A simple primer for staying out of trouble at sundown

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Hey campers, sorry for the delay, but I just now came up for air after shepherding several features through the sausage-making process for a March issue, uploading a pile of video files from Alaska, and writing up Gear Guide and Editor’s Choice tests for April. I was going to summarize some recent backcountry accidents, but I got beat to posting by a freakin’ dog! That is so not right.

At least I managed to get in a few short trail runs during the week, mostly by blasting out the door way too late in the afternoon and racing darkness back to trailhead. This is a theme for many winter exercise junkies, and that’s reflected in numerous recent search incidents where victims got caught by nightfall, then had to endure the resulting hypothermic suffer-fest. Hence our lesson for today.

A gearless overnight bivy is always miserable, but in winter, it can be life-threatening, even in so-called ‘warm’ environments. And there are far fewer people out on local park trails and bike paths, so you can’t count on help just happening by. In most U.S. latitudes it’s now dead dark from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., so if you do get stuck, you can expect about 15 hours of serious frigidity.

Avoidance; always the best policy for survival

>>Don’t start late. Set your wristwatch alarm, and when it goes off, get out.

>>With a job, this can be tough. Try bargaining with your workplace to show up early, or work late, then take more time for lunch, so you can exercise during the warm hours.

>>Have a turnaround time, and stick to it.

>>Stay oriented and aware of your surroundings. Turn around and memorize the return view every time you hit an intersection. You can’t afford to waste time on the return trip.

>>Run, bike and hike cautiously. Avoid risky maneuvers like fast downhill running, cycling or sketchy scrambling. If you get knocked unconscious in a high-impact accident, your cold weather survival odds plunge dramatically.

>>Keep an eye out for water ice, even in dry conditions. It’s super slick and tough to see in dim light.

>>Always let someone know where you’re going, and when you’re due back. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, because the world is not necessarily your willing support team. So always set out prepared, because even if friends or rescuers do begin searching quickly, you’ll probably have to wait for hours, and each one will seem like a week.

Little gear, big difference

>>Always take a headlamp. If you jog, bike or hike ultralight, just wear it on your head.

>>Carry spare insulation layers. A down sweater and thick hat could easily save your life. The combo weighs less than two pounds. That’s an easy carry, even for runners and bikers.

>>Carry a Bic lighter in your pocket for fire-starting. If it’s wet, you can dry it. If it’s cold, warm it against your body. It’ll strike hundreds of times, and the flame burns longer than matches.

>>Natural tinder can be tough to find when the chips are down or the weather’s wet. You can hassle with your own, even dryer lint works, but Spark-Lite Tinder-Quick Fire Tabs light easily, are simple to store and carry, and you can mail order a 10-pack for $2.50.

>>I carry a SPOT satellite beacon. Folks in front country settings should definitely carry a fully charged cell phone. But don’t knock the value of a whistle, which can bring help quickly from passers by. The classic Fox 40 plastic whistle is cheap, super loud, and won’t stick to lips in frigid conditions. Another possibility is a laser pointer, like the ones used to highlight lecture charts. You can use it like a searchlight, directing people to your location.

If you’re stuck

>>Make a plan while you’re still warm, and then stick to it. Stay calm. Don’t keep changing your strategy every time another doubt or second guess rears up.

>>Find the warmest spot you can. Get out of the wind. Get under tree cover or an overhang to prevent heat loss to the open sky. Stay insulated from snow and cold ground.

>>If at all possible, get a fire started and gather as much fuel as you can before it turns pitch dark. All-night survival fires require a lot of wood, especially in subfreezing or windy conditions.

>>If fire isn’t possible, stay put but stay active. Don’t just curl up and chill; that’s the path to hypothermia and frostbite.

>>Keep the blood moving. If you’re still mobile, walk around and do jumping jacks or squats. If you’re too injured for that, loosen your shoes to allow for circulation, and keep flexing toes and fingers. If you have a broken leg, maybe you can do sit-ups or arm swings.

>>Hang in there. Even people with very little spare clothing have survived subzero wind chills overnight, without frostbite. It ain’t fun, but it’s possible.

>>Think positive, motivating thoughts. Don’t let anxiety or hopelessness wear you down.

>>If you think people are searching for you, make a ton of noise. Search victims are often too passive in their signalling. Be obnoxious, loud, and bright.

So hammer safe out there, readers, because in the cold season, your margin for error is shaved tight. And if you’ve got winter exercise and safety tips, well, pass ‘em along in the comments section below. – Steve Howe

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