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Important: Winter Hiking Safety Tips

Safety is important whether you are day hiking or winter backpacking. Whatever your physical ability or destination, you'll have a safer and better experience if you're properly prepared for outdoor activities.

A day trip to a state park or even a short, local hike can quickly change from pleasurable to life-threatening if you get lost, the weather suddenly deteriorates, or you become ill or injured. By following the suggestions below, you'll remain safe and have a great time and you'll be eager to get outside again. DEC has a brochure with safety tips (PDF) (191 kB) on how to prevent getting lost and what to do if you are lost.

Before You Go

Before you leave, plan ahead. Learn about the area ahead of time. Study the latest guidebooks and maps that give information on highways, trails, streams and other physical features. Plan your trip carefully according to routes and the time you have available. Check weather reports before you set out.

A group of hikers on a trail through the woods
It's safer to hike in a group than
to go alone.
  • Prepare yourself physically. If your planned recreation calls for considerable physical exertion, get in shape beforehand. Do not attempt a trip that is beyond your physical capabilities.
  • Leave word of your destination and schedule. In order to locate you in an emergency or send assistance should you need it, leave word at home or with a friend as to where you are going and when you intend to return.
  • Arrange to go with a group or at least one other person.
  • Know how to identify common poisonous plants (See offsite link at right to CDC) like poison ivy so you can avoid them.
  • Know the rules and guidelines for appropriate behavior for the area you are visiting.
  • If hiking in the Adirondacks, consult DEC's Adirondack Trail Information webpages which are updated every week with important information on trail conditions and seasonal notices.

What to Wear

  • Wear light-colored, non-cotton long pants and long-sleeved tops, even in summer. Light colors make it easier to see whether ticks are on you.
  • Dress appropriately for the season and wear appropriate hiking shoes or boots. Layered clothing is best to meet changing weather conditions. If cool or wet conditions can be expected it is recommended that you avoid cotton clothing, which insulates poorly when wet and dries very slowly.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses (even in winter), or take them with you.
  • Wear a watch so you'll be aware of sundown approaching, even if the sky becomes cloudy.
  • Avoid wearing scents in any form; they can attract stinging and biting insects.

What to Pack

A person in an improvised shelter made from an orange trash bag with a hole for the face.
You can create a quick shelter
from rain or cold using a heavy-
duty trash bag with a hole cut
out for your face.
  • Carry a trail map, compass and a topographic map of the area and know how to use both.
  • Your pack should contain extra warm clothing, high energy food, pocket knife, whistle, sunscreen.
  • A way to start a fire, including matches in a waterproof container and cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. These will light even when wet.
  • Raingear or a heavy duty, brightly colored trash bag with a hole cut out for your face. A simple trash bag enclosure will keep you dry and warmer.
  • Water and water purification tablets.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Take an epi-pen if you're allergic to bee stings.
  • Cellphone with forest ranger emergency contact numbers, 518-408-5850 and 518-891-0235 (Adirondacks) stored in it. Don't count on cell service in all areas.

At the Trailhead or Parking Lot

  • Conceal valuables, and lock your vehicle.
  • Sign trail registers and indicate the time.

On the Trail

  • Stay with your party; don't split up and take different trails.
  • Drink water regularly, and rest and snack occasionally.
  • Resist the temptation to hike "just a little farther;" it could delay your return and put you at risk of losing daylight.
  • Do not drink water from ponds or streams unless you have treated it first by boiling, filtering or using purification tablets.
  • Avoid wading or swimming in unfamiliar waters, where there could be sudden, strong currents or steep dropoffs.
  • Sign in at any Department of Environmental Conservation trail register you may pass. This will assist us in finding you should we need to search for you.
  • Don't build fires when the risk of forest fires is high, and don't leave fires unattended.
  • Don't litter; if you carry it in, carry it out.
  • Abandoned oil and gas wells can be located in wooded areas along hiking trails. If you find what you think may be a well, do not touch the well and contact the Division of Mineral Resources.

If You Get Lost or Injured

A campfire burning at night
If you're lost, a campfire will
keep you warm and the smoke
will make you easier to find.
  • If you become lost, keep calm, stay dry, keep warm and stay put.
  • If it appears that you will need to spend the night in the woods, build a campfire to provide heat, light and comfort. A campfire will be invaluable in locating you if you have been reported missing. Aircraft may be used in searching when weather permits and smoky campfires may be spotted from the air
  • If the weather is particularly cold or bad and you must spend the night in the woods, also build a small shelter using dead branches, hemlock boughs and leaves. The shelter will serve as a "cocoon" and should be just big enough for you to lie in comfortably. Set up camp before darkness falls.
  • If you feel you can try and find your way out of the woods, remember that following streams downhill will nearly always lead you back to signs of habitation.
  • Any person knowing you are overdue should contact the New York State Forest Ranger in the area of your trip.
  • In case of accident, at least one person should remain with the injured person. Know and use basic first aid techniques. Others in the group should carefully note the location and contact the local New York State Forest Ranger.

