Winter offers a spectacular new way to experience the Pacific Crest Trail

In late autumn, as the days shorten and the first rain and snow arrives, many of us put away our outdoor gear and begin dreaming of spring. But for anyone willing to prepare and give it a chance, the coming winter promises a new way to experience the Pacific Crest Trail.

At places along the trail where snow is a given, winter offers us a completely different Pacific Crest Trail—one that becomes a muted path through a glorious landscape of sparkling white, green pines and firs, and (on a sunny day) blue skies. And as the poet Robert Frost described it, “The only other sound’s the sweep / of easy wind and downy flake.”

A winter view of Odell Lake from the PCT near Willamette Pass, Oregon. Photo by PCTA.

In this article, we’ll give you an introduction to winter recreation on the trail in the hope that you’ll have an opportunity to experience how rewarding it can be when blanketed with snow.

First steps: knowing where to go

For those new to winter recreation in the backcountry, you’re likely to be limited to where you can access the PCT via interstates and primary state highways that are plowed and maintained for travel throughout the winter. Ideally, look for maintained highways over mountain passes where there is legal parking near the PCT. Fortunately, many passes have SNO-PARKS near the trail or at least a plowed parking area for recreation.

A good place to start is our Interactive PCT Map—where you can get an idea of what passes are closest to you. From there, check your state’s department of transportation road conditions pages—and be aware that some mountain pass roads are closed during winter.

Winter shelters like this one just off the PCT in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest can be great destinations. Photo by PCTA.

It’s important to not only know where you can access the PCT, but that you can get there safely. Depending on how well-maintained roads are, you may be required to have chains or an all-wheel- or four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Obviously snow levels and conditions vary enormously across the trail, so you’ll want to know as much as possible about snow depth where you plan to go. Our Winter recreation and snow information page includes many online links to real-time snow information sources.

Study the trail and the terrain ahead of time, and bring a map

Once you’ve found safe access to the PCT, take the time to study maps of the trail where you intend to go. For your first winter outings, distance won’t be an issue; you can have a wonderful time just going a mile or two along the trail, then return. As you gain experience in winter, you can push your distance.

Most important is elevation gain or loss: for your first outings, you’ll be happier and safer on sections of the trail that aren’t very steep. Level or rolling terrain is best, followed by long, gentle slopes. Until you gain experience and knowledge, learn about avalanche safety, and how to avoid terrain that puts you at risk of avalanche danger.

Kids having a great time on the PCT in Deschutes National Forest, Oregon. Photo by PCTA.

And be sure to bring a detailed map of the trail with you on the trail. National Geographic’s new PCT trail maps are a great resource—they are made in partnership with PCTA, and 4% of the purchase price supports the PCTA.

Snowshoes: a great first way to experience the PCT in winter

If you have no previous experience in traveling over snow, snowshoes are the easiest and most accessible way to travel over snow. While they may appear bulky and complicated, traveling on snowshoes isn’t much more difficult than walking—and some would say a lot more fun! Snowshoes keep you from sinking into the snow by spreading your weight over a wider area. Another big benefit is they also serve as cleats—giving you more traction in slippery areas through the use of serrated metal teeth on the bottoms.

There are many different types of snowshoes. The general rule is that larger snowshoes are designed for heavier people and/or deeper, softer snow; whereas smaller snowshoes are for lighter people and more firm or packed snow and ice. Compared to skis, snowshoes are inexpensive and many outdoor and ski shops will rent them to you for as little as $10-20/day.

Aside from snowshoes, you’ll need a pair of poles. While not essential for snowshoeing, poles give you an extra level of stability and can help with balance on sloping terrain. Most popular are trekking poles (the same kind you’d use in summer) with the addition of screw-on “baskets,” the discs just above the tip of the pole that prevent them from penetrating too far into the snow. Ski poles will work as well if they aren’t too short.

A group snowshoe outing on the PCT in Oregon. Photo by PCTA.

Snowshoes can accommodate a wide variety of footwear—most likely whatever winter or snow boots you already have will work well enough for your first outings. The more waterproof and warm the boots, the better.

Finally, for your first outings in snow, figure on moving more slowly than you would on a summer hike: 50-75% of your normal pace is a good ballpark for estimating time and distance on the trail. Your speed will depend on your conditioning as well as the snow. Loose, deep snow will slow you down and require more effort—and if you’re on a well-traveled part of the trail where others have packed the snow, you’ll find the going easier and faster.

Cross-country skis: going faster and farther

While they require more experience and skill to learn, cross-country skis (commonly abbreviated as XC skis) are a very efficient way to cover distances over snow. If you’re an experienced cross-country skier but previously have only skied on groomed trails at a Nordic center, you’ll find skiing on the PCT to be a little “wilder.” If you’re new to XC skiing, you should consider making your first outing at a Nordic center or on groomed trails, just to get a feel for the skis.

Finding level or gently rolling terrain (or long, gradual elevation changes that aren’t too steep) is more important for XC skiing than snowshoeing. When the trail begins rising or falling at more than a gentle slope, your day can quickly become frustrating and difficult if you aren’t experienced. This is where studying maps of the trail that show elevation contours or profiles can make your outing a lot more enjoyable (and enable you to eliminate any locations with steep terrain starting near the trailhead).

