If you are a hiker wondering how to avoid postholing, a beginner trying to understand what it means, or why you see people angry about postholing, you have come to the right place. In this article we cover everything you should know about postholing.
What Is Postholing?
Postholing is the act of plunging one’s foot into deep snow or other soft terrain. This can happen when the hiker’s weight is not distributed evenly across their snowshoes or boots, or when they step in an area of snow that is not compacted enough to support their weight. When this happens, the hiker’s leg can sink deep into the snow, creating a hole.
Posholing can be relatively shallow, or hikers can potentially sink all the way down to their upper thighs.
Causes Of Postholes
There are several factors that can cause postholing, including the hiker’s weight, footwear, and the depth and density of the snow. If the snow is deep and powdery, or if it has not been compacted by other hikers or animals, it is more likely that the hiker will posthole. Similarly, if the hiker is wearing boots or even snowshoes that are not covering a large enough surface area, they may sink deeper into the snow and be more prone to postholing.
Factors The Effect Postholing
- Snow density (powder, vs packed ice, vs everywhere in between): New snow is often softer, making it far easier to sink into.
- Trail popularity: This ties directly into snow density. Heavily trafficked trails get compacted quickly by skiers, hikers, snowshoers, and other recreationalists, making it possible in some cases for any footwear to avoid postholing. Unpopular trails however may require snowshoes even many days after recent snowfall.
- Surface area of footwear: Of course, the more surface area covered, the less likely someone is to posthole. This is exactly how snowshoes work, and why snowshoe sizing is important. Even small differences in shoe size, or trail runners vs boots can make a big difference in how deep you sink into the snow.
- Temperature / Weather: Snow condenses over time. Freezes, melts out, and refreezes. Current temperatures, sunlight, and overnight temperatures all play a role in how dense the snow is. Frozen and compacted snow may only require microspikes, while cold fresh snow that has stayed cold may require snowshoes for weeks on end. The temperature and weather are also heavily affected by elevation.
- Trail Aspect: North vs south vs east vs west get different winds, and different exposure to the sun. This changes how the snow heals, condenses, melts, and freezes. All of which will greatly impact the snow conditions.
How To Prevent Postholing
There are several techniques that hikers can use to avoid postholing.
Proper Winter Gear
One of the most important is to choose appropriate gear, such as snowshoes or boots with good traction and support. In snowy environments, every hiker needs at least one of the following:
- Flotation (Snowshoes, Skis, or other flotation device)
- Traction (Microspikes, snowshoes, skins, crampons)
Flotation is pretty much always necessary unless you know that a trail is so compacted that you can avoid sinking in regular shoes nearly the entire time. We always recommend that if you are unsure, bring flotation. It is much better to have it when you don’t need it, than to be wishing you had it. Many outdoor shops will rent snowshoes for a small day fee as well.
In addition, hiking poles are hugely important for balance, and necessary for most winter conditions. These poles should be equipped with snow baskets to prevent the poles from sinking into the snow.
Planning & Preparation
Additionally, planning and preparation can go a long way in preventing postholing. Hikers should research the terrain and trail conditions before setting out, and should also bring plenty of food, water, and warm clothing (the ten essentials).
When hiking in snow or soft terrain, hikers should also be mindful of their surroundings. They should look for areas where the snow has already been compacted by previous hikers or wildlife, as these areas are less likely to result in postholing. Hikers can also use techniques such as spreading their weight evenly across their feet and hiking poles, or taking shorter steps to minimize the risk of postholing.
Finally, hikers should be willing to turn back if conditions become too hazardous. If the snow is too deep or soft to safely navigate, or if the weather takes a turn for the worse, it’s important to prioritize safety and return to the trailhead.
It is also important that if you are hiking in winter, avalanches should be a consideration. Hiking in avalanche terrain without avalanche education, or a guide or partner that does have experience is not recommended.
Often times, the trail conditions at the start of the hike are not the same as at the end. This is particularly common during spring, when the nights/mornings are cold, and the sunlight quickly heats up the snow. This often can lead hikers to think snowshoes are not needed, but later in the day, while hiking downhill, the snow may have softened substantially, causing postholing problems.
Knowing how to time this appropriately, or carrying gear for later in the day is important.
Dangers Of Postholing
Postholing can be dangerous for hikers, as it can lead to falls, injuries, and exhaustion. When a hiker postholes, they may lose their balance or twist an ankle, which can be particularly dangerous in remote or icy terrain. Additionally, postholing requires more energy and effort than regular hiking, as the hiker must constantly pull their foot out of the hole and then lift it high enough to get it out of the hole, often with snow in the way. This can quickly tire out even the most experienced hikers.
Winter Hiking & Posthole Etiquette
Postholing on trails can be annoying to other recreationalists for a few reasons. First, postholing can cause damage to the trail, making it more difficult and potentially hazardous for other hikers to navigate. When a hiker postholes, they create deep holes in the snow or soft terrain that can be difficult to avoid, especially if the trail is narrow or crowded. This can result in other hikers also postholing, which can lead to a chain reaction of holes along the trail.
Postholing causes damage to the trail that makes it hard for people using proper snow flotation equipment (like skis or snowshoes) to move along at the same pace. Postholes can cause climbings skins on skies to slip backwards, or make it harder for snowshoes to maintain balance.
Walking on groomed ski trails or cross country trails is often frowned upon for the above reasons. Many areas will have regulations requiring hikers or snowshoes to stay on wide side of the tracks. Some areas only allow skiers as well. Hikers should always look up the regulations of local trails.
When Does Postholing Occur?
Postholing is most common in snowy or soft terrain, such as on a mountain trail or in a snowy field. It can also be more likely to occur in certain weather conditions, such as after a fresh snowfall or when the temperature is warming up and the snow is starting to melt. It’s important to check the weather and trail conditions before setting out on a hike to ensure that you’re prepared for the terrain.
In conclusion, postholing can be a dangerous and exhausting experience for hikers. However, with proper planning, preparation, and techniques, it can be avoided. By choosing appropriate gear, researching trail conditions, and being mindful of their surroundings, hikers can minimize the risk of postholing and enjoy a safe and enjoyable hike. Remember to always prioritize safety, and to turn back if conditions become too hazardous. Happy hiking!
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about