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Image: Making her mark
Lynn Dombek pauses while snowshoeing up a hill on snow-covered logging roads in Hancock County, Maine.
updated 1/4/2011 12:01:47 PM ET 2011-01-04T17:01:47

The solitude, quiet and frozen cold of a winter landscape are great reasons to head outdoors in January and February. You can snowshoe, ski, trek or go sledding. Sleep overnight in a tent, lean-to, yurt or cabin. Tree branches may snap, and lake ice may groans as it freezes and buckles. Or maybe the only sound you'll hear is the gentle shoosh, shoosh, shoosh of your snowshoes in powder.

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But the backcountry in winter can also be a challenging landscape to stay safe in, and if things go wrong, they can go wrong fast. That may sound scary, but as long as you're prepared, you might be surprised by how satisfying and exhilarating it can be to slow down and closely observe the environment and your place in it.

Here are a few tips on safely enjoying backcountry activities in the winter.

I've done most of my winter trekking and camping in New England, already a remote and beautiful place, but doubly so when the temperatures dip well below zero and snow covers the landscape.

My first overnight excursions were snowshoe trips with experienced winter campers into a remote log cabin in Maine. Going with someone knowledgeable about winter trekking is critically important when you're a novice. They can help with your gear list, plan a reasonably distanced overnight or day excursion, and give you practical tips and guidance along the way.

Slideshow: Winter wonderland (on this page)

Preparation is your most important step. Winter trekking is perfectly suited to the neurotic personality because the creation of lists and piles of stuff is key: clothing, gear, food, routes, contacts — it seems to never end. And once out in the frozen deep, the methodical mind is forced to slow down to survey, assess and physically get through the landscape.

Outdoor clubs are a good resource for the novice and experienced hiker alike. They have loads of free information on their websites, and for small membership fees typically offer discounts on backcountry lodging, sponsored trips, classes, maps, and gear.

The Appalachian Mountain Club and The Mountaineers cover the East and West coasts respectively. Both have primers and resources useful in any cold climate, and links to other national and international outdoor groups.

Most U.S. state parks and the National Park Service websites are full of tips, lists and trip ideas for any season. And if you go in the winter, you'll encounter many fewer visitors than summertime.

For instance, Yellowstone National Park saw over a million visitors in July 2010, but in January just 61,100 made the trek. Of those, only 97 were backcountry campers.

Al Nash, public affairs officer at Yellowstone, characterized winter weather in Yellowstone as "mild or really challenging." When we spoke in mid-December, it was a balmy 11 degrees and sunny there, which Nash found delightful. He was exuberant about the park in winter, but also cautious. "We encourage people to expand their comfort zone, but do it in steps."

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Nash went on to say that "if you've never gone winter camping before, find a way to ease into it. Don't make the first time in Yellowstone; make the first time in your backyard, or at a spot you can get out of easily and back to your house or a warm hotel."

Getting dressed
Maine's Baxter State Park has over 200,000 acres of wilderness for recreation year-round. The park's chief ranger, Ben Woodard, says "winter magnifies the mistakes a novice trekker may make. There is a constant heat challenge travelling in the backcountry. The balance is to stay warm, dry and well-fed and hydrated when you travel."

Getting dressed for winter activities is all about layers. Put them on and take them off to regulate your body temperature. It may not produce the most flattering look, but you'll be happier (and safer!) if you do it right. Generally you should employ the three-layer system: base, insulating, and shell.

Slideshow: Hit the lifts (on this page)

The base layer is typically a synthetic because the material absorbs little water, wicks moisture away from your skin and dries quickly. Silk is a good non-petroleum based alternative, and there's also wool. Steer clear of cotton; it may feel cozy next to your skin but it absorbs water and dries slowly, a sure recipe for hypothermia.

Wool or fleece are good choices for an insulating layer because they keep you warm and dry out easily. Goose down can be used if you'll be in extreme cold, but unless you keep it dry, it won't keep you warm. Carry a goose-down parka with you that you can pull on during rest stops or at night in camp. It's light, compresses into a small ball, and keeps you toasty warm.

Your shell layer protects against wind, snow or rain. As with every other piece of gear, you can get a shell in many different flavors: windproof, water-resistant, breathable, non-breathable, and soft. Choose the one best for your activity and weather conditions.

