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Winter Hiking Tips
by Wes Lang

1) Don’t do it – Stay at home. Curl up under the kotatsu with a good book in your hand. Hug your loved one. Skype with your relatives. Watch a cool mountaineering movie. Hang out with your friends. Plan some amazing summer trips. Just don’t risk it by going out there and tempting fate. Yeah, I know you only live once, but do you really want to play Russian Roulette?

Ok, now that you’ve chosen not to heed my advice, let me give you a few tips. If you don’t follow this advice and find yourself in trouble, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

2) Don’t go alone – Bring a friend with you. It’ll be so much more fun and if you do get into trouble, at least you can spend your last waking hours on this earth suffering together. Don’t go hiking with someone you have never gone hiking with before. It might be tempting when someone invites you along to an “easy” mountain, but you should never hike with someone you don’t feel comfortable trusting your life with. There are no “easy” mountains in the snow. End of story.

3) Be equipped – While you don’t have to be prepared to climb Everest, you should be familiar with the layering system (base/middle/outer layers) typically used for winter mountaineering. Merino wool, while expensive, is hands-down the best material for a base layer as it stays warm while wet. In addition, you should ALWAYS bring a head lamp with you with extra batteries, as well as an extra set of warm gloves that you should keep dry in your pack and only use in emergencies. As far as footwear goes, you should not use summer hiking boots and remember this simple rule: crampons for ice, snowshoes/wakan for snow.

4) Check the weather - is an excellent site that will not only give you an accurate forecast for the mountains, but it’ll also tell you wind speeds. If the winds are over 80km/h, DO NOT attempt to hike, even in good weather. If the weather is calling for blizzard conditions, then simply choose somewhere else to go. Why risk it?

5) Carry a GPS – If you don’t have a GPS device (not a smartphone, but a dedicated GPS device), then please buy one and learn how to use it. The #1 cause of mountain accidents in the winter is not avalanches, but from getting lost. If you don’t have a GPS then PLEASE STAY HOME. Also, carry a good map of the area in which you are going to climb, and try to avoid areas that you are unfamiliar with. Even if mountains are “popular” in the winter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other climbing parties are experienced or can be trusted.

6) Be smart AND flexible – Don’t make any foolish decisions in the winter. If you get lost, then backtrack immediately. Check the snow conditions regularly, especially if you’re entering avalanche terrain. If you don’t know what avalanche terrain is and how to check for snow stability, then PLEASE STAY HOME. If the snow conditions are not good, then have enough sense and flexibility to turn around. Remember, the mountains will always be there. Your time on earth is limited.

7) Check the time – Time is your greatest enemy in the winter. The sun rises late and sets early. Set a turn-around time for your climb. If you don’t reach the summit by this pre-determined time, then simply turn around and head down, no matter where you are on the mountain.

If you follow all of these steps, you should be able to have a safe AND wonderful time on the mountains. If you don’t and you run into trouble, please don’t try to sue me. Remember I was the one who warned you NOT TO GO in the first place. Happy trails everyone. smiley

Wes Lang, a noted mountain climbing enthusiast, has scaled all of Japan's 100 Famous Mountains (日本百名山, Nihon Hyakumeizan) and has chronicled those adventures at his website, The Tozan Tales. He's also the founder of Hiking in Japan, without question the most comprehensive English website for hiking throughout Japan, and is the creator/administrator of the highly active "Hiking in Japan" Facebook group.

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