Tips for a safe hike – Winter edition!

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Tips for a safe hike – Winter edition!

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Few people know it, but hiking is a sport for all seasons! Even in winter, Switzerland's extensive hiking network is largely maintained to remain accessible to all and, in particular, to lovers of the beautiful snow-covered Alpine landscapes. However, the winter landscape can also expose you to risks and dangers. Therefore, it requires the usual careful preparation and planning and a little extra care. Here are a few essential tips for a safe and successful winter hike!

Few people know it, but hiking is a sport for all seasons! Switzerland’s extensive and well-maintained hiking network allows you to enjoy the beautiful alpine landscape not only in the summer, but also in the colder months, when a thick layer of snow covers the ground and the landscape looks even more attractive. During the winter, most of the hiking trails are regularly prepared and maintained to remain accessible to walkers. In addition to the usual hiking trails, there are several snowshoeing routes that allow you to dive even deeper into the wonderful snowy landscape where the snow is highest. However, the winter landscape and deep snow can expose you to risks and dangers. Therefore, in addition to the usual care and careful preparation, there is a need for a little extra care. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy your winter hike safely and pleasantly!

Choose the best winter route

Walking in the open air is a sport for everyone as long as you choose the most suitable route for your abilities carefully! As during the summer, when deciding on your route, it is essential to remain aware of your physical limits, and not to over-exert yourself. Of course, being physically fit is essential, as snow-covered paths can sometimes be slippery and more tiring than the equivalent summer route. In Switzerland, winter hiking trails are well signposted, prepared and accessible to all. Along the route, which usually follows the normal summer trail, the usual yellow signs are replaced by pink ones that stand out against the white landscape. No special requirements are necessary for these trails, except for good waterproof shoes and, if necessary, non-slip accessories.
In winter, the usual hiking trails are supplemented by many paths specifically for snowshoe trekkers. These trails allow you to dive deeper into the winter landscape and are generally marked with pink signs, but they are not prepared or groomed. There are also three different degrees of difficulty, from the lowest to the highest, indicated in blue, red or black on the information board at the starting point. It is therefore advisable to take these into account when choosing your route. To walk these paths, it is obviously necessary to wear snowshoes and have trekking poles to facilitate your step and maintain a good balance on deep snow.
In addition to those suggested on this blog, a rich variety of trails is available at this link.

Check the weather and avalanche risk!

As in summer, the weather conditions must be taken into account during a winter hike. The weather in the mountains can change very quickly and sometimes unpredictably. It is also good to know in advance what the temperature will be at your destination so that you can prepare and dress accordingly. The MeteoSwiss website and app provide accurate and reliable weather forecasts for the whole of Switzerland, as well as information and rules of conduct to be followed in the event of alerts and natural hazards.
In addition, during the winter it is essential to carefully consider the possible risk of avalanches, masses of snow that usually break away suddenly and fall into the valley. Avalanches are an important risk throughout the Alps and, for this reason, they are closely monitored and their risk level can be easily consulted via various websites and apps (including the MeteoSwiss website and app). However, for greater safety, it is advisable to equip yourself with an avalanche transceiver* and to carry an avalanche probe and snow shovel*. These tools require specific training and, although useful, do not help in risk prevention, but only in risk management. Therefore, the best way to avoid risks is, as always, not to put oneself in danger and to avoid behaviours that can increase the risk and, sometimes, be the cause of the avalanche.

What to wear for a winter hike

As important as it is during the summer, choosing the right clothing is even more crucial during the winter. As always, the ideal is to opt for ‘onion’ clothing, i.e. wearing several layers that can be put on and taken off easily depending on the outside temperature and the different stages of the hike.
We recommend starting with the choice of the underwear*, which, as the first layer in contact with the skin, plays a fundamental role in regulating body temperature. Leggings and a long or short-sleeved T-shirt are a must! They can be made of wool or synthetic fabric. We recommend wool or wool-blend fabrics for garments in contact with the skin. On the market, you can find excellent merino wool products, very light and comfortable, capable of keeping you warm without making you sweat, and at the same time avoiding the development of unpleasant odours. The cost is certainly higher than for garments made with other fibres, but it is well worth it. For the outer layers, synthetic fabrics are perfect, as they dry quickly and guarantee good transpiration at the same time. Also, remember to wear gloves and a cap to keep your extremities warm and avoid the risk of frostbite.
As always when hiking, don’t underestimate the choice of shoes*, which should be well-shaped and waterproof to protect your feet from the cold and wet. It is also a good idea to wear gaiters* over your shoes to prevent the snow from sliding in.

