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Winter Camping: Safety & Survival

Assess your winter climbing risks with this handy chart.
fall gear guide risk management 200x170fall gear guide risk management 200x170

Risk Management
To climb or not to climb? This handy table details winter’s greatest hazards.

Winter Hazard When/Where
to Worry
Threat
Level*
Warning
Signs
Assess and
Prevent
Experts
Say…
Avalanche
Traveling at speeds up to 80 mph, snow slides kill 40 percent of their victims through trauma. No broken neck? You have about 15 minutes of oxygen before you suffocate if fully buried; only 28 percent of completely buried victims survive.
In western mountains, on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees; after new snow or periods of fluctuating temperatures; in the afternoon, when warmer temps can trigger slides A A "whoomph" made by collapsing snow; cracks in surface/layers indicating an unstable slab; snowballs rolling down a warming slope; broken trees or debris indicating a frequent slide path When in doubt about the snowpack’s safety, stick to gentle hills (25 degrees or less), which are less likely to slide.
Hike in trees when possible: Snow is often better-anchored on heavily forested and/or windward slopes. Travel in the morning.
"Stay aware of what’s above you," advises Kereszti. "If there’s a wide collection area with a lot of snow–or a cornice–be cautious crossing below it."
Snowblindness
At midday, as much as 90 percent of the sun’s UV light rebounds off the snow, giving you a double dose of rays. At high altitudes, the UV rays are even stronger, and they will burn the corneas of unprotected eyes, causing tears, blurred vision–and temporary but excruciating pain.
Above treeline in any snowy environment, higher elevations in open forest C Symptoms develop six to 12 hours after radiation exposure. Eyes initially feel itchy and full of sand (as blisters form on the cornea). Later, they become red and teary, and may swell shut.

Wear sunglasses that filter at least 90 percent of UV radiation, and use side shields (or improvise with tape). Should you lose your glasses, make emergency "goggles" by cutting two horizontal slits (one for each eye) in a piece of duct tape or cardboard.

 

To treat it, "Don’t use eyedrops," says Dr. Sue Lowe of the American Optometric Association. "Cover both eyes with gauze until you can comfortably open them" (usually by the next day).
Frostbite
Frostbite can happen within seconds in extremely cold and windy conditions. Usually, though, it begins when the outermost layer of skin freezes and becomes pale and numb (often called frostnip). Left untreated, the freezing will continue to the skin’s deeper layers.
Below 30°F, in areas of high wind C Pale, numb skin indicates frostnip. Skin that feels hard (like frozen chicken) means frostbite.

Wear roomy clothing, especially at the wrists and ankles, to let blood flow to the extremities.
Shield skin from wind with a balaclava or ointment (like Dermatone).
Hike with a buddy, and check one another for white spots. Carry chemical heat packs for instant warmth.

 

"Thawing frostbite hurts like the dickens," says Tod Schimelpfenig of the Wilderness Medicine Institute. "Don’t thaw frozen areas if there’s any chance they will refreeze."
Hypothermia
Cold causes about 600 deaths every year in the U.S. (more than half between November and February). When your core temp drops below 95°F, the brain starts to do bizarre things. Unless warmth is restored, you become a popsicle.
Falling into water, wearing wet clothes (especially when it’s windy), drinking alcohol B Shivering; clumsy fumbling with gear and clothing; irrational behavior (like taking gloves off instead of putting on warm layers); slow, weak pulse

Add layers for warmth. Avoid overheating (and soaking clothing with perspiration). Exchange wet layers for dry ones. Stay hydrated and fueled by sipping hot liquids and snacking on sugary foods, such as candy.

 

"It’s easier to stay warm than to get warm," says Fierer. "Throw on a down jacket as soon as you stop moving."

*A=painful, often fatal B=painful, sometimes fatal C=painful, not life-threatening

Cold Comfort
Full Winter Camping Guide

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