Outdoor Safety & Ethics: Winter Safety

Sledders on hillWith the winter's snow and brisk weather comes an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy. Whether you are ice fishing, snowmobiling, skiing or sledding, remember to make safety your top priority.

Always check weather forecasts for the area you will be visiting: www.weather.gov

Make sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Have traction tires and/or chains, carry an emergency kit, extra clothing & food in your vehicle.

Get familiar with the top hazards of winter recreation: avalanches, hypothermia & frostbite. 


An avalanche is a mass of snow moving down a slope. In the US, avalanches kill 25-30 people and injure many more each winter. Some days are dangerous and some days are not. Learning about avalanches will help you decide when, where, and how to visit the backcountry. Avalanches come in many shapes and sizes and even small ones can be dangerous. In general, there are three types of avalanches:

  • Slab avalanches
  • Sluffs or loose snow avalanches
  • Wet avalanches

Resources to check:


Hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold and it is aggravated by wet, wind, and exhaustion. It is the number one killer of outdoor recreationists.

Cold kills in two steps:

  1. Exposure and exhaustion. The moment you begin to lose heat faster than your body produces it, you are undergoing exposure. Two things happen: You voluntarily exercise to stay warm, and your body makes involuntary adjustments to preserve normal temperature in the vital organs. Both responses drain your energy reserves. The only way to stop the drain is to reduce the degree of exposure. *The time to prevent hypothermia is during this period of exposure and gradual exhaustion.
  2. Hypothermia. If exposure continues until your energy reserves are exhausted, cold reaches the brain, depriving you of judgment and reasoning power. You will not be aware that this is happening. This is hypothermia. You internal temperature is sliding downward. Without treatment, this slide leads to stupor, collapse, and death.

Most hypothermia cases develop in air temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees. Most recreationists simply can't believe such temperatures can be dangerous. They underestimate the danger of being wet at such temperatures - with fatal results.

Fifty degree [F] water is unbearably cold. The cold that kills is cold water running down neck and lets, cold water held against the body by sopping wet clothes, and cold water flushing body hear from the surface of the clothes. Don't ask "How cold is the air?" Ask instead, "How cold is the water against by body?"

Defense against Hypothermia:

  • Stay Dry - Staying dry and maintaining body hear are the key to avoiding hypothermia. Wool has been the standard when staying warm and dry are required and is still a good choice. New synthetic materials also offer the advantages of being lightweight and fast drying if wet.
  • Dress in layers with lightweight undergarments (to wick moisture away from the skin) and then wool or fleece pile for insulating warmth. A tight weave water repellent wind breaker completes the three layer system for all weather conditions. Whether using wool or synthetic, layering your clothing will enable you to shed layers as you warm up or add them again as you cool down. Include a knit cap that can protect neck and chin. Cotton is useless when wet because it actually makes you colder.
  • Beware of the Wind - A slight breeze carries heat away from bare skin much faster than still air. Wind drives cold air under and through clothing. Wind refrigerates wet clothes by evaporating moisture from the surface. Wind multiplies the problem of staying dry. Choose rain clothes that are proof against wind-driven rain and cover head, neck, body, and legs. Ponchos are poor protection from the wind.
  • Use Your Clothes - Put on rain gear before you get wet. Put on wool clothes before you start shivering.
  • End Exposure - If you cannot stay dry and warm under existing weather conditions using the clothes you have with you, end exposure. Be smart enough to give up reaching the peak or getting the fish or whatever you had in mind.
  • Get Out of the Wind and Rain - Build a fire. Concentrate on making your camp or bivouac as secure and comfortable as possible. Never ignore shivering. Persistent or violent shivering is clear warning that you are on the verge of hypothermia. A storm proof tent gives best shelter. Take plastic sheeting and nylon twine with you for rigging additional foul-weather shelter.
  • Carry trail food - nuts, jerky, and candy - and keep nibbling during hypothermia weather. Take a gas stove or a plumber's candle, flammable paste, or other reliable fire starters.
  • Don't wait for an emergency. Use these items to avoid or minimize exposure. Take heed of "hypothermia weather." Watch carefully for warning symptoms.
  • Prevent Exhaustion - Make camp while you still have a reserve of energy. Allow for the fact that exposure greatly reduces your normal endurance.
  • Be aware that exercise drains energy reserves. If exhaