Hiking in Glacier National Park: Traction for Snowfields

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While hiking in Glacier National Park, you may encounter trails that are partially (or completely) covered in snow. This is especially true for hiking in Glacier Park early in the season, which is the entire month of June through early August. Depending on the amount of snow that has fallen during the winter and spring, some Glacier Park Trails along the Continental Divide may even have snow hazards that linger through most of August. Encountering snow on Trails in Glacier National Park is a fairly common occurrence, and Shannon and I have found that by using some basic traction devices on our hiking boots while crossing certain snowfields really make our Glacier Park hiking experiences much more pleasant and enjoyable.

These traction devices are placed on your hiking boots when you need them. They are light weight, don’t take up much room in your pack, and are super-easy to put on. We are presently using the YakTrax brand for our Glacier National Park Hikes, but there are several other very high quality companies out there with similar products. Another nice feature of these traction devices is the fact that there are no sharp teeth that could rip your pack. There is nothing sharp on these devices.

When do we use them? Whenever we have to cross a snowfield that is on a slope, or when the snow is really icy and slick. We simply take a few minutes, slide the traction devices on, cross the snowfield, take them off, and we are once again on our way.

These traction devices are especially useful early in the morning, when the soft wet snow of the previous day freezes during the night, and the snowfield actually becomes a rock hard “icefield” until the warmth of the day once again softens the snow. Without traction devices, these early morning crossings can be quite difficult.

Another piece of equipment we always have with us while hiking in Glacier National Park, especially when we are crossing a snowfield that is on a slope, is trekking poles. Trekking poles give you far more stability and balance as you are crossing these snowfields, and we highly recommend them.

WARNING: Crossing a snowfield can be extremely dangerous, especially if you are attempting to cross a snowfield that is on a steep grade. If a hiker slips, he or she can instantly begin sliding down the slope uncontrollably, and serious injuries and even death can occur. Therefore, the only hikers that should cross a steep snowfield are those who are experienced in self-arrest with a mountain axe (a.k.a. ice axe). If you are not experienced with a mountain axe and are not experienced in self-arrest techniques, DO NOT ATTEMPT to cross a steeply sloped snowfield. This is one of the most dangerous situations you could ever encounter while hiking in Glacier National Park. One slip and you could be seriously injured or killed.

In summary, snowfields are a fairly common occurrence while hiking in Glacier National Park, especially early in the season or following a winter of heavy snowfall. Traction devices such as YakTrax give you far better traction, and combined with trekking poles, crossing these snowfields will be far safer and much more enjoyable. Put these traction devices in your day pack, and have them ready if you are heading out on any of the Glacier Park Hikes that potentially could have snowfields. (By the way, ask a ranger or stop by a ranger station to learn the status of the trail conditions before you head out.) But remember, if the snowfield is on a steep slope where one slip could send you flying down the mountain, DO NOT ATTEMPT this obstacle unless you are highly skilled with a mountain axe, and you are an expert in self-arrest techniques.

For more information on Glacier National Park, click here.

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