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  1. #1

    Default Navigating in winter

    Iíve always wanted to hike in winter, but worry about not being able to find the blazes in snow. Blizzard scenario aside, how easy is it to find the trail in winter? I really want to try, but donít want to end up on the Nightly News. 😳 Most likely to try a section in NC or southern Va. TIA!
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  2. #2
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    i can attest to the Smoky's and some parts around there-----but it's fairly easy..

    the trail is so beat down that there's pretty much an obvious groove to follow...

    and keep eyes on blazes...

    and other than trails in the GSMNP, the same method would not necessarily apply to trails that
    branch off of the AT...

  3. #3
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    It's pretty easy to follow in most places if in doubt just look the way you came to see the blazes going the way you just came from. I think blazes on the trees aren't to hard follow in the snow It's when you get to rock outcrop and no trees and they put the blazes on the rocks. Can be a challenge.

    Just start out with a overnighter and work your way up to confidence and longer winter trips. I guess guthooks or other GPS device would keep you on track as well .

    It really is a great time to get out less people, no bugs,ticks,snakes,etc.

  4. #4

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    Unless your trying to actually hike in a blizzard, the AT should be easy enough to keep track of. Finding where the trail goes back into the woods at a road crossing could be the most trouble. That's where I get confused. And of course, there is always GPS to help.
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    Winter's a great time to tune your navigation skills. Also, outside of the eastern United States, trail blazes are rarely used. Trails are followed by GPS, map & compass and lots of just plane dead reckoning. And, it's kinda fun.

    One of the beauties of there being snow on the ground is that you don't necessarily need to follow the trail exactly because your footprints aren't damaging the ground. So, as long as you can navigate well enough to be hiking along the right ridge and/or down the right draw, you can pick your own trail. In fact, when the snow is deep, sometimes the intended trail traverses a spot that you cannot go because of tree branches or steep snow banks or avalanche danger that force you to pick small or larger detours to get where you want to go safely.

    Enjoy the freedom of winter!
    I'm not lost. I'm exploring.

  6. #6

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    I spend considerable time snowshoeing when we have the snowpack. Beyond the use of maps and GPS, there are subtle clues one can look for when snowshoeing trails. First, getting lost is not much of a concern as following your tracks out remains the safety net (unless you are out in a raging snowstorm of course). There are some visual cues that can be used when everything around you looks like a possible trail route when blazes are not clear.

    There is a likelihood others have traveled that trail if it is accessible in winter and there are can be footprint impression remains on the trail that are visible. Old tracks can fill in with snow but can leave slight dimples on the snow surface, sometimes seen only in peripheral vision. Similar to "seeing" a faint trail in the woods during the summer by not looking directly at it. We use peripheral vision a lot without thinking about it to detect movement from a distance for example, or find our way through a dark room, so using it is (or can be) second nature.

    New England forests in snow may be different in other regions, but when every potential route looks like a trail, look for "doorways" that typically exist on maintained trails having a 6' to 8' high and 4' wide tread way clearance. Finding these corridors where there does not seem to be any branches in the way (sometimes you can see the branch pruning scars on trees) to discern them from what look like trails going into head and knee high branches. I do this moving from one "look" to the next to remain on the corridor.

    Of course if you have GPS or compass and a map, check that routinely to determine where you are against where you think you are to stay on course. Snowshoeing can be a lot of fun, but as any activity in winter with a snowpack more than a foot, it can be tiring so bring plenty of water and use a slow pace stopping frequently to rest a bit. The "ball of string" are your tracks in, they will make the return a little easier if you need to use them to get back.

  7. #7
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    Ditto on the pruning scars. My trail crew is taught to prune all the way around the tree so they're not lop-sided, but not all crews do that.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Traveler View Post
    . . . sometimes you can see the branch pruning scars on trees. . .
    Quote Originally Posted by garlic08 View Post
    Ditto on the pruning scars. . .
    Traveler, GREAT list of winter navigational aids! I use them all, all the time. That being said, maybe because of my propensity to be out hiking trails that haven't been broken out yet, in New England, using those "pruning scars" or cut bits of branches, often still visible at ankle level when the snow is deep, have definitely helped me find trails with a more confidence than any other method. After all, the person in front is often off trail in the winter. It's much more rare for the pruning scars to be off trail.
    I'm not lost. I'm exploring.

  9. #9

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    Quote Originally Posted by RADHiker View Post
    Iíve always wanted to hike in winter, but worry about not being able to find the blazes in snow. Blizzard scenario aside, how easy is it to find the trail in winter? I really want to try, but donít want to end up on the Nightly News.  Most likely to try a section in NC or southern Va. TIA!
    It really depends on elevation in NC and VA. 5,000 feet and above and things can get tricky.

