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Tips for Cross-Country Skiing at Night

Cross-country skiing, particularly skiing at night, can be truly magical. Being prepared will keep you safe if you get off track.

By Celese Brune

I like to put a trail map in my pocket before I head out hiking, skiing, biking, or snowshoeing, and I make sure there is a road map tucked away in the car for roadtripping. I cherish maps, contour lines, compass roses and water features. I also dislike, nearly more than anything, being lost. A map between my hands helps me connect my feet to the earth.

And yet despite lots of practice and comfort with navigation, there are times I get lost. It’s an uncomfortable feeling and a good reminder that even experienced adventurers need to be prepared. A few winters ago, with a map in the band of my gaiters, my husband, Pat, and I headed out for a twilight ski at the Cabin Creek Nordic trail system near Snoqualmie Pass. We had skied there before, we knew the routes, the trails were groomed, and the trail system is next to I-90.

Photo by Celese Brune.

That night the snow was fresh, light and deep. The sky was clear and thick snow draped the Douglas firs. With a new moon long gone, we had our headlamps out to use when the twilight faded to night.

Perfect magical moments are rare, and when they happen, you notice. As we skied, I watched the rich blues of the evening sky fading to purple just before black. Our breath became part of the forest’s next inhale, the star sparkle of the tiniest snow crystal lit our way. I laughed. Pat laughed. We were grateful.

We followed the trails, one linked to another, to stitch together an easy 6-kilometer loop. Some intersections had posted maps and, when skiing the entire outside trails, you pass the kilometer trail markers sequentially. Numerous shortcuts between loops created a labyrinth of sorts. We followed the trails, paying attention to our route and finding intersections just where we expected them. At every step of the way, we consulted the map and kept track of our location.

We decided against climbing Mount Ozbaldy and settled ourselves in the deep snow, donned our puffy jackets and set out our dinner of peanut butter and jelly with cocoa. The constellations were as clear and bright as I’d ever seen them: Orion, Cassiopeia, the winter triangle and, rising up from behind the trees, Gemini, The Twins. We ate, the earth turned and it was time to go again.

artist point ashley brown.jpg
Nordic skiing at Artist Point. Photo by Ashley Brown.

I can’t emphasize enough how great the snow was. The perfect stick and slide of the skis lifted us quickly along. We kept to the trail and paid attention to the signs. Dark settled in. Skiing down a hill, I caught the tip of my ski and crashed — not uncommon. I dusted off and we skied on, up and around to big night views. With confidence in our route, we blissfully skied on.

And then, to our dismay, we arrived back at the pit I’d made when I face-planted. And there were Pat’s ski marks from when he stepped over to help me up. We hadn’t intended to loop back on ourselves. We weren’t where we expected to be.

I pulled the map out of my gaiter, thought it through and took what we thought was the right route. We skied down and around and expected to see a sign that would point us to the exit trail to return to our car. Only we didn’t. The magic of the night disappeared. How was it possible we were not where we expected to be, when all night long, we’d kept track of our route?

Once again we consulted the map and decided this time to retreat. We followed our tracks backward. We skied down the hills we had herringboned up, climbed the hills we had skied down. It was a long way out as the temperature dropped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Our easy loop nearly doubled.

Ski tracks near Winthrop.
Ski tracks near Winthrop. Photo by Dan Robisch.

Later, on our way home, we were chagrined at losing our way on a groomed trail. While we had the gear and knowledge to bivy for the night, we talked about how close panic was. Would we have been brave enough to call for help? We joked whether we would have kept skiing around until exhausted What would we have done if we had come across our own tracks again, now doubled? Panic often lies just off the edge of the map.

Being lost, off the map, is confusing and uncomfortable. It helps to have what you need on your back to keep panic at bay. And sometimes going backward is the best way forward.

P.S: Would you like to know what went amiss and how we got off track? We wanted to know, too. So, on our next trip to Cabin Creek, we brought the GPS and went in the daylight. The best we can figure is we did climb Mount Ozbaldy without realizing it. At the top, the groomer had looped back down a back route, and we had unknowingly followed the groomed route down.

How to stay found

Knowing how to use a map and compass is a valuable skill for anyone who wants to get outside — especially in the winter. If you’re not familiar with how to use these tools, look for a navigation class near you. You can even find some online. The Mountaineers, REI and many other groups offer classes.

Once you know how to use a map and compass, practice. Long before you hit the trail, from the warmth of your home, plan your routes, practice following compass directions and placing yourself on a map. While a phone app or GPS can say, “You are here or, more likely, near here,” having the bigger picture with a map will help you see where to go and what to expect. Phone apps are definitely useful, but they’re not perfect and batteries can die quickly in cold weather.

If you’ve already learned how to navigate, consider a refresher course if needed. Teach your friends and family members. Become a map nerd.

Getting started

If you are completely new to cross country-skiing or snowshoeing, consider taking a beginner class. Rent snowshoes or cross-country skis to see if you actually like snow activities before investing in new gear.

Where to go

From groomed trails to mountain meadows, there are an abundance of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. Ski resorts across the state have Nordic trails and often have snowshoe trails as well. Check out our guide on where to go and find information on passes.

Step into winter wanders

The Ten Essentials that WTA recommends year-round also apply for cross-country skiing or other winter trips. Here are some specific things to consider for winter trips.

  • Navigation: Bring a map and compass/GPS and the knowledge of how to use them. Review the map the night before in the comfort of your home. It’s a lot easier than trying to figure it out later with cold fingers.
  • Hydration: It is easy to think that you need less water in cold weather, but you still need the same amount and cross-country skiing or snowshoeing works up a sweat. If you use a water bladder, wrap the tube in something to insulate it or tuck it somewhere warm. A frozen tube is a challenge to unthaw. I’m strictly a water bottle user, and in winter I flip my water bottle upside down so the lid doesn’t freeze closed.
  • Nutrition: Bring plenty of high-energy food and snacks. A thermos of hot cocoa or soup is a delight trailside. Possibly bring a stove and fuel along to heat up a hearty meal.
  • Rain gear and warm clothes: The snow in the Northwest is often wet, especially west of the Cascades. Dress in layers. Wool and poly that wick moisture away are best. Avoid cotton and down. I wear lightweight gloves that are wind and water resistant. Leave your snowsuit or downhill ski bibs at home — you’ll sweat too much and then get chilled when you stop.

    Often, l just wear my hiking pants with gaiters or lightweight ski pants. When temperatures or windchill drop below 25 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear polypropylene long underwear. In the pack, I put thicker gloves or mittens, a puffy poly jacket, full rain gear and a warm hat. Sit on your pack or bring a pad for your picnic break.
  • Fire starter: I’ve never used it but it is always in my kit. Be sure to check or replace it annually .
  • First-aid kit: Being prepared to deal with injuries is critical. Consider taking a backcountry first-aid course.
  • Tools: A small multitool or knife, duct tape and a small bit of wire for repairs to gear or snowshoes can get you safely back to the trailhead.
  • Illumination: I prefer a headlamp with multiple settings, from dim to high lumens. Remember extra batteries. Carry a headlamp for day trips, too.
  • Sun protection: Sunglasses with UV protection are a must on snow, even on cloudy days. And slather on the sunscreen, including under your chin and nose, as the snow can reflect UV rays upward.
  • Shelter: Even on short excursions, pack an emergency space blanket. You never know when you might have to spend the night outside.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.