hiking in winter reminds you that getting to your destination is great, but not always achievable and that you should learn to be ok with that. That is some amazingly profound advice there that I don’t think I’ll forget in a while. Thank you, and best of luck in all your adventures.

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Thanks Alison! Outdoor winter adventures aren’t for everyone and I appreciate your honesty about that. However, there’s always life lessons to be gained by being in the outdoors. I often find the journey to be the destination when I travel. My best stories come from times when I’m in transit.

      I’d love to visit Japan some day. Such a beautiful country with an amazing culture and delicious food!

      Reply
  7. Lena from fouronaworldtrip

    Great Post!! People are mostly blogging about destinations where everything you need are tongs and Bikini so it’s really nice to get another view! Even though I am more the Tongs and Bikini Person, your pictures are stunning and I am wondering if I am not missing something out by avoiding snow in a very big circle 🙂

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Haha. I highly encourage you to spend some time in the snow every now and then! There are definitely days I miss the beach, but I’m at home in the mountains. Thank you!

      Reply
  8. Orsi

    Oh wow, all my respect to you! I enjoy hiking to an extent but I am more of a summer time hiker so I don’t really have any experiences when it comes to winter hiking. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, and your beautiful photos!

    Reply
    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Thank you Orsi. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Summer hiking is one of my favorite activities as well, but winter offers a new perspective and a new set of challenges.

      Reply
  9. Louiela

    I feel the emotions behind this well-written post… I love winter and I am loving it more now with how you share the lessons of your journey… And next time I will embark thru a winter journey, I would surely remember this post…

    Reply
  10. Tay

    Winter hiking has always looked beautiful to me but I’ve never been brave enough to try it. (Mostly because I’m a summer gal myself.) These are beautiful photos and a very positive post, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Reply

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