Winter Wilderness Safety

A glorious ski or snowshoe tour through the Yosemite wilderness can become disastrous if something unexpected happens and you are unprepared. Even small problems can become deadly when compounded by low temperatures or rapidly changing conditions. Keep these important winter safety tips in mind to prepare for a fun and safe winter trip.

Choose a reasonable route and know your limitations

Keep in mind your physical condition and winter travel experience. Remember that days are shorter and snow conditions might limit how far you can travel in a day. Unexpected storms will slow you down, make route finding more difficult, and increase avalanche danger. Plan your route carefully so you know when you need to turn around or what options you have for adjusting your itinerary if you’re not making the progress you hoped for.

Tell someone responsible where you are going and when you plan to return.

This is especially important in winter when the consequences of an unplanned night out are more severe.

Take care of other people in your group

Stick together. Watch yourself and others for signs of hypothermia, exhaustion, or dehydration. Suspect hypothermia if you notice unusually slow movements, unintelligible speech, and peculiar behavior. If a member of your party appears hypothermic, take quick action to keep him or her as warm as possible. Make group decisions based on the weakest party member.

Prevent hypothermia by closely managing clothing layers.

Take off a jacket before getting sweaty. Warm up your fingers before they are too stiff to work a zipper.

Carry and know how to use a map and compass (even if you have GPS).

Most winter travel feels like cross-country travel because trails are covered with snow. Even a few inches of snow can completely obscure a trail. Batteries can be unreliable in cold conditions. Make sure you have the right equipment and your navigational skills are up to the challenge. Even following the marked ski trails in the park requires care and attention in new snow, at night, or in stormy conditions.

Carry both sun and rain/snow protection.

Wear or carry a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, gloves, warm jacket, and raingear (both jacket & pants).

Be prepared for sudden changes in weather.

Check the weather forecast then be prepared for the unexpected. Wear proper clothing (no cotton). Synthetic or wool clothing keeps you warm when wet and will help keep you alive. Having many layers can help you adjust to changes in weather and activity level.

Carry emergency equipment.

Emergeny gear such as a signal mirror, whistle, waterproof matches, emergency space blanket, and a flashlight/headlamp (with extra batteries).

Drink plenty of water (and carry extra).

Dry winter air means you need more water to stay hydrated. Don’t forget to drink because it’s cold out.

Carry and eat high-energy food.

Your body burns a lot of calories keeping you warm, so make sure you don’t run out of fuel.

Be aware of avalanche hazards.

If you are not trained in avalanche avoidance and rescue, stay out of avalanche terrain. Don’t go on or beneath slopes steeper than 20 degrees.

Plan conservatively.

A foot of new, heavy snow can drastically affect how fast you can travel, make route finding more difficult, and greatly increase the avalanche hazard. Leave yourself a large margin of safety in the winter.

Be prepared to spend a night out if necessary.

Cell phone reception is notoriously spotty in the mountains, so calling for a rescue isn’t always easy. If you are lost or need to bivouac unexpectedly, stay calm. Build a fire if possible. Avoid wind and insulate your body from the snow. Stay dry! Drink warm liquids, and eat often. Huddle together for warmth.

Are you planning a longer wilderness trip in winter? Visit the Wilderness in Winter page for more information on what to expect, where to go and what camping rules apply.

Last updated: August 4, 2021

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