What to bring with you

Most of the things you would bring on a summer hike remain absolutely essential for a winter hike. Here is a short list!
Sun cream and sunglasses: Even in winter, the sun is very strong in the mountains and the snow can reflect the sun’s rays, increasing the risk of sunburn and damage to the skin or eyes. This is why your rucksack should not be without a good sun cream with a high protection factor. Also, don’t forget to protect your lips with a moisturising lip balm with UV protection. We bought this product* this summer and thought it was great. Always wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare of sunlight.
Non-slip shoe accessories: few people use them, but we find them very useful especially on stretches where the snow is icy or the layer of snow is low and does not provide the right support for the foot. These are rubber and metal devices that are applied to the sole of the shoe to increase grip on the ground. At this link* you can find a good and cheap selection!
Trekking sticks: not everyone uses them and they are not always necessary on normal excursions. However, they are very useful for snowshoeing, increasing stability and reducing physical effort. At this link* you can find a good selection!
Emergency battery: In the mountains, the mobile phone is often the only means of contact with civilisation and, at the same time, the only tool that can really help save our lives in case of danger. So it’s not a good idea to be without a battery! That’s why you should always carry an emergency battery with you. You can find good ones on amazon* for a good price! However, remember that intense cold tends to severely reduce the battery life. We therefore recommend that you keep your battery, as well as your mobile phone, in a warm pocket in contact with your body.
First aid kit: a must on every hike! Being able to disinfect and dress an open wound will allow you to continue your hike without too many worries, just as being able to give first aid to an injured person or a person in difficulty will certainly be a great help.
On Bergzeit* you will find plenty of them, some perhaps too basic. We recommend that you choose a model that also contains a small thermal blanket, useful for keeping a person in difficulty warm until emergency vehicles arrive.

Food and drinks

During a winter walk, due to the low temperatures and increased physical exertion, you will use up a lot of energy and lose a lot of fluids. It is therefore essential to take plenty of food and warm drinks with you. For hot drinks, we recommend that you buy good thermal water bottles! Here* you will find some good quality, reasonably priced purchases.
For lunch, however, we like to take these portable raclette cookers* with us at all times! They work with simple teelights and are perfect for a trip to the snow, light and easy to use and store after use! To help you regain your strength, we also suggest you buy some protein snacks from this online shop*.

Tips for every season

Regardless of the season, some rules always apply for a safe and risk-free hike! Here is a short checklist:

Plan your hikes carefully: find out about distance, elevation gain, level of difficulty, trail conditions and possible hazards. Do not lose sight of the weather forecast. Make sure that all members of the group know the emergency telephone numbers of the local mountain rescue service.

Take regular breaks to enjoy the view, take photos, chat with friends or have a snack. Drink frequently to replenish minerals and fluids lost on the walk and eat something to keep your energy levels up.

In case of emergency, stay calm and contact help. If people are injured, do not leave them alone to go and get help, but rather try to get them out of the danger zone or wait for help to arrive.

Before leaving, inform an acquaintance or your host about your excursion and let them know your destination, even if it is an approximate one, and how long you plan to stay outside. In case of emergency, someone will know when and where to look for you.

– Smartphone apps: Even in winter, bring always with you the hiking apps mentioned in this post, including Outdooractive* for planning your route, MeteoSwiss for checking weather conditions and the Rega app for activating the emergency services in case of danger.

Respect nature and wildlife

During winter, the lives of wild animals are severely tested by low temperatures and food shortages, forcing them to minimise their energy consumption. For this reason, it is essential to avoid putting them in danger by doing everything possible not to frighten them and induce them to flee abruptly, which would be a huge drain on their vital energy. During your excursions, therefore, behave with respect and avoid disturbing the wildlife by respecting these four simple rules suggested by the campaign ‘He who respects protects’:
1. Respect quiet zones and wildlife protection sites;
2. In the forest, only use marked paths and trails;
3. Avoid forest edges and snow-free areas and leave these spaces to the free use of wildlife.
4. If you have a dog, keep it on a leash.
You can find more information on the campaign website at this link.

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