When You Return

  • Sign trail registers again and indicate the time.
  • Return trail guides.
  • Dispose of litter properly.

Weather Considerations

In the Northeast, the weather can change quickly and dramatically. A day may begin sunny and warm but suddenly become wet and chilly-conditions that may lead to hypothermia. Hypothermia can occur in any season-not just winter-and it can be fatal.

Staying Safe in Winter

Winter is a great time to get outdoors. The cold, crisp air is exhilarating. The scenery is spectacular, even more wondrous than the summer. There are no biting insects and fewer people on the trails. The quiet and solitude is remarkable and most enjoyable.

Watch a video about winter hiking safety tips and check out these other clips on DEC's YouTube Channel.
Winter Gear
backpack, skis, snowshoes, ice axe and other winter gears
Bring proper equipment for a safe winter hike.
  • Day Pack (2500-3000 cu. in.)
  • Waterproof Outer Wear
  • Fleece or Wool Hat
  • Winter Boots
  • Crampons
  • High Energy Snacks
  • Sun Glasses
  • Sun Screen
  • Ensolite Pad
  • Stove & Extra Fuel
  • Map and Compass
  • Fleece-Wool Clothing
  • Gloves or Mittens
  • Skis or Snowshoes
  • Flashlight or Headlamp
  • Water Bottle
  • Water Purification
  • First Aid Kit
  • Ice Axe
  • Bivy Sack
  • Space Blanket

In addition to the general planning and preparation guidelines already mentioned, be sure to:

three cross-country skiers standing by a river
Plan your route and dress appropriately.
Plan for Winter Conditions
  • Check the current weather conditions and forecast before you set out.
  • Avoid hypothermia by staying dry and warm, drinking plenty of water, eating food, and resting often.
  • Remember that it takes more time and energy to travel on snow.
  • Plan for colder temperatures, stronger winds and deeper snow on high summits.
  • Use snowshoes or skis in snow to prevent post-holing, reduce injuries, and ease travel.
  • Carry crampons or other traction devices for use on icy areas.
Dress for Winter
  • Wear winter boots
  • Dress with layers of wool and fleece (not cotton)
  • Add and remove layers to remain comfortable
  • Wear a wool or fleece hat
  • Wear gloves or mittens

See the Adirondack Trail Information web page for more information.

Common Winter Problems

Problems common to winter may include avalanches, snow squalls, frostbite and thin ice. Except for those who recreate in the backcountry, most people are unlikely to become victims of avalanches. However, almost everyone has experienced a snow squall, which can obliterate vision and create slippery surfaces. Squalls tend to be brief, so stay put if you're caught in one.

Frostbite is the freezing of living tissues that causes a breakdown of their cell structure. It may affect the extremities after prolonged exposure to temperatures below freezing. Frostbite injury can range from superficial redness of the skin, slight numbness or blisters, to skin discoloration, obstruction of blood flow or blood clots. Rubbing frostbitten skin, once a popular "remedy," can cause further damage; don't do it.

When trying to decide whether ice is safe to walk on, always err on the side of caution. Test ice before putting your full weight on it. Ice is always thinner where there are springs or other moving water, such as at the mouths of tributaries, near outlets and inlets and along shorelines. It's better to remain dry and warm than to cross questionable ice just to save time.

Staying Safe in Summer

Outdoor recreationists should be aware of the possibility of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke is potentially fatal.

Recreationists also should be aware that if skies darken, the wind increases or lightning flashes, it's likely an electrical storm is approaching. Avoid high ground, isolated trees, water and metal objects. Seek shelter in a nearby building or vehicle. If a storm is imminent, make yourself as small as possible by squatting on the balls of your feet and keeping your arms close to your sides. Limit contact with the ground by putting your hands on your knees. (see "Lightning Safety" link at right)

If a storm threatens while you're swimming or boating, get out of the water and away from it as quickly as possible. If you cannot return a boat to shore before a storm hits, go below deck or crouch in the middle of the boat, staying away from metal objects and surfaces.