Often when XC skiing on the trail, someone else will have gone before you—and you’ll find a nice pair of ski tracks in the snow to follow. This can be really wonderful in good conditions. Sometimes, you’ll be the first one on the trail after a fresh snowfall, and you’ll be breaking trail. This can be incredibly beautiful and rewarding but is more demanding as you’ll work harder and have the added task of navigation and making sure you remain on the trail. (And know that wherever you ski, others will follow in your tracks.)

A typical winter view along the PCT: Midnight Lake by the PCT in Diamond Peak Wilderness, Oregon. Photo by PCTA.

There are many types of XC skis and we couldn’t cover them all here. But generally, the best skis to use on the PCT (and backcountry trails generally) will be shorter and wider than skis used on groomed trails. They’ll also have metal edges to aid in turning and gripping the snow on slopes. These are sometimes referred to as “backcountry touring skis.” For a good overview of XC skis, boots and gear, take a look at this page by our partners at REI.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to offer more detail on cross-country skiing gear and techniques, but as with so many things, YouTube is a fantastic resource, with literally hundreds (if not thousands) of detailed videos on gear and skiing technique.

What to wear: think layers!

The same clothing advice that applies for most other outdoor activities (regardless of season) applies to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing: dress in layers. Like hiking, snowshoeing and XC skiing can be strenuous, and you’ll often be surprised at how warm you’ll get after 20-30 minutes on the trail in the snow.

A popular method of dressing for winter recreation begins with a thermal base layer for your top and bottom. Over that, a good option is a lightweight fleece layer. Then you have options (depending on temperature and conditions), the two most common being an insulated jacket for added warmth, and a water- and windproof rain shell or parka. Avoid cotton clothing, as it provides almost no insulation when wet. There are many variations on this basic system; everyone’s needs and tolerances vary.

What is important in winter recreation is to minimize sweating. Sweat can be an enemy in winter because clothing that becomes wet from sweat doesn’t insulate as well—and in extreme conditions this can be dangerous. The ideal layering is an amount that makes you a bit chilly when resting—and comfortable (without being hot) while you’re in motion and your heartrate is up. It’s easy to add a layer to stay warm when you take a break, then pull it off once you get moving again.

The same advice for clothing applies to gloves and headgear: depending on conditions and temperature, you may find your hands and head are sweating if you wear bulky ski gloves and thick hats or an insulated hood. It’s good to have these (along with the 10 essentials and food and water) in your pack for breaks or an emergency, but you may be happier wearing lighter, thinner gloves and a lighter cap while you’re moving.

Know the hazards in winter—safety is crucial!

While winter is a great time to be out on the trail, hazards are everywhere—especially in snowy conditions. For this reason, one of the best safety measures you can take is avoid going out alone. Having someone with you can make a big difference if one of you gets into trouble. Also, leave your trip plan with someone at home that includes where you are going, how far, and an idea of when you expect to return.

Stream crossings can be extremely hazardous in winter and best avoided. Photo by PCTA.

Here are some other winter hazards to learn more about and be aware of:

Hypothermiaknow the early signs of hypothermia and protect yourself against them with the proper clothing, awareness of weather conditions, and careful planning that avoids getting lost or putting you in challenging terrain that could result in injury or worse.
Weather – mountain weather is notoriously fickle and can change rapidly. Your day can go from bluebird-perfect to nightmarish blizzard faster than you think. Study weather forecasts before you go—particularly for the higher elevations where you’ll be (which are often very different than your lower-elevation forecast at home). Be prepared for any possible conditions that could arise suddenly. Here is a list of PCT weather forecasts for many locations along the trail.
Avalanches – avalanche safety is a must whenever you are traveling above, below or across mountain slopes, where snow can accumulate and let loose with deadly consequences. This is particularly true in open, non-forested areas. Learn more about avalanche safety before you go—including how to recognize and avoid avalanche zones.
Terrain Traps – hazards abound around you in winter, particularly in forested areas. One common danger are tree wells—deep, steep-walled holes around coniferous trees created when the tree prevents snow accumulation beneath its branches. It can be very difficult to escape from a tree well, so stay clear of them. Other hazards include steep gullies, streams covered in snow (or snow bridges), and cornices—unsupported, windblown ledges of snow that may look solid but could give way under your weight.
Energy Levels – our bodies depend even more heavily on food and water to maintain energy levels in winter than in summer. Just the simple act of staying warm burns calories and letting your energy and hydration levels fall can reduce your ability to stay warm. So, pay close attention to your fueling and water needs in winter. Keep snacks in your pocket and eat throughout the day to keep energy levels up.

With knowledge and preparedness, you can enjoy the spectacular winter experience on the PCT.

Taking a break while skiing the PCT above Rosary Lakes in Central Oregon. Photo by PCTA.

Despite the hazards, winter recreation on the PCT can be spectacular and rewarding. For many, being on the trail in the snow is even more fun than in summer. Under snow, the PCT becomes a true wonderland—like being inside a vast snowglobe where every detail sparkles, colors are more vibrant and the air feels fresher and cleaner.

Best of all, getting knowledgeable and experienced at winter travel in the backcountry extends your “season” for outdoor play to the entire year. So do your research, learn about the hazards, then get out there and enjoy!

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Director of Communications and Marketing. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.