    Ridgetops commonly get 2-3 feet of snow and just hiking is tough---think arduous postholing or if deep enough, a "swimming event", i.e. swimming thru the snow in 3-4 feet of the stuff. A foot trail can disappear easily no matter how well blazed.

    And then there's SNOWDOWNS. What are snowdowns? The AT is known as the Green Tunnel---and guess what happens when the tunnel (mostly rhodo) collapses on itself with heavy snow load? Yes, you'll be scooting thru on your hands and knees to a song in your head, "How Low Can You Go??" Very tough with a big pack on your back. Here's some pics of recent trips showing moderate snowdowns---







    There's a foot trail here somewhere.

    And then there's the occasional cold creek crossing to think about---



    Back in December 2018 North Carolina got hit with a terrible ice storms in the mountains above 5,000 feet and this is what happened to the trail---



    It took me 3 days to cut my way out with my folding saw.

    But it was beautiful---


  10. #10

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    It can be brutal up in the whites. There is an infamous spot in the whites on Haystack the south end to the open Franconia Ridge that thousands walk by in summer that has killed or severely injured hikers in the winter as the opening in the trees to Falling Water trail disappears and folks in bad weather end up getting lost in the dense spruce fir. just up the trail is similar trap on Skookumchuck trail and few miles north Mt Pierce has some easy to lose sections.

  11. #11

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    Quote Originally Posted by peakbagger View Post
    It can be brutal up in the whites. There is an infamous spot in the whites on Haystack the south end to the open Franconia Ridge that thousands walk by in summer that has killed or severely injured hikers in the winter as the opening in the trees to Falling Water trail disappears and folks in bad weather end up getting lost in the dense spruce fir. just up the trail is similar trap on Skookumchuck trail and few miles north Mt Pierce has some easy to lose sections.
    One good thing about winter in the Southeast mountains is we don't have many deaths because we don't have a "4,000 Footer" club or a "5,000 Foot Peak" club whereby individuals try to reach every peak in winter on foot---and we have hundreds maybe thousands of such elevated peaks. For the most part dayhikers and backpackers keep out of our mountains when conditions get sketchy.

    I think this reflects a "Just Right" attitude of our locals, as in: They won't come out if it's too cold or too hot or too wet or too windy---conditions have to be just right. I can say this because I pull numerous 20+ day winter trips and I don't see a single person the whole time. My recent January trip is proof of this.

  12. #12

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    Yes it is an issue, that an Boston and the colleges are 2 hours south in a different weather zone. Folks plan a daytrip and rationalize that if it gets bad they can always turn around but on certain hikes the weather can go to crap faster than they can escape. I moved up into the area in 1987 and when I did weekend day hikes I might have to break trail 1 out of 3 times. These days almost all the major summits are broken out within a couple of days. Unfortunately before the trails freeze up folks come up without snowshoes and bareboot which cause post holes. The other aspect is the mountains can make their own snow and even if it looks to be mild flurries, the wind can collect the snow and fill up a snowshoe track in 30 minutes. In some cases by the time I summit and turn around the track has disappeared coming down. It usually obvious where to go but in open woods its easy to make wrong turn onto crust and then drop down deep in unbroken snow.

    I live locally so I am fair weather hiker but I am the minority. With Covid its gotten worse, everyone is heading out in the woods and the parking lots are packed.

    The trade off is the views on a good day in winter beat the summer ones hands down. We normally have a tough time seeing the Green Mountains in VT in the summer but in the winter we can pick out at the ski areas from the Canadian border south for a hundred miles. I laterally can see half way to Katahdin over to Sugaloaf in Maine many days. Our trails are paved with rocks due to erosion so its a lot smoother walking in winter. Get the conditions right with a good crust on sunny day and I can cut my hike times by 10 to 20%. Makes bushwhacking easier if the crust is strong enough. Of course if it gets too warm the crust breaks down in the afternoon and then I am postholing with snowshoes which can really slow a hike down on the way out.

    I did winter camping for a few years but with the gear required I decided I had the skills and gear but not the motivation. Most folks pull pulks and basecamp or head to cabin or leanto. On heavy snow years the leansto's can get buried and then folks dig a tunnel down to them and they can warm them right up, instant igloo with wooden floors and walls and roof. Not that often of late but pretty wild when it happens. Right now its 2 to 3 feet of snow with no crust to speak of. Its workout breaking trail.

  13. #13

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    Right now there is a 1/4" crust on top of soft snow. Step off the trail and you know it.

    Here's the Davis path Sunday between Crawford and Resolution:
    101_0857.JPG
    Here's the million dollar view from Crawford:
    101_0854.JPG

    Oh wait, this is better, sadly there were clouds over the high peaks:
    101_0846.JPG
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  14. #14

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    Regarding the blazes, once it stops snowing the snow tends to get knocked down by the wind and gravity. Try to remember you can always turn around and look for blazes in the opposite direction too. This can be helpful if the wind is piling snow on one side of the trees.

