Your Winter Visit to Shenandoah National Park
Winter hiking and camping on regional public lands are increasingly popular activities as some visitors seek to enjoy the adventure, challenge, solitude, and special seasonal beauty of the Appalachian mountains. Your winter visit requires that you carefully plan ahead and prepare to assure a serene and safe trip.
Your trip expectations and knowledge of the specific area you will be visiting is of foremost importance. You need to obtain a good trail map to study and plan a hiking route in preparation for your visit. Consider the special travel problems created by snow cover or ice, forecasted harsh weather conditions, steepness of terrain, shortened daylight period, and particularly the physical abilities and expectations of your hiking group in those conditions. Visitors to mountainous areas often fail to consider that weather conditions may differ substantially from their home area, and winter environmental conditions are subject to rapid changes at higher elevations. Leave a detailed trip itinerary with someone at home, perhaps with officials at the park or forest you are visiting (especially if harsh weather conditions are forecasted for the area), and be sure not to deviate from that itinerary.
Be aware of winter recreation use policies and regulations which are designed to protect or enhance your recreational experience and to protect environmental resources. Public lands may have routine road closures to regulate vehicular access and emergency road or area closure procedures in the event of an impending or active winter storm. You should have information about these policies and procedures before leaving home. With rapidly changing winter weather conditions, the status of access to roads and trails will also change. You may arrive to find an access gate closed to your destination site when you were assured just two hours earlier that the area was accessible. Be prepared with an alternate trip plan to respond to such an unexpected inconvenience and include it in your itinerary.
Having appropriate equipment for your winter visit can mean the difference between success and disaster. Be equipped with clothing for a wide range of winter weather conditions, and remember that layering of clothing is of utmost importance in cold weather. If your clothes become wet, be prepared to change into dry clothes. Humid and windy conditions and wet clothes increase the effects of cold weather. Be aware of cold weather medical emergencies and know how to recognize and treat the dangers of hypothermia and frostbite in the field. Having proper clothing and staying dry will not only help keep you safe, but discourages your need to build a warming fire (which greatly impacts natural resources) and may serve to reduce stress on scant emergency rescue resources that might otherwise be needed to rescue you from a serious situation. Carry plenty of water (and purification tablets) and adequate food including high energy foods to keep you energized and cold-resistant.
What about carrying a cellular phone and/or a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, which so many outdoor catalogues are toting nowadays? Whether or not to carry these technological instruments on your winter visit to a backcountry area is, of course, a personal decision. The value of a cell phone in a true emergency cannot be denied. Unfortunately, some cell phone users have taken serious and unnecessary risks and gotten themselves (and responding rescuers) into emergency situations by depending on the availability of a cell phone as their security for safety. Many backcountry and wilderness users actually consider such technology to be inappropriate and detrimental to the perception of challenge, adventure, and risk in their wilderness visit. If you carry a cell phone in the backcountry, be aware that it has limited value since quite often the signal will not transmit out of mountainous hollows. A cell phone in the backcountry should only be used as a last resort in a genuine emergency, and not as a substitute for good judgment, common sense, and planning ahead. A GPS unit is of negligible value as a navigational aid in the mountains and is of no value without a good map. As with cellular phones, this device may provide the winter visitor with a false sense of security. Old-fashioned map and compass skills are still the most effective means of route-finding. Winter snow cover can make trails less visible and may require more reliance on map and compass skills than you anticipate.
With proper preparation and planning ahead, your winter visit should be a safe and enjoyable experience that will keep you coming back for more.
-Steve Bair, Backcountry, Wilderness and Trails Manager, Shenandoah National Park