As health experts have been predicting for months, it appears we are going to have a tough winter. COVID cases are spiking and many of the pleasures we have been enjoying the last few months, such as indoor dining and outdoor gatherings with friends, are proving too dangerous or not practical during winter. While this is understandably depressing news during an already challenging year, the good news is we go into winter knowing a lot more about surviving the pandemic than we did in the spring. For one, we feel pretty confident that spending time outdoors is considerably safer than indoors. This information led to unprecedented numbers of people recreating outdoors this summer. Even after being closed for up to two months, many of our public lands recorded record visitation once they reopened.
It is anticipated that this trend will continue into winter. People that might have normally gone to movies or the mall during the winter instead might decide to learn to ski or snowshoe. A socially distant excursion to the Pacific Coast for storm-watching might be a more appealing social event with friends than huddling under a tarp in the backyard. Many outdoor professionals consider this prospect both exciting and terrifying. When record numbers of recreationists thronged to the outdoors this summer it meant an increase in illegal and unsafe parking, litter and overflowing trash cans, and most concerning, increased search and rescue missions. (See #RecreateResponsibly to learn how the outdoor industry responded to this increase in users).
The stakes in winter are much higher. Take a wrong turn? In the summer there is an extra 6-8 hours of daylight to backtrack and find your way back to the trailhead. In the winter it gets dark early and the weather is less forgiving. A mistake below freezing means a lot less time before hypothermia and frostbite sets in. Plus, there are avalanches, winter storms and extreme high tides to take into consideration. Winter is a magical time to be outdoors, and it is a good thing that people who have been “winter curious” will be inspired to get outside this winter. And, for the sake of people’s safety, as well as the safety of search and rescuers and are already overtaxed medical facilities, it is imperative to plan ahead and prepare.
Those who wish to recreate in Washington State have numerous resources to help them recreate safely and responsibly. First, there are numerous seminars and trainings to help you boost your skills for winter travel – many are now online. Check out the Northwest Avalanche Center for avalanche awareness courses (https://nwac.us/events/). The Mountaineers offers a diverse range of courses for all ability levels, from how to snowshoe to winter camping (https://www.mountaineers.org/courses). Retailers such as REI also offer classes (https://www.rei.com/events).
For those with little to no experience recreating in winter, I highly recommend going on a tour with a professional guide. Although not as many companies in Washington offer winter excursions, the ones that maintain operations are some of the most reputable in the country. Tours include snowshoe trips to Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, cross-country skiing lessons in the Methow Valley, snowmobiling tours at Mount Spokane and some of the best birdwatching in the nation to view winter migrants to Washington’s numerous beaches and waterways. Backcountry ski and snowboard guides can introduce you to world-class powder via snowcat, helicopter or overland.
First, is it safe to travel with a guide during a pandemic? As with all outdoor activities, there are inherent risks, and this is of course true during COVID. Outdoor professionals are already experienced mitigating risk and implementing safety protocols. Requiring participants to wear masks or face coverings is no different than requiring a life jacket on a kayak tour or wearing a seatbelt in a tour van. Ensuring that guests are positioned at least 6 feet from each other is the same as keeping participants on trails and away from dangerous precipices.
A benefit of going on a tour and hiring a guide is putting the driving in the hands of an experienced winter driver and in a vehicle set up for winter. Be prepared to wear a mask throughout the time in a vehicle, and plan on a chillier ride due to increased ventilation from windows and vents. Some participants may choose to meet the guide closer to the trailhead or drive themselves to avoid riding with others.
Winter recreating usually requires specialized gear or equipment such as snowshoes, avalanche beacons or warm clothes. Professional tours usually have the required gear and equipment to borrow or rent on the tour. Going on a tour gives you a chance to try out this equipment prior to purchasing and guides will relish the opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of gear with you.
It might be most compelling to hire a guide during the winter because of the technical expertise that they provide. But guides bring an intimacy with the land that even locals often lack. Guides have a wealth of knowledge about history, culture and the environment that opens up an additional connection to the land. In the 20 years that I have been a professional guide and educator I frequently hear the following phrase from locals: “I’ve lived in the Northwest my whole life and I’ve never been to this location!” Indeed, when more people than normal are expected to be out recreating this winter, it will be helpful to go with a professional that knows the less traveled locations to escape the crowds and lessen the impact on the environment.
In a normal year I am quick to encourage people to get outside and experience winter. This year this advice is even more relevant as we have fewer options for entertainment and enrichment. While winter brings additional considerations and challenges, the rewards are high, and the professional resources abound in Washington. Be safe, stay within your limits, and tap into the world class winter wonderland that Washington offers.