    When there's not a lot of fresh snow (<12"), think of the trail like a street. You'll have a relatively smooth layer of snow which might look similar to lanes of snow that aren't on the trail. There's a difference though, the non-trail lanes usually have non-woody stems sticking up from growing season vegetation. Most vegetation gets pounded down in the trail footbed.

    Also, I don't think cairns (rock piles) were mentioned. Cairns are man-made rock piles and are used to indicate where the trail is when you can't see the blazes. Sometimes they are just from idle hands so try to get further confirmation.
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    Registered User turtle fast's Avatar
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    One thing to remember though is in places where the trail is close to mountain/cliff edges and other steep areas is that sometimes snow will accumulate beyond the cliff face on a shelflike feature. So going up to the the edge could be deadly. As well, be wary of frozen streams when crossing.

  16. #16
    Registered User turtle fast's Avatar
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    Iíve crunched thru more than one frozen stream even while using a hiking pole knocking on the ice. Luckily only getting a wet leg and boot. Undo your hip belt in case you need to ditch your pack. Use common sense and if too deep or sketchy, look for another route. Hiking in the winter can be extremely satisfying if planned out well as youíll have almost no company, usually no bear, snake, mosquito/black fly worries and have increased views with the leaves off the trees.

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by turtle fast View Post
    One thing to remember though is in places where the trail is close to mountain/cliff edges and other steep areas is that sometimes snow will accumulate beyond the cliff face on a shelflike feature. So going up to the the edge could be deadly. As well, be wary of frozen streams when crossing.
    I had to turn around on a Mt. Whitney summit attempt a few years ago in May because of this scenario on the approach trail. Going too close to the edge of a snow or ice covered “trail” and you might not be over solid ground anymore.

    In the woods, one way to tell if you are near or on trails, in any season, is the presence of large downed trees that have been cut. When large trees fall on the trail, maintenance crews often cut through it and remove the wood covering the trail but leave the rest of the tree and so you can look through the forest and sometimes see cut trees and likely know that the trail is there or nearby.

  18. #18

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    Quote Originally Posted by peakbagger View Post
    It can be brutal up in the whites. There is an infamous spot in the whites on Haystack the south end to the open Franconia Ridge that thousands walk by in summer that has killed or severely injured hikers in the winter as the opening in the trees to Falling Water trail disappears and folks in bad weather end up getting lost in the dense spruce fir. just up the trail is similar trap on Skookumchuck trail and few miles north Mt Pierce has some easy to lose sections.
    Until my first trip to the Whites, I'd never experienced a strong desire to have a GPS available for backcountry navigation. Up near the Madison hut in February of 2019, though, we ran into total whiteout conditions. After wandering around for a few minutes, one of our guys pulled out an inReach and was immediately able to orient us and we walked straight up to the hut. There were no visible landmarks whatsoever, so a map and compass really weren't doing any good. I bought an inReach myself for the trip the following year and maintain an active subscription. Full disclosure - I almost never actually carry it for trips around here because a whiteout isn't something we really experience, but I'd absolutely grab it for trips in other areas, particularly by myself. Between the navigation and being able to send out a message in an emergency, it's well worth the weight and a few dollars a month.

  19. #19
    Registered User JNI64's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CalebJ View Post
    Until my first trip to the Whites, I'd never experienced a strong desire to have a GPS available for backcountry navigation. Up near the Madison hut in February of 2019, though, we ran into total whiteout conditions. After wandering around for a few minutes, one of our guys pulled out an inReach and was immediately able to orient us and we walked straight up to the hut. There were no visible landmarks whatsoever, so a map and compass really weren't doing any good. I bought an inReach myself for the trip the following year and maintain an active subscription. Full disclosure - I almost never actually carry it for trips around here because a whiteout isn't something we really experience, but I'd absolutely grab it for trips in other areas, particularly by myself. Between the navigation and being able to send out a message in an emergency, it's well worth the weight and a few dollars a month.
    This is what I plan on doing as well. Especially for the whites and just having that confidence for navigation and text. As I too am a solo hiker and really no limit to the trails I wanna hike some are not marked and for winter navigation.

  20. #20

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    One of the whites specific rules anytime of the year is if northbound on the AT in the whites, if in doubt escape to your left. From Moosilauke to Gorham, its pretty consistent that going right usually puts a hiker in far more crap than going left. Its counterintuitive hiking left tends to be into the wind. That that does not mean that going left anywhere still isnt going to put someone in a dangerous place but if you can find a trail, the ones that go to the left usually get to some access point in hours while taking trails to the right frequently means days and the areas they access get little winter use. In general weather comes in from the North/North west and the glaciers carved the area from the NW so the glacial cirques are deeper and steeper on east side of the ridge line. In winter that is also the directions that cornices form. A cornice is snow built in off the side of ridge line and generally accentuate the drop on the east side of the ridge.

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