Winter is a wonderful time to visit Southern Utah and your favorite national parks. Fewer crowds mean that you’ll have trails to yourself and unobstructed views at even the most popular overlooks. Snowfall makes for some fun and unique winter activities, like cross-country skiing or snowmobile tours. Holidays often mean time off of work and school that are perfect for a quick trip. Plus, cooler temperatures make for more comfortable hiking compared to the heat of Utah’s summers!
But before you set out on your cold-weather adventure, there are a few important safety tips you need to know. Keep reading to learn more.
1. Never Hike Alone
Unless you’re a very experienced hiker who is familiar with the trail, hiking during the day in good conditions, and have the right equipment, it’s never all that safe to hike alone. But during the winter, even weathered hikers should think twice before hitting the trails without a buddy.
Hiking in sub-zero temperatures can be dangerous and unpredictable. Unexpected storms can leave you with very little visibility on trails, making it easy to stray from the path and get lost. Even with warm gear, spending too long on the trail, getting caught on the trail after dark, or getting wet from falling snow can leave you dangerously exposed.
Having someone along who can help treat injuries, go for help, or otherwise keep you calm and focused if disaster does strike can be the difference between life and death on the trail. On a much happier note, having a friend along with you means someone to share the incredible views and lasting memories you’re creating.
2. Stay Away from the Edge
Southern Utah is known for its stunning red rock cliffs and towering mountains. In Capitol Reef and Zion, as well as in many of the state parks in the region, there are plenty of trails that take you into the higher elevations. Some follow along narrow cliff faces, with drops of hundreds of feet or more just inches away.
Even steady feet and hiking boots with great grip are no match for ice. And while you’re busy enjoying the view, it can be easy to not notice that the ice is there until it is too late.
Whether you think the edge of a cliff is dry or not, it’s always a good idea to stay back. Maintaining a safe distance will ensure that you don’t take an accidental tumble or slip on unseen ice near the edge.
3. Wear the Right Gear
Having the right clothing will not only keep you comfortable on the trail but will also help you stay safe.
Dressing for winter weather and plunging temperatures is about more than piling on layers. For instance, none of your layers should be cotton. Cotton holds onto moisture, keeping it trapped against your skin. Synthetic fabrics wick moisture and dry quickly, keeping you warmer. This goes for your base layers, sweaters, socks, and other clothing.
Top your warm synthetic layers with a waterproof shell. If you get caught in snow or rain, this will prevent moisture from saturating your layers and lowering your body temperature. Finish off your hiking outfit with a comfortable pair of durable, water-proof or water-resistant hiking boots with a sole that offers plenty of traction.
4. Know the Signs of Hypothermia
If you think that you need to get caught in a snowstorm or stranded overnight to be at risk of hypothermia, think again. When temperatures drop to negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia can set in in as little as 10 minutes. But temperatures don’t have to be that extreme for hypothermia to occur. Add in water, whether from rain, snow, or a run-in with a river, and you could experience this dangerous condition even when temperatures are above freezing.
When hypothermia occurs, you need to get to warm shelter and medical help as quickly as possible. That’s why it’s important to know the earliest signs of hypothermia so that you can spot them in yourself or in a hiking companion. Symptoms include:
- Slurred speech
- Shallow or slowed breathing
- A weak pulse
- Lack of coordination, stumbling, unusual clumsiness
- Confusion or disorientation
- Red, raw skin or skin that is cold to the touch
5. Don’t Forget to Drink Water
When you’re hiking in the desert in the middle of summer, it’s easy to remember to keep drinking water. But just because you aren’t sweating and baking in the sun doesn’t mean that you can’t get dehydrated. In fact, dehydration is accelerated when you’re hiking in colder temperatures. Because cold air is drier, we dehydrate more quickly. Our bodies are also working harder to warm up the air we breathe and need more water to keep up.
While hiking in the winter, you should be drinking at least 4 quarts of water a day. If you’re hiking in higher elevations where the air is even drier and your body is working even harder, you’ll want to drink as much as twice that amount.
6. Pack an Emergency Kit
Besides wearing the right clothing, there are also a few pieces of gear you should have along for your winter hike. Your emergency kit should include normal staples you bring for hikes year-round, like a first aid kit, some snacks, a multi-tool or pocket knife, and sun protection like sunscreen and a hat. But in the winter, add in emergency blankets, including an extra one that could be used for shelter if you get caught in the elements. A fire-starter is also a good idea.
Prepping for Your Winter Hike
Armed with the right clothing and emergency gear, a hiking buddy, and the rest of this cold-weather knowledge, you’re ready to hit the trails!