Over the weekend a father and his two sons died when they got lost while hiking in Missouri. They started out in warm weather. After they hit the trail, it started to rain and the temperatures began to drop (over 30 degrees in several hours). They missed a turn to return to the lodge and were not able to make it back. They were found by search teams the next morning. The father had died and the sons were pronounced dead later that day at local hospitals. The father was an experienced hiker, but missed a couple key components to hiking in the winter.
So how can you stay safe while hiking in winter? Here are a couple of ideas.
Remember rule one from Leave No Trace. Know before you go. Know what the weather forecast is for the area that you are hiking in. Our temperatures do change like that here. On Monday morning at four in the morning the temperature was fifty-three degrees and by the time I put my son on the bus it was already down to forty and within an hour it was already into the mid-thirties. Know what the temperature is and what the forecast temperatures are. If you have access to the internet, The Weather Channel’s website is a good source because they have an option to view the hourly forecast for 18 hours ahead. You also want to pay attention to any precipitation that is in the forecast. Even on a sunny day, a rain shower can take all of the fun out of a day hike if you are not prepared. By knowing the forecast, you will be able to dress for the weather or have clothing available if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Always carry a day pack. This is always a good idea because it gives you a way to carry snacks, extra water, and even a first aid kit or emergency kit. It is especially important to carry a pack in the winter. It gives you the ability to carry extra layers of clothing. This will allow you to add more clothes or even provide you with a place to put clothing that you have taken off. Don’t forget extra socks and gloves and a pair of camp shoes (even if you are not camping). This will help you stay dry and keep your hands and feet from getting too cold.
There are some important pieces of equipment to carry while hiking especially in the winter. I mentioned carrying an emergency kit. This should include extra snacks, an emergency blanket or two if hiking with the family, and a fire starting kit. The fire starting kit should include a source of fire such as weather-proof matches or a sparking device. You should also have an emergency tinder kit to help get a fire started. You can buy emergency tinder or make your own from items as simple as dryer lint. Keep your emergency kit in a good quality Zip lock baggie. Even if fires aren’t allowed, I would rather pay a fine then die from exposure.
Another piece of equipment to carry is a good map for hiking. This should include natural and manmade features to help you determine your location if you get lost. Topographic maps will help you by indicating ridges and valleys as well as providing you with latitude and longitude lines. This brings me to another important item, a GPS unit with extra batteries. This should be a good recreational grade unit. GPS units do have some limitations, but in my years using them in the woods for recreation I have not had a problem getting minimal coverage in the woods. If you mark your location when you start, it can help you find your way back. Most importantly though, they do give you a latitude and longitude in case you do get lost and can contact someone.
This brings us to the next must need item when hiking in the winter. There is much debate about this item and I did not feel the need to have it with me when hiking until I found out some interesting information this past summer. A cell phone should be carried for emergencies. For multi-day trips you should keep it turned off until needed. This is why this works, if you have texting. While you need a couple of bars on a consistent basis to make a call, you only need a single bar for a second to send an emergency text. You can type your text with your latitude and longitude and have it ready to send when you get that bar. This was evident to me even in one of the Johnstown area’s deadest zones. People who travel the PA 56 corridor from Windber to Cessna know that cell phone coverage is very limited at the best along the route. While leading a hike along trails in the Gallitzin State Forest near Ogle Township, I was able to find pockets with at least one bar and even a couple sots with enough reception to make a call. A dead coverage area is not always completely dead.
In addition, there are apps for the phone which will allow you to turn your phone into a GPS unit and there are even apps that provide you with maps to trails. Here in Pennsylvania, our state parks have an app through Pocket Ranger that will allow you to download maps into your phone. They are currently working on the technology that will allow you to use these maps with GPS data to provide you with a real time display showing where you are.
One other item to consider would be personal locator device. This can be used in emergencies to provide emergency personnel with a location to help find you on the trail if you get lost or injured.
One thing that the group that perished did correctly is that they stayed on the trail. When you stay on the trail, it would be easier for rescuers to find you. Plus there is also a possibility that another hiker may come by to aid you. If it hadn’t been for the rain, this group may have been found in the very early morning hours and possibly saved because they were on the trail.
So be prepared when you hit the trails in the Johnstown area. Don’t plan on the weather staying the same. Your life could very well depend on it.