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How to have Pacific Northwest winter adventures—safely

Have fun! Don’t die!

Marina Poushkina/Shutterstock

As we sink further into the Big Grey, we start to wonder: What even is the sun? Do I remember light? Why am I here? What is it all for? That’s when we pack up the CrossTrek (or the Outback, or the Forester) and head to the sunny, bright white mountains (or, as the Brads of the world like to say: to chase the fresh pow). But not long after passing through Gold Bar, one begins to realise that snow can be as dangerous as it is wonderful. And, although there’s no need to be either overly worried and anxious, it is important to not be indifferent and respect the mountains—we are just small specks on the sides of them, vulnerable to the whimsical changes of higher-elevation weather. The best we can do is be smart specks.

The hike

If you’re hiking or snowshoeing in an area that is more than a few miles away from brick buildings, safety items and protocol become crucial. Make sure someone knows where you’re going—send them a quick screenshot of your intended location, and mention when you should be back in town.

As for packing, the Ten Essentials are a great place to start. No matter the season, they’re valuable items to have handy in a pack. A quick recap:

  • Navigation (download an offline map of your surroundings in Google Maps ahead of time)
  • A headlamp (with extra batteries!)
  • Sunscreen (that includes sunglasses! Snow blindness is a very real thing)
  • First aid (anticipate those blisters!)
  • A knife
  • Items to make a fire with
  • Shelter (like an emergency bivy or tarp)
  • And, of course: extra food, water, and clothes.

Make some hot, spicy tea and put it in a double-walled mug to take along winter hikes. It’s a little heavier, but a good mug will keep the tea hot, and make for an excellent thirst-quenching way to warm up during a break.

With clothing, it’s important to be mindful of layering. For instance, it is imperative that you do not wear a cotton base layer. Cotton is very absorbent, but not wicking in the least, so when you work up a sweat, your body will become wet and, worse, stay wet. It’ll lower your body temperature faster during periods of inactivity, and make it far harder for you to get warm again. Water and wetness are the antitheses to warmth and safety; so when thinking of (extra) clothing, think in terms of wicking and waterproofness. Invest in waterproof gloves, always choose waterproof boots, and even so, absolutely bring extra socks.

When thinking of materials, go for items that are either synthetic and wicking, or made of wool. Wool beanies are the very best—you can shake the snow right off of them—but they can be itchy. Be sure to grab the kind with a fleece rim on the inside. Also be mindful of your down jacket or vest. Down is associated with warmth, so it’s an obvious outfit choice for a winter hike, but in addition to holding warmth, it also traps moisture- which is the very last thing you want. Go instead for a synthetic jacket as a top layer, and bring a down layer (they’re so light and collapsable!) to put on when taking a break. That way, you’ll stay warm during your inactivity, but won’t trap your sweatiness when you’re moving around. If the weather gets wet, toss on a waterproof layer over the synthetic one, keeping the pit zips open.

Dan Lewis/Shutterstock

The drive

You will drive past someone on the pass who is bumper-first stuck in a ditch. And then another one. And potentially a few more. It’s quite discouraging, actually, but it is very important that we learn from their mistakes, and have faith—the trip can be done safely!

Before you leave for your long drive, make sure your battery is strong. Freezing temperatures can cause the chemical reaction in your battery to exponentially slow down, which may cause your car to not start. Don’t let you tank drop below the halfway point, either—your gas can actually freeze! If you’re planning to go over the pass in either direction early in the morning, remember that the road may be closed for winter clearing.

As wonderful as it is to admire the scenery during the drive, it’s a very bad idea to use cruise control on the passes in the winter. Four-wheel and all-wheel vehicles don’t stop or steer better on ice. They generally get better traction, but only up to a point. So bring chains, and not just to avoid the hefty fine. Make sure they fit.

Not all cars can accommodate chains—some older models of Outback, for instance, will get damaged if you put chains on them—so check your manual. An approved alternative are what’s known as “tire snow socks”, a textile tire cover that does the job of chains a bit more gently. Make sure they fit. Studded tires are not a substitute for chains.

Bring old-fashioned, smoky road flares. The Sheriff and State Patrol prefer to use these when a section of road needs to be closed, because smoke alerts people faster than the visual of a pilon or a light can. If you end up on the side of the road, flares will let folks know they need to slow down, which they need a lot of room to do in bad conditions. Plus, flares are cheap; a pack of six 30-minute flares will set you back less than $20.

Also—and this is going to sound a bit obvious—bring water and a blanket. If you do get stuck, the temperature inside your car drops quite quickly. It’s important to be prepared to be in ambient temperature for a few hours, because help may have a hard time getting to you.

When you make it safely to your destination, you may get snowed in, even if you’re only on the piste for an afternoon, so bring an ice scraper and a snowbrush. When you take off, try not to spin your tires in snow, it can cause them to overheat and explode. Bring cat litter to provide some traction in a pinch (yes, really!) And before you take off, check the exhaust pipe: A snowy, blocked pipe may cause carbon monoxide gas to leak into your car while the engine is running.

This is a lot, but please don’t feel overwhelmed. It’ll all be worth it, because you know what? You do deserve to see the sun again.