Cold weather hiking and backpacking is a great way to spend a day in the winter outdoors. Grand vistas can be enjoyed through the leafless forest and the crowds are huddled inside watching TV.
However, special precautions need to be taken for cold weather hikes because conditions can deteriorate quickly. In January 2013, a family day hike turned tragic along the Ozark Trail in the Missouri Ozarks. An Illinois man and his two young sons died after becoming lost and spending the night on the trail in Reynolds County, according to media outlets.
Reynolds County Sheriff Tom Volner said the trio began their hike around 11 a.m. that Saturday. “It was 60 degrees when they left," he said. "They were wearing light clothing.”
Weather conditions changed quickly and drastically that afternoon. Cooler weather set in, accompanied by heavy rains and flash flooding, deadly conditions for the unprepared.
Camping lodge personnel contacted the Reynolds County Sheriff’s Department around 6 p.m. when the hikers did not return. A search continued until midnight. Volner stated that some portions of the trail were covered by high waters. The search resumed the next morning.
The hiker's wife said it was not uncommon for her husband to hunker down during a storm and wait it out. Unfortunately, he was pronounced dead at the scene. His two boys, 8 and 10, were transferred to a nearby hospital where CPR was administered before they, too, were pronounced dead. Their yellow Lab puppy stayed with the trio and survived.
Such needless tragedies occur every year. A little advance planning and preparation for cold weather hikes will go a long way towards preventing problems in the outdoors.
File a Hiking Plan
It only takes a few minutes to file a plan of your intended trip with a friend or family member. Include you entire agenda, including where you are going, time you are leaving for the trip, time you expect to return and other information which might be helpful should an emergency arise.
Some hiking trails have registration stations. Be sure to file your report there.
Check the Weather
Weather forecasts are easy to check prior to leaving for a hiking or backpacking trip. Current reports may be found on your computer or an app on your smartphone or table, as well as a host of other electronics. Checking only takes a minute and it can be the minute that saves your life.
Weather conditions can change rapidly and are one of the biggest threats to hikers and backpackers. Check the weather again just before your hike. Weathermen can be wrong and new conditions can develop quickly. The latest weather reports may alter your plans, such as changing plans to make a stream crossing because predicted rains might swell the creek and prevent you from returning.
Pack a Rain Suit
Pack a quality rain suit regardless of the length of your hiking trip. Becoming soaked in a downpour can sap your body heat quickly. Hypothermia can start in a matter of minutes if you become wet in cool temperatures. A rain suit will not only help you keep dry, but will aid in retaining body heat as well.
Dressing inappropriately for the conditions encountered on a hiking trip is one of the leading causes which contribute to the aborting of trips or being uncomfortable while hiking. Choose your clothing carefully — you want to be comfortable but prepared for the trail. Hiking clothing has become very specialized with durable, lightweight, comfortable clothing available. Above all, dress in layers that can be added or taken off as conditions change.
Wear Sturdy Hiking Boots
|High energy snacks are important for hikers and backpackers, as the fresh air and strenuous exercise burns calories quickly.|
Hikers hit the trail because of the challenges which lay ahead. Putting the feet to the trail is exhilarating. Feet is the key word. They will take a beating on any trail. Buy the best you can afford — scrimping on footwear will only lead to pain and misery down the trail.
Insist that your party members wear good hiking boots as well. Otherwise, they will become a heavy liability down the path. Look for boots with above the ankle tops, durable, waterproof materials and well constructed soles that will grip.
Carry Emergency Items
Emergency items should be standard gear on any hiking trip and should be checked before any trip begins. Items should include: an emergency blanket, a small first aid kit, flashlight with extra batteries, at least two lighters and a fire starter kit. Any medications you take regularly should be included as well. Inform hiking partners about your medications and where they are packed.
Pack Energy Snacks
The old saying that we eat more in the outdoors is very true. Fresh air and exercise do require a great deal of energy. Besides your regular meals for an extended trip, pack extra snacks which can be consumed in small quantities, but will provide a quick energy boost. Trail mixes, dried fruits, hard salami and cheese, jerky or peanut butter and jelly in tubes are healthy choices.
Navigate & Communicate
Carry a cell phone, GPS or trail map, and compass. Trail maps are standard for most trails. Make sure you acquire one for use during your hike. A good compass is an extra measure of insurance should other devices fail. SPOT technology is the ultimate in security for being found if you become lost.
Take your phone. It may work and will be a great tool to have along in case of an emergency. Cell phones will work in many regions where people hike, but not in all areas.
Pay Attention to Terrain
Turn around occasionally and look back the way you came. Terrain features look quite differently when viewed from the opposite direction. Make some mental notes. It will make the return trip much easier should you have to abort the trip or simply have to return the way you entered.
Every trip should be enjoyable and most of all completed safely so you can do it again.