I have been a Forest Ranger for over 15 years and have spent all of it in either the Catskills or the Adirondack Mountains. Rangers respond to just about every emergency you can think of and probably a few you haven’t thought of. Many of the incidents are true accidents, a slip on the trail causing a broken leg, a dislocated elbow, a fall causing a concussion etc. Accidents can and do happen all the time in the backcountry. As a responsible outdoor enthusiast you need to be prepared for the “what if” scenarios. That means following a few cardinal rules.
Don’t go alone. If you do go alone, let someone responsible know where you are going and when to expect you back. I can’t tell you how many calls have come into DEC Dispatch with the caller starting like this: “My friend, father, husband went hiking in the Adirondacks and hasn’t returned yet.” When asked where they intended to hike, where did they start from, when were they expected back, the person doesn’t have a clue and countless hours are spent searching parking areas for the individual’s vehicle before we can even begin to confirm that there is a problem.
Do your homework. Get a map of the area and plan a realistic route. Bring a compass and know how to use it. If it’s an extended trip it’s good to plan a bail out point just in case things don’t go as planned or the weather unexpectedly turns sour. One of the problems Rangers encounter repeatedly is when hikers overestimate their own ability or the ability of someone in their party. Keep your group size small and plan your adventure with folks with a similar fitness and skill level. On winter hikes get an early start and anticipate the changing snow conditions as the temperature fluctuates throughout the day. A nice ski across the lake in the morning can become a slow exhausting slog when the snow warms up and repeatedly sticks to your skis or snowshoes.
Be prepared for the unexpected. Always bring a flashlight, extra clothing and extra food. An unexpected injury or broken ski binding has caused more than one outing to last until the early morning hours. Don’t forget the spare batteries. Winter travel is a challenge because it’s tough to carry all the items you want if you have to spend the night. At a minimum I always have a spare long underwear shirt, socks, balaclava and lightweight wool gloves in a quart size zip lock bag. That’s my backup for emergency. We all know how important layers are. I prefer a wind block vest, or fleece, Gore-Tex coat and a down sweater for winter travel. The down sweater I use when I stop moving.
I encourage everyone to carry at least a minimal first aid kit that includes hand warmers, band-aids and your blister treatment of choice. Some other standards in my first aid kit are a Sam splint, Coban (vetwrap), tape, 4 cravats, and 1-2 foil emergency blankets. If you are traveling in a group or on an extended trip adjust your first aid kit accordingly. In my backpack I always have 1 or 2 methods of starting a fire, some fire starter and a 30 gal heavy garbage bag for an impromptu raincoat or vapor barrier. I also carry a small piece of ensolite to sit on, which will become invaluable if you are immobile from a broken leg and need to wait for rescue. A small piece of wire and some duct tape may help repair that broken binding.
Watch the weather. One of the most frustrating things for me as a Forest Ranger is the people who push through on a trip just because they don’t want to change their plans. Please keep in mind that the mountains will be there tomorrow or next week or next year. Abort or amend your trip when conditions are poor or you encounter significant problems. Turning back may save your life.
Hypothermia and frostbite are real probabilities if you are injured or lost during winter travel. A simple twisted knee can be life threatening. Please don’t think that a cell phone is a substitute for being well prepared. Cell phones are helpful but do not always work and many times the battery will run out of juice long before you are able to get out of the woods. Rangers have had some success with pinging a cell phone to get GPS coordinates and texting to communicate when there is minimal service so bring them along in an inside pocket to keep them warm.
Everyone should carry something they can use or make into a temporary shelter. It may be a long time before rescuers are able to reach you. Keep in mind that a 2-3 mile carryout over rugged terrain may take as much as 10-12 hours. We generate heat through movement, when you can’t move you will get cold very fast and you need to be prepared to survive. Break the contact from the ground, however you can, and keep fueling your inner fire by drinking and eating. Practice starting a fire when there is no emergency. It may be a lifesaver in an emergency.
An individual immobilized by injury with no food or water is at a much greater risk for hypothermia and frostbite. Don’t forget: we lose more fluid in the winter and we tend to carry less water and drink less frequently because we don’t feel as thirsty. Monitor your urine color as a way to help you understand your hydration level. Dark urine or no urine indicates dehydration. Winter trekkers have spent many hours trying to perfect the best way to carry water in the winter to keep it from freezing. I personally prefer a nalgene bottle with hot water in a thermal covering turned upside down in the bag to keep the top from freezing. On rescues, I bring a small thermos of non-caffeinated beverage for when we reach the injured or lost subject. Jell-O powder in hot water works well. New research shows that calories outweigh warmth when it comes to treatment of mild hypothermia. If you’re traveling with a group, one person should bring a small stove that works well in cold temperatures. Remember not all fuel functions the same in cold weather, so test your equipment.
I love teaching Wilderness Medicine and have had the opportunity to put my training to work time and again on folks who have become lost or injured for whatever reason. Many times these incidents were preventable. Some were truly accidents. A nighttime rescue in the mountains puts everyone at risk. The most grueling rescue I have been on was a night in the mountains with temperatures at -20 and wind chill at -40. The young man sends me an email from time to time and I’m glad to see he has fully recovered and is still enjoying the woods. He unfortunately learned the hard way the true meaning of wilderness.
Photo: DEC Forest Rangers and volunteers gather for a search and rescue operation. Courtesy DEC.
This essay, first published in the Almanack in 2011, was contributed by the Adirondack Forest Preserve Education Partnership, a coalition of Adirondack organizations building on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Their goal is to provide public education about the Forest Preserve and Conservation Easements with an emphasis on how to safely enjoy, share, and protect these unique lands.