With this year’s influx of snow and traditional winter weather, Kenai Peninsula residents may be planning more outdoor excursions than in winters past. There are certain precautions and steps, however, that need to be taken before heading out into the snow that differ slightly from what needs to be done before a summer outing. Leah Eskelin, a park ranger for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, offered some tips and tricks for being as prepared as possible for winter hiking, camping and other adventures.
1. Know your plan
A trip plan is the very first thing that comes to mind for Eskelin, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Especially when it comes to winter recreating, hikers and campers need to have a basic plan and a detailed trip plan.
Once the details of a trip are hammered out, they ought to be shared. It’s not enough to have the trip mapped out in one’s head, Eskelin said. Rather, it needs to be explained to the whole group as well as trusted friends who are not part of the outing, she said, so that they can call for help if the group is overdue or in trouble.
“(Make) sure that everyone knows the plan, so you don’t just have a leader that if something happens to them then everyone else is lost,” Eskelin said.
2. Know your backup plan
The planning doesn’t stop there. In addition to the basic and trip plans, there needs to be an emergency plan in case something goes awry and group members are in danger, as well as a backup plan if any of the first plans fail. Eskelin recalled her own experience of returning from a trip across Tustumena Lake when, unexpectedly, a squall-like snow rolled in over the water and forced her to change course and take shelter until it passed.
“(You have to) be absolutely, 100 percent willing to change the plan,” she said.
3. Know the area
It’s important to be familiar with one’s surroundings, Eskelin said, whether it’s winter or not. If people are planning a trip to an area with which they don’t have much experience, she suggested studying and bringing a map along. Knowing where the closest public use cabins or camping sites are located will make things easier in the event that the previously mentioned backup plan comes into play.
4. Know the weather
A basic planning factor in any trip, being aware of the expected weather conditions before an outing becomes even more important during winter months. Eskelin suggested not stopping at the local weather report, but also checking the Alaska region of the National Weather Service.
Planning for the projected weather also includes planning for an unexpected change. Sometimes, temperatures can move 10 to 20 degrees above or below what was expected, so Eskelin said outdoor enthusiasts should be prepared for that as well.
“Know that even the best of our forecasting models here — we don’t know,” she said.
5. Know the pros
Not everyone will already know the ins and outs of planning a winter trip, whether it’s backcountry or close to town. Eskelin said part of preparing for such a trip is picking the brains of friends and professionals who have that expertise.
Whether it’s a friend who routinely ventures into the peninsula’s backcountry, or the staff at the refuge, Eskelin said it never hurts to ask for help or useful tips. The refuge visitor center in Soldotna has plenty of maps to offer travelers, Eskelin said, including some that detail lake depths for those thinking of crossing some of the larger bodies of water.
6. Know the dangers
Winter brings with it several hazards people don’t have to think about while recreating in summer. Grizzlies may be hibernating, but that still leaves cold temperatures, deep snow, avalanche conditions and the threat of cracked or melting ice.
While avalanche conditions aren’t as prevalent on the refuge as they are in the Chugach National Forest, Eskelin said it doesn’t hurt to bring necessary tools for surviving an avalanche if a trip involves venturing into mountains.
“We get really, really comfortable with how it is on the west side of the peninsula,” she said, a mindset that needs to change on the east side, where the climate and terrain are different.
Skiers who plan on crossing lakes or wetlands need to be especially wary as winter moves into spring, Eskelin said. It’s important to always keep an eye out for spider holes or potential wet areas when crossing lakes, she said.
“We’re increasingly finding that a lot of our smaller lakes have a lot of overflow this season,” she said.
If possible, it’s always better to avoid venturing out alone during winter, Eskelin said. Bringing someone along who is of equal or greater experience is a good practice.
7. Know the specifics
This step harkens back to the detailed trip plan, but has to do with digging into the fine details specific to where a group will go and exactly what they will do on that particular trip. There are a myriad of factors that can make or break a trip that many people might not even consider before leaving, Eskelin said.
In winter, for example, one might take for granted that there will be leftover firewood at a public use cabin, but that’s not always the case. Thinking ahead and packing extra wood in that case can mean the difference between warming up after a long day’s hike, or extending that long, cold day by however long it takes to gather that firewood on-site.
8. Know your clothes
Here’s where the difference between summer and winter recreation really comes into play. Eskelin said that while packing appropriate clothing might seem obvious, it can get tricky when people plan on taking part in more intense outdoor activities.
“At this point in the season, all of us are generally acclimated to (the cold),” she said.
Therefore, when the temperature sneaks up to around 30 degrees, Eskelin said it can feel much warmer, and hikers or skiers might not be prepared for that. It’s crucial not to sweat on winter trips because that sweat will quickly cool and make for damp clothes, so thoughtful layering with moisture-wicking clothing becomes all the more important.
Hand and foot warmers are another winter essential, as well as extra pairs of socks to protect feet from getting wet. Winter hats are often lost or dropped, Eskelin said, so an extra one of those won’t hurt either.
9. Know your gear
Aside from the staples — tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. — the right hiking and camping gear can make for a much easier and more enjoyable winter outing. Having the ability to communicate with friends back home is key, and Eskelin said groups should never rely on cellphone coverage for that.
Having multiple kinds of communication, like a satellite phone or a SPOT global phone that can send pre-written messages as texts even in areas where a satellite phone might not work, will create a safety net during winter trips where timely communication in an emergency is paramount.
The same goes for navigational devices — Eskelin said not to rely on just one kind. Adventurers should have and know how to use a compass and map in the event that a GPS device fails.
Finally, campers might not be able to count on finding dry wood for a cooking fire in the snow, so Eskelin suggested bringing a small fuel stove just in case.
10. Know the rules
Many areas of the refuge are open to snowmachining and other winter sports this year, but that’s not always the case. Eskelin said that, before the trip begins, it’s important to read up on the restrictions of the area to avoid inadvertently breaking the rules.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.