Winter is an unforgiving season. If you find yourself lost in a snowy-white wonderland you're at a considerable risk. Without knowing the terrain, wandering off-track can be a death sentence, especially if you don't have the gear or provisions you need to survive. Today, I want to cover the essentials of navigating through a winter environment, to keep you safe if you're ever lost in the cold. Of course, many navigational fundamentals still hold true when the world is covered in snow and ice, but there's a few extra precautions to take.
Now, I'm not going to mention the importance of a map, a compass, and even a GPS device when you're in the woods. These are just a given and make it far easier to stay on track. Every time you are in the woods, bring these too. But that's not all. Because trekking through a landscape buried under snow is tough. Things look different. Heck, it's often even more difficult to walk if there's more than a couple of inches of snow underfoot. And if you're not prepared, you're in trouble.
Use big landmarks to navigate
Once snow starts to fall it can drastically change the appearance of even the most familiar trail. Small streams and gully's get buried, and it's often very difficult to stay on the track. The snow blankets everything and hides it from even the most experienced survivalist. If you're hoping to find your way without getting turned around, rely on big landmarks, like a mountain in the distance, a particular hilltop, or even a large river that won't have frozen over. Anything smaller and you risk missing it under the layer of snow.
Look for smaller clues in the landscape
The trail will be the first thing that disappears in a snowfall, but there are many clues you can use to stay on track. Look for open corridors through the trees, any depressions or man-made markers that may identify where the trail leads. These are often cut into trees at height so will still be visible after the snow falls if you keep an open eye out to look for them. Tire marks are also good to follow, and the animals too will usually follow the path of least resistance, giving you something else to look for.
Use your GPS with pre-loaded waypoints
The simplest means of navigating is often the best. If you're on a long hike in the winter, and you have the time beforehand, program into your GPS a number of waypoints along the track. It's not enough to just do the start and finish points, tagging areas that may not be immediately obvious, like a freshwater pond, or a cave or shelter could make all the difference if the conditions worsen. It seems silly, and in most hike's it'll be overkill, but please just do it. The one time you get into trouble and you need to follow a series of waypoints – you'll thank me. It could make all the difference to getting you home safely.
Use snow shoes to stay above the drifts
The key to surviving a winter landscape is to use the right tools. I'd hope you've got plenty of warm clothes and fire-starting material in your backpack, but it's important also to have snow-shoes. In their simplest form, snow-shoes are a tool that straps to the underneath of your boot, spreading your weight and allowing you to walk without punching through the snow. It makes for a much more enjoyable hike if there's deep snow drifts. They are a little awkward to use at first, and they will affect your stride, so if you're going to be pace counting on your hike I'd recommend recalculating this when you're loaded up with all your gear too.
Understand your pace count with your gear
In bad conditions it's also important to be able to determine your pace, especially with your snow shoes on and backpack full of gear. I've got a roll of wire in my bug out kit that's 100 meters long, which I can use to measure my pace in any given terrain. Simply tie it to a tree, walk until you hit the end, and however many paces you've gone reflects your pace-count. Having a general idea of how many steps you go in 100 meters can help you to judge distances and timing on your map, and navigate even a desolate snowy landscape without any major landmarks.
Fashion a trusty walking stick
The danger of a snowy landscape is that you can never be sure what's hiding underneath the snow and ice. It also gives you something to lean on and can be an improvised weapon should you cross paths with any animal or person who intends you harm. And it doesn't need to be fancy. I usually fashion a crude walking stick out of a thick wooden branch, cutting it to shape at the start of a hike. That way I've got something to prod and test the ground I'm walking on for any "soft" spots before I walk on them and fall through. Trust me. This is a good habit to get into if you're hiking in the snow.
Hiking during winter isn't for the faint of heart. The conditions make it tough, and often storms, wind and rain can put you in grave danger if you're not adequately prepared. The most important aspect is gear, without the right protective clothing you'll supper from exposure faster than you thought possible, but knowing what to do next is important too. If you're stuck and the only option is to hike to safety, knowing how to stay on track and make it safely to your destination is imperative. Stay safe my friends.