Winter hikes are different then summer hikes. Due to the warm weather, making mistakes rarely results in endangering your life. But, hiking in the winter is very unforgiving when mistakes are made. It is very easy to die during a Winter hike. Therefore, it is important to plan your hike. Here are some important rules that experienced hikers use:
GROUP SIZE: Group size for Winter hikes is very important. You should first determine who wants to go on the hike. Having a small group or a large group is considered undesirable. The best group size is between 2 and 5 people. While some experienced hikers do hike alone, it is far riskier. If you have an accident, and there is no one to help you. There could be a long delay before SAR and arrive at your location. If you hike solo, you need to have a plan in case you are injured or cannot continue. If you solo hike, make sure you have someone who can call for help if you do not return by a predetermined time. Having too many people is a risk also. If the group becomes too large, the group will start to split up and spread apart. You have to remember that the group will move as fast as the slowest hiker. This can cause the fastest hike to become cold, where the slowest hiker is too hot.
GROUP RULES: Groups need to follow rules to prevent increasing your risk. One of the most important rules is that the group stay together. Statistically, hiking groups that stay together have a high likely hood of surviving, then hiking groups that break up in different routes. Hikers who attend the hike should stay with the group. Hikers who walk off, should not allowed to be invited to future hikes. Once in a while, hiking groups will have the attitude that each hiker is responsible for themselves, and everyone hikes at their own pace. Hiking groups that have this attitude cause a lot of SAR missions, and kill hikers. Hiking groups work as a team. When a group gets lost, the team needs to work together to make the best decisions. When bad things happen on hikes, individuals in the group can become quite combative. Sometimes the decisions are a matter of live-or-death. The group needs to work together objectively, and try to avoid bitter fights. You also need to have a Group Leader. The leader makes the last call. The Group Leader also needs to be humble and access all the arguments objectively, and make the best decision. Only hike with people who are willing to follow safe hiking rules.
ROUTE PLANNING: Plan your route out carefully, and do the research on the hike. Use a good up-to-date map. Make sure you bring the map with you on the hike. This should be done by the Group Leader. They should be the most knowledgeable on the route. Sometimes, you can have a hiker in the group that knows more, and that is okay. The two should work together when an issue arises. Determine the total mileage and amount of time it will take. Remember that Winter hiking takes longer and more energy to complete. Plan on covering about 50-75% of the mileage that you would in the summer. Remember that days are shorter. Better to error on the side of caution. Sometimes weather conditions or the snow pack can make the trail disappear, so you should be prepared to be able to bushwhack the route. Bushwhacking can mean knowing adjacent mountains to verify you are on the correct route and direction.
TOTAL HIKING TIME: Make sure that you have plenty of time to complete the hike early. Schedule extra time for problems. Set a turnaround time. Do NOT deviate from this turnaround time. Many experienced hikers will set a time, like 1 PM, to turnaround if they have not reach their final goal. Make sure that you start early in the day. I personally have turned around less then a 1/4 mile from the summit numerous times. The mountain will be there for another day. No mountain is worth dying for. Make sure you know the time of day when the sun will set. Some GPS units will tell you this information based upon where you are located. Remember that December has the shortest days of the year.
SNOW PACK: Remember that in the Winter, the snow pack can be deep enough that the trail markers are covered up with snow. When this happens, the trail will disappear. Trails are designed to be 4' wide and 8' high. If the snow pack is 5-6' then the trail will not look like a trail because the tree branches above the trail will be in the trail. You can easily get lost in a situation like this. If it has just snowed, then you may be required to bushwhack in the general direction of the trail. Also remember that the day of the hike, you may have a trail that is broken, and easy to hike on. Or, you may have a couple inches to a couple of feet of snow to break a new trail on. The snow can be fluffy, dense, or wet. That too can affect the rate of movement and the amount of energy to break trail. Breaking the trail takes an enormous amount of energy. You should be prepared for this situation. If you do encounter new snow, it works best if you have a group where the trail breaker can can be changed often.
TRAIL CONDITIONS: Check with the hiking community for current conditions. Sometimes there are problems with parking or the trail. If someone has done the same hike recently, they can advice you on possible problems prior to the hike. This advice can be invaluable. Sometimes the parking lot has not been plowed. Or, there may be excessive amount of hard ice on the trail, and you will need cramp-ons. Or, maybe people are getting lost. It is unpredictable conditions that cause most SAR missions and deaths.
WEATHER: Check the weather prior to the hike. You should make a final check as close to the hiking date and time as possible. Do not be afraid to cancel the hike if you are concerned about weather. In the Winter it is always better to side on the side of caution. Make a mistake in the Winter and it can cost you your life. You will have enough challenges on the good weather day. Add bad weather to the hike, and you may be overwhelmed with serious issues. Many very experienced hikers are capable of hiking in virtually any weather condition. But, they are also the ones who die when the weather turns out worse then predicted.
ROUTE DOCUMENTATION: Write down your route and plans, and leave them with someone close to you. If you think you might do an additional goal, make sure you note this. Also place the route and plans on the dashboard of your car in case SAR is called. Let them know when you should be arriving back home, AND what time to call 911 and SAR. In New York State, you can call Search and Rescue at (866) 669-9727. You should program this telephone number into your cell phone.
CELL PHONES: Always make sure that your cell phone is charged 100%. When you arrive at the trail head, change it to "Airplane Mode". This will save the battery. We also recommend that you turn it off completely. This will save the battery. Place the cell phone in a warm place. This well help preserve the battery. There are places in the Catskills where cell phone reception does exist. This can be very helpful in saving your life. If you have an emergency, and have to call 911, you should then leave the phone on and turn off "Airplane Mode". Then place it in a warm location. EMS can track your GPS location. This could save your life.
GEAR: Make sure that your gear is ready for the hike. Check your gear to make sure nothing is broken or damaged. You do not want to get deep into the woods to find out that your snowshoes are broken. Charge any rechargeable batteries and bring spares. Make sure that your headlight works. Make sure that you bring extra clothing and gear. I have often seen people at the trail head, where there is no snow, leave behind important gear. Then as they get up the trail, the snow depth start to increase. Then they encounter horrible ice. Meanwhile, their microspikes and snowshoes are in the car. Be prepared! Charge your cell phone just prior to leaving for the hike.
HIKE REGISTRATION: If you are hiking on marked DEC trails make sure that you register the hike in the DEC registration box. Put in an emergency phone number and your intended route, along with any optional goals you may or may not attempt. Try not to deviate from this plan. SAR will rely on this information to find you if you do not return. Hikers have died because SAR goes to the wrong location, and can't find your group.
NUTRITION: Good nutrition plays a significant role in hiking. One of the most significant issues is the loss of potassium. You need to start eating more potassium rich food a week prior to the hike to increase your level of potassium. Eating bananas, yogurt, etc help increase your potassium level. Table salt will compete for potassium and create muscle cramping issue for you.