By Debbie Spoons
Dec 23, 2013

Safe Winter Hiking AKA How NOT to Meet Search & Rescue

logo-sarThe people that we are called to rescue plan to have a “fun day in the snow”. However, due to poor planning, lack of planning, accidents, medical problems or weather conditions, their fun turns deadly serious. These “Winter Safety Tips” are to help you think ahead, and plan for some of the “what ifs” that you may encounter.

1.  Be wise on distance and start early in the morning.

When you plan your winter hike be wise about how far you want to go and realistic about the difficulty of the trail. Just because it was a nice and easy hike in the summer/fall doesn’t mean it will be the same in the winter. Be ready for deep snow, ice, and impassible areas. You may not be able to drive to the trailhead and this will make your trip longer and more difficult. Make sure you do your homework on the trail area prior to your hike so that you will know what to expect, what supplies and equipment you will need. Don’t be caught unprepared and create your own emergency by poor planning.

Plan to start your hike early. Remember that the sun sets earlier in the winter and you will have less daylight than you had in the other months that you may have been in the area. Don’t get caught by the lack of daylight and become lost or stranded.

2.  Dress like an onion.

Which means to wear layers and take extra clothes. While hiking you may need to take off layers when the trail is more strenuous and add layers when it is easier or the weather changes. A good rule of thumb is to start your hike with just enough clothing that you are cool, but not “cold” because you will soon warm up. You don’t want to have so many layers of clothing on that you are sweating; this can lead to hypothermia.  Make sure that you don’t take cotton clothing. The old saying “cotton kills” is very accurate. When cotton gets wet, either by rain or sweat, it stays wet and draws the heat from your body and can be the cause of hypothermia.

Wear a good non cotton base layer (long underwear) like polypropylene, polyester or a good material that “wicks” the moisture from your body. Follow that with fleece pants and or water proof pants. Wear a soft shell jacket (zip up is good for temperature control) or light fleece jacket and take an extra jacket and pants in case the weather changes. Wind proof clothing will go a long way in keeping you warm without the bulk and weight.

Always wear thick, winter-weight socks, since your toes are the first place you’ll feel cold. Make sure that your boots fit well with two pairs of socks on. If your boots are too tight it can hinder your circulation and you feel will get cold. It’s also a good idea to have two layers of gloves or mittens; one for insulation and one for waterproofing. An outfit like this will keep you dry in case of precipitation and warm when you reach an exposed area or summit. Wear a hat that can be pulled over your ears. A balaclava is a good choice and can be configured several different ways to help regulate temperature. Your feet and head are good temperature regulators.

3.  Essential gear

It is essential that every winter hiker carry basic winter supplies. Even if you are only going for a “short day hike” emergencies may arise that you must be prepared for. Even a small emergency can turn a “short day hike” into a late night or overnight stay. Being prepared is not only for you, it is also for those you go hiking with or those you may encounter along the way that may need help. Think ahead and about the “what ifs” that can arise. A few basic items that you should have with you are:

Compass, map of the area, multi-tool or sharp knife, headlamp, spare batteries, extra clothing, first aid kit (know how to use the first aid supplies), hikers first aid book, bivy (some are smaller than a soup can), fire starting items (cotton balls covered with Vaseline, lighter/water proof matches), sleeping pad or a pad to sit on (to sit/lay an injured person on), hand and foot warmers, cell phone or other communication device. (Keep cell phone off until it is needed. When you are out of cell range your phone will keep searching for cell towers and run the battery down. If you keep it off until you need it you will have the battery power to make a call. Many times we have had people call to be rescued, only to have their phone die before we can get a good location on them.)

You may say, “But I’m only going for a day hike, I’m not planning to stay overnight why would I want to take extra supplies that will make my pack heavier?” Most everyone that we are called to rescue had that same thought. However, due to weather conditions, accident, medical conditions etc. they ended up being gone hours longer or overnight and they did not have the needed supplies to keep them safe, dry and warm. The gear may mean that your backpack is a little bit heavier, but it will help you avoid a dangerous situation if you have to stay overnight in the mountains.

Author: Debbie Spoons | Caving Committee Chair & a member of Utah County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue (UCSSAR),

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