What Is Meant by the Term "Post-holing" in Hiking?

Postholing past the knee.
Postholing past the knee.

Lisa Maloney

Post-holing is a miserable way to spend a winter hike. The term alludes to exactly what you might imagine: the vertical plunge of a fence post into the earth—a narrow, straight, and deep insertion into the earth (or into snow, in our scenario). This post-hole metaphor very often plays out when a winter hiker steps on what he might first believe to be hard-packed snow—his leg creates, then immediately occupies, a post-hole in the snow. And once trapped in deep snow, he is in for a fairly agonizing hike until he finds different conditions. 

Once a winter hiker has started post-holing, the only way to make forward (or backward) progress is to pull each half-buried leg straight up out of the snow before you take your next step. This takes an enormous amount of energy and shortens your stride quite a bit. If you sink very deep, such as fully up to the hip, just extracting your leg from the hole it made is a real chore. A hiker who has been forced to spend an hour or two post-holing will feel the sting in his upper thighs and hips for days to come. There is no slower or more agonizing way of making forward progress in a snowfield than post-holing—unless it is the summer version, Bushwhacking. 

If You Find Yourself in a Post-holing Situation

There is really no way to hike gracefully in a post-holing situation. You are in for a grueling stretch of hiking until you make your way to different terrain that has shallower snow, or one where the surface is packed hard enough to support your weight. The best you can do is take your time to avoid utterly exhausting yourself. Avoid the impulse to take enormous steps, as this will only tire you out faster. But you can perhaps avoid wandering into post-hole territory in the first place. If you do find yourself plunging into the snow, the same strategies can help you identify and move to 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 in the middle of winter.
  • At some times of the year, though, it can be best to focus on hiking in sunnier areas where sunlight may have burned off snow to a shallower depth that you can easily hike. Especially in late winter or early spring, sunny exposures may offer the best hiking. 
  • 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.

Another great option—maybe the best one of all—is to just carry snowshoes to help you get over the soft spots when you encounter them. Lightweight snowshoes can easily strap to a backpack of any size and can be clamped to your boots whenever snow conditions call for them.