What Is Postholing?

A Miserable Way to Spend a Winter Hike

Postholing past the knee. Photo © Lisa Maloney

Postholing is a miserable way to spend a winter hike. Imagine the type of hole a fencepost sinks into -- narrow, straight, deep. Now imagine taking a step on what you think is hard-packed snow, only to hit a soft spot and sink straight down into it. Your leg creates, then immediately occupies, a posthole in the snow. Get it?

Once you've started postholing, the only way to make forward (or backward) progress is pulling each half-buried leg straight up out of the snow before you take your next step.

This takes a lot of energy and shortens your stride quite a bit. If you sink in really deep, say up to the hip, just extracting your leg from the hole it made is a real chore.

Truly, there is no slower or more agonizing way of making forward progress in a snowfield than postholing. (It even comes in a summer version: Bushwhacking.) In order to experience the true magnitude of frustration one can achieve from postholing, you must meet all four of these criteria:

  1. You must sink in at least knee deep -- preferably to mid-thigh.
  2. You should be within sight of your ultimate goal -- preferably your absolute favorite hiking destination ever.
  3. You should really, truly, believe that you're almost there. You'll be past this section of soft snow in a minute.
  4. You are wrong.

How to Posthole Gracefully

Sorry -- it can't be done. But you can take steps to avoid wandering into posthole territory in the first place.

If you do find yourself plunging into the snow, the same strategies can help you identify firm snow nearby:

  • Hike early, before solar radiation and warming air temperatures can soften the snow enough for you to sink in. (Don't forget to take the timing of your return trip into account, too.) 
  • Travel in shaded areas when you can -- the snow is usually more firm there.
  • Plan a route that avoids deep snow deposits altogether. A nice blanket of snow makes hilly terrain look flat and even, but it isn't -- if you have some knowledge of what's underneath all that snow, you can stick to areas where the snow is shallower.

Or you could just carry snowshoes to help you get over the soft spots as you encounter them. Here's everything you need to know about hiking in snowshoes.