Winter is coming—make sure you're ready for the cold-season with these eight essential outdoorsy skills:

1. Identify Avalanche Terrain

AvalancheBrian Lasenby/Adobe Stock

The best way to avoid being caught in an avalanche is by avoiding avalanche terrain in the first place. This requires knowing what it looks like.

Look for slopes angled between 25 and 45 degrees. Think of a standard staircase—this is about 25 degrees. What’s above you? Standing on low-angled terrain, but with a huge bowl above, is as dangerous as traversing a 35-degree slope. In low visibility, rely on a map. Count contour lines to estimate slope angle with this quick-and-dirty equation: rise (elevation change), divided by run (distance), multiplied by 100.

Trees tell a story. Below the treeline, keep an eye on the heights and condition of trees. Big differences in heights or gaps in stands can be a sign of an avalanche path. Missing limbs on the uphill side and gnarled and deformed trunks are also signs of frequent slides.

2. Bootpack Better BootpackVladimir Bryzgin | Dreamstime.com

Yes, it’s too steep or technical to skin, but should you shoulder your skis or strap them to a pack? Here’s our advice: strap them on whenever a boot-pack will take 15 minutes or longer or involves any tricky terrain (icy steps, rocky ridges). 

Here is a quick way of freeing up your hands: loosen a shoulder strap on your pack, slip your skis, tips first, through the gap and up between the pack and your neck. Now tighten the shoulder strap. It’s not comfortable, but it’s fast.

3. Stay Hydrated (When it’s Cold)

Hydration BladderLAleynikov/Dreamstime.com

You may not sweat as much in the fall and winter, but if you’re hiking or skinning you still need to drink at least 500 millilitres per hour. Force it down:

• Use a hydration bladder. Keep the hose flowing in cold temperatures by insulating it and blowing water back into the bladder between sips.  

• Water bottles are better below -10 degrees Celsius. Put them inside your jacket when temps dip below -20 degrees Celsius.

• Add electrolytes. Most electrolyte powders taste more interesting and make you thirsty, encouraging consumption.

• Time it. Set a timer on your phone for 30-minute intervals and drink every time it goes off.

4. Patch Your Waterproof Clothing

Clothing repairKeith Milne

When your waterproof gear springs a leak, fix it with a patch kit, available at any outdoor store. You’ll need to clean the area around the hole with alcohol. Then remove the patch’s backing without getting oil from your skin on it—use tweezers. Put the patch in place and smooth from the centre towards the edges, pushing out any air bubbles. Let it set overnight or longer. These patches should survive a few launderings, but eventually you may want to get it fixed properly. Ask at your outdoor store for advice.

5. Become a Year-Round Swimmer

Cold Waterweat/Adobe Stock

After a mind-numbing dunk in a mountain lake or hyperventilating after a polar bear swim, it’s hard to imagine how people swim significant distances in the Antarctic, Arctic or even relatively balmy Vancouver harbour mid-winter… in nothing but a bathing suit. But they do. And science says it’s good for you. 

Winter swimmers experience less stress, better memory and mood, fewer colds and flus and have more energy. The key is adaptation. Start swimming just before water temperatures drop, swim outdoors at least weekly, add distance and duration very slowly and always have a partner on land to time your swims and help if you run into trouble.

6. Know When Ice Is Safe

Safe IceFFLY/Adobe Stock

Walking on ice feels cool. Maybe because it’s the closest we’ll come to walking on water. It’s also potentially dangerous. Thickness is key to safety. 

Drill or cut through the ice and measure. Anything less than five centimetres is dangerous. Ten centimetres is safe for walking. About 25 centimetres is safe for a car. Also keep in mind that not all ice is equal. These guidelines are for clear, new ice—it’s the strongest. Double those thicknesses for white or snowy ice. Also consider whether that thickness is uniform—it rarely is.

7. Stay Warm While Winter Camping

Cold CampingDavid Webb

Winter camping doesn’t have to be cold:

• Change into dry clothes as soon as you arrive in camp. That includes socks. It’s easier to stay warm than get warm, so add more layers before you get cold. 

• Pack more food than you would normally. Staying warm gobbles calories. 

• Don’t unpack your sleeping bag until just before climbing in. Otherwise it fills with cold air. 

• Fill a water bottle with warm water and take it to bed with you.

• Just go. Keeping pee warm inside your body robs you of body heat. 

• Wear a toque to bed.

• Bring a snack. Bears aren’t a worry in winter and a midnight bite will fire up the furnace.

8. Setup a Tent in the Snow

Cold CampingKeith Milne

To camp in the snow, bring a legitimate four-season tent made for supporting snow loads and blocking chilly winds. Now set it up right:

• Foundation first: take off your skis or snowshoes and stomp out the footprint area.

• Leave it to firm up for an hour or so.

• Deadman stake: once the platform is solid, shovel it flat and set up the tent. Replace tent pegs with small branch “deadmen.” Add a couple feet of cord to every tie-out point, loop it around a stick and bury it in the snow. Use a trucker’s hitch to tie it off (see tip 24).

• Landscape: dig out the vestibule so you can sit down while taking off your boots.

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