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Wilderness Wind: Blown Away

The wind can save you from bugs or drive you mad. Here's how to enjoy the benefits and avoid the downside of a good stiff breeze.

The RIGHT SITE

As I learned so graphically that night on Caribou Mountain, where you pitch your tent is critical in wind-whipped elevations. That’s why I consulted Erik Frebold, a tent buyer/designer with Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op who likes to bolt tents to truck beds, then fly down abandoned airplane runways at 80 miles per hour. The exercise “creates some educational collapses,” Frebold says, so I figured he’d be full of advice on how to avoid in-the-field collapses, too.

Ideally, you want to align your tent with its long axis parallel to the anticipated wind direction (i.e. into the wind). Then stake it down as tightly as possible, using all available guyline attachments. It’s a good idea to tuck a few extra feet of line in your pack, in case you discover a flapping area that needs some battening down.

If you must camp in an exposed area, use the local vegetation as a clue to wind direction. Shrubs or trees usually have the fewest branches and baldest-looking bark on the windward side, since ice rime and sharp windblown ice crystals accumulate there, damaging both bark and branches. In such situations, conifers like spruce and fir often look strikingly “flagged,” with nothing but clumps of needles hanging off one side and not much else below–except a naked trunk. Elongated patterns in snow or sand are other good clues to prevailing winds. “Those nice, scooped out spaces didn’t get there by accident,” says Frebold.

FAVORABLE WINDS

Wind does have its positive side. It has a debilitating effect on both the coordination and appetite of most biting insects. In fact, the stronger the wind, the better (for us, that is.) Ten miles per hour seems to be the magic threshold at which flying insects are kept at bay. The rule, in short, is to take the high trail or windward shore to lessen your loss of blood. When looking for a campsite, avoid the wet, still woods and find a high, breezy outcrop or open shoreline.

In bear country, the wind is a double-edged sword that can both attract and repel bruins. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and a good breeze can carry food odors many miles. To prevent unwanted encounters, cook downwind of your campsite and keep your cooking time to a minimum. After cooking and eating, immediately wash all utensils, as well as your face and hands, and bag all food scraps.

On the other hand, most bears are repelled by human scent. Whenever you can, try to keep the wind at your back. This puts your scent ahead of you, warning bears that you’re coming so they can move out of the way.

Last, if a bear is threatening you, be sure the wind is at your back before firing pepper spray. This may sound obvious, but rational thought can escape you when confronted by bear. Going temporarily blind from a self-inflicted dose of pepper spray will probably lower your odds of survival. If possible, take a half second to check the wind and maneuver accordingly before you spray.

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