“The man who goes afoot, prepared to camp anywhere and in any weather, is the most independent fellow on earth.” – Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1917
This is the essence of wilderness survival – be prepared for any and all situations that may arise. There are graveyards full of people who thought, “it’s not going to happen to me.” From cross-country skiing at City Park, backcountry snowboarding in the high country, and mountaineering on Long’s Peak, Colorado adventurers are out there in the ice and snow living it up. As we should be! We should always be aware of potential wilderness dangers no matter the season, and we shouldn’t let that hold us back, but some of the risks dramatically increase in the winter. Nobody is immune from danger. Winter sports-related injuries send a lot of people to the emergency department for sprains, muscle strains, dislocations or fractures, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. It’s smart to think ahead and be prepared for what you’re getting into so Larimer Country Search and Rescue doesn’t get a call to start looking for you.
Here’s a complete list of things to consider before your next winter adventure, including lessons learned the hard way! Because apparently that’s how I learn best.
Before Hitting The Road
First and foremost, make sure you have a check-in buddy who knows exactly what trail or part of the canyon you’re going to be on, who you’re going with and their contact info, and what time you’re coming back. This is wilderness 101, but it’s terribly important to remember and keep up as a habit.
I love solo hiking and I often hit the canyon alone. After the mishaps of this last weekend, I realized how incredibly stupid that is in the winter. I have asthma, which is a condition that can be exacerbated by cold air. I was out snowshoeing at Joe Wright and had an asthma attack. As I was climbing up the hill to get back to the car, I started to feel like I was going to pass out. If I had, I would have been behind a huge snowbank in part of the canyon with little traffic and NOBODY would have been able to see me. Needless to say, I resolved to make sure I bring friends with on every snowshoe trip from here on out. Not only is this smart for people with medical conditions, but there’s nothing preventing any other physical injury like a broken leg, or some other accident. Four people is an ideal number for winter backcountry adventures. That way you can stick to pairs if something goes wrong.
With winter here, the daylight hours are shorter and you’re going to have to make adjustments for the season. You need to be off the trail and in your car before 5:00pm at sunset. Right around 5:00pm, not only is there no sunlight, but the temperature drops dramatically and frostbite/hypothermia risks increase. Tell your check-in buddy that you are going to be off by 5:00, and if you’re at the top of Cameron Pass, it will take you 2 hours to get cell reception outside of Poudre Canyon and you can call-in at 7:00pm. If you don’t make that call at 7pm, then it’s going to take Search and Rescue at least a few hours to get up to you and hopefully find you. The sooner this happens, the more likely you’ll be rescued. Hypothermia can kill you within three hours. So don’t be up there in the dark.
Always make sure you have a full tank of gas before going up the canyon, because you never know if you’re going to end up spending the night in your car or go on some crazy detour. This happened to me on my way back from Steamboat while scouting for our hunting trip. There was an accident that closed Highway 14 to Walden and everyone was detoured through dark county roads that were poorly marked. So many drivers got lost around the looping roads (because few of them had maps), and there was a whole lot of extra driving to get back on track. I was fortunate that I had made good decisions and filled up in Steamboat before coming back.
You also want to make sure you have an emergency box with proper fire-making tools. DO NOT COUNT ON PAPER SCRAPS TO MAKE A FIRE. I took my kids camping in Pingree this summer, just the three of us, and it happened to be the same weekend as all of those fatal lightning storms in Rocky Mountain National Park. We got to our campsite just as it started to rain. So, I had to set up camp and get a fire going in a crazy rainstorm with soaked wood. I made it happen, but what a pain in the ass. It was this trip that I realized how quickly paper ignites. It’s terrible for kindling because it burns too fast. Now I always keep a jar of petroleum jelly and a long-reach butane lighter in the car, just in case. Just smear that on anything and it will light and burn slowly. I also keep PET pellets (drier lint balls soaked in vaseline) in my fire-starting supplies in my backpack.
You should also keep an extra blanket in the trunk, an extra jacket, set of clothing layers, an extra pair of socks, dry boots (I do this in the summer, too), along with some extra food and water as well as jumper cables, towing straps and a shovel.
Guess what? Another first-hand experience with this one! Last weekend I was the dumbass that got my car stuck in the snow on Long Draw Road. It was technically open and I checked with the forest service who said it wasn’t plowed and be prepared, but the snow was deeper than it looked. Five super helpful people were digging me out, but I was too deep in. Fortunately I had two shovels, other people brought theirs over too, but it still wasn’t good enough – even after getting branches and rocks under the tires for traction. Thankfully I was towed out by someone with a winch on the front of their truck. I also learned to keep a case of beer in the trunk for Good Samaritans who save my ass.
If you find yourself stranded in your car, as it’s often the safest choice to pull over and stay put if winter storms create poor visibility or if roads are covered in ice, remember these tips:
- Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers and raise the hood of the car (if it is not snowing).
- Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.
- Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing and blankets.
- Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
- Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe—this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.
- Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.
- Huddle with other people for warmth.
This should probably be at the top of the list because of how important it is. It doesn’t matter if you’re at City Park or Cameron Pass, wearing proper layers is essential. Rule #1 DO NOT WEAR COTTON. EVER. Cotton kills.
As a rule of thumb, you should expect to be a little chilly when you first start out the day and when you take a break from an activity. After a few minutes of steady movement, your body will start to produce more heat. If you’re wearing too many layers to start with, you’ll most likely get too hot after about 15-20 minutes of activity. When in doubt, wear your warmest layer when you start your activity, but remove it at the first sign of overheating or perspiration. Also, don’t forget your extremities.
Cold weather can cool your core body temperature in four ways:
- Radiative Heat Loss occurs when your body heat simply escapes into the cold air due to lack of insulation.
- Convective Heat Transfer happens when the wind draws heat away from your body, especially from exposed skin.
- Conductive Heat Transfer occurs through direct contact with cold surfaces or liquid, such as sitting on the snow, wearing a sweaty shirt under your jacket or falling into a frozen lake.
- Evaporative Cooling takes place when perspiration evaporates, drawing body heat with it.
Wearing the proper winter clothing and being prepared for potential drops in temperature can reduce of all four types of heat loss. Be aware of and understand the Wind Chill Index to help with proper layering. This video clip shows how windy it gets up on Cameron Pass on a good day…
The Wind Chill index is the temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. It is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects of wind and cold. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely, even when temperatures are only cool. The Wind Chill Chart below shows the difference between actual air temperature and perceived temperature, and amount of time until frostbite occurs.
Here’s how you combine your knowledge of heat loss and the wind chill index into your outdoor wardrobe choices:
Synthetics and wool retain warmth even when wet. Wear long underwear that wicks away moisture, insulates well and dries quickly. Choose from microlight, lightweight or midweight versions based on the temperature and your activity level. A zippered top lets you adjust body heat as you stop and go. Base layer clothing is worn right next to your skin, as a top, bottom, or both. The main purpose of the base layer is to wick moisture away from your body during periods of activity, keeping you dry and providing some additional warmth
Good mid layers include a long-sleeved shirt or fleece vest. Worn directly over your base layer, the mid layer is designed to offer a slight boost in warmth without adding a lot of extra bulk. In moderate conditions, you may only need your base layer, mid layer and shell. For hiking and backpacking in cool, dry conditions you might wear your base layer and mid layer, keeping your shell in a backpack. If you start to get too hot, you can simply remove your mid layer and store it in your backpack, tie it around your waist (which I hate doing), or better yet – clip it to your pack with a carabiner or strap.
The outer layer is a waterproof, breathable shell jacket and pants keep you dry and fend off wind. This is especially important in the high country. It gets spectacularly windy in the Cameron Pass Area. It would be smart to look for windproof material. Even if you don’t need a jacket when you start the day, conditions can change quickly. Your jacket and pants will serve as your main protection from the elements, so it’s important to choose outerwear that will keep you dry and block the wind.
This includes hats (which need to cover your ears), two pair of gloves – a thick pair and thin pair of waterproof options or a shell/liner combo, face protection like a balaclava (for the wind – seriously, it’s bad up there), and gaiters to keep snow out of your boots. I’ve gone snowshoeing without gaiters. It’s fine if you’re on a packed trail. But if you’re breaking trail in the backcountry – don’t. Your boots and socks are going to get soaked.
Insulated, waterproof boots are best. They have thick soles, rubber or leather uppers and insulation. Wool or synthetic socks with wicking liners will keep your feet warm and dry.
You’re not going to need everything on this list during every outing. This is mostly for backcountry excursions. But it’s best to have it all on hand, because you won’t need things until you need them on the mountain. I plan on writing an avalanche-specific post as well, so that will go into more detail about some of these avalanche-safety items.
- Snowshoe poles (or trekking poles with snow baskets)
- Ice axe – learn how to self arrest and self belay. These are critical mountaineering skills in the high country
- Avalanche transceiver
- Snow shovel – you NEED this in both avalanche country and if you’re breaking trail snowshoeing!
- Beacon and probe
- Route description or trail guidebook
- Repair items – duct tape (small roll), pliers, nylon fasteners (tie wraps), wire, cord or prepackaged repair kit
The Ten Essentials – NEVER GO ON THE MOUNTAIN WITHOUT THESE, NO MATTER THE SEASON!
- Navigation – map (with protective case), compass, GPS (optional)
- Sun protection – sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses
- Insulation – Jacket, vest, pants, gloves, hat (see Clothing)
- Illumination – headlamp or flashlight, extra batteries (kept near body when cold)
- First-aid supplies – first-aid kit
- Fire – matches or lighter, waterproof container, fire starter (like the PET balls for emergency survival fire)
- Repair kit and tools – knife or multi-tool, repair items noted in section above
- Nutrition – extra day’s supply of food
- Hydration – water bottles or hydration system (insulated), water filter or other treatment system
- Emergency shelter – tent, tarp, bivy or reflective blanket
Health and Intuition
Of all of these things, this is what I have the hardest time with. I tend to second guess my gut instincts thinking that I’m not being adventurous enough. There is no shame in turning around if things aren’t feeling right, the shame is in having to come out in a body bag. We’ve seen so many reports of Search and Rescue going on body recovery missions. There’s no way for me to personally know if ego or ignoring those gut feelings had anything to do with their demise, but I do know that every time I push things too far, I end up getting close to making grave mistakes. This year I’ve been trying to learn that it’s OK to turn around, that it’s OK to give up on a trail halfway through, it’s fine to call it quits. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I’m on the mountain for my own enjoyment – not potential death.
You can have all of the tools and gear you need, but if you ignore your body, they aren’t going to do anything for you. Here’s what you need to look for when it comes to your body letting you know trouble is on the way.
Hypothermia is coined the “killer of the unprepared.” An unprepared person may become a victim at temperatures as high as 45*. Good clothing, adequate knowledge, emergency shelter, and emergency rations would prevent most fatalities from accidental hypothermia, which is why it has earned its coined term.
Hypothermia occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops too low, and it’s possible to get hypothermia at temperatures above freezing. When your body loses too much heat, common symptoms include excessive shivering, weakness or exhaustion, fumbling hands, confusion, memory loss and slurred speech. There are several phases of hypothermia, but continuous shivering is usually the first sign that you need to increase your protection from the cold or seek shelter. Prolonged hypothermia can be life-threatening.
Quick ways to raise your core temperature:
- Find shelter, especially from the wind, even if it’s just wrapping yourself in an emergency blanket or hunkering down beneath a tree.
- Remove any wet clothing and replace it with dry clothing, if possible.
- Focus on warming your core first, i.e. your torso, neck, head and groin. If another person is available, skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of clothing or inside a sleeping bag can transfer vital warmth to a person suffering from hypothermia.
- Drink heated beverages, such as hot tea or soup. DO NOT drink alcohol, as this could actually lower your body temperature.
Frostbite occurs when your flesh actually begins to lose blood circulation and freeze. Extremities like fingers, toes, ears and noses are almost always affected first. Exposed areas also tend to be affected first, but frostbite can occur without direct exposure to the air. Even if you have a safe core body temperature, your extremities could still be at risk, especially in severe cold and high winds.
Numbness and tingling in your extremities is usually the first sign of frostbite, although you may not actually feel anything. If treated early enough, frostbite is reversible. Advanced warning signs include white or grayish-yellow skin at the affected areas. Frostbitten skin may feel unusually firm or “waxy.” If exposure continues, the flesh will essentially begin to die, leading to permanent damage, which may result in the need for amputation. Remember: You might be unaware of frostbite, because once you have it, the frozen tissues are already numb. If your toes have been numb for more than fifteen minutes, you could already have early stage frostbite.
How to deal with frostbite (if medical care is unavailable):
- Seek shelter and warmth as soon as possible. Focus on warming your hands first by placing them in your armpits or between your thighs. Next use your hands to warm your toes, ears and nose.
- You may also immerse affected areas in warm water, but never use hot water.
- Do not continue walking on frostbitten feet or toes unless absolutely necessary, as this can increase tissue and nerve damage.
- Don’t massage the affected area too vigorously. Never use a hot object directly against the skin. Affected areas will be numb and you could easily burn yourself.
Survival is 80% attitude, 10% equipment, and 10% skill and knowledge to use that equipment. Hopefully this helps you as a reference before you head on out for your next winter escape, and gives you the confidence to have fun and be safe.