How to be prepared for any winter journey in the wilderness |

How to be prepared for any winter journey in the wilderness

A warm campfire can play a role in preventing frostbite, and anything in the wilderness that’s flammable in the summer is still there under the snow.
Getty Images/Courtesy photo

Frostbite, avalanches and blizzards, oh my!

It’s true: winter in Summit County comes with a host of dangers. Gone are the days of hiking up mountains with nothing but a good pair of shoes and a water bottle. But that doesn’t mean the peaks, woods and other bastions of seclusion are inaccessible. All that’s needed is the right preparation, thorough training and a few essentials.

Snowshoeing, winter camping, snowmobiling or backcountry skiing and riding are all viable ways of reaching remote areas when snow covers the ground in heaps. Regardless of how the backcountry is reached, adventuring safely is a prerequisite for all methods.

The Summit County Rescue Group has responded to an average of about 56 calls for help between Dec. 1 and Mar. 31 each of the last four years. Most are lost skiers, snowshoers or hikers who got off trail, along with a few stuck snowmobiles, according to rescue group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste. Avalanches are also frequently called in, although many occur with no burials or injuries, she said.

As part of being prepared, group member Warre Matthews recommended backcountry trekkers refer to the organization’s online list of backcountry rules and essentials.

The winter brings with it a new host of dangers. Chief among them are “cold, weather, cold, early darkness, cold, unpreparedness and cold,” Matthews said. These conditions only get worse the longer one finds themselves in the wilderness, so it’s best to avoid getting stuck overnight.

Cold weather can mean loss of fine motor skills and frostbite. Beyond dressing appropriately with warm layers, Matthews encourages folks to prepare for the cold by enrolling in a first-aid course and learning the early signs of frostbite. Early signs include a prickly, pins-and-needles feeling in the skin, which can turn pallid white or gray. The skin may become hard and waxy in more advanced stages, eventually turning a blue-gray color.

A warm campfire can play a role in preventing frostbite. Anything in the wilderness that’s flammable in the summer is still there under the snow, Matthews said.

“The trick to campfires is being patient and having forethought,” he said. “Look for fuel before you get cold and practice the skill before you need it.”

When asked where the best place to camp overnight in Summit County is during the winter, Matthews said “in a warm sleeping bag. There are lots of great spots in Summit as long as the spot includes a well-thought-out solution for the weather. Know your gear and be prepared.” 

Backcountry skiers are encourage to abide by a few preventative measures known as the “three Ts,” DeBattiste said. All three can extend to all other backcountry activities.

Trip plan: Tell someone reliable back home where you’re going, when you expect to be back, your intended route and other important details. 

Training: Make sure you have the skills, experience and physical conditioning for what you’re doing.

Take the 10 essentials (plus any sport-specific essentials): This includes navigation tools and plenty of warm clothing and shelter in case you get hurt and have to wait for a rescue.

The 10 essentials can change based on the activity, rescue group member Aaron Palmet said. A snowmobiler should bring the gear necessary to travel over snow in the event of a breakdown, along with the tools to get unstuck. A first-aid kit is always handy, especially when someone’s engaging in high-risk activities like backcountry skiing. 

Additionally, fire starters, food, water, head lamps, a compass, an altimeter and batteries can be helpful.

But, Palmet pointed out, no gear is helpful without the knowledge to use it.

“It’s tough to figure these things out when the sun is setting and you’re cold,” he said.

If you’re heading out without official avalanche certification, the most important thing to know is how to recognize dangerous slopes. An inclinometer can help measure the angle, and slopes steeper than 30 degrees pose an avalanche risk. Traveling up, down, across or below such a pitch is a danger best avoided, DeBattiste said.

Recognizing avalanche terrain requires more information than a single magazine article can contain, advised Palmet. He encouraged people who plan to head into the snow-covered Rocky Mountains to learn as much as they can, since it takes from one to eight hours of training to know avalanche terrain, he said.

Sometimes the simplest thing a person to do is among the most important.

“Even if I am out walking the dog on a short hike, I look up,” Matthews said. “What are the clouds like? Too many times I’ve been surprised by clouds popping out from behind mountains.”

Matthews boiled down his advice to one statement: “I’ve come to understand this to be true and it’s been said by many people before me: Under stress, you won’t rise to the occasion. Instead, you’ll sink to the level you’ve trained.”

Readiness resources
  • Summit County Rescue Group backcountry tips 
    • Summit County Rescue Group has a useful list of backcountry safety tips, regardless of the season, at
  • Know Before You Go
    • Watch a free, hourlong avalanche awareness presentation at as an introductory step to avalanche safety
  • Guided education
    • Colorado Mountain College and Colorado Adventure Guides offer an array of outdoor winter courses, from ice climbing to avalanche certification. Visit and to learn more
  • Colorado Avalanche Information Center
    • View forecasts, recent reports and weather stories about Colorado’s avalanche conditions at Avalanche.State.CO.US
A compass, among other tools, can be helpful to stay safe on wintry, outdoor excursions.
Getty Images/Courtesy photo

This story originally published in the winter 2022-23 edition of Explore Summit magazine.

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