In wintertime the Bavarian Alps turn into a fairy-tale like winter wonderland. For outdoor lovers who are looking for alternative ways of getting into nature in the winter, but do not fancy ski slope life, then snowshoeing or winter walking is a great option. First of all, the technique is easy to learn and you can plan tours to be as easy or challenging as you like. Secondly, it's a really calming form of moving through nature- the pace is different and the opportunities to stop and appreciate the beauty of the natural world are food for the soul.
We have compiled our top tips to get you started and support your safety when starting out and have also put together a handy winter walking checklist for you to download.
For in-between seasons ie. start and end of winter when there is less snow, but plenty of ice, spikes that go over your hiking boots are the best bet and an essential in your hiking backpack. These keep you nice and secure on hard-packed conditions especially on North facing slopes. Trekking poles too are also very useful.
Once snow has fallen, then the most magical way to travel is with snowshoes, which are like wearing big tennis racquets on your feet. These keep you from sinking into the lush powder and ease your movement. Nowadays they are very lightweight with good flexibility and grip for travelling through different terrain. Like skis there are a range of snowshoe designs to suit different types of adventuring. Its worth testing a few different types to see which suit you- you can do this at a traditional ski rental place, the German Alpine Club www.alpenverein.de Its something we also go through in detail during our Introduction to Snowshoeing course. Snowshoeing in the Bavarian Alps Trekking poles are essential- if you have summer trekking poles, you just need to switch the baskets at the bottom to the snow baskets and you are ready to go!
Once you have your stability sorted, the next most important thing is the comfort of your feet. The best footwear is your normal hiking boot that is waterproof and has full ankle support (even more important in winter). A thick pair of woollen socks should keep your feet toasty. (Pro tip: always carry a spare pair in case they get wet!)
The next magic ingredient is a pair of gaiters- these will stop snow slipping down into your boots and ruining that happy warm place. Again the waterproof function here is pretty valuable.
Winter walking and snowshoeing in themselves do not require a huge amount of skills. With some basic techniques for ascent and descent you will be moving around as if you were always on snowshoes. The trickier part is knowing where to go as there are important factors to take into consideration- in particular your impact on the winter environment and the risk of avalanche. There are basic principles you can apply to tour planning to minimise your impact on nature, whereas avalanche awareness and knowledge is something that takes years of learning and experience.
A good place to start is going on marked trails in ski resort areas, which will be chosen for their low-impact on the local wildlife and will also be safe from avalanche. If you want to explore off the beaten track, get closer to nature in a responsible way and build up your own tools for winter exploration then a good place to start is by booking a professionally led course. Furthermore if you want to go deeper into backcountry you will need to invest in avalanche gear (transceiver, probe and shovel) and learn how to use it all.
You always have to start somewhere, so do not be put off if you have no experience- start building knowledge gradually- go with professionals as they will know where to find the best snow, most appropriate trails and conditions and will be able to support you with your technique in different snow and terrain. Then build up experience by going with more experienced friends, study and discuss avalanche reports, conditions, snow pack etc. and together explore the fascinating topic of snow – its addictive!
Look after yourself
One of the biggest errors in winter walking and snowshoeing is dressing like a Michelin man in the expectation that you are going to freeze! Just like all other mountain sports- it’s about the layers. Walking uphill in snow will get you even warmer than an uphill ascent in summer and you will soon be shedding the layers. A good moisture-wicking base layer is the key – both tops and bottoms (think ski underwear). Then a lightweight fleece, insulated layer (e.g. primaloft/ down jacket) and hardshell (waterproof and wind proof). A change of base layer (long sleeved top) is essential for switching out when you reach a summit and will keep you warm as you cool down on the descent.
Food & Drink
Snowshoeing is a big calorie burner- so you need to keep yourself well-nourished along the way. Plenty of little snacks – nuts, chocolate, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, eggs. Additionally, through the sweating and cold air we also lose a lot of moisture, so keeping well-hydrated along the way is essential. Pro-tip: bring a thermos of hot tea with a drop of honey.
Exploring low impact
During wintertime if we are not careful we might invade the living room of an animal who is in winter survival mode- costing it precious energy either in fleeing or disrupting its source of food and nourishment. There are a few easy principles that we can apply to do our best to avoid this:
- Get map-reading and understand where protected areas are on the map.
- Avoid summits ridges and low-shrub zones (home to black grouse- Birkhuhn) between 4pm and 10am .
- In forests keep to routes recommended by organisations such as DAV when passing through woodland to minimise disruption.
- Be aware of the terrain and avoid areas of reforestation or treading on saplings.
- As always leave no trace – from apple cores, to toilet paper- everything we carry in, we carry out.
Hopefully this information is useful to get you started and get out there this winter!