Common Mistakes Winter Hikers Do
Take this weekend's rescue at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sheldon Seaborn, a 58-year-old from Grand Forks, North Dakota, was located in an area near Alberta Falls after spending a night in the elements. When found, he was suffering from hypothermia, disorientation and exposure-related injuries that might have proved fatal if he hadn't been spotted by a pair of early-morning skiers who quickly summoned help.
RMNP public-affairs officer Kyle Patterson, who spoke with us last summer about parking-lot rage and human waste concerns at the park associated with the growing popularity of the gorgeous area, offers seven tips based on common mistakes made by winter hikers that can lead to big trouble.
Check the weather forecast in advance
The weather may be fine when people start to go out in the backcountry, but then a storm can go through or the temperatures can drop and really change everything. And you need to understand the forecast at the location where you're planning on hiking.
"You need to have the proper gear," notes Patterson, including "some kind of waterproof or water-resistant footwear, so that if you do get wet, you'll have some insulation that can assist you in not getting more wet. If you're in cotton clothing or jeans and you're not wearing proper footwear, your legs and feet can start to get wet. But the right clothing, socks and footwear can assist you in staying dry."
Be ready for a night outdoors
According to Patterson, "it's important when you're hiking any time of the year, but particularly in the winter, that you're prepared to spend the night." She admits that the concept "can be hard for people to understand. They're thinking, 'I'm just going to go a mile and then turn back.' People may not expect to be out late, but they may get lost or turned around - and then, when they get in distress, they don't have the equipment to keep them warm through the night."
Among the key items to load into a backpack, Patterson points out, are "the tools to start a fire in the wintertime - and also a headlamp. If it gets dark, you can use the light to assist you on a snow-packed trail. And when it gets dark out in the wilderness, it really gets dark.
Don't expect your cell phone to work like it does back home
"You can't rely on your cell phone to help you know what time it is or to be able to call for help," Patterson warns. " One of the reasons in the wintertime is simply the battery getting cold - and even when the battery is working, sometimes the phones don't work.
Timing is everything
"It can be hard to gauge how quickly night will fall, and the time varies so much depending on the time of year. Right now, sunset is roughly about ten after five, but if you've ever spent any time in a place like Rocky, where you're often surrounded 360 degrees by mountains, it gets dark more quickly there. The shadows the mountains cast as the sun is descending "may mislead you into making you think you've got plenty of time to get back to the trailhead," she acknowledges. "
Don't keep your hike a secret
"When you're hiking alone, you should always let someone know where you are and when you expect to be back," Patterson stresses. " We realize that a lot of people travel solo, but they can still tell someone, 'I'm heading out at this time, and I expect to be back at this time.' Say, 'If I'm not back in touch with you by late tonight, then please call somebody.' But many times, that's exactly what's needed in a number of situations where someone gets in distress and they suddenly realize that no one knows they're there.
Another option "is to leave a note in your car indicating where your destination was," she continues. We don't monitor the cars at the trailhead until we've seen a car there for multiple days. Then we begin to become concerned and will check the car, and we'll find the note then.
But even if you're going on a short hike, it's still a good idea to call or text a friend and let them know.
"This time of year, we have a variety of different winter recreationals, including backcountry skiers and showshoers. But often people who are hiking in boots will start to follow someone's snowshoe tracks, not realizing that they're heading into an area where the snow is deeper. If you're on a snow-packed trail and you're in boots, you're fine, because people have patted it down," she says. " But when you start breaking through deeper snow, your socks can get cold and wet and your legs usually get pretty wet, too, unless you've got water-resistant clothing.
You become tired more quickly, because you're trying to step through this super-deep snow, and you can become lost, too, because you're off the trail and following a snowshoe track that leads you to somewhere different than where you were anticipating to go.
Patterson adds, "The winter and the cold temperatures can be unforgiving." In the case of Seaborn, "we were fortunate, because even though the temperature was about ten degrees, we didn't have bitter winds that would have led to even colder wind chills. But when you get cold and wet with really cold temperatures, it can be life-threatening.