This year, Nevada and Eastern California have experienced a variety of winter storms creating, at times, hazardous conditions for visitors and so, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is reminding visitors to be extra careful while recreating this winter.
National Forest System lands can provide stunning scenery and recreational opportunities during the winter. Still, it is essential to be aware of the dangers and risks associated with winter weather. Snowstorms, freezing temperatures, prolonged exposure to cold winds, and possible avalanches in some areas are all concerns when recreating in the winter months.
Here are some safety tips to practice this winter
Know before you go: Be aware of existing and impending weather conditions. Check for updates frequently with the National Weather Service at https://www.weather.gov/. Contact your local Forest Service office or visitor center for information on forest road conditions and seasonal closures. Please avoid unnecessary travel when extreme winter weather is predicted.
Nevada – Dial 511 within Nevada, (877) NV-ROADS ((877) 687-6237) outside of Nevada, https://nvroads.com.
California – Dial (800) 427-7623 for up-to-the-minute information in California and Western Nevada (Lake Tahoe/Reno Area), https://roads.dot.ca.gov/
Leave detailed trip plans with a trusted person: The plan should include times and dates of departure and return. It should also include estimated arrival at certain checkpoints. Alert your trusted person if plans change. In the event of a missing person, your trusted person will need to call 9-1-1, and the trip plan you previously provided will assist with search and rescue efforts.
Do not rely on phones and map apps: There are many places on NFS lands with no cellular service. Having a cell phone does not guarantee your safety. If using a geolocating map application, be sure your phone’s GPS option is on and working correctly before relying on this. It is always best to have a paper map with you as well. Do your research before following map app directions, and realize that just because a route is listed does not mean it is passable. Remember that most U.S. Forest Service roads are not maintained in the winter.
Accept responsibility for yourself: Always have emergency and survival gear with you. Essential items include fire-starting equipment; flashlights with extra batteries; appropriate extra clothing; water; food; navigation equipment; pocketknife; shelter materials; sunglasses or goggles; a backcountry shovel, stove, and fuel; and a small metal cup. If you become injured or lost, stay calm and seek shelter from the elements, but do not stray from your planned route. Call 9-1-1 if possible.
Backcountry users: If you are out in the backcountry in the winter, you should acquire training and knowledge about avalanche safety and hazard recognition. Always carry the appropriate safety equipment, including a beacon, probe, avalanche airbag system, backcountry shovel, and winter survival gear. You should never travel alone. Cell phones are valuable tools but should not be relied upon in backcountry locations since cell coverage may be marginal. A satellite device may be a better communication option (e.g., a satellite phone or SPOT device).
Avalanche awareness: Whatever reasons draw you into the backcountry in winter, it is essential to know there is a risk of avalanches. If you know what to look for and what to avoid, you can drastically decrease your chances of getting caught in one. For more information on avalanches, predictive services, and training resources, visit:
Bridgeport Avalanche Center – https://bridgeportavalanchecenter.org/
Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center – https://esavalanche.org/
Sierra Avalanche Center – https://sierraavalanchecenter.org/
National Avalanche Center – https://avalanche.org/avalanche-education/
KBYG Avalanche Awareness – https://www.kbyg.org/
Prepare your vehicle for winter driving: Make sure your vehicle is in good operating condition, has appropriate tires, and has an adequate level of fuel. Also, ensure you have correctly fitting tire chains and know how to install them. Stock your car with essential winter driving equipment: a scraper and brush; a small shovel; jumper cables; road flares; tow rope; a waterproof tarp; chains; and a bag of sand or cat litter for tire traction. If you leave your vehicle running to provide heat; make sure the tailpipe is appropriately vented and clear of snow or any other debris. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas, and prolonged exposure can be deadly.
Winter driving considerations: Always use defensive driving techniques on Forest roads. This includes adjusting your speed to current weather and road conditions. Stay alert for unexpected hazards, including other vehicles, livestock, rocks, fallen trees, and road washouts. Be prepared to seek alternate routes, if necessary, but remember that if the main route to your destination has been closed because of road conditions, alternative routes may also be impassable. Also, refrain from driving on soft, muddy, unsurfaced Forest Service roads. Causing damage to roads and other Forest resources can violate federal regulations, which could carry a fine of up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail.
High wind hazards: Pay attention to high wind advisories and high wind warnings issued by the National Weather Service. Take shelter immediately if there are high winds in the area you are visiting. Watch out for falling trees, limbs, and flying debris. Be careful when driving. Strong winds can make steering difficult, especially for high-profile vehicles (RVs, campers, and trucks). Be careful on bridges and overpasses.
Flooding dangers: Floods can happen anytime during the year and create hazardous driving conditions. Avoid areas already flooded, especially if the water is flowing fast. Flooded streams and rivers carry hidden debris, such as logs and rocks, and they are filled with heavy silt.
Practice safe snow play: Do not sled in areas with less than 12 inches of snow, avoiding traffic and dangerous objects like trees and rocks. Leave no trace other than footprints and snowmen. Take all your trash with you. Respect private property and other locations where snow play and sledding are inappropriate. Also, when recreating in busy winter snow play areas, roads may be congested, so do not park in a manner that blocks traffic flow. Be a patient and courteous driver and watch for hazards and other visitors.
Dress warmly in layered clothing: Layers allow you to adjust your clothes to regulate body moisture and temperature easily. Three layers are considered optimal: a liner layer against your skin (long johns), an insulation layer (fleece), and a water and wind-proof outer shell. Cotton loses its insulating qualities when it gets wet, whether from rain or sweat. Cotton also takes a long time to dry. Wool or synthetic materials are much better suited for cold weather conditions. Boots should have a waterproof outer shell such as oiled leather or plastic. Hiking boots alone are usually not adequate in deep snow conditions for extended periods of time. Protect yourself from heat loss through your head by wearing a warm stocking cap or another winter hat. Ensure socks and gloves do not fit so tightly that they constrict blood flow, keeping your hands or feet from staying warm. Pack plenty of extra clothing in case the clothes you are wearing become wet. Clothing and footwear that become wet not only make movement more difficult but can also contribute to hypothermia and other cold-related injuries or illness.
Do not forget food and water: Keep yourself adequately nourished to provide fuel for hiking and keeping your body warm. Food should be easy to prepare and tasty enough to be appetizing. Drink plenty of water even if you do not feel thirsty. Water is necessary for your body to generate heat. A good rule of thumb for checking hydration is the color of your urine. Urine will be light-colored or clear if you are properly hydrated. Keep water bottles from freezing in your pack by putting them in a wool sock or insulated bottle cover.