Yellowstone National Park Backcountry Winter Information
Snowshoeing and skiing are among the most popular winter activities in Yellowstone National Park. Deep snows and clouds of condensed vapor from thermal areas combine to give Yellowstone a special winter beauty. Snow conditions, winter weather, and circumstances unique to Yellowstone are the keys to a memorable and scenic visit. However, these same factors harbor hidden dangers which all winter visitors should be aware of and be prepared for.
Being aware of and prepared for changing winter weather and variable snow conditions is the single most important factor in having a safe and pleasant trip. Temperatures during this time of year generally range from zero to 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and drop between zero to 30 degrees below zero during the night. Sudden storms and winds can lower the temperature quickly. Snow conditions vary greatly between locations and throughout the season.
With a variety of weather conditions, ski touring requires a full range of waxes. Even so, waxless skis may be an option at times. Before you begin any backcountry trip, check with a ranger for local trail and snow conditions and current weather and avalanche reports.
Cold, wet, and windy weather conditions are among the main causes of problems in the backcountry. Exhaustion and fatigue combined with cold weather can bring on the lowering of the bodies inner core temperature which is known as hypothermia. The following are major symptoms of hypothermia to watch for: uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, incoherence, stumbling, listlessness, impaired hand dexterity.
If you notice any of these symptoms in a member of your party, begin immediately to make the victim warm and dry. Use dry clothes, a sleeping bag, and if the victim is alert, warm drinks. In more serious cases prevent the victim from moving. Remove clothing and get the person into a sleeping bag with another person. Never give a hypothermia victim alcohol. If possible, leave the victim with someone and seek help immediately.
Frostbite, the freezing of a body part, is a serious threat. Most often the hands, feet, face and ears are affected. When frostbite first occurs the affected area appears white and waxy. The pain turns to numbness. At this stage the surface is frozen but the tissue beneath should be soft and rebound.
To care for superficial frostbite, apply a steady source of warmth to the affected area. Be gentle and do not rub the site. If a body part is already frozen, the affected area will turn from white to grayish-yellow and grayish-blue. Do not attempt to thaw a completely frozen area while in the backcountry. If the frozen area is thawed and allowed to freeze again, the results are far worse. Cut your trip short and seek help as soon as possible. In serious cases, purplish to black areas with blisters or pealing skin will occur after thawing. This person will lose the affected areas.
In a winter situation such as Yellowstone’s, correct clothing can make the difference between life and death. It is as important to prevent overheating as it is to prevent chilling. Both can be achieved by preparing for changing conditions with several layers of clothing. Each layer has an important function. The inner layer provides comfort and keeps moisture away from the skin. Light synthetics wick away perspiration. The middle insulating layer helps to contain body heat. An outer wind and waterproof layer will guard against the elements and will regulate body heat. With this method of layering, clothing can be added or removed as needed.
Garments to avoid are cotton jeans and sweatshirts. Be sure to include accessory items such as extra socks, hats, gators, and waterproof mittens. Be aware that moisture in your ski boots will cause them to freeze at night, so keep them warm in your parka or sleeping bag. Be particularly attuned to cold in your extremities. Swing your arms and feet aggressively to move blood into them. Never sit directly on snow. Drink lots of fluids and snack often.
While conditions are severe during the winter, you can be comfortable on an overnight trip if you bring the proper equipment. For most day trips, it’s wise that you take supplies for an emergency overnight stay.
Take the following gear with you on an overnight trip: a backpack, a sleeping bag rated for winter temperatures, sleeping pad, shelter or tent, first aid kit, flashlight & batteries, matches, avalanche cord & probe, avalanche beeper, map & compass, knife, sunglasses, sunscreen, and shovel. Some other equipment: ski wax and equipment repair kit, easily prepared food, water, extra clothing, cooking utensils & stove, and extra fuel. This list is on your winter backcountry checklist.
Be sure to remember your cookstove as no wood fires are allowed in Yellowstone’s backcountry during the winter. Extended daytrippers should carry an emergency shelter and remember any shelter or snow cave you build must be destroyed when you are breaking camp.
