Snow Smarts

How to travel safely across four seasons of white.

Eskimos and skiers have dozens of words for snow, largely because no two flakes behave the same when they land in your path. Here are a few key tips for safe hiking, whether you’re snowshoeing in New Hampshire in March, traversing Wyoming’s Tetons in June, or peering into a Cascade caldera in Oregon in September.

Spring: You might be able to hike across frozen morning snow without snowshoes or skis, but you’ll need more flotation as the top layer softens. If you start postholing (breaking through to your knees or thighs), wander between sunny and shady patches in search of any remaining crust. If you must posthole: Keep your weight on your back leg, step halfway into your next footfall and wait for the snow to firm up; then transfer your weight smoothly. If you break through repeatedly, crawl.

Summer: High-country snow often lingers well into summer, and sometimes never melts. If you know you’ll be traversing a snow slope, wear stiff-soled boots for kick-stepping and use an ice axe or trekking poles for better purchase. Take short steps for balance, and kick firmly into the slope until your platform is at least half the width of your boot. Weight it gently, pressuring your uphill boot edge, then kick the next step. Stand up straight to prevent sliding! The runout rule: Notice where you’ll land if you slip, and turn around if it looks dangerous down below. (Read our gear reviews on lightweight crampons and ice axes.)

Fall: Mountain snow is on its way, so you’ll need to know how to navigate obscured trails. Read the clues like a snowbound Sherlock: breaks in the forest canopy, subtle flattening of a hillside, blazes, the absence of brush and low limbs, sawn log ends, and bare spots beneath tree canopies. Check your map constantly, and backtrack whenever you lose the trail.

Winter: Wait a day (or more) after a storm to let snow settle. Until you’ve learned about avalanche forecasting, stick to slopes of 25 degrees or less, except in heavy timber. To determine 25 degrees, hold one ski pole vertically so that its tip just touches the snow, and hold the other horizontally at the first pole’s midpoint. If its tip also touches snow, the angle is 26.5 degrees or steeper. Or buy a compass with a built-in inclinometer.