One of the most important reasons to dress in layers is to manage perspiration. Most synthetics will wick moisture away from your skin, but once you stop moving around, any moisture at all is going to make you cold. And once you get cold, it's harder to warm up; hypothermia can become a real danger.

Woodard, the Baxter ranger, says the more snow they have, "the slower life in the park becomes. It takes longer to travel in deep snow, longer to do chores or work assignments because you're balancing" the challenges of the environment.

If you go ...

Generally, winter travel takes longer than treks in other seasons. Plan on covering just a third of the ground you normally would in non-winter conditions. If there's snow, it simply takes longer to plow through it, and you'll spend more time just finding the trail.

The gear you'll need depends on the activity you've chosen and how long you'll be out. Woodard notes that "for experienced winter travelers, skis and snowshoes make travel relatively easy. But for someone who hasn't used them, the person will fall more, getting wet from the snow and the exertion."

So start slowly. Short day hikes under a mile can still be incredibly satisfying. "The snow muffles the sounds in the mountains and woods," Woodard says. "Many times wildlife can be spotted easier if they don't have the option of white camouflage. We have visitors who enjoy day trips in the fringes of the park as well as multi-day visitors who want to traverse the park, climb a mountain or visit their favorite location."

In addition to Baxter State Park, Maine has miles of logging roads that are unplowed in winter, perfect for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing (if you don't mind sharing with the occasional snowmobilers!).

The roads also make it easier to pull a sled, instead of hauling all your gear in a backpack. An expedition sled, or pulk, can run upwards of $600, but you can easily build your own using a heavyweight plastic sled, small PVC piping and some rope.

So never mind the drudgery of winter at home. Drop that snow shovel and get out to the backcountry. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Winter wonderland

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  1. Horning in

    Sledders in horned helmets glide to the finish line of the of the traditional horn sledge race in a valley near the Bavarian village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. More than 90 sleds took part in the traditional event on Jan. 6. (Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Frost and fireworks

    Fireworks explode over ice sculptures during the official opening of the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. (David Gray / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stripes and snow

    Tigers prowl the snowy Siberia Tiger Park in Harbin, China, on Jan. 7. The park is one of the largest breeding centers for endangered Siberian tigers. (How Hwee Young / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dome to a turn

    An ice sculpture mimics the architecture of Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square on Jan. 5. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Frosted forest

    Horses pull a sledge through snow-covered woods in the eastern German ski resort of Oberhof on Jan. 5. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. River floe

    A Ukrainian man walks on the frozen Dnieper River in Kiev, Ukraine, on Jan. 3. Temperatures in the Ukrainian capital dropped to 28 degrees. (Sergei Chuzavkov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Horsey hoarfrost

    Frost covers the eyelashes of a horse in the eastern German ski resort of Oberhof, Jan. 5. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Peaking out

    Clouds and blowing snow form a halo around Mount Rainier as seen from Seattle on Dec. 30. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Walking in a winter wonderland

    Two people walk through a band of heavy lake-effect snow falling near Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 5. (Amy Sancetta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sled racers

    A father sleds with his daughter near Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 25. (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Walking on thick ice

    A worker walks on a snow sculpture featuring camels prior to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in China on Dec. 24. The 27th Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival kicks off on Jan. 5. (Sheng Li / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wake-up call

    A man swims in a partially frozen pond as another prepares to jump in after snowfall at Hampstead Heath in London on Dec. 19. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Picture perfect

    A snow covered Stormont estate is pictured in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Dec. 17. (Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mirrored beauty

    Fresh snow on the trees in the Harz mountain range in Sonnenberg, Germany, Nov. 27. (Frank May / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Wild nature

    Deer are seen in a pasture as snow covers the landscape near Schinnen, southern Netherlands, Dec. 17. (Ermindo Armino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Super snowman

    A 31-foot snowman dubbed "Milocinek," who wears a barrel for a hat and a road safety cone for his nose, greets children in Pierwoszow village near Trzebnica, Poland, on Dec. 11. (Grzegorz Hawalej / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black swans

    Two swans move across the water during a spell of frosty fog in the Oslofjord, Norway, on Dec. 7, 2010. (Larsen, Hakon Mosvold / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Bread bath

