The most crucial safety measures that you take on your winter trek are taken at home. Plan your trip and prepare yourself with knowledge and the right equipment – in many cases it is not about having the most recent, or the most advanced, equipment, but rather knowing how to efficiently use the equipment you have and how to improvise when unexpected situations arise. First and foremost you should be careful. Turn back instead of pushing on if the weather is bad, choose simple routes and always travel with a companion.
We have gathered here information and tips about how to be safe on your trek.
Confusion a sign of hypothermia
Hypothermia occurs when your body can no longer maintain a normal temperature. This can happen if you are wet, are exposed to heavy winds or, for example due to an injury, have to sit still or lie down for a long period of time. Hypothermia gradually leads to a loss of mental and physical ability and is one of the greatest dangers during a winter trek.
When resting, your normal body temperature is around 37.5°C. When your temperature falls below 35°C your body will start to shake and you will no longer have control of your muscles. Your ability to think rationally and concentrate will be affected. If this hypothermic state persists, the shaking will abate and then cease completely and you will then display signs of apathy and not be able to take care of yourself. Your ability to think clearly will disappear and you will not be able to answer simple questions.
It is important that you and the members of your group keep an eye on one another. The first signs of hypothermia are extreme shaking, deteriorating motor skills, poor judgement and apathy. If this happens you should:
• Find protection from the wind and rain.
• Change into dry clothes or add an insulating layer.
• Give the hypothermic person a warm, sweet drink if he/she can manage it. Remember to check the liquid’s temperature so it is not scalding hot – a person suffering from hypothermia can have difficulty feeling the heat.
• If the person suffering from hypothermia is “only” experiencing the sensation of being cold, make sure he/she moves around. In some cases you might need to help this person start moving, and you might need to be a bit curt in your tone of voice.
Advanced hypothermia is when the body temperature falls below 30°C. The person loses consciousness and it can be difficult to see if he/she is breathing or has a heartbeat. In this situation professional medical care is necessary and the person must be handled with extreme care. What you can do is place the person in a sleeping bag, preferably with a heated bottle. In a really bad scenario, crawl into the sleeping bag to share your body heat. Never place a person suffering from hypothermia in front of an extremely hot source of heat, such as a wood-burning stove or an open fire. The stress that this will place on the inner organs can be life-threatening.
What is most important is that you remember that you are responsible for the other people in your group. Strive to prevent hypothermia from occurring by making sure that everyone eats, drinks and constantly adapts their clothing to the weather.
Did you know that: One of the common reasons why people freeze to death is that they lose the use of their hands. Stay hydrated to avoid chapping, use lotion on your hands and apply the multi-layer principle even to gloves. Always wear a thin liner-glove when handling cold metal objects.
In the cold your body needs more liquid
A mere two per cent fall below your body’s optimal hydration level leads to a twenty per cent fall in your body’s ability to perform. Your body releases a lot of fluids during the winter, even if this is not as noticeable as on a warm summer day. Large amounts of fluids are needed to be active, but just as much disappears merely from breathing, since your body is trying to add heat and moisture to the dry, cold winter air. Drink a lot of liquids, at least four to five litres per day, preferably in small, frequent portions of 1.5-2 decilitres, and add a little extra water to your meals.
One way to check that you are hydrated is to take note of the colour of your urine. It should be a very light yellow, even almost clear. Dark urine is a sign of dehydration. Other signs include thirstiness, racing pulse, nausea, headaches, poor appetite, lethargy and muscle cramping.
Did you know that: Your body releases liquid as it cools down, which means that you will constantly feel the urge to urinate. This is not a good sign. It is a reaction to the body trying to protect the temperature in your vital organs from falling, which means it is reducing blood flow to peripheral body parts – such as your hands and feet. Add several layers to avoid frostbite.
Frostbite should be treated immediately
When the temperature of a specific part of your body falls, this is usually called frostbite. Frostbite can be either superficial or deep. Your cheeks, nose, fingers and toes are particularly exposed. It is important to constantly keep a careful eye on the members of your party, and be vigilant about your own well-being.
For superficial frostbite
Symptoms of superficial frostbite are cold, white skin and small, sharp pains that are followed by a loss of sensation. However, the person suffering from frostbite is not always aware of the pain, since bad weather or other types of stress can lead attention away from the body’s signals.
• Seek protection from the wind and rain, for example by going down into the forest.
• Keep moving, for example by walking in deep snow.
• Add another layer of clothing.
• Drink something warm and sweet.
• Heat the exposed area skin-against-skin, and be careful to never rub (and never, ever, rub with snow).
• Frozen cheeks can be warmed using a hand.
• Frozen hands can be warmed in your own or a friend’s armpits.
• Frozen feet are warmed in a friend’s armpits.
• Warm the body part until sensation, colour and mobility return, which usually takes around 20-30 minutes.
• Protect the affected area from additional frostbite injuries.
Advanced frostbite injuries require medical attention
If you have done everything you can in accordance with the above instructions and still have not regained any sensation, colour or mobility after 20-30 minutes, your frostbite injury is serious. The consequences of deep frostbite can be very grave and your tissue may have sustained long-term damage. You should immediately contact a doctor to receive proper care. Extensive superficial frostbite can also increase the risk of hypothermia.
Lighting a fire
A fire offers heat and security
Knowing how to light a fire is a source of security when on a winter trek. A fire provides heat and light, which means you can boil water and heat up food if for some reason your camping stove stops working. Fire can also be used to signal for help in emergency situations, both during the day and at night. If there is one survival skill that you should have when you head out on a winter trek, it is the ability to light a fire – and understand the many different ways this can be done.
A fire requires heat, fuel and oxygen in appropriate proportions in order to burn. If you are starting a fire from scratch, find a good location that has a good oxygen supply and is sheltered from the wind. Also, make sure that you have gathered all the wood you will need before you light the fire, because once the fire is burning you should not leave it unattended - and you should not hunt for wood in the dark.
Something to light the fire with
There are many different ways to light a fire and you should master a number of them. The most common, of course, are normal matches and a lighter, while a flint fire starter requires a little more practice. Remember that matches need to be kept dry and butane lighters might not work in the cold, which means that these two options are perhaps not the best alternative for a winter trek. Our recommendation is to bring:
• Matches packed in a waterproof container (for extra protection, wooden matches can be dipped in paraffin/wax or even painted with nail polish!)
• Some wax paper (often found where grill charcoal is sold), bark or something similar
• Flint fire starter and knife
The wax paper is flammable and is used to help twigs, bark, grass and any other material you have gathered catch fire. Cotton grass or cotton also works well, and one survival trick is actually to bring a tampon – the compact fibres can be peeled off in small portions and breathe life into many fires.
Fire – a check list
Here is a suggestion for how to go about lighting a fire.
1. Gather firewood, enough to last the entire time
2. Choose a location where there is no risk that the fire will spread or damage the ground or vegetation. When there is no snow, gravel and sand are the best surfaces.
3. Build a fireplace, place stones in a ring or dig a hole. In the snow you may need to dig down a bit and perhaps even use logs or thicker branches as a platform for the fire so it does not sink down into the snow.
4. If you have time, build a reflector. Place two vertical poles at each end and then pile wood in between them, kind of like an old-fashioned fence. The reflector will reflect the heat back towards you and also function as a drying rack for wet wood.
5. Light the fire! Once the finest material, often the twigs, has caught fire, continue to increase the size of the branches until you are using chopped logs. Make sure there is plenty of air.
6. Keep an eye on the fire so it does not spread – or die too early.
7. When you are finished, do not forget to put it out (read more below).
Several words about this process
Different types of wood burn differently, but when you are out in the wilderness you usually do not have the opportunity to choose. The best fuel consists of twigs and dry branches found on the ground. Dry twigs lying under a spruce tree are often excellent for starting fires – even in wet weather. Fatwood is an excellent fuel and is normally found in the pine stumps found at the edge of boggy areas (although you should not take dead pines that are still standing - they are often the home of birds, insects, etc.). Fresh wood contains a lot of moisture, but frozen birch or alder can work if you already have a strong fire with good core heat.
Remember that the right of common access means that you are not allowed to tear or chop down living bushes or trees, and this includes ripping bark off a live tree. You must also know what rules apply to lighting a fire in the area where you are since special restrictions apply in national parks and nature reservations in particular. It might be completely forbidden to light a fire, or fires might only be allowed in specifically allocated fireplaces. In an emergency situation where your life or the life of another person is in danger, however, it is permissible to light a fire even in protected areas.
Just as important to put it out
You must be very careful about putting out your fire, and double-check the fireplace to make sure that the fire cannot start again once you have left. Root fires can go down quite far underground, which means that your fire could come back to life. This is why it is not advisable to build your fireplace on peat, moss or earthy woodland - the fire can smoulder there for a long time.
In order to put out your fire, pour water on it, or if you cover it with snow, continue to add more snow as the snow melts. When you are done, cover it with one last layer of snow. If you lined your fireplace with stones, it is a good idea to spread them out since the concentrated heat can bring flames back to life.
Light many fires
Lighting a fire, just as with many other aspects of outdoor living, is not something you can just read about and do. Not only do you need to practice, but you need to practice different methods so that the skills are firmly rooted when you need them most. Practice lighting fires when you are out on shorter treks with friends and family, picking mushrooms or berries, biking, fishing, etc.
P.S. An important footnote about fire and hypothermia!
Never place a seriously hypothermic person close to a fire to warm up. This person must be treated with extreme caution and the warm-up process must occur slowly. However, a fire can provide you and other members of your group, who perhaps shared reinforcement garments with the hypothermic person, with a source of heat.