Monday, February 6, 2012

Wilderness Fun, NOT Wilderness Tragedy

Every winter we read about it in the paper or see it on TV news. A hiker has been separated from his group, or a group has been cut off by an avalanche or delayed by a storm. Any number of things can happen to dampen the spirit of winter hikers or cross-country skiers. Worse, unpreparedness can kill. Your life may depend on what you have with you.

What is known as the “Ten Essentials” is applicable for year-around use, but the risks of winter skiing and hiking are greater with colder and wetter weather, plus shorter hours of daylight.

Here are the bare essentials every wilderness hiker should carry. The couple of extra pounds they represent are critical to outdoor safety.

Maps and Navigation Equipment It’s not hard to get lost in the wilderness, even when following a well-used trail. Sometimes there’s an unmarked fork, or you step aside to take a picture and get turned around. A GPS is a valuable tool as long as the battery is charged. It’s always a good idea to carry a map. Topographical maps are the most useful. If you get lost and see a peak, you can more easily determine where you are on a topographical map. Study the map before you go so you have a mental picture of the terrain. Carry a compass. It’s easy to get turned around and on a cloudy day you can’t always see the sun to determine your direction. A simple compass–that you know how to use–can save your life.

Don’t expect the map on your cell phone to work when hiking, even if your phone has GPS. No cell phone service means your map is a blank screen since the maps aren’t preloaded as in a dedicated GPS unit. Some smart phones allow you to “pre cache” small map areas so they are available without cell service.

First Aid Kit  Prepare a kit with a few bandaids, a small tube of antibiotic ointment, some gauze and adhesive tape, an elastic bandage for knee or ankle sprains, and a small bottle of aspirin or other pain killer. Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be elaborate, but a simple kit can go a long way toward alleviating discomfort.

Extra Clothes  Waterproof rain gear is a good idea all year long, not only to keep you dry, but to block out cold, harsh winds. Include a weather-proof hat. You can lose 35 percent of your total body-heat through your head. In the winter that amount of heat loss can be a matter of life or death. Pack an extra pair of wool socks. You’ll be glad you have them if your feet get wet. Consider carrying disposable hand and toe warmers in your pocket. You could save digits from frost bite.

Sun Protection  Take along dark sunglasses. Even on cloudy days, sunshine reflected off snow can be blinding. Sunscreen and SPF lip balm will protect your skin from sunburn, summer or winter.

Shelter  Even if you don’t plan to spend the night, take along a tent, tarp, emergency blanket, or even a large plastic trash bag. Just to have a dry place to sit and rest is important in conserving or restoring energy. If you do have to spend the night, a shelter can save you many miserable, long hours.

Illumination Even if you’re planning only a day trip, take along a flashlight or headlamp, plus extra batteries and a spare bulb. It gets dark early in the woods and walking along even a well-used trail can be dangerous in the dark.

Extra Food  “Extra” implies that you have some food with you. Even if you hadn’t planned to eat on your outing, always carry some form of nutrition. A body can last for days without food, but it provides energy and warmth.

Hydration  Each hiker should have two quarts of water per day. It’s a good idea to have a means to purify water, either with a compact filter or with chemical tablets.

Tools For winter hiking, take along a light, compact snowshovel. Using a shovel to dig yourself out of a tight spot is better than digging out with your hands. A simple two-blade knife will come in handy to shave wood or cut fabric. A one-burner backpacking stove is a good thing to have along. Hot liquid will bring comfort and warmth. In rainy weather, it’s easier to start a small butane stove than a fire. Invest in waterproof matches and carry them in a waterproof container.

Good Judgement There’s no substitute for common sense. Before you leave home, check the weather forecast and avalanche centers. Take along items for your own comfort–cell phone, toilet paper, insect repellent.  Before you leave on a day trip, stop to think whether or not you’re equipped in the event your trip turns out to be an over-nighter. Be prepared to turn back if the weather gets nasty.


Carol said...

Thanks for the useful tips.

Doris said...

Excellent tips, Mary. Especially the map! I'm rather amazed at how few people actually know how to read a map and use a compass. And even more amazed at how many assume their cell phone works "everywhere."

Page Lambert said...

Mary, it's always good to be reminded of these common sense cautions. Even where we live, hiking only moments from our door, there are a lot of trails one would have to search for a neighbor who didn't return from a walk. I keep thinking John and I should file "flight plans" when we take off alone, letting each other know what direction we headed.

Thanks again.