    Ducks fight for bread on the River Kelvin in Glasgow, Scotland, on Dec. 7, 2010. (Andy Buchanan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Winter's web

    Hoar frost clings to a spider's web around Pickmere Lake in the Cheshire countryside in Knutsford, United Kingdom on Dec. 3. Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures have severely disrupted Britain's infrastructure. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White vista

    Roofs in the old town of Bern, Switzerland are covered by snow on Dec. 2. Heavy snowfalls hit large parts of Central Europe. (Peter Klaunzer / Keystone via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Cold canopy

    A man skiis in the Thuringian Forest in Oberhof, Germany on Dec. 2. Large parts of Germany were hit by heavy snowfalls and icy winds. (Jens Meyer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Stroll noir

    People walk along the Moskva river at the outskirts of Moscow on Dec. 2 as temperatures plummet to -23 degrees Celsius (-9 degrees Fahrenheit). (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Crystal clear

    Snow crystals appear on the window of a car in Bayreuth, southern Germany, on Dec. 2. Snow blanketed the country, disrupting traffic but also bringing good winter sports conditions. (David Ebener / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Full steam ahead

    A steam engine makes its way across the snow-covered landscape after fresh snowfall near the eastern German city of Wernigerode on Nov. 22. (Matthias Bein / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rose hips on ice

    Rose hips are covered with an icinglike layer of snow in the southwest of Bavaria in Stoettgen, Germany, Nov. 22. (Karl Josef Hildenbrand / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Let it snow

    Snow covers the 'Pepiniere' park in Villers-les-Nancy, France, Nov. 29. (Alexandre Marchi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grin and 'bear' it

    A Kamchatka brown bear rests in the first snow at the zoo in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany, Nov. 29. (Martin Meissner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Snowfight!

    Children have a blast during a snowball fight in Lyon, central France, Wednesday, Dec. 1. (Laurent Cipriani / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Slippery when wet

    Snow-covered rooftops are pictured in this general view of Lyon, southeastern France, as winter weather with sub-freezing temperatures hits the country, Dec. 1. (Robert Pratta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Walking in a winter wonderland

    A man goes for a walk through the snow-covered landscape near the southern German city of Altdorf. (Karl-josef Hildenbrand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Snow buddy

    Brox the cocker spaniel runs through the snow at Scotch Corner, northern England, Nov. 29. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Frost on!

    A fisherman casts his line in Moscow River, covered in frosty fog, with the air temperature at about -13 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in Moscow, Nov. 29. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Blinded by the light, and snow

    Blowing snow and freezing temperatures face drivers as they head west on Highway 1 from Calgary, Alberta, Nov. 29. (Mike Blake / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Clearing for takeoff

    Snow plows clear part of the runway at Edinburgh airport, Scotland Nov. 29. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Over the fields and through the snow

    A horseman rides a horse between snow-covered fields in Muehlethurnen, near Bern, on Nov. 26. (Michael Buholzer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Just ducky

    A duck rests on a frozen lake with the air temperature at about minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on the outskirts of Minsk, Dec. 1. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Silent night, twinkling lights

    A snow-covered cabin is lit by Christmas lights along the shoreline of Lake Louise after sunset in Alberta, Nov. 29. (Mike Blake / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Lights all aglow

    A lamp covered with frozen snow shines on top of the Feldberg mountain near Frankfurt, central Germany, Nov. 30. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Snow crossing

    A man crosses a bridge on the Niviglio river in a snowstorm on Dec. 1, in Robecco sul Naviglio, near Milan, Italy. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Sledder's delight

    Rachel Douglass (top) and Sophie Coatsworth sledge downhill at the Town Moor in Newcastle, northern England Nov. 29. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Wearing their woolens

    Sheep stand on a snow-covered meadow in Olching, west of Munich, Germany, during heavy snowfall in Bavaria, Nov. 29. (Michaela Rehle / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Arctic oasis

    Landscape is covered in snow on Nov. 29, at the Schlaubetal natural park near Mixdorf, eastern Germany. (Patrick Pleul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Participants wearing helmets with horns
    Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (42) Winter wonderland
  2. Image:
    Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort
    Slideshow (27) Hit the lifts


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