Top Winter Navigation Tips

Backcountry navigation can be tricky at the best of times. Heavy snowfall and winter weather conditions can make it even harder to find your way in familiar or unknown terrain as snow can often cover trail signs and markers.

To help you be prepared and safely find your way in the backcountry this winter, our guides have put together these tips:

1. Prepare Your Gear

The highest quality, most expensive gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. Before heading out, make sure you’re well acquainted with your map, compass, inclinometer, and avalanche gear. Practice using your compass and map in your backyard or in a local area you know well. If you’re comfortable with your surroundings and can do it safely, team up with a few friends and try going a little way off trail and finding your way back. Practice using your avalanche beacon and probe in a local beacon park. If you’re not near a practice park, have a friend bury a beacon in the snow or foliage in your backyard and practice locating it.

Gear List:

  • Map (paper form), or you might have a phone navigation app or gps
  • Compass
  • GPS
  • Inclinometer
  • Avalanche Safety Gear (Transceiver, Probe, and Shovel)

2. Develop Your Backcountry Skills

Using The Topographic Map

One of the most essential skills for winter navigation is mastering the topographic map. Knowing how to translate contour lines on a map to the terrain in the backcountry is a key skill in navigating safely, especially through avalanche country. The cardinal rule of topographic maps is the closer together the contour lines, the steeper the slope. As a general rule, it is best to stick to flatter terrain in the winter and avoid steep slopes to mitigate avalanche danger. Slopes with an angle of around 30 degrees or more can pose a threat of avalanches. A good way to practice reading a topographic map is to obtain one for a trail you know well and bring it with you on your next hike. While you’re hiking, take the map out every so often and practice matching the features on the map to the physical features you see on the trail. Not only will this help you start to visualize the features on a topographic map, but it will also get you in the habit of frequent map checking and orienting your position. You can find a topographic map for every part of the US; they are available on the US Geological Survey website or can be purchased from your local outdoor outfitters.

Know How to Take Your Bearing

Your bearing is defined as the direction in degrees north from your location to a distant point.   In order to take a correct bearing, make sure your compass is calibrated between true north and magnetic north. This difference in magnetic north and true north is called your declination value. Not all compasses can be calibrated, look over the user’s guide on your compass. To find out how to calibrate your compass, research your declination value for your given area on your topo map or the NOAA website. Once you’ve determined your declination, take out your topo map and orient your map to your position by lining up your compass with the direction of travel. From there, line up your compass baseplate between your current location and your destination point. Align the bezel with the north-south grid lines and look at the index line to get your bearing. If you need a more visual explanation, check out these YouTube tutorials and online diagrams to reference.

3. Be Avalanche Smart

Each year, around 150 people die in avalanches worldwide, which is why it’s crucial to be well versed in avalanche safety if you’re going to be travelling through mountainous terrain. The best place to start is to enroll in an AIARE course where you’ll learn how to recognize avalanche terrain, how to read an avalanche forecast, and how to use a transceiver, probe, shovel, and slope meter. If you head out into the backcountry without this knowledge, you are putting yourself and others at considerable risk. Even if you are planning on traveling with someone who has taken an AIARE course, it is still a good idea for everyone in the group to be avalanche aware. Make sure you and your friends complete an AVY 1, AVY 2, AVY Rescue course, and/or AVY Awareness Course before heading out into the backcountry. Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides offers these courses to the public. More info here.

4. Create a Plan

Often in the summertime, it’s easy to just head out, hike a well-marked trail, and return. Factor in heavy snow that can obscure signage and trail markers, avalanche terrain, and shorter days and it’s a whole different ball game. These factors stress the importance of having a well thought out plan before heading into the backcountry in winter. Get your group together and go over the weather and avalanche forecasts, group abilities and comfort levels, and gear, then put together a route on a topographic map. Be sure to factor in any potential hazards and discuss what is the safest option for your team. Listen to everyone’s thoughts and concerns and have an emergency plan ready should anything go awry.

5. Keep Track of Where You Are

Along the same lines of topography, try to keep consistent mental notes of your surroundings. Noting terrain features and markers along your route can help you keep track of your pace and help guide you on your way back. Additionally, it is wise to keep track of the direction you came from and the direction you’re heading. This can help give you a general idea of where you are should you find yourself lost.

6. Footprints: Friend or Foe?

On many of the more popular trails, such as Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re likely to encounter the footprints of backcountry travelers before you. It may be tempting to forgo maps and compasses and simply follow the tracks, but that can quickly lead you astray. Heavily trafficked trails are usually well packed down and may give you a rough idea of where the trail is, but often you’ll encounter the footprints of a group looking to go off trail or headed towards a different destination than you. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself nowhere near your intended route. This is why it’s best to follow your own route plan and continue to refer to your map and compass to keep track of where you’re at.

These tips will help you to be better prepared to navigate backcountry terrain under winter conditions. Still feeling uncomfortable? Sign up for one of our educational courses. We highly recommend AIARE 1 for an intro to using a Slopemeter, reading backcountry terrain, and acquiring basic avalanche safety skills.

  • Written by Hayley Moser. Adventurer and Fly Fishing, Backpacking, and Hiking Guide for Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides.




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