Visiting a park in the winter can be an extraordinary adventure. But there is significantly less room for error in winter weather. Snow, ice, and shorter days can make trails treacherous, while avalanches and hypothermia pose serious threats.
Extra planning is essential for any trip during the winter, especially if you are visiting the backcountry. This page provides information on planning and enjoying a safe winter adventure.
Look here for information on:
Before your trip
Remember: winter weather requires extra preparation, especially if you are visiting a mountainous or remote area. Make sure your plans are within the limits of your skills and experience.
In the sections below, we provide guidance based on AdventureSmart’s three Ts:
Take extra care when venturing into backcountry areas, especially ones where avalanches are common. For more information, see avalanches, below.
- Check the park’s webpage for alerts about closures, trail conditions, and other updates that may impact your plans
- Consult the WeatherCAN app to get the latest information on weather conditions and hours of daylight
- Make an AdventureSmart trip plan and leave it with someone trustworthy (so they know where you are going and when you should return)
- Ensure you have winter tires on your car and check with Drive BC for the latest road conditions
- Monitor avalanche conditions with Avalanche Canada and be prepared to change or cancel your plans accordingly
- Ensure that your trip plan matches the skill and experience levels of everybody in your party
- Start with small trips to get an understanding of your capabilities and to build your endurance
- Check the park’s webpage to determine if you will need any specific education or training for your trip
- If you are heading out into the backcountry, consider taking some avalanche skills training
Taking the essentials
In addition to any specialized equipment that you may need for your specific trip, always pack the following essentials:
- First aid kit
- Pocket knife
- Navigation and communication aids
- Flashlight with spare batteries and bulb
- Fire-making kit (waterproof matches or lighter plus fire starter or candle)
- Signaling device (whistle or mirror)
- Extra food and water (one litre per person)
- Extra clothing (rain, wind, and water protection plus a toque)
- Emergency shelter (large, brightly coloured tarpaulin or blanket)
Do not rely on your cell phone, as many areas do not have service. Take paper maps and consider getting two-way radios or a satellite messaging device.
For trips to areas where avalanches are possible, always take a transceiver, probe, and shovel (and make sure you know how to use them). For more information, see the avalanches section, below.
During your visit
Even the best-prepared visitor may face challenging situations in cold weather. During winter, it is vitally important to stay alert for potential dangers. So, when you are out in winter weather:
- Monitor conditions closely as they can change quickly
- Be extra careful not to lose your way or stray from trails
- Keep an eye on the time, to make sure you can make it back before sunset
- Ensure your party stays together, and regularly check on everyone’s comfort
See the sections below for more specific information on:
Activities on ice
Ice thickness is not monitored within BC Parks. Hiking or skating on frozen ponds, lakes, and other bodies of water can be extremely dangerous and is not recommended. If you walk or skate on natural ice, you do so at your own risk.
In rare circumstances, new, clear, hard ice may be able to support your weight. Do your research before you consider venturing onto natural ice. Only do so if you are certain that it is thick enough to be safe for the activity you have planned.
To get information on the minimum recommended ice depth for various activities, see the AdventureSmart winter safety guide.
While you might expect less animal activity in winter, it is always important to take care in wildlife areas. For example, while bears hibernate for most of the winter, they do sporadically leave their dens throughout the season.
You should follow the same wildlife safety procedures you would throughout the rest of the year. Take extra care in areas where animals may be hibernating. Drive slowly if traveling at dusk or dawn when wildlife is most active.
For more guidance on keeping yourself and your family safe in wildlife areas, see the wildlife safety page.
It is important to regularly check in on the comfort levels of everyone in your party. When you do this, take extra care to watch for the signs of hypothermia. Likewise, remember to monitor yourself for hypothermia.
Common symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Pale skin or blue and puffy lips, ears, fingers, and toes
- Confusion and difficulty thinking or speaking
- Trouble walking, and lack of coordination
- Shivering, numbness, and goose bumps
- Quick, shallow breathing
If anyone in your party is experiencing severe hypothermia symptoms, get medical attention as soon as possible. For a milder case, give the affected person a warm, sweet drink and wrap them in blankets or clothing.
Learn more about hypothermia, frostbite, and health risks of winter weather from the Government of Canada’s extreme cold webpage.
Avalanches pose a highly significant danger to backcountry visitors during the winter. They are most common following heavy snowfall and during strong winds or warming temperatures.
If you are not correctly prepared, responding to an avalanche can be extremely challenging. If you plan to visit the backcountry during winter, you must educate yourself about avalanche safety, terrain, and equipment.
When preparing for a backcountry trip during winter, check Avalanche Canada before you finalize your plans. If there is a risk of avalanches in the area you plan to visit, change your plans accordingly.
If you are visiting an area where avalanches can occur, even if none are forecast, ensure you are properly equipped. Each member of your party should have a transceiver, probe, and shovel and know how to use them.
People who regularly hike in the backcountry during winter should take the Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course. A list of AST instructors around B.C. is available from Avalanche Canada.
For more information on avalanche safety and training, please visit the Avalanche Canada website.
Emergency situations can escalate quickly in winter weather, and responding can be challenging, no matter how well prepared you are. If you ever find yourself in need of rescue, follow these procedures:
- Stay calm, assess the situation, and plan your next moves before acting
- Seek a sheltered place where you can stay as warm and dry as possible
- Signal for help with sets of three whistle blows, mirror flashes, or horn blasts
- If you have cellphone service or a satellite phone, call 911
- Stay where you are, to make it easier for emergency services to locate you
While you wait for rescue, use sticks and branches to spell out “S.O.S.” on the ground. This sign should be at least three meters wide to be visible from the air.