Staying Safe When It’s Cold

Over the last year, a couple of 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 (a Cotopaxi Luzon 18L that came in a Cairn package or an REI 18L) with me on every hike, whether it be a lengthy day hike, or a walk through my county parks.

Layering up to stay warm on a hike at Mt. McSauba in Charlevoix, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

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.

Starting from the top of my photo and moving clockwise, 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. My goal is to avoid having to filter water, but I want to have it along, just in case.

Chemical hand warmers, in case of chilled hands, feet, or to help warm up my emergency bivvy.

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.

Mace/knife/whistle on a carabiner: The mace is mainly to keep Mom happy, and the knife has come in handy as a tool. The whistle is by far the most important to me; 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.

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) or a flint striker, 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.

Emergency poncho.

Med kit/pills: Ibuprofen, Imodium, Pepto-bismol and Benadryl.

Med kit/injuries: Clotting sponge, burn treatment, blister care. 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.)

SOL Escape Bivvy: This item will likely provide a much more comfortable night in the woods than the emergency blanket, and it only weighs 4 oz. and cost $20. This is replacing the mylar emergency blanket in the picture because it would be easier to keep around my body if I was trying to stay warm. (I have also used this bivvy in place of an insulated mat, when my hammock failed and I ended up sleeping on the ground, and have loaned it to others who were chilly the first night of a multi-day hike, to use with their mat for an extra layer.)

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.

I’m not posting this as a “Here’s what you should do,” but rather to hear your thoughts about what I may have overlooked, or what tricks and tips you have for staying safe out there.

Here’s to a safe and adventure-filled fall and winter!

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion!

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