Stay safe in the winter mountains
In winter, the mountains are impressive, yet unforgiving. The snow and the cold make them more extreme than in other seasons. Avalanches occur frequently and require all travellers to be well prepared. Here are some essential tips on winter safety!
Imagine breathing in the crisp fresh air as you look out upon glittering white mountains. Turning your face to the sun, you don't feel the warmth, yet the sunbeams are a rare sight at this time of the year, so you blissfully soak up every ray.
Wonderful and extreme
Enjoying the mountains in winter can be amazing, but can also be more challenging than in other seasons. Norway is a country with a long winter season, so we have rich traditions for skiing. Cross country skiing, ski touring, alpine skiing, and snowshoeing enable us to enjoy the outdoors almost like we do in the summer: to hike, socialise, exercise, play, and relax!
Despite all the great benefits, winter can be brutal, and the consequences of freezing, getting soaking wet, or buried in snow can be severe. The mountains require knowledge and preparation by all who travel there in winter. You must always check key information such as avalanche risk, when it gets dark, and the weather forecast.
Here are some essential tips on how to travel more safely and avoid dangerous situations in the mountains during winter.
Always know your location
Be aware of whiteouts that make it hard to see where you are. To navigate, it's good to have a map and compass. These are reliable tools that aren't dependent on battery power or signal availability, ensuring that you can find your way if technology fails. However, this only works if you are experienced with a map and compass.
It's crucial to bring a fully charged mobile phone. Although the network coverage might be scarce, a phone is the most effective way of contacting rescue teams in case of emergency. If you are lost, a smartphone sends out signals helping the rescue team find you. GPS devices and GPS watches can also help you know where you are and find your way back on track.
Probably the best and safest way to experience the winter mountains and snowy landscapes is by traditional cross-country skiing or Nordic touring skis. You can explore thousands of kilometres of smooth groomed trails in the mountains and forests of Norway. Beginners, families and those just looking for an hour of exercise can enjoy short trails, but there's also an abundance of longer mountain trails, some of which take you from cabin to cabin. As long as you stay on the trail you should be good, but remember that the weather can change quickly in the mountains. Bring a head torch in case it gets dark before you return.
For adrenaline-seekers, downhill skiing is the best! A few alpine resorts have designated areas to ski off-piste in untouched powder down the slopes. But be aware that once you move outside marked or groomed slopes it's at your own risk. You can get stuck in deep snow, so always go with a friend.
Ski touring involves hiking on a snowy mountain off the marked trails, and allows skiers to explore the backcountry. When ski touring, you are moving through wild, steep terrain that immediately involves an avalanche risk. As this is more extreme, you should always hire a local guide who will make sure that your winter adventure is a safe experience! They also know the best routes for the current conditions.
No matter if you go ski touring, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or off-piste in an alpine resort, avalanches can occur wherever there's snow and a 30-degree or steeper incline. That's why you should avoid travelling on or below steep slopes, particularly if you spot traces of avalanches elsewhere around you.
It is a good idea to take an avalanche course, learn how to rescue others, and, not least, learn to use avalanche equipment such as an avalanche beacon, shovel, and search bar.
Avalanches are divided into release areas and runout zones. Release areas are usually steeper than 30 degrees, and must be avoided. To find the slope angle, you can use a compass, your ski pole, or the app Varsom Regobs, which features a map with the slope angle so you can find the least steep route. The runout zones are the terrain below the release areas. The shape and steepness of the terrain will influence how far the avalanche runs. This means that even if you're on flat terrain, the avalanche may still reach you if you are close to a mountain.
Always remember to check the avalanche forecast Varsom.no in advance. You can’t outrun or outski an avalanche, so the best thing to do is avoid them altogether. Here's a more complete guide to safety for ski tourers.
When it’s freezing cold, you'll truly feel the importance of staying warm, dry, and hydrated. Adjust the amount of layers you wear to your level of activity. Wear warm clothing, preferably in natural materials such as wool, leather, and down as they keep you nice and warm. Don't get wet, and wear windproof outer garments. To avoid hypothermia, you have to stay dry and warm.
Even though it’s winter, you should bring sunglasses, as the glare from the snow can be quite intense and cause snow blindness in extreme cases. You should also apply a high SPF sunscreen due to the strong UV rays that reflect off the snow.
Prepare for the extreme
If you get lost, stay where you are and wait for help. Stick your skis in the snow, put on your safety vest, and signal with your torch or a mirror to make it easier for others to spot you.
If you have an accident and need to remain in place overnight, make sure you conserve enough energy to dig a cave in the snow or set up a snow shelter against the wind. Insulate yourself from the ground or the snow if you have to lie down – skis are great for this. A large backpack can be used as a small makeshift sleeping bag, and even a small one may keep your feet warm and dry.
If you get thirsty, don’t be afraid to eat snow as long as it looks clean and untouched. It will cool you down somewhat, but dehydration will most often be a bigger concern than hypothermia.
Summary: the mountains are beautiful in the winter, but require you to take more precautions before entering the wild!
The mountains in summer
See what to wear and how to stay safe on your summer hike.
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