So, there’s two types of snow: Pack snow and new-fallen, fluffy snow. For a hiker, the challenge is very different:
Pack snow is snow that fell last winter and can linger around well into the summer months, especially in high altitude or on north-facing slopes.
Though you might have to walk across large portions of pack snow, the weather around you isn’t necessarily bad when doing so, don’t be surprised if you walk in shorts and t-shirt across the pack-snow. You can often “see” the trail by the many footprints in the snow that other hikers recently have left behind, so if the weather is fine, your risk of getting lost as the trail is hidden by snow, is much smaller.
Pack snow has been compressed by it’s own weight for many months during the winter, so you don’t sink in deep. However, this means that if you fall on a steep slope of pack-snow, you risk sliding down the mountainside until something stops you, which could prove seriously dangerous. The best safety-equipment in pack snow is an ice-axe as you can throw yourself unto the axe and easily self-arrest your fall. Lightweight ice-axes are available. Mini-crampons (from, say Kahtoola or Hillsound) will secure your steps, but also add a lot of weight and not solve the risk of sliding. If you are balancing between bringing an ice-axe or mini-crampons, then bring the axe. And practice a self-arrest with the axe on a smaller slope, where the consequence is mild; we all have to learn and it’s actually very easy to stop yourself with an axe once you’ve tried it once.
Are the mini-crampons even worth bringing? Personally, I would say no, but if large swaths of snow leave you uneasy and psyched, then the mini-crampons do give you a firm and secure step and will, together with an ice-axe, add to your safety. The mini-crampons do decrease your risk of sliding. They also add nearly a pound to your pack-weight and, as always, a heavy backpack compromises your balance and safety. So think twice.
If you find yourself walking across a steep slope of dense, pack snow and don’t have an ice-axe, here is the plan B: Use one of you trekking poles to stabilize yourself on the downhill side. Collapse the other pole and hold it upside-down on the uphill side: ready to slam the thick end with the grips, into the snow and throw your body weight unto it, to self arrest your fall. It’s not an ice-axe, but a fairly good copy.
New fallen snow
New fallen, fluffy snow is, generally speaking, more risky and challenging than pack snow. If it snows, chances are that clouds are enveloping the mountain, meaning that you are risking a white-out, where you loose orientation as everything looks the same in all direction: white. It’s actually quite scary.
This is how you get badly lost:
The trail has disappeared underneath the snow and, since it is new-fallen, there are no recent footprints from other hikers to guide you in the right direction.
You don’t have a GPS (or a smartphone that receives GPS).
The good ol’ map and compass approach is useless if it’s a white-out or foggy and the weather blogs your view of the topographical features (mountains, valleys, lakes etc).
The combination scares you and rightfully so. You start making panic decision. Get lost, loose your orientation. Dangerous. You become a statistic.
Here is how to avoid it:
You best option is to carry a GPS-enabled device (read: smartphone), regardless of what your nostalgic uncle tells you about these “terrible machines that run out of battery”, because his map and compass are utterly useless if you’re in a white-out.
But be battery-wise: only activate the GPS when needed, receiving a GPS signal is power-intensive for all devices. Consider an electricity strategy. And keep your smartphone in a waterproof casing.
Be informed that most smartphones have a built-in GPS, so you’ll likely not have to invest in new gear and haul a heavy GPS with you. Just use you smartphone, charge it fully before heading into the snow-prone areas and conserve your battery, don’t use it as a toy or for facebook-updates. It could be your lifeline, if a white-out rolls in on you.
If you’re hiking into areas that are prone to snowfall, then know your exit-plan: Are there any nearby roads and how do I get to them and get out of here?
New-fallen snow shouldn’t create any risk of you slipping and sliding out of control, down a white mountainside into the abyss as it doesn’t have the compacted, hard surface characteristic of pack snow. However, you can sink hip-deep into new fallen snow, which will dramatically slow you down and increase your risk of getting stuck on the mountain with a dwindling food supply. So consider a retreat if snow starts to accumulate above a feet of depth (30cm).
Avalanche risk should be considered, both for pack snow or the fluffy new-fallen stuff. Steep, snowpacked mountainsides should be avoided and, if you have to cross, do not linger. Keep an eye and both ears open for beginning snow-slides, don’t listen to music.