WILLIAM J. LADD
Directorate of Emergency Services
Fort Drum, New York
Are you one of those hardy souls who enjoys the great outdoors during winter? Sure, the Army trained you to work and fight in the cold, but what about when you’re off duty, hiking or backpacking with friends or family? Do you remember to plan for the cold weather hazards? And what about the people hiking or camping with you? How well-trained are they to survive? To ensure you stay safe when nature calls, here are some tips derived from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation:
- Plan your trip well in advance and leave a trail plan with someone at home and, as a backup, a friend or co-worker. Don’t overestimate your stamina and choose a reasonable daily destination. Stay in good physical shape and get plenty of rest. If you’re hiking a trail, sign in at all trailhead registers on your route.
- Be familiar with your area of travel. Obtain up-to-date maps and take them with you. Check your maps often and stay oriented.
- Avoid traveling alone. As a minimum, travel in a group of three or more. If a hiker is injured, a member of the group can stay with the victim while the others seek help.
- Carry gear suitable for changing weather conditions, including rain and snow. If you’re planning an overnight trip, take a tent, space blanket or good tarp for shelter. Also bring a stove, good rain gear, wool pants, hat, sweater and a change of dry clothes for the cold. Always wear wool or appropriate synthetics. Cotton does not insulate when wet; it actually draws heat away from the body. Also, every group of day hikers should carry at least one sleeping bag in case of an emergency. Should someone be unable to get to shelter, the bag can help keep them warm.
- Bring plenty of high-energy foods such as cereal, granola bars, dried fruit and nuts to snack on while traveling. Drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Camp early and set up well before dark or at the first sign of stormy weather. Keep your group together, especially toward the end of the day.
- Don’t take unnecessary chances or push too hard. Abandon the trip if anyone becomes sick or bad weather sets in. Know your group’s limitations and make modifications as necessary. The mountain, lake, river or trail will still be there for the next trip.
- If you think you’re lost, stop and sit down. Try to think calmly, refer to your map and compass and check for landmarks. Don’t continue traveling unless you know where you are. The other members of your group should also stay put. Remember, there’s a leader on every team and sometimes it has to be you.
- If you are indeed lost, stay in one place. Put out signals in threes: three yells, whistle blasts, gunshots or columns of smoke. Any signal of three is a standard distress signal. Make your area and yourself highly visible. Also ensure children know what to do if they get lost.
- Each person should carry a survival kit that includes the following items at a minimum: map, compass, signal mirror, matches, whistle, enough change for a pay phone, flashlight, rope, space blanket, rain gear, extra wool sweater and snacks. Carry a cellphone or, better yet, look into renting a satellite phone so you can call for help if needed.
Following these steps can lead to a fun, safe and successful winter outing. Use risk management to assess the hazards and develop countermeasures to reduce or eliminate them. And when you’re warm and cozy back home, take a few minutes to remember the great time you had thanks to your risk management skill.
Visit the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s website at http://www.dec.state.ny.us for more outdoor safety tips. Additional information on hypothermia and other cold weather injuries can be found on the U.S. Army Public Health Center website at https://phc.amedd.army.mil/.
Hypothermia can pose a serious danger should you or others be caught without shelter during cold weather. Hypothermia happens when the body’s inner core begins to cool and leads to the victim’s progressive mental and physical collapse. Hypothermia can occur at temperatures above freezing and is accelerated by dampness, wind and exhaustion. Because the signs of hypothermia are progressive, victims might not recognize the beginning stages. Here are some of the more noticeable early warning signs:
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Reduced muscle coordination leading to difficulty walking, or fumbling when trying to handle things
- Reduced mental awareness leading to incoherent speech, apparent drowsiness and irrational or uncooperative behavior
Treat hypothermia by immediately warming the victim. If possible, protect the victim from the wind and rain and remove any wet clothing, replacing it with dry clothes. Also try to get the victim to a source of warmth such as a campfire. If a campfire or heater isn’t available, warm the victim by placing them inside a sleeping bag where they can have skin-to-skin contact with a healthy person. Give the victim hot drinks such as soup or sugared water, but avoid caffeine and alcohol. Keep the victim awake and conscious and seek medical help immediately.