Colorado winter hiking can be tough. In this blog, I am going to cover my four Colorado winter hiking tips to make your next winter adventure more safe, fun and enjoyable. Winter in Colorado can be a difficult time of year to hike; snow covers most of the state and avalanches make non-threatening summer hikes potentially deadly. However, if you prepare right you can see beautiful parts of nature that only exist in the winter with far less crowds on the trails.
Colorado Winter Hiking Tips: Research
My first of four Colorado Winter hiking tips is to do A TON of research before any hike you attempt. I am going to break this down into four sub categories as I feel it’s the biggest tip I can give for Colorado winter hiking.
Knowing what the weather is always important, but even more so during the cold winter months. I often use multiple sources such as OpenSummit, Weather.Gov and Mountain-Forecast to cross reference forecasts when possible. The key areas I look out for are winds, temperature and of course any change of precipitation. In addition, I sort out forecasts by elevation when possible so that I can have an idea of conditions both below and above treeline. In general, I don’t even bother with a hike unless I know that conditions are going to be fairly perfect. Winds especially almost always kill a planned hike if they are too high for my liking.
Research trail conditions
This Colorado winter hiking tip is tougher but equally as important to do as weather: researching trail conditions. Sites like 14ers.com are great for high mountains but I also look at AllTrails and even sometimes search Instagram to see what the trail on my hike might be like. This one is harder to do, but the more beta or information you can gather on a hike beforehand, the more honed in your packing list can become and time management can be – more on those later.
Research trailhead access
Similar to above but in many cases this Colorado winter hiking tip is easier to research. Many parts of Colorado are accessed by county roads or forest roads that are not maintained year round. This means that a hike that could be 4 miles in the summer could easily be 8+ miles or even completely inaccessible. Before planning that next hike, make sure it’s something that’s even possible! Resources like CDOT, 14ers.com TH Conditions, Colorado State Parks, and the US Forest Service are some of the many I always take a peak at. These resources can be helpful in the fall when roads start closing for the season or in the spring when snow is still melting in many places across the state. There is nothing worse than doing all of the above research on a hike only to find out you can’t even get there.
Research avalanche conditions
The final and most important Colorado Winter Hiking tip in terms of research is avalanches. Just because you’re not skiing, boarding or snowmobiling does not mean that you can’t get caught in or trigger an avalanche. To be perfectly honest, this tip could be its own write-up and requires hours and hours of in the field experience and classwork. However, for the sake of this blog and not driving everyone to sleep, I will say this: before you go, know the avalanche terrain and forecast. Avalanche terrain typically starts above 30 degree slope and the sweet spot for an avalanche happens in between 35-45 degree slopes. A fantastic resource for this is using Caltopo’s slope angle shading tool. This can be found using the map overlay feature on the website or app. PLEASE NOTE – just because your route does not go into these types of slopes does not mean it is safe during the winter. However, this is a good place to start in terms of research and general understanding.
Second with avalanches in Colorado is to always research the avalanche forecast for your hike. The best resource for this is CAIC which offers multiple forecasts and updates per week during the winter months. Again, just because a forecast for your zone is green or low risk, does not mean that you can’t trigger or get caught in an avalanche. For this Colorado winter hiking tip, the more research you can do, the better off you will be.
Colorado Winter Hiking Tips: Time Management
Another important Colorado winter hiking tip is time management. During the drier months, you should be able to have a fairly good idea as to how many miles per hour you can move in relation to the elevation you need to gain on any given hike. If you don’t know this number, it’s probably good to pay attention to in the future as you get into bigger days and venture into winter hiking. During the winter however, movement times can be extremely slow and unpredictable with deep snow and terrain that requires slower movement. What I typically like to do is to estimate my movement on the lower end of things and in some cases have a “summit” or “turnaround” time where I call it a day if I am moving too slow. It sucks to have to do this, but as the sun goes down, so do the temperatures and you do not want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere cold and without sunlight if you are not prepared to do so.
Speaking of the sun, our days here in Colorado get very short with sunlight (only about 7-8 hours for most of the winter) so prepare accordingly with extra layers, a headlamp and extra batteries. Preparing for short days of sun is a key Colorado winter hiking tip.
Colorado Winter Hiking Tips: Packing Extra Gear
My third of four Colorado winter hiking tips is to always have extra gear in your bag. When you are hiking in the summer, you sort of get into a groove on what to pack. Your packing list is pretty standard and if you forget something, it’s usually not the end of the world. However, when hiking in Colorado during the winter, you will want to be prepared with both hardgoods and softgoods. Colorado winter hiking tip number three leads us to ensuring that you have the appropriate things in your bag. Having extra gloves & hats, base layers and even socks can be helpful to make your winter hike more enjoyable. I have even found myself adding weird items like goggles to help with high/cold winds that really detract from your day. If you are not sure what to pack, you can always bring extra layers for a while until you have a better idea how your body performs and feels in various cold weather conditions.
In addition to softgoods, be sure to pack extra hardgoods like snowshoes, gaiters, microspikes or even crampons and a mountain axe if the terrain demands it. It’s always a pain to carry gear that you do not use on the hike, but it’s better to have it and not use it then to need it and get in a dangerous situation or have to turn around because you are not packed properly.
Finally, having all of this extra gear is great to make you more prepared for Colorado winter hiking, but be sure to know how to properly use each piece of gear otherwise, it’s just a waste of weight.
Colorado Winter Hiking Tips: Have a GPS or Map
My final of four Colorado winter hiking tips is to have a GPS, route or map to follow. In most cases, the trail is going to be covered with snow and ice and very hard to follow. In addition, winter hiking routes in an area may be different than a summer route. For example, if you are hiking a mountain that is prone to avalanche terrain on the summer route, the winter trail might avoid this terrain to make it more safe. However, this usually means more hiking off the trail with less signage.
In addition to not being able to follow a trail, I can’t tell you how many times I have gone out to tackle a Colorado winter hike and either followed an incorrect set of tracks assuming they were on the “right” trail or just had to break trail myself. Unlike other times of year, it’s likely that you will be hiking by yourself or with far less people. You need to be able to rely on your route finding and map reading skills to get you to and back from your objective of the day. I always look for .GPX files to download or you can create your own using websites like Caltopo.
Hiking in the winter in Colorado may be more difficult in a lot of senses, but if you get into the right groove with it and pick days with good weather, it can be a ton of fun. You are able to see things that only exist for a few months a year, have far less crowds and learn a new set of skills. That is a wrap on my list of Colorado winter hiking tips, let me know what you thought or if you have another tip by leaving it in the comments below. Looking for some year round hike ideas? Check out my website here!