As the weather warms in the lowlands, there is still danger in the mountains.
The Recreate Responsibly Coalition is spreading awareness of potentially dangerous conditions during the transition between winter and spring. As the weather warms, people headed to the mountains in search of outdoor adventures may be surprised to find wintry conditions.
Depending on elevation and other factors, snow can last until July. Some high elevation trails may still be impassable due to snow. Many popular routes gain several thousand feet or more in elevation, so even if it’s a warm day at the trailhead, higher up, it can be more like winter. Weather can also change quickly in the spring, leaving travelers stranded or in wet, cold conditions they are not prepared for.
To be well-prepared, check trail conditions for the area you want to visit before you leave home. An excellent place to find current trail conditions is in trip reports on Washington Trails Association’s website, wta.org.
“Spring is a dynamic time of year, so a little extra preparation can go a long way. A key part of kicking off the hiking season is brushing up on your safety skills and double-checking you have all the gear you need in your pack,” says Kindra Ramos, of Washington Trails Association. “Extra planning and caution ensures a good start to your adventures.”
It is important to know your experience level and your ability to survive should the weather change in an alpine environment. If conditions seem difficult, it is better to turn around and save the trail for another day. Now is not the time to exceed your abilities. Search and rescue resources remain stretched, and rescue events can lead to exposure to the COVID-19 virus for first responders and recreationists.
If you need help, call 9-1-1. King County Search and Rescue has tips on wilderness safety and what to do if you become injured or lost. It is safer to stay put and wait for better weather than to continue moving.
“As we transition into spring, it’s important to keep avalanche safety front and center before stepping out into the backcountry,” Dennis D’ Amico at the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) says. “Avalanche involvements including fatalities can and have occurred every spring. As the days become longer, NWAC will be producing daily forecasts through April 18. Continue to check the avalanche forecast as you plan your day outside, just as you would in winter.”
Here are more tips on staying safe right now:
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be home. Travel with a buddy when possible.
- Always carry survival gear with you. The 10 Essentials include clothing, shelter and food in case you have to spend the night outside.
- Have a reliable map and compass skills to traverse snow-covered trails. These can be challenging to follow, particularly in backcountry areas.
- While electronic locators and communication can be helpful, they cannot be always be relied upon while in the backcountry.
Play it safe
- Hazards, avalanche slopes and designated safe routes are not marked.
- Have proper footwear with good traction, micro-spikes, extra clothing, water, and a headlamp.
- Snow hides hazards like streams. Use your poles to poke snow before stepping on it if you hear water.
- Stay on the trail, even if it means walking on snow or mud.
- Turn around instead of crossing steep, snow–covered slopes. A fall could be disastrous.
- Avoid stepping onto snow cornices as they may collapse under your weight. Assume that snow on the edge of precipices is unstable. Falling into snow moats around trees and near logs or rocks can cause injury. Avoid getting too close.
- Weather can change quickly, causing hard-to-navigate conditions, including whiteouts or dangerous stream crossings due to rapid snowmelt.
- Beware of avalanches. Snow is increasingly unstable this time of year and may slide or collapse.
- Remember, you are responsible for your own safety!
- More late-season snow and dangerous spring-to-winter condition photos from across the state can be found here.
- Sign up for the NWAC seasonal webinar “Spring Backcountry Travel” on April 15 and visit their live snow-pack observation platform.
About the Washington Recreate Responsibly Coalition
Washington’s Recreate Responsibly Coalition is a partnership of more than 70 nonprofits, outdoor businesses and land managers developing and sharing best practices to protect each other and our natural landscapes. The coalition aspires for everyone to have a holistic outdoor experience by advancing all aspects of responsible recreation: keeping yourself, others, and outdoor places safe; accessing outdoor benefits essential to the human experience; and building an outdoors for all through justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. To that end, we convene and connect a diverse network invested in advancing campaigns and resources focused on safe, accessible, inclusive, and responsible outdoor recreation. Join the movement.