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5 Common Winter Outing Mistakes That Can Cost Lives

Skiers climbing a mountain in a winter storm.

Winter adventures can be an incredible amount of fun. They are a way to see the outdoors as many people never do – caught in snowy stasis among beautifully iced-over lakes and leafless trees – but there’s also a downside…

The harsh reality is that winter weather can be quite threatening, and a lack of preparation can put your entire group in danger. On the other side of the coin, some proper knowledge and preparation can not only keep you safe but also ensure that you’re getting the most enjoyment possible from your winter outing.  Your sense of adventure should include winter outings and head out there with proper preparation should assure you of fun times (and safe) ahead.

With this in mind, there are five common mistakes that can put your whole adventure in jeopardy, and even put people’s lives in danger:

1. Not Knowing The Forecast

A close look at the weather forecast on a digital display.

It’s a generally good idea to know the weather forecast any time you’re planning an outdoor excursion. It can be a deciding factor in choosing the clothing you wear, the supplies you bring, and even the routes you choose to travel.

In the winter, however, working knowledge of what kind of weather to expect is absolutely critical. Winter storms move quickly and can lead to disorienting whiteout conditions, quickly falling temperatures, severe increases in wind chill, and heavy snowfall that can make for difficult hiking conditions, dangerous roads, and troublesome camping.

It’s best to keep a close eye on the weather forecast as early as two weeks before your planned outing, with close monitoring up to the day of your departure. Plan your supplies based on projected weather conditions, and if it looks too threatening, cancel your trip.

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2. Not Sharing Your Itinerary

When you depart for any outdoor adventure, you’re likely traveling into the territory without cellphone service or nearby civilization. This is a little risky on its own, but if your loved ones don’t know where you’ve gone – or where you’re planning to go – it could spell disaster if something goes wrong.

This danger is amplified in the winter when brutal weather and potentially treacherous conditions are the norms. To ensure your long-term safety, even in the case of a disaster or accident, it’s always a good idea to share your itinerary, planned travel path, and any other relevant details with at least one person not accompanying you on the adventure.

In the event that your party hasn’t checked in, hasn’t returned in the projected time, or fails to reach a planned destination, the people who have your itinerary can be instrumental in helping the authorities in any search and/or rescue efforts.

Your itinerary should include key points like the point of entry, point of exit, estimated travel time, potential camp locations, and any other information that could be useful in a “worst-case scenario.”

This a good rule of thumb to follow no matter where you’re adventuring, but because of the added layer of danger that winter poses, it’s a must for snow season outings.

3. Keeping Your Water Bottle Right Side Up

This is one of those unique pieces of knowledge that can make a huge difference in the success of your winter adventure. Water always freezes from the top down, so that means that, when your water bottle is stored right side up, the first water to freeze is at the mouthpiece – which means that any freezing will prevent you from being able to get to your water.

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By simply storing your well-sealed water bottle upside down (with the mouthpiece pointing downward), a little bit of freezing won’t prevent you from taking a drink. As the water freezes (again, from the top down), the opening of your bottle will be the last to ice over!

4. Underestimating The Gear You Need

Above all else, staying dry and warm is critical for any winter excursion. Planning your gear effectively from the outset of your trip is the best defense you have against the elements, and knowing which gear will best serve you is an important part of your preparation.

There’s a saying among winter adventurers – “cotton kills” – and it’s true. Cotton fabric seriously lacks the thermal properties to keep you safe, and once it gets wet (either from snow, sweat, or other moisture), it will actually draw warmth away from your body and increase your risk of hypothermia.

Synthetic and wool clothing, however, will provide much better thermal protection, and still keep you warm even if they get wet. It’s a good idea to travel with a spare, dry set of wool or synthetic long underwear in a sealed plastic bag. If the set you’re wearing gets wet, you can swap out for your dry set.

Also plan your gear for layering, wind protection, and moisture resistance. This is another area where paying attention to the weather forecast will come in handy – if you know what kind of weather to expect, you can better plan the apparel and gear you will need to bring along.

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5. Not Having The Means For Fire

A person starting a fire in the winter landscape.

In an outdoor, winter environment, a fire serves many, many purposes. There are the obvious benefits of warmth and light, of course, as well as the ability to dry out wet clothing, but fire is also a means to cook food and even melt snow into drinking water.

In fact, your “fire” doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional campfire to achieve some of these same benefits. A portable camping stove is compact, relatively lightweight, and extremely easy to use. It will allow you to heat food, boil water, and even dry small clothing items (if you’re careful and use a low-heat setting).

Carry a fire starter of some kind, from specific fire starters such as the EverStrike Match to reflector-based kits – as long as you have a way to create a flame or spark. Here is a post reviewing, in detail, some ways to start a fire. In addition, here is another post that provides ideas on how to start fires without a lighter.

Since finding dry firewood may be a challenge on a winter adventure, also carry a camping stove to ensure that you can cook warm meals and have relatively instant access to a heat source, should you need it. Be sure to pay close attention if your camping stove uses an external fuel source – certain types of fuel canisters behave differently in the cold weather. Make sure you know your own specific gear.

As you prepare for your next wintry excursion, keep these five points in mind. Avoiding these mistakes and taking the steps toward thorough preparation will make the difference between an invigorating romp through the snow… and a trip mired with disaster. Be safe and have fun!
(c) 2015

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