Leave No Trace: Winter Tips

Winter is a special time for considering Leave No Trace practices. In many areas, ice and snow cover the land making summer practices impossible. Alternative methods need to be used to minimize impact from travel, waste, and general presences.

Skiers, snowboarders, ice climbers, fishermen, and dozens of other winter sports are all growing in popularity with the result of our winter outdoors becoming more crowded. In the past, areas had a rest from human impact for months but that is changing. The solitude, harsh beauty, and enhanced challenge of winter explorations is drawing more people and we need to be aware of minimizing our impact in this special environment.

One of the major concerns during winter is the dangerous effect our presence may have on animals that are already stressed from the harsh weather and small amounts of available food.

To minimize your impact during the winter months, remember to use these cold weather principles:

Plan Ahead

Educate yourself on the area you plan to visit. Learn about winter regulations, closures, and weather hazards.

  • Take a winter back country course to gain experience.
  • Expect extreme weather and gear up for it. Be selective when choosing winter outerwear.
  • In mountainous country, carry an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel.
  • Never explore alone, but keep groups small. A group of four allows one to stay with an injured person and two to go for help.
  • Leave your excursion plans with two people, including your expected return time. They can begin a rescue if you do not return in reasonable time.
  • Trail markings may be hidden in snow. Use a map and compass for navigation. Batteries in GPS units may not work in cold temperatures.
  • Plan a route appropriate for the experience level, size, and goals of your group.
  • Anticipate changing weather that may obscure or cover trail markings, tents, and gear. Make sure you know where you are and where your gear is at all times.
  • Night falls early. You will have much less time to travel and set up camp, so plan accordingly.
  • Everything takes longer in cold weather, whether it’s heating water, hiking, or tying shoelaces.
  • Ensure you have appropriate gear for the worst-case environment. Use layering of clothes to keep warm and prevent overheating followed by freezing.

Durable Surfaces

  • Ice is a great durable surface and hard-packed snow is nearly as good. All your imprints melt away in the spring.
  • Travel and camp on deep, firm snow cover. Avoid thin snow where you might break through to the soft ground beneath, especially in spring.
  • Stay in the center of the trail, using well-packed snow cover when possible and avoiding trailside vegetation areas.
  • Crampons may be helpful on icy trails, but they damage rock and are quickly worn down from rock. Be prepared to take them on and off as needed or do without.
  • Avoid traveling close to tree limbs and brush. When frozen, they are fragile and can be easily broken.
  • Be aware of steep slopes, cornices, unstable snow, and other possible avalanche dangers. Hike and set up camp well away from these areas.
  • Camping on a frozen lake or pond will leave no impact in the spring. It also allows high-traffic summer campsites more time to recover.
  • Use removable tent anchors, such as ice axes, ice screws, and poles rather than moving rocks or tying to trees.

Campfire Impact

  • Since we should only use dry, down wood, most of it will be covered in snow. Using stoves instead will be more efficient and leave no ash stains on the snow.
  • If you do make a fire, use a fire pan so all ash can be saved and discarded in an appropriately hidden location rather than leaving a mess in the snow.

Dispose of Waste

  • Pack out all waste. Do not bury trash in the snow or ground.
  • If you can dig a cat hold in the ground, dispose of human waste that way. Cat holes in snow only hide your waste until the snow melts – then it lays on the snow and ground. Instead, let your waste freeze and then pack it and your toilet paper out.
  • Make an extra effort to carry non-greasy and non-cook meals to minimize the clean up required. It is more difficult to clean dishes and properly dispose of water in cold weather.
  • Acquiring water may be a challenge in winter. Set up a ‘clean snow’ area uphill from camp where you can collect and treat snow for water.
  • Repackage all food into flexible containers. Avoid the mess of broken containers due to freezing and expansion.

Leave What You Find

  • Snow cover actually helps us leave things as they are since artifacts, rocks, and sticks are hidden and flowers are not in bloom.
  • Destroy any snow shelters, igloos, and wind breaks before leaving your campsite. They become unsafe as they melt and they encourage others to concentrate traffic in one spot.

Respect Wildlife

  • Harsh winter months are especially hard on animals. Scarce food and water means they need to conserve energy as much as possible.
  • Approaching or harassing wildlife causes them to expend energy that may be required just to survive. Stay far from animals and suspected animal habitats.
  • Securely store food and waste to prevent scavenging by hungry wildlife. Do not leave food scraps for animals, even out of pity.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Sound carries farther in winter so keep voices down and camp noise minimized.
  • Wear colors that blend with the winter environment.
  • Make an effort to find good campsites well off the trail. Much of the summer cover is gone in winter and forests are more open. Don’t stop right by the trail because the snow is deep.
  • Respect skiers and hike only on trails intended for hiking. Avoid ski trails.
This article was adapted for use on this website and was originally obtained at this link.