Winter Driving and Travel Safety

A trip into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest can take visitors into high elevations of 3,000 feet or more where temperatures are colder and weather more severe. Every year we hear about the plight of motorists caught on the road during a severe blizzard or storm. The results can be traumatic and/or fatal unless you are prepared.

Many people are unaware of the hazards of winter travel. Harsh conditions of wind, cold, snow, or whiteout can turn an outing into a tragedy. Knowledge of the area, elevation, weather, route and the limitations of your body and equipment can ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.


Hypothermia - Know the Signs

Hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold, aggravated by wet, wind, and exhaustion. It is the #1 killer of outdoor enthusiasts. Your best protection against hypothermia is to wear wool and/or other types of (non-cotton) clothing that will wick moisture away from your skin. Layer to adjust to changes in temperature. Carry rain gear, and extra warm clothing and wear stable footwear such as hiking boots.

Where To Go?

Snomobiler on a snomobile in the snow covered forest.Most of the National Forests land is open for unrestricted winter travel. However, many roads close for the season with the first significant snowfall or on December 1st- whichever comes first. Get your FREE forest Motor Vehicle Use Map, showing all roads and seasonal closures.

There are several snow gages maintained through the National Climate and Water Center, called SNOTEL sites, that show updated seasonal and daily snow data.

View a list of Washington Sno-Parks

Winter Road Conditions

You will encounter a wide range of road condition during the winter months, including dry pavement, black ice, hard packed snow, ice, loose snow, slush, and every combination. Roads to Sno-Parks and other winter destinations may be plowed periodically. However, road conditions may often be very difficult even after plowing. The typical standard for higher elevation, unpaved roads is single-lane with turnouts and a 2-inch cushion of snow/ice on the roadway to protect the gravel surface.

Be prepared! High-clearance vehicles with 4-wheel drive and good mud/snow tires are best. Other vehicles, especially RV’s, may find the going very difficult at times. Be especially careful going downhill when there is packed snow and ice! Some areas may be plowed to a higher standard. Call your local Forest Service office if you have questions.

Check specific Forest Road updates on our conditions report.

Personal & Vehicle Preparation

Layers of clothing which can be adjusted to prevailing conditions are best. A good-quality rain gear is excellent. Avoid tight fitting clothes and boots that may restrict circulation. Take extra socks and gloves or mittens, warm cap, matches in a waterproof container, firestarter, nylon cord, general purpose knife, high-energy food, plastic tarp, space blanket, signal mirror, first aid kit, wide tape for repairs and metal container for melting snow.

Snowmobilers should be certain to have wrench pliers, extra sparkplugs and drive belt, and a spare ignition key. Experienced snowmobilers always carry snowshoes (in case of machine failure), as well as the normal emergency and survival gear for winter.

Consider the following when preparing your vehicle for winter travel:

  • BATTERY AND ELECTRICAL SYSTEM: A battery that’s 100-percent efficient at 80 degrees will be only 64-percent efficient at 30 degrees, and only 33-percent efficient at 10 degrees.
  • FUEL AND IGNITION SYSTEMS: How long has it been since your vehicle had a tune-up?. Periodic tune-ups can find those items that should be replaced to prevent failure in cold weather. Also, check the entire exhaust system for leaks.
  • COOLING SYSTEM: Be sure that the system is clean, that you have adequate antifreeze protection, and that all hoses and belts are in good condition. Antifreeze should be replaced every two years.
  • OIL: Clean oil of the correct weight, or viscosity, is important to cold weather starting.
  • TIRES: Tire tread condition is crucial when driving on ice and snow. A minimum of 5/32" of tread is necessary to provide good traction. Also check inflation. Tire pressure decreases one pound for every 10-degree drop in temperature. Radial "all-weather" tires are recommended. Studded snow tires provide better traction on snow, while chains are best for stopping and starting in severe snow and ice conditions.
  • WINDSHIELD WIPERS AND LIGHTS: Keep plenty of windshield-washer antifreeze solution in the reservoir.
  • WINTER SURVIVAL KIT: Another precaution is to create a winter survival kit. Use a container for safe and handy storage in summertime, and when fall arrives place in trunk of vehicle. Consider the following items:
  • Blankets, sleeping bags, or something to keep you warm.
  • Extra stocking caps and mittens for passengers, and extra outer clothing.
  • Matches, candles, 2 cans of Sterno (Portable heating fuel for cooking + heat).
  • Two three-pound coffee cans, or the like one for excrement and the other to hold candle or Sterno.
  • Food supply (high-calorie, nonperishable food such as canned nuts, dried fruit, "Trail mix").
  • Liquids (place in thermos to avoid freezing).
  • Paper towels
  • Small sack of sand or kitty litter for traction.
  • Tire chains (correct size!)
  • Small plastic tarp or blue foam ground cover for putting on tire chains.
  • Shovel (small collapsible type or small snow shovel).
  • Windshield scraper/brush for snow removal.
  • Portable radio with extra batteries.
  • Lock de-icer.
  • Windshield cover (help avoid scraping windshield, easier snow removal).
  • Extra windshield washer antifreeze solution.
  • Map(s) of area you will be traveling.
  • THINGS TO KEEP IN THE CAR YEAR ROUND: Battery jumper cables, flashlight with extra batteries. Tools: screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, wire, duct tape, socket set, tow chain, First Aid kit with pocket knife, flares/reflective triangles, spare fuses, headlight and taillight bulbs, an extra quart of motor oil, fire extinguisher, cotton work gloves, shop towel, distress flag or help sign.

Share the Forest

The National Forest is vast, but in some areas those traveling by skis, snowshoes, and snowmobiles must share the same routes and areas. Common sense and courtesy will provide a safe and pleasant experience for everyone. The following suggestions are for your benefit.

  • Snowmobiles should operate at minimum speed near skiers or snowshoers. Do not accelerate until well beyond those on foot.
  • Skiers and snowshoers should yield the track to oncoming or overtaking snowmobilers, unless the track is wide enough for safe passage.
  • Snowmobiles are not permitted on developed ski areas. Ski touring and snowshoeing may be restricted or regulated. Check with the local Ranger or ski area manager.

Make Sure Someone Knows Your Plan

Two people on Cross Country Skis on a snow covered landscape near Mount St. Helens.Before you leave, notify a responsible person of:

  • Your planned route of travel. Mark it on a map for them.
  • Your planned departure time.
  • Your planned time of return—be sure to check back in.

When someone is overdue, keep calm. Notify the County Sheriff or Ranger District office in the trip area. Either the county Sheriff or Ranger District will then take steps to alert or activate the local search and rescue organization. If the missing person returns later, be sure you follow-up.

Skamania County Sheriff (509) 427-9490 ext. 0; Cowlitz County Sheriff (360) 577-3098 ext.3; Lewis County Sheriff  (360) 740-1105.

Cowlitz Valley Ranger District: (360) 497-1100; Mt. Adams Ranger District: (509) 395-3400; Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument: (360) 449-7800; Forest Headquarters: (360) 891-5000.

Don't Get Lost

Avoid getting lost by:

  • Taking a good map
  • Learning to read it and knowing how to locate your position
  • Learning to read a compass and believing it
  • Checking weather forecasts and avoiding storms

It is easy to become disoriented in whiteouts and when physically exhausted.