Sanitation in the backcountry is everyone’s concern. Pack out all trash, including toilet paper. Disperse human waste away from the trail, and at least 100 feet away from campsites and water sources.
Water usage straight out of mountain lakes and streams can be tempting, but can also lead to giardiasis. A portable water filter can purify the water. Boil all backcountry water to kill the giardia protozoan. Do not count on water sources being unfrozen. Melted snow is your best source of water.
While bears aren’t usually a problem during winter, smaller animals may be very destructive and raid food packs. Store your food properly by hanging it in a tree. Larger animals need your cooperation to survive the winter months. Unlike us, they must somehow find food and shelter under Yellowstone’s deep snows. To do so, they must plow through the snow, sometimes covering long distances, and always at the expense of precious energy. Never approach wildlife too closely. Always put an obstacle between you and them. Try not to scare them and make them move unnecessarily as this will use up energy vital to their survival.
Ski trails are used by many, some not on skis. Snowshoers should walk to the side of an existing ski track, not directly on them. Fellow skiers who take spills should take a moment to repair damage to the tracks. When speeding downhill, yell a warning to those in front of you so they have time to get out of the way.
Keep on course by following the orange tree markers where provided but be aware that trail markers are minimal to non-existent in some places. Heavy fresh snowfall, high winds, or extreme temperature changes, may increase avalanche danger. An avalanche is possible even when snow and stability is low. Be sure to check with rangers for avalanche conditions in the area you will be traveling as these areas are not always posted.
When crossing a potential avalanche area, proceed one at a time. Take a shovel, avalanche cord, avalanche probe and wear a beeper if possible. Survival of a bury victim requires quick rescue by those on scene.
Thermal features can also be a major danger. Be aware of overhanging snow ledges, thin crust, and icy patches leading to or around thermal areas. Enjoy them at a distance. The warmer temperatures in the thermal basins may cause bare spots on ski trails. You may need to remove your skis to cross those areas.
It may be tempting to warm yourself in thermal waters but for your safety and to minimize impact, park regulations prohibit bathing in waters that are entirely of thermal origin. The fragile formations, aquatic plants, and wintering wildlife found in these areas, are easily disturbed and destroyed. Please tread lightly and be aware that camping in geothermal basins is prohibited.
Stream and lake crossings may look deceptively safe but can be dangerous. Always use caution when crossing snow-bridges. Loosen straps and undo your pack belt. Ultimately you may want to ford the stream rather than risk falling into it. For your safety it is better to travel with another person or persons. If you go alone, leave your itinerary and expected time of return behind with someone. Always sign in and out at the trail register box wherever available. Be sure to check in with the rangers when you return or leave your permit at the ranger station.
Camp out of sight of roads or trails, 100 feet from water, and ¼ of a mile from other campers. Camp on snow but never in close proximity of burned trees. High winds topple snags routinely in Yellowstone.
Pets, firearms, [Editor's Note: A new law regarding firearms in National Parks went into effect Feb. 22, 2010. See Laws and Policies for more information.] and motorized vehicles are prohibited in the backcountry. Leave all natural objects for the enjoyment of future guests. Take only memories, leave only tracks.
Although crime is minimal in Yellowstone, it is wise to secure your vehicle and keep your valuables out of sight.
In the case of an emergency, dial 911 from any park phone.
Before you go, ask yourself these questions:
Do I know the current weather forecast?
Can I remember the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite?
Did I bring the right clothing and equipment to suit varying conditions?
Do I know the rules of a clean camp?
How do I avoid giardiasis?
Do I know how to store my food properly?
Do I know how to react when I encounter wildlife on or near the trail?
Did I remember to ask a ranger about avalanche and thermal features?
Do I know the courtesies of skiing etiquette?
Yellowstone’s winter season can be a memorable experience. It is up to you, the visitor, whether the trip will be pleasant or life-threatening. Follow the guidelines explained in this presentation and enjoy the winter beauty of Yellowstone without endangering yourself or other visitors or the park’s natural inhabitants and features.