Safety is always job 1. Winter trekking involves a wide range of travel and camping styles, over a huge variety of winter conditions, from flat continental interior on Shield geology covered in dense boreal forest and studded with thousands of lakes and rivers, to the deep snows and avalanche slopes of the mountains, to the far north transition to open tundra, to the southern deciduous woodlands. To cover safety for all the combinations and permutations of winter travel and living is challenging. We can’t cover it all, so we will focus on the travel and camping associated with the forested and lake studded landscapes where fire is used as fundamental to the style. However many of the skills, gear and techniques described here are transferable to other styles, such as fireless travel style.
Many of us, including yours truly come from and trek through the Shield country where we seek out frozen lakes to travel on and camp beside. Lake ice travel has its inherent dangers, but with knowledge and skill, the risk can be managed to within safe levels, but you must be careful and observant and seek continuously to improve your ice reading knowledge and skills. Whether or not you travel by frozen waterway, the skills and techniques we describe are transferable to other landscapes.
Deep cold and strong winds are common to all winter trekking landscapes. In our Clothing and Equipment sections we have already covered some aspects of safety such as proper clothing to prevent frostbite, and to stay dry and warm to prevent hypothermia. So please also cross reference to those sections when considering safety issues. The use of fire to stay dry, or to dry you or your gear that gets wet, (e.g. gloves and mitts always get wet), is fundamental to travel style within the tree line.
The mountains with their avalanche safety issues are a massive subject of their own, with entire books dedicated to it, and accredited professional associations which sanction certified courses delivered by professionals. Therefore we will not be covering avalanche safety here in the Safety section. If your travel area is the mountains, you likely already know about The Canadian Avalanche Foundation http://avalanchefoundation.ca/ and The Canadian Avalanche Centre http://www.avalanche.ca/, or other organizations in other countries, and already have, or will be taking the appropriate safety courses.
There are ways to use the snow as a shelter to stay warm and to survive bad situations, such as use of snow caves in deep mountain snows on slopes, and quinzees in shallow snows on the flats. We have not covered these shelter techniques in detail, but there are many resources out there on how to build them. Quinzees are covered in this safety section only with a brief mention, because they are not an effective travel technology. They take hours to build, and one can get quite wet while building. As a survival technology (or perhaps a base camp skill if you actually like crawling into and sleeping in confined spaces), they are a great skill and they are mentioned below under the Hot Tent subsection as a survival technology after a tent fire. But barring tent fire disaster, its far easier and more practical within tree line to sleep on the surface with a good sleeping system, and use fire to dry out. Snow caves require the proper snow and slope conditions, and are a standard survival and ultralight travel skill that is quicker than a quinzee, and often quite practical to use in the mountains, even without a blizzard to ride out as an incentive to use them. The snow and slopes for snow caves generally do not exist in the flatlands, and so it’s not a universal option for many of us who live and travel in the flatlands.
The safety topics discussed here are: Snow and River Ice, Overflow and Slush, Frostbite, Hypothermia, Snow Blindness, Cutting Tools, Hot Tents, SAT Phones and Personal Locator Beacons, and Trip Itineraries.