Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Winter Day Hiking

Winter can be a beautiful time to take a hike in the woods, but it can also be dangerous if you are not prepared. Cold weather hiking isn't all that different from hiking in the Summer, just a few tweaks here and there. Here are some tips and tricks to keep you safe, warm, and comfortable when tromping through the snow. Please note how ever that I am not an expert, these are things I have learned by hiking and researched.

When preparing...
First and foremost tell someone where you are going, your route, how long you expect to be gone and any other pertinent information.

Check the weather, an old saying around where I live is if you don't like the weather wait five minutes. This is especially true in the Winter, you never know when a storm will blow in. Also check the DEC website to make sure the area you want to hike is safe.

Check your gear make sure everything is in working order.

Never hike alone. The ideal number for hiking is 3 this means if someone gets hurt one person can go for help and one can stay to tend to whoever is wounded or sick.

Make sure to have the following...
These should already be in your regular hiking gear-

  • Navigation: Not just a GPS but also a compass and topographical map (learn how to use both). If you plan to be out in the woods a lot, a personal locater beacon (plb) might be a good investment.
  • First Aid: This should be a no-brainer. Replace ice packs with hand warmers, let's face it if you out in the cold and need to ice something there's snow everywhere. Toss some in a baggie, ready made ice pack and when it melts drinking water.
  • A knife or multitool: You never know when you'll need to cut something for example firewood or a bag open.
  • Head lamp, flashlight and extra batteries: Yes both days are shorter in the Winter and you might end up out on the trail after dark. Make sure to have extra batteries as the cold will drain them faster. Note-Lithium batteries are cold resistant and will last longer.
  • A lighter or fire starting tool: DK and I, both, carry Bic lighters and fire strikers (usually a small magnesium rod) along with some sort of dry tinder. Survival tip- tampons make great fire starter.
  • Emergency Blankets (at least 2): Maybe over kill but these suckers can be used for a lot of things if you get stranded. If you have at least two you can lay one on the ground or use it as a shelter and the other to cover up with. 
  • Whistle and/or signal mirror: Should you get lost or lose track of your group
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen: If you have ever been out in the snow on a sunny day you get why I'm adding these to the list. Snow Blindness is a real thing. The sun reflecting off all that white is amazingly bright and can cause your eyes damage. It can also burn any exposed skin. 
  • Duct Tape: The handyman's helper, this is awesome to have in your pack should something break or need repair. Also in a pinch it could be used for first aid purposes.
Add for Cold Weather Hiking:
  • Crampons: a pair of these to slip over your boots, will give you traction over those icy spots. All it can take is one slip to sprain, or worst break, an ankle. 
  • Extra Clothing: I'll go into this more below, but having extra layers of clothing is always a good idea. If something gets wet, you can change it out for dry and avoid hypothermia.

Good idea to pack:

  • Hiking pole(s): Not only can these help with getting over tough spots, you can also use them to poke the snow ahead and see how deep it is.
  • Folding shovel: I'm not going to say you have to take one, but I can see where it would be useful. For example to dig yourself out of an avalanche or clear a place for a fire. If you did get stranded, it would be a great tool to have if you wanted to create a snow shelter.

Food and Water:  Eat and drink frequently your body is burning around twice the calories it normally does. Staving off dehydration and having enough calories, can also keep you from becoming hypothermic. If possibly keep a water bottle and few snacks in your pocket between layers, this way your body heat will keep them from freezing. Place extra water bottles in your pack upside down, as water freezes from the top down. Fill all the bottles with warm or hot water as it will take longer to freeze. I don't recommend using hydration tubes as they could freeze, even insulated ones if it is below freezing. Pre-cut your food into bite size pieces, most food will freeze even in your pack and depending on how long you're out if it's insulated. Grazing while walking is best as if you stop for a full meal you could cool off too much. I suggest packing things like trail mix (nuts, seeds, etc) granola bars, energy bars, fruit snacks, crackers, beef jerky and things along this vein. These can be eaten while walking, with gloves on if need be, can be high in calories, and will thaw in your mouth.

Clothing: Wear layers, if you've lived in cold climates you've probably heard this whenever you went out to play in the snow. You're base layer should ideally be something that wicks moisture and is synthetic.
Synthetic and merino wool fabrics work best as they wick perspiration and moisture away from your skin. They also dry quickly so you don't spend time in wet clothing. You're middle layer is for retaining heat and keeping you warm. Fleeces or something like a goose down vest would make ideal mid-layers. Then we have the outer layer, this should be waterproof, windproof and breathable. Proper boots are a must and when traversing deep snow you'll want snowshoes. Consider wool socks and make sure to have extra pair. Of course you should also have gloves, hat, and scarf. When packing make sure to have extra clothes should things get wet. If you start to sweat remove a layer, and when you get cold put it back on.

Cotton is a no-no when hiking because it stays wet and is hard to dry quickly. Being wet in the cold will lead to hypothermia.

When hiking in cold conditions your biggest concerns are...
Hypothermia:  This is the body's temperature decreasing due to exposure to the cold conditions and it can be life threatening.
Symptoms: Shivering, slurred speech, non-communication, and lethargy.
Prevention: Stay warm. Stay dry. Stay hydrated. Eat well.
Remedies: Put on dry clothing. Eat and drink warm foods and fluids. Put the person in a sleeping bag pre-warmed by another person or with another person, a hypothermic person doesn't have enough heat to warm the bag by. Put warm water in bottles and place them in the sleeping bag with the person. In severe cases, careful evacuation to a medical facility is required.

Frostbite:  This is a freezing of the tissues usually on the extremities. It's a result of heat being lost faster than the blood can circulate.
Symptoms: Numbness to an area, loss of sensitivity to touch, tingling that feels like burning, shivering, skin appears red and then white-to-purple.
Prevention: Be aware of your body signals, stay warm and dry.
Remedies: Place the cold/frostbitten appendages against warm skin, for example put your fingers in your armpits.
Don't!: Use fire to thaw area as it could increase the injury. Do not rub as it could damage tissue more.

Dehydration:  Even when the temperature is low, you can still get dehydrated.
Symptoms: Increased heart rate, dry mouth, dizziness, muscle cramps, confusion, and weakness.
Prevention: Drink plenty of water, even if you're not thirsty and drink before you become thirsty. If your thirst you're already dehydrated.
Remedies: DRINK
Note: Water filters do not work in sub-freezing weather, the filter and seals freeze. Chemical water treatments take longer to work in cold water, so allow extra time. Keep in mind that iodine is not effective against cryptosporidium and should not be used.

Living in Northern New York we have had some nasty Winters. Almost every year you hear about a hiker who got lost in the Adirondack High Peak region. The vast majority of these folks get rescued, most without even to have to spend the night in the wild. Being prepared is the best way to survive should something happen when out in the wilderness. I hope this post will help you be better prepared on your next trip.

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