By Bob Humphrey
What is the greatest killer in the outdoors? Many folks are surprised to learn that the leading cause of death among those involved in outdoor recreation is hypothermia caused by exposure to the elements. It’s a danger throughout the year but becomes especially risky in winter. Fortunately, with a little knowledge, the right equipment and a liberal dose of common sense you can avoid the peril while out hunting, riding or simply enjoying the great outdoors this winter.
One of the most important things you can do to stay safe is dress properly. Hypothermia literally means a drop in normal body temperature. Wear clothing that will keep you warm regardless of conditions. Dress for current conditions, but bring along extra clothing in case conditions change. And dress in layers. You can always remove layers that aren’t needed; but you can’t add them if you don’t have them with you.
Because a wet body loses heat much faster, outdoorsmen are particularly susceptible to hypothermia in inclement weather. If there’s any chance of rain, snow or even fog in high altitude areas, make sure you have a waterproof-breathable outer layer that keeps out environmental moisture but doesn’t hold in personal moisture (sweat).
Sweat can be a threat. It can suck heat out of your body. That’s why you should always wear a base layer of fabric designed to wick moisture away from your body. Furthermore, your mid-layer should be made of material that will continue to insulate when wet, such as wool or fleece. Down makes great insulation in dry conditions, but will not work well if it gets wet.
It’s also important that you keep your head and extremities warm and dry. That means hat, glove, good socks and insulated boots. Here again, think waterproof-breathable outer layers, and moisture-wicking fabric next to your skin. Never wear cotton socks or base layer. Instead, wear wool or poly socks. Even better, wear a light poly sock liner and heavier wool or Smart-Wool sock. Wool, or fleece are also great for gloves and hats in dry conditions. If it’s wet, add a waterproof outer layer.
Lots can go wrong in the great outdoors. It may be a few hours or it might be overnight, but your odds of surviving an unexpected stay outdoors increase significantly if you’re prepared. That’s why you should always carry some type of survival kit. The most basic should contain the following items: water, compass, knife, high shrill whistle, candy or energy bar, waterproof matches/fire-starter and a SPACE® emergency blanket. Other items you may consider are: a length of parachute cord, water purification tablets, a small first aid kit with bandages, antiseptic and any necessary personal medication.
Have a plan before you head out. Let somebody know where you are going and when they can expect you back. That could speed up the recovery process significantly if you run into trouble.
Should you get stranded, there are a few simple rules to follow. First and foremost, don’t panic. Keep your wits about you. If you have a vehicle or ATV, stay with it. If not, find an open place where you can be seen from a distance and/or from the air. Gather wood and build a fire first, then work on a shelter if needed.