Quite a few years ago, a retired teacher I knew died in the woods after going cross country skiing up near St. Ignace, MI, about an hour away from her house. She had fallen, injured her leg, and was unable to return to her car or call for help. It wasn’t until she didn’t show up for work at a clothing store in Petoskey that she was discovered to be missing–she lived alone. Her body was discovered later on the trail. She was not someone whom I would consider reckless or a risk-taker, and while some of the modern day conveniences that could have been used to prevent something like this, such as a satellite transponder, were not really accessibly affordable at the time, there was cell phone service in the area, but her cell phone was in her car. (You can read more about this tragedy here.)
But what struck me about the situation was that easily could have been me, as I had also gone skiing or snowshoeing on my own many times when I was a student at Northern Michigan University, without thinking to call a friend and tell them what I was doing and to check on me if they didn’t hear from me later in the day. Additionally, over the last few years, a couple of other tragic stories in the news, and the book Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods by Cary Griffith have gotten me thinking more about safety.
What’s been striking to me is that it’s not an epic voyage or dangerous animals or terrain that often create problems; it’s seemingly insignificant decisions that lead to a crisis that the hiker is ill-prepared for.
With that in mind, I’ve started carrying my day pack (an REI Co-op 18L which has a removable pad that works great as a seat on snowy downed logs or rocks) with me on every hike, whether it be a lengthy day hike, or a walk through my county parks. It is stocked with safety gear.
In spite of what my mom warns me about (bears and psychopaths), my biggest dangers are probably getting lost and ending up outdoors for longer than I expected, or getting injured and being unable to move under my own power. In either of these scenarios, hypothermia and dehydration are likely the biggest dangers I’d face, so I’ve geared my day pack around those issues.
Here’s what I’m carrying:
A wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle for water, with an insulator. The wide mouth makes it easy to add snow to my existing water, where it will melt faster.
Sawyer Mini water filter, which goes inside my interior jacket pocket to keep it from freezing. On a day hike, my goal is to avoid having to filter water–rather just carry an adequate supply, but I want to have it along, just in case.
Chemical hand warmers, in case of chilled hands or feet.
A map, which I will consult along the hike. Last year, a friend asked me while we were hiking, “Where do you think we are right now?” Someone else was leading the group, and while I had my map with me, I wasn’t consulting it. It was a teachable moment that my friend kindly took advantage of. (I’m sure he knew exactly where we were.) The message: Don’t wait until you’re turned around to look at your map. Keep it out, look at it often, and make sure that what you’re seeing on the map matches up with what you’re seeing on your hike.
A rechargeable headlamp, charged the night before my hike and kept in an interior pocket to protect the battery life.
A whistle. I want to be VERY LOUD if someone is trying to find me. Many backpacks now have them built into the the sternum strap, but test it to make sure it’s loud, and if not, carry a louder one.
A compass. Even though I am not an expert with it, just being able to determine direction on a cloudy day is a big deal, and attending orienteering workshops each year has been a big help in building my skills.
Snacks. Be careful to bring things that won’t be tricky to eat while frozen. While I love Snickers, trying to chew them frozen is no easy feat. Crackers, GORP, peanut butter packets and small bits of jerky are my favorites for cold weather.
Fire-starting kit: lighter (wrapped w/duct tape for repairs to things, if needed), pocket bellows for encouraging a flame, a Ziploc of Vaseline soaked cotton balls or a tea light candle for use as a fire starter if needed.
An extra layer. I subscribe to the “be bold, start cold” school of thought when it comes to clothing for hiking. But we all know how quickly you get cold when you stop moving, whether it’s to stop and eat lunch or because you can’t move. To that end, I bring my puffy jacket, protected in a plastic Ziploc bag in case a stream crossing goes badly.
Med kit/pills: Ibuprofen, Imodium, Pepto-bismol and Benadryl.
Med kit/injuries: Clotting sponge, burn treatment, blister care. (Probably not needed, but this way I don’t have to bother to repack my med kit for backpacking trips.) I’ve also added an ankle brace in case of a sprain, and a SAM splint in case of breakage.
Garmin InReach Mini: (If I’m going into an area with spotty cell service.) This was my big emergency investment, as it allows for satellite-based SOS calls to SAR, and two-way communication with SAR, or with family if I need to send an “I’ll be late” message. Weather reports and map functions are also helpful. (This also goes inside an interior pocket to protect battery life. See a trend here? Cell phones, too, need to be kept warm to protect battery life.) Some people may find the cost of this device, and its subscription fee cost prohibitive. If that is the case, be relentless about letting someone know where you’re going and when you will be back when you travel to little-used areas. (I know that if I go for a hike in any of my local county parks, or even the state parks near my house, odds are good that I will see many other hikers on the trail, but there have been times in state game areas or the North Country Trail where I have hiked all day and not seen another soul.). Establish a plan for what your contact person should do if you don’t check in when you said you would. Even if you’re just going out for a day hike in a state game area, if you don’t have cell phone service and you get hurt a few miles from your car, having someone know where you are could save your life.
SOL Bivvy: This item only weighs 4 oz. and costs $20. A lot of people will argue that the condensation created by using an emergency blanket or bivvy makes them more of a problem than a solution, and they are not wrong about this. However, when used underneath you, either option can help keep you from getting cold while sitting or laying down to sleep, and in a situation where you know rescue is imminent, such as falling and getting hurt in a park where there’s a lot of hiker traffic, they could help keep a person more comfortable until they are helped out.
When I added all of this to my day pack, my pack weight came in just under 6 lbs., including the full Nalgene bottle. (Although my phone, InReach, headlamp and water filter would be in my coat pocket, I included them in the pack weight.) There was still plenty of room inside my pack for an extra pair of socks and gloves, and to hold layers as I shed them on my hike.
While my list may not be right for you, I encourage you to consider what might go wrong on a hike during the colder weather of the season, and to pack and plan accordingly.
In addition, checking a detailed weather forecast, and contacting the local ranger station about local road conditions can keep you from entering into dangerous situations. Just because it’s not that wintry in West Michigan doesn’t mean it’s not winter in full swing a couple of hours north of here. Downloading maps while at home so that they are accessible if your phone loses service, and carrying a Michigan road atlas can also be helpful. Especially in the U.P., you have to keep in mind that many roads are not maintained in the winter, or become snowmobile trails. (I recall hiking an old logging road near Newberry and seeing an abandoned car in the middle of the path that had been run over by snowmobiles so many times the roof had flattened. I have always wondered what the story was.) Every winter there are stories about people getting lost or stuck on their way to Pictured Rocks and other gorgeous yet remote destinations. Be prepared so that you’re not the news story.
Here’s to a safe and adventure-filled winter!