This weekend I am going to do one of my favorite things: winter hiking in the Sierras. When I say "hiking", I mean that though we might be trodding up a mountain in the snow, it is not real mountaineering. I won't wear plastic boots and probably won't use my ice axe.

I have always loved hiking in the snow. And I have always considered postholing while hiking to be a minor annoyance. But what are the real risks? Do people break their legs postholing through the snow? Should I always wear snowshoes if postholing is likely? Or is this just the minor annoyance I think of it as?

  • 3
    It will definitely slow you down and this is not a minor issue. To quantify, a person can expect advancing at 5km/h when hiking. This speed will drop at 2.5km/h when snowshoeing. Without snowshoes, this speed is probably much less.
    – Amine
    Dec 20, 2012 at 2:06
  • 1
    So you think the major concern isn't injury but a heart-wrenchingly slow pace? That's an interesting point. Thank ye. Dec 20, 2012 at 4:25
  • Injury is also a big concern. Not be able to finish the hike in a timely manner can be a serious issue specialy if injured
    – Amine
    Dec 20, 2012 at 12:10

5 Answers 5


This is really up to you, but I think if postholing is enough of a issue it would be good to wear snowshoes. If nothing else, it just makes things easier.

One problem of postholing can be sometimes difficulty in getting out. You're not likely to actually get hurt, because "falling" onto the snow isn't a problem when it's deep and soft enough for your foot to punch thru enough to call it postholing.

I was on a hike once in the Green Mountains of Vermont where I had intended to take snowshoes but they accidentally got left behind. Things were OK for a while, but then the terrain changed and drifts were getting deeper. I got into a major posthole where there would have been a small stream crossing the trail in the summer. The stream was completely covered up, so the only clue was the depression in the topography. This somehow created air spaces or made for looser snow so that I ended up with my right leg sunk all the way into the snow up to my hips. At that point my left leg was sortof kneeling, except partially sunk in the snow too.

Getting out of that was more difficult than I would ever have imagined if someone had only told me about it. I was by myself, so nobody to throw a stick or grab my shoulders or something. Trying to lean forwards to get more horizontal didn't work well because my whole body sank into the very loose snow, but my right foot was still stuck in something more dense down there. I eventually got out of that trap, but it probably took a few minutes.

This would have been far less of a problem with snowshoes on.

  • 1
    Another risk is in the winter it's hard to tell if you are on a field or on water (use a map!) postholing on snow-covered lakes/creeks invariably means wet feet or worse. Spread the load with snowshoes!
    – furtive
    Dec 20, 2012 at 22:16
  • 1
    -1 For "you're not likely to get hurt." Lots of ways to get hurt post-holing, and pot-holing can happen on lots of different types of snow - not just "deep and soft" snow.
    – Lost
    Jan 25, 2013 at 2:41

Post-holing has very real risks due to the simple fact you have no idea what lies beneath the surface of the snow until you punch through and bang, scrape or wedge your leg under, against, between or in a hidden tree, log, rock, hole, creek, etc.

Some of the risks:

  • Barked Shins: Often you'll post-hole the deepest beside buried logs where the snow might be hollowed out a bit, meaning that after sinking 2 feet in with some resistance for miles, you suddenly sink 3 feet rapidly banging your shins against dead wood.
  • Wet Feet: Even with gaiters, excessive post-holing can work snow under the gaiters and in to your shoes resulting in wet feet, which can lead to cold injuries (eg frost bite).
  • Soaked Feet+: Creeks can still be flowing under completely uniform looking snow. Post-holing through can soak your feet and legs instantly increasing your risk of cold injuries, or even hypothermia if enough of you gets wet.
  • Sprained Ankle, Wrenched Knee, Pulled Muscle, Broken Leg: You don't know what lies just beneath the surface of the snow. If you are carrying any weight, have forward momentum, or are just unlucky, your sudden stop could cause any number of soft tissue or skeletal injury.

All of these can have consequences for returning safely. Of course, the risk varies with depth of snow, type of terrain, age of snow (snow pack is highly variable) etc.

Use good judgement.

  • 1
    This should be the answer. Postholing came be dangerous because of obstacles under the snow. In boulder fields for example the snow can look perfectly flat but the depth will vary massively, you have no idea what your standing on until you actually stand on it. I have actually twisted an ankle in such terrain before, now, thanks god it wasn't serious but it made me think
    – user2766
    Dec 23, 2014 at 8:57

Postholing is more of an etiquette thing. On popular snowshoeing routes when people posthole thru a trail the make a thin deep canyon of snow. This makes it difficult for snowshoers to get nice flat sections to hike on. After the holes get covered by fresh snow, these holes become a mine field for people on snowshoes..


Coming from an "enjoying nature" perspective, the equation becomes more simple in my estimation. If the trail can be expected to be reasonably well packed down, boots are perfect, traction cleats can be slipped onto boots if the hike is especially steep or slick. If the trail is expected to be deep powder, not hard pack snow.. snow shoes are easily the best way to travel. They are generally superior to boots in these conditions, including things like postholing and other similar frustrating aspects. Nature tends to reward those who use the right gear for the right situation.


In my opinion the major risk wearing no snowshoes on deep snow (besides the time aspect) is that you step close in front of a stone or other obstacle. You don't have to run, it is just normal that your leg benches and it is likely that your shin gets levered against that obstacle. That leverage increases the force on your shin and maybe the ankle which might cause harm.

If you are wearing snowshoes you are increasing your footprint where those injuries aren't that likely to happen anymore.

So far I was lucky not to get injured by that scenario but I think it is quite a likely risk. And of course this is not valid on every terrain.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.