Colorado’s vast array of snow-capped mountains, epic powder days, and warm sunshine make it a winter paradise to unforgettable adventures. Every year people travel from all over to experience Colorado’s winter wonderland. There are activities for every type of explorer, from holiday light festivals to skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowmobiling, or snowshoeing in the mountains.
Winter is a great time to get out and explore the great outdoors, but it comes with its own set of challenges, such as frostbite, driving on icy mountain roads, avalanches, and unpredictable weather. To make the most out of your holiday adventures, here are some expert tips to keep you safe and warm so you can make the most of your vacation and enjoy all that Colorado has to offer!
1. Follow Mountain Driving Norms
Colorado has always been a flagship state for ski resorts, and each one offers breathtaking mountain views and pristine powder. But with high elevation skiing comes some pretty tricky driving conditions, especially during winter. The weather can be unpredictable at times. One minute it’s a clear blue day, and the next, there is a white-out blizzard which can make driving a challenge for even the most seasoned driver when the roads suddenly get slick and icy.
Before heading out on the road, make sure your vehicle is reliable and check that you have enough tread on your tires, that your brakes are in good condition, and top off your gas and fluid levels. Once you’re on the road, stick to the right lane unless passing, allow plenty of space between you and other vehicles, and drive at an appropriate speed for conditions. Driving too fast is the top cause of accidents in winter. It would be best if you traveled with an emergency kit in your trunk for unexpected circumstances (like getting stuck on I-70 due to an avalanche or accidents). It should include items like flares, a snow shovel, flashlight with extra batteries, blankets or sleeping bags for warmth, hand warmers, extra set of clothes, water to stay hydrated, snacks, first aid kit, tire chains, sand for traction, and jumper cables.
2. Quit Trying to Pet the Wildlife
This tip also includes approaching wildlife, feeding it, and trying to take selfies with it. Estes Park is known for elk herds wandering through Downtown, and it’s not uncommon to come upon an elk or moose snowshoeing in the backcountry or skiing at a local resort. Every year people report getting attacked by wildlife because they got too close. It’s best to limit your wildlife interactions to snapping photos at a distance. Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends using the “rule of thumb,” which involves placing your hand in front of you and giving a thumbs up. If your thumb covers the entire elk, you’re likely a safe distance away. If not, it’s best to take a few steps back.
3. Do Your Research, Be Prepared
The bitter cold of winter can present some tough challenges, especially when things go wrong. Doing your research and being prepared for emergencies is the most essential tip on the list! Before you hit the trail, run through this checklist:
- Check the weather
- Tell someone what trailhead you are hiking from, your intended route, and when you plan to be back
- Dress appropriately and pack extra layers
- Check avalanche conditions and road closures
- Pack the 10 essentials (see Tip #7 below) and any other safety gear you might need
While a spontaneous adventure sounds exciting, solid planning is crucial in winter!
4. Pack It In, Pack It Out
Pack it in, pack it out is one of the original tenets of backcountry travel, and the message is simple: whatever you bring in with you, you are also responsible for bringing out. This concept is an essential aspect of the seven principles of Leave No Trace. Every piece of improperly disposed trash in the wilderness not only impacts the people who use the trail after you, but can also negatively impact local wildlife. Burying garbage in the snow is unacceptable; when the snow melts in the spring, the litter will reappear for someone to find it. It’s always best to put the trash back in your pack or, better yet, bring along a trash bag to fill if you find any other garbage on the trail. Think of it as a way of paying it forward to the hikers who come after you!
5. Stay the Trail
Similar to hiking in the summer, there are a few winter trail etiquette rules to follow while snowshoeing. Packed and tracked cross-country ski trails are awesome but they aren’t groomed for snowshoers they are groomed for skiers. When you see a groomed cross-country ski track done by a backcountry skier, you should avoid walking in these lanes. Skis rely on traction and smooth motion to get into the rhythm that allows skiers to go for miles at a time. Snowshoes can cause indents in the ground and make the trail unusable for cross-country skiing. Snowshoers can snowshoe next to the ski tracks on shared trails or make their own tracks on or off-trail in a fresh snowfall. Additionally, just like on hiking trails in summer, uphill travelers have the right-of-way. Make sure to move aside if you encounter others on the trail or to take a break and enjoy a snack.
6. Take Altitude Sickness Seriously
Don’t let altitude sickness ruin your trip to Colorado. A stopover in Denver before heading out to the mountains could reduce your chances of getting altitude sickness by 50%! If you travel to high elevations (such as a ski resort) without letting your body adjust, you may experience some level of altitude sickness. Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and trouble sleeping. Dehydration and physical exertion are major contributing factors, so it’s essential to stay hydrated, eat well, and get plenty of rest during your trip if you want to prevent getting altitude sickness. Luckily, if you return to a lower elevation, most likely, your symptoms will go away without needing treatment. If they don’t, seek medical help immediately.
7. Always Pack the 10 Essentials
Getting in the routine of packing the “10 essentials” is always a good idea. Sure, on most trips, you might use only one or two of the items. But for those trips where things don’t go as planned and you find yourself in a whiteout with zero visibility or a winter emergency on the trail, you’ll be thankful (and fully prepared) with everything you need to survive in the backcountry before help arrives.
The exact items under each category can be tailored to the trip you’re taking. The 10 essentials include:
- Hydration (water)
- Navigation (map or GPS)
- Insulation (appropriate clothes for the weather)
- Fire (lighter or matches)
- First aid kit
- Illumination (flashlight or headlamp)
- Emergency shelter
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Repair kit/tools (knife, multi-tool, paracord)
- Sun protection (sunscreen and sunglasses)
8. Wear your Sunblock
300 days of sunshine isn’t just a clever tagline. In Colorado, we really have that many bluebird days here. Keep in mind that snow is reflective, so if you’re shredding all day on the mountain and forget to apply sunscreen, you’re going to end your trip with some hilarious tan lines.
9. Dress in Layers, Always.
Have you heard about our 50-degree temps in winter where you can ski in a t-shirt? Well, that’s not a myth. It really does frequently happen in Colorado. But it’s likely followed by a blizzard, and just when it seems like the snow will never end, a few hours later, the sun is shining, and the snow begins to melt. In Colorado, layers are key! Wear clothing that wicks moisture away from your body and avoid cotton whenever possible because it absorbs moisture and increases your risk for hypothermia. You can wear that t-shirt if it’s a warmer day but maybe pair it with long underwear, wool socks, gloves, hat, scarf, hoodie (shop our selection of sweatshirts here), and a down jacket. You never know what the weather will throw your way!
10. Stay Hydrated
Colorado’s winter may be milder than some places, but it’s also dryer which means you need more water to stay hydrated than you might expect. Dehydration and physical exertion are contributing factors to altitude sickness. If you don’t plan to give your body time to acclimate to changes in elevation slowly, it’s essential to stay properly hydrated! Camelbaks and pretty much all bladders are convenient in summer, but the hose is prone to freezing in the winter and can become a problem. If you plan to use one, insulate the hose, blow air back into the tube after drinking, keep the pack close to your body, or use warm water. This will help prevent hydration packs from freezing.
Our Colorado winter wonderlands are absolutely gorgeous and the playground always seems endless! We love adventuring and can’t wait for you to adventure here too! Be safe, and have fun!