Introduction: Every Winter hiker needs to have an emergency plan. An emergency plan is what you plan on doing if something goes wrong during your hike. An emergency happens if you are injured. Or, if weather turns ugly. Or, your gear breaks. Or, your survival is questionable due to an unexpected event or incident. Most hikers develop their emergency plan by thinking about what they would do if a certain event happens while hiking. It is always good to consult with other hikers what they would do in the same situation. Every hiker has different abilities and personality. What works for one hiker may not work for the next hiker. Hikers also have different physical abilities. A young hiker may be stronger and more determined, but may lack better judgment. An older hiker may have more fat that helps insulate them better. Some hikers have a better tolerance to the cold, where others are challenged by the cold. So, it is important to develop an emergency plan that works for you. One of the major problems with emergency plans is that you don't know if they will really work until you have to use them. Small failures in your emergency plan can lead to your death.|
Whenever there is an incident, most experienced Winter hikers will examine what happen and compare it to their emergency plan. Most failures to emergency plans is that what logically works in your head, may not work in reality. Sometimes small things that you didn't think about can cause you so many problems.
Here are some ideas and facts to help you build your own Emergency Plan:
Getting Wet: What happens when you get wet, and what will you do? There are several ways of getting wet. The most common way is sweating while hiking. Another way to get wet is to have a rain storm come in before you can get to your car or camp. The last way is to fall into a known or hidden stream.
If you are sweating, you need to slow down and/or remove clothing layers. Should your cloths get wet you need to change them, or find a way to dry out your clothing. This may be challenging to achieve. Do NOT wait too long to regulate your heat. Experienced hikers spend a lot of time thinking about how cold or hot they are. Sometimes, just lowering your zipper of your jacket can cool you off. The biggest problem that novice winter hikers have is waiting too long before adjusting their clothing. This can led to being too cold and they cannot get warmed back up. Or, sweating too much that it soaks their clothing, and then they cool off and cannot get warmed back up. When you are hiking in the Winter you want to be slightly cold. That is the best temperature. You will not soak your clothing. And, you will use the least amount of water within your body.
If you are in a rain storm, waterproof clothing is the best way to stay dry. If you don't have waterproof clothing, you can use a large garbage bag and cut holes for your head and arms. This will keep water off your torso, and help slow down hypothermia. You can also try to find shelter from the rain. Shelter can be a natural cave or overhang. You can also build a snow cave, but if it is raining the rain will usually soak through the snow.
While few winter hikers encounter blizzard conditions, you need to be prepared for that event. Even if you have waterproof clothing, the wind can drive the snow well into your clothing and make your inner clothing wet. The problem is even more pronounced if the snow is wet. This type of wet snow usually happens in late winter or early Spring. A large plastic bag is sometimes used. But, it can easily get ripped from the Wind. Some people will put the plastic bag under their coat. It will help protect you from wind that gets through your coat, and will help keep you dry from the water that is blown into your jacket and small openings like your zippers. Blizzard conditions are difficult to survive in. Clothing failures are the biggest problem, which then leads to hypothermia. This is what happen to Seth Lyons. If you can find shelter and wait out the storm, that may or may not be your best option. Even the best mountaineers die in these types of conditions.
It is important to remember that snow is usually near freezing. So, if it is -30F out, then getting under the snow can make it 50 degrees warmer. But, building a snow cave can make you get even wetter then you already are. You need waterproof clothing to build one. Sometimes a snow cave can collapse or drip water on you. So, if you crawl into a snow cave make sure your clothing is waterproof. If it is very cold out, push snow to the opening to close out the wind and cold. Some hikers will burn a candle or sterno inside the snow cave to liquify the roof. Then chill it with the bitter cold. This will cause the roof to ice over and prevent dripping water. One other option is to use your waterproof bivy to keep the dripping water away from your clothing. Proper management of keeping your clothing dry is the key to survival. It is best if you have a small plastic shovel to dig out snow caves. But, most people don't carry them. You can also use one of your snowshoes as a shovel. The other problem in the Catskills may be a lack of snow pack to build a snow cave.
Sometimes it may be a better option to dig a snow pit. The idea is to dig a hole in the snow and squat in the pit until help arrives or the storm ends. It will help protect you from the wind and cold. They are much easier to dig then a snow cave. But, you will be colder in if you are in a snow cave. Some people have dug a long trench and then lie in it. Some will cover the trench with conifer branches to block the snow, wind, and cold.
Some people have built an above ground shelter from conifer branches and sticks. They can then lie on the conifer branches to keep warm and off the snow. Often times they will push snow up or over the shelter to block the wind and cold. Again, you will need waterproof clothing or a bivy bag.
When winter hiking you want to make sure that you do everything possible to stay dry. If you fall through the snow into a stream, you should change your cloths and socks immediately. Do not allow them to freeze or remove warmth out of your body. If you are traveling as a group, you and your group need to find a way to work together to help the hiker in trouble. A hiker in trouble will slow down or stop a group, and that can endanger others. So, everyone needs to share when needed. Getting wet will cause you to lose heat 30 times faster then having your skin exposed to the cold. If you are submerged in water in the Winter, you will die within 10-15 minutes.
To summarize what you need to do to keep dry:
Carry extra clothing.
Use waterproof clothing that is WPB (Water Proof Breathable)
Carry a large garbage bag for a quick and cheap rain gear, or use as a shelter
Carry extra socks and gloves
Carry a bivy bag
Carry garden clippers.
Getting Cold: Getting cold can be caused by the air temperature, or by the wind. Very cold temperatures and high winds will cool you off very rapidly. In these cases, you want to also stay dry. Being slightly wet will cool you off even faster. If you are in high winds, you need to find a place that is sheltered from the wind. That can be hard to find. This could be a cave, snow cave, fallen tree, large rock, building, or other feature. Sometimes you do not have enough clothing to keep warm. This can be difficult. If you are day hiking, head back to your car, or the nearest shelter. Beware that following a trail is MUCH faster then bushwhacking. Try to move rapidly to warm yourself up as much as possible. Put on your warmest clothing. If you stop keep your toes moving along with your fingers. This minor movement of toes and fingers can help keep yourself warm. You also have to be careful not to move so vigorously that you physically wear yourself out. You want to preserve your energy so that you don't suddenly lose your ability to move because you are exhausted. If this does happen, you can die where you stop. Regulate your resources. If you have to stop overnight, try to find a sheltered location. Snow caves are great because they will raise the temperature up near freezing. But, you need to remember that your cloths MUST be waterproof. Some people build a fire to keep warm. Some hikers will stop and rest for an hour and them move some more until they get tired, and stop again. They will hike through the night.
Hypothermia is a slow process they sucks the warmth out of your body. If you are becoming hypothermic you may get to a point where you think you are getting hot, and remove clothing. This will make you die much faster. Your ability to make good decisions will diminish even quicker. Hypothermic people make incredibly poor decisions. So, if you become hypothermic, try to remember to think about your decisions carefully.
High Winds: High winds can suck the warmth out of your body quickly. You need to find a way to keep the wind from removing warmth from your body and clothing. Some people solve the problem with proper clothing and keep on hiking. Very high winds makes it very difficult to survive. Sometimes it is best to find shelter to block the wind. But, sitting still can also keep your body from developing warmth. Sometimes the problem can be solved by moving to the side of the mountain where you are protected from the highest winds. It is important that you understand that summits have substantially higher winds then down lower. Moving down in elevation can help dramatically. The eastern escarpment of the Catskills is notorious from hurricane force winds. Kaaterskill High Peak has had three different areas called "Hurricane Ledge" over the past 200 years. Blackhead can be horrific if the winds kick up. If the jet stream drops down in elevation in certain weather events, you can have 40 mph winds in the valley and have 100 mph winds on top of Blackhead, Stoppel Point, North Mountain, Kaaterskill High Peak, or Overlook Mountain. If this happens, you need to get down to a lower elevation.
It is very important to watch the weather forecast prior to your hike. Pay particular attention to the wind speed. Sometimes the forecast is for moderate winds. But, at last minute, they change the forecast to high winds. This has happen to a number of hikers. They are expected moderate winds, and end up with high winds.
Warmer clothing is always important for survival. Most people bring clothing that is warmer then needed for the hike. If the weather turns out to be colder then the weather had predicted, you will have what you need to survive. You need to develop a plan for those unexpected weather events. One of the common emergency plans is to build a fire if you end up overnight in colder then expected weather. This is a fine plan. But, fires are useful when the wind isn't high, and you can find burnable wood, and have a place to build it. A good backup plan is to have extra clothing.
In extremely cold and/or windy conditions, it is important to switch from gloves to mittens. Mittens give you the ability to keep your fingers warm. If you use hand-warmers, mittens allow you to keep your palms and fingers warm. Using hand-warmers in gloves will keep your palms warm, but not your fingers. Usually when you switch to mittens, many people also put on neoprene face mask to keep your face warm. Good wind-blocking fleece hats will keep your head warm.
In high winds, you may need to use a skiers googles. This will keep the skin around your eyes warm, as well as, keeping snow out of your eyes. High winds in the winter can make your eyes painful and cause the water in your eye to freeze.
Some hikers bring thermals in their pack. In case, they are needed it helps keep you warmers then normal. The only problem is that you have to undress to put them on. That can be a cold job. Especially if it is windy.
When it is windy, it is best to avoid routes that are more exposed to the wind. This includes lakes, meadows, and mountain summits. Trees and uneven terrain helps slow down the wind. Conifers are the best for slowing down the wind. Cliff bands that allow the winds to blow over the top will help reduce the wind.
When possible avoid places where you can get soaking wet by falling into lakes or streams during high winds. If this happens, hypothermia will occur very rapidly. You could die within an hour or two. But, other times, you have no choice except to hike across a lake or stream.
What happens when you are injured? Injuries are feared by most winter hikers. Especially injuries that prevent you from walking. In this case, you need a hiking partner to help, or have some way to get help. If you are hiking solo, you need to have your route written down with someone at home. If you don't return home by a certain time, you need to have them contact the Rangers to find you.
If you are a solo hiker you need to think about buying a SPOT or PLB. A SPOT is good for letting people at home know that you are okay. A PLB is good for contacting SAR that you have an emergency. Both are useful tools for Winter hikers.
It is also good to have knowledge of general first aid. This can be helpful for yourself or your hiking partner.
A lot of people debate if hiking solo is better then hiking with a group. If you are injured, hiking as a group is usually better.
What happens if you get lost? Getting lost can be critical in the Winter. When you discover that you may be lost, it is important to stop and take a moment to study your map and GPS. You need to try and determine where you are before you hike too far in the wrong direction. If you do not have a GPS, you should study your maps and then look at the terrain around you to try to determine where you are and what you should do.
Often the best decision is to reverse your course back to the correct path. But, sometimes you have traveled far out of your way, and reversing your course may be much harder then bushwhacking a new route to your final destination. But, it is important to remember that if you walk off a broken out trail, that bushwhacking through fresh snow will slow you down significantly. You have to be honest with yourself if bushwhacking will be the best route.
If you bring a GPS, you have to make sure that you use NiCd batteries. NiMh batteries die very rapidly below 40F. You also want to keep the GPS, PLB, or SPOT in your pocket where it is warm. This will save the life of the batteries.
What happens if you have a gear failure? It is always good to look over your gear at the beginning of your hike. Sometimes you can identify a small problem that could bring your hike to a halt. Some gear failures are easy to fix, while others can cause significant problems.
If your snowshoes break while you are hiking, this can cause your hike to come grinding to a stop. If the snow is deep enough, you may be very limited in your movement. Or, if you attempt hike out without one or both snowshoes, you may become exhausted very quickly. Most hikers bring thin rope or zip ties to repair snowshoes. Some types of rope will stretch when they get wet, so beware of the type of rope that you buy. Zip ties can become brittle when they become cold, so warm them up before using them. Additionally, zip ties can become brittle if they are overheated in the summer and then used in the winter. Zip ties also become brittle when exposed to oxygen. So, always keep the bag sealed. You should be able to fold them 180 degrees at 70 degrees without snapping.
Another example is that one of your snowshoes falls off your foot, and the snowshoe falls off a ledge. If you cannot retrieve the snowshoe, you are stuck without a snowshoe. This can lead to a catastrophic event. If there are conifer trees around, you can make a snowshoe out of conifer tree branches. You can search the Internet to see how to make one. They do take time to make. But you may not have any other choice. To make a snowshoe out of conifer branches, you will need a pair of clippers. You can cut the branches with a jackknife, but it will take quite a bit of extra time.
If your poles bend or break you can continue hiking. But, if you have to hike through steep terrain, it might become difficult. Sometimes people will use a conifer branch to support up bending or broken pole. Using rope, zip ties, or duck tape will work to a limited degree.
Broken shoe laces can become a serious problem. Sometimes you can tie the two broken ends together. Many hikers bring along thin rope that can also be used as a replacement shoelace. Always check your boots to make sure that the shoelaces are in good shape. It is also important that you do not tie your boots too tight. If they are too tight, it will cut off the circulation of your feet, and make them cold. Tying them too tight can cause the shoelaces to break.
Failures in your clothing can happen in many ways. It can be a broken zipper. Or, a rip in your clothing. Or, you may be in bad weather, and your clothing is leaking in water. You should have some way to overcome these problems.
If you hike with contacts, you should bring glasses along in case you have a problem. If you hike in high winds, you should bring have ski goggles.
How do you stay dry in certain weather events? The most dangerous situations occurs when the weather turns out to be much worse then expected. It is important to always bring clothing that will keep you warm and dry under conditions worse then forecasted. Wind, snow, and rain cause most problems. High winds can blow snow and rain through your clothing, or small openings in your clothing. Hurricane force winds can blow snow and water through the zipper teeth, and slowly make you wet. The smallest openings can be failure points. Once your clothing becomes wet it will lose it's insulating value, and you will become hypothermic. Some hikers will bring large plastic bags in case their clothing leaks. Some hikers bring along rain gear for those special events. Especially if you are expecting bad weather.
Some hikers have been known to bring along a sleeping bag and bivy tent bag if they are expecting bad weather. This can be vital during extremely cold weather.
Most hikers underestimate failures in their gear during bad weather. High winds and snow/rain cause the most amount of failures, and the risk of death raises rapidly. Watching and checking the weather forecast before your hike is vital. If you have to travel quite a ways for a hike, you may have difficulty in getting the latest weather forecast just before your hike . Oddly enough, this situation is prevalent in most Winter hiking deaths. It is important to check the weather forecast just before you start your hike.
What do you do if you have to stay overnight after a failed day hike? There are a variety of reasons why hikers stay overnight. It can be that the hiker is injured. Or, weather has them pinned down, and prevents them from returning to their car. Or, you may be terribly lost.
If you are injured, you may not be able to move. You are forced to stay where you are. If you have life-threatening injuries, you should activate your PLB. If you don't have life-threatening injuries, and you can wait for help then don't use your PLB. If you are lost or stuck in the woods overnight due to an extreme weather event, you should attempt to find a location where you are best protected from the elements. If you do not believe that you will not survive the night, then you should activate your PLB. Or, if you have loved ones at home who will call SAR, then you may decide to use your PLB. If your family calls SAR, and you have not activated your PLB, SAR may assume that you are unconscious or dead. Additionally, if you activate your PLB you will be pin-pointing your location. This can make it much easier for SAR to find you. If you activate your PLB, STAY where you are. Do NOT move! Moving will make SAR go on a wild goose chase, and it may cost you your life. Once the PLB is activated, place the strobe light pointing up to the sky. If a helicopter is called in, you want them to see the strobe. Also, if you find a cave, or other solid structure, you do not want to activate the PLB inside the cave or other structure that can block the signal. Never ever turn off the PLB! It will continue to strobe for 24-30 hours.
Once you have found a location to stay for the night, you have to start preparing to keep as warm as possible. When you are hiking your body's muscles are producing an enormous amount of energy and heat. When you stop, your body will start cooling off very rapidly. So, the first thing you need to do is remove any clothing that is wet or damp. Change into dry clothing. You also want to put on as much clothing as possible. Keeping warm is very important. Damp clothing, like your socks can chill you very rapidly. Preferred locations are caves, overhanging ledges, locations protected against the wind.
Then you need to prepare a bed to sleep in. If you are near conifer trees, the branches will make an excellent bed that will help to insulate you and keep you dry. Sometimes it is so cold, that some hikers will stay for an hour or two, and then start hiking again. If you plan on moving, then you should NOT activate your PLB. If you must move because your location is poor, and you are getting wet, or the wind direction has changed, then move. But, try to move a short distance.
If you are lucky enough to have a sleeping bag, then staying warm should be easier. You just have to make sure that you keep your sleeping bag dry. A wet sleeping bag will lose it's ability to keep you warm. If it gets wet enough, it will make your clothing wet. That can be catastrophe and lead to your death.
How do you stay warm? The first and most important job of keeping warm is to stay dry. I cannot over emphasize this. Putting on as much clothing as possilbe is also a priority. Once you stop hiking you will become much colder. Painfully cold.
If you have the ability and resources to build a fire, that can be very helpful. One of the biggest problems with fires, is that you MUST build your fire on a solid base. You cannot build it on top of the snow. It will quickly melt through the snow. So, you must dig out the snow until you find a solid spot to build it. Digging a large snow pit can shield you from the wind, and give you the ability to build a fire. Most people do not bring a shovel, so you might be able to use a snowshoe to dig it out. Another big mistake is not finding enough dry wood to burn before lighting the fire. Some people have started a fire, only to find it burned out before they can gather enough extra wood to keep it going. So, gather a lot of dry wood before lighting the fire. If you can find a tree that has fallen over with the root ball exposed, you can use the root sticking out of the root ball as dry wood. These roots dry out very quickly after the tree falls. Conifer branches also burn well. Finding other dry wood can be a challenge. And, remember that you cannot build a fire in high winds.
If you have high winds, very cold temperatures, and a good snow pack you may want to consider building a snow pit or snow cave. The biggest challenge is staying dry. Digging in the snow can make you wet very quickly. So, you need to beware of this fact before you make that decision.
If you have a sleeping bag, you should use it. This can drastically help you survive the night in the bitter cold. If you bring a tent, the tent MUST be one that stands up on it own without stakes. You will not be able to drive stakes into the ground. If it is a 3-season tent, you can use it like a bivy to keep your sleeping bag dry. So, it is not worthless.
You can also use logs, a large rock, and conifer branches to build a crude shelter. This is good to help shelter you from the wind and snow. They don't work great, but they are better then nothing.
Fighting about what to do within your group? If you are hiking in a group, and you are lost or stuck in a rotten situation, the people in your group may start to fight about the best way to extract yourselves out of the situation you are in. Sometimes the closets friends can become bitter enemies after a bad incident. Not everyone is going to agree on what you should do. And, if someone thinks that the groups decision could lead to their death, then verbal fighting is going to happen. The best situation is that your group works together on getting out of the woods. There may be situations where you strongly disagree. If most of your group disagrees with you, you should strongly consider conceding to their decision. Working together calmly helps your group better then fighting. Even if some of the decisions are wrong.
One important rule is that your group should not break up. When groups break up, the incidence of a death is much higher. It is always better to stay as a group.
If someone is injured in the group, and cannot move. There may a situation where breaking up the group makes sense. But, do not leave an injured person behind without at least one person.
When picking a group to hike with, you should try to determine what kind of hikers they are. If they have an attitude that you are responsible for yourself, and they are willing to leave you in the woods. You should never hike with a group that has this kind of mentality. Those kinds of people have a significantly higher risk of incidents. You want to hike with people who stay with you and die with you if necessary. I like to hike with a group where the leader can see the last person in the group. The leader and trail sweeper should always stay close together. Allowing the group to break up during the hike drastically increases the risk of a SAR or death. You also want to avoid hiking in very large groups. Groups of 2-4 people is best. When your group gets up to around 6 people, the tendency of the group to separate starts to occur. Large groups of 10-12 people usually break into two groups that move at different paces. This can be okay if each group as a competent leader and trail sweep. At the end of the day, both groups should end up together. If one group doesn't show up, then someone as to go find them.