How to have fun and be safe on snow

  • Posted on 27 November 2018
  • By Will McWhinney
Student Summer Shields on Snow Travel Day
with Wilderness Travel Course. 
Photo by Mat Hengst, WTC Kaweah Group

Snow transforms everything, It turns drab trees into sparkling towers. And it turns dusty trails into slippery slaloms. With good judgment and the right equipment, you can safely enjoy the snow in our local mountains. Tip: Always check weather forecasts before you go.

Where to go:

Southern California has many mountains tall enough to capture snowfall. Sometimes you can just drive up the Angeles Crest Highway and find enough snow. Mt Baldy and Icehouse Canyon, Mt Pinos, Mt San Jacinto, Wrightwood, Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead are also popular. Hiking on snow can take longer and be more tiring than walking on a dry trail in mild weather, so look for a short route. Three to five miles is plenty for a typical hike in fresh snow. The Chapter offers a variety of snow trips, locally and in the Sierra.

Getting there:

Driving on wintery roads brings special risks. Make sure your vehicle is fully fueled. Bring a shovel, blankets, and some food and water. Tire chains or cables may be required. Give yourself plenty of time so you don’t have to rush. Beware of ice, especially “black ice” –

so-called because it’s transparent. If you find yourself skidding, turn into the skid first then gently turn towards the intended direction.

What to wear:

Don’t wear cotton! Wet cotton sucks the heat from your body. Instead, wear wool or synthetic clothes. Fleece is cheap and practical. Down jackets are great, but keep them dry. Gaiters are a necessity to keep the snow out of your boots. Gloves, a rain jacket and a warm cap round out the required equipment. Rain pants are usually unnecessary unless you’re going to glissade. While we tend to assume it’s going to be cold all the time, hiking up a hill in the sun can generate a lot of heat. Remove layers before they get damp from sweat.


Leave your flip-flops at home! Wear waterproof boots, the stiffer the better. If you’re not sure about the waterproofing, bring plastic grocery bags to put over your socked feet. Bring a spare pair of socks - they can also double as thumbless mittens.

Microspikes (AKA traction devices) attached to the soles of your boots to give a grip on icy surfaces are great for city sidewalks and flat trails. On steeper terrain they can give you a false sense of security. The Safety Committee has some rules on their use on Club outings, so be sure to know before you go.

Snowshoes, which can be rented, are easy to use and a lot of fun when the snow is deeper. With more aggressive spikes than microspikes, they allow you to walk on top of the snow  which is much easier than “postholing,” the term for creating holes in the snow as you step.

Other equipment

Always take the Ten Essentials!  {SEE PHOTO OF WTC TRAIL CARD}Trekking poles with snow baskets, or even ski poles, are worth bringing especially if you are snowshoeing or climbing steeper slopes. A foam rubber sit pad will give you someplace warm to sit. A couple of big trash bags can provide a dry spot to set things down, or a pack cover, or even emergency shelter. Bring a pack big enough to carry all your gear, including excess clothing should you get warm. The sun can be very bright, so wear a hat with a brim plus ski goggles or dark glasses with side coverage – and slather on the sunscreen and lip balm.

Snow travel

On a well-used trail, just walk normally but cautiously. Avoid ice, but if you have to walk across a little stretch, keep your knees bent and don’t lean back. If there’s fresh snow and you don’t have snowshoes you’ll be tiring yourself out postholing; your group should try to follow the leader’s footprints and swap leaders occasionally to share the effort. Trekking poles offer a lot of extra stability, but don’t use the straps to avoid getting tangled in a slide.

For off-trail snow travel there are a number of special techniques, including kicking steps, plunge steps, and glissading. If you haven’t learned these then avoid going off-trail on a slope.  


It’s almost impossible to steer or stop a sled once it picks up speed. The two most common sledding accidents are running into a tree or boulder, and getting hit by a car after going into the road. If you’re on a sled that’s going too fast or in a bad direction, then roll off of it and spread-eagle across the snow. A few scrapes are better than the alternatives.


Cameras have a snow setting for a reason. Use it! Otherwise the snow is likely to render as a dull grey and everything else will be too dark.


Part of the fun of hiking in the snow is that even familiar routes are transformed. But that transformation can hide common landmarks, including the trail itself. Some trails have occasional rock piles called “cairns” (or, locally, “ducks”) to help mark the path. If in doubt, follow your own track back to a place where you’re sure of your location.

When to turn back

Conditions on snow-covered mountain can change from step to step and from hour to hour. As you’re going along, you should be considering three questions: What are the chances that I’ll slip? If I slip, what are the chances that I can stop? If I can’t stop, where will I end up? If you don’t like the answers then find a different route or turn back.

In the morning a snow slope might be crusty, in the afternoon slushy, and in the evening icy, Be aware that the trail you take heading into the wilderness could become more treacherous later on, such as when it goes into shadow. Don’t linger too late.  

More training

The Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) includes instruction on many aspects of snow travel. It’s offered every January. And the Angeles Chapter’s Leadership Training Committee (LTC) also conducts training on snow. Professional guide services, such as Sierra Mountaineering International, give training on technical skills including ice axe arrests and crampon use. These all require advanced registration and planning. Meantime, see if you can find an experienced friend to introduce you to the joy and exhilaration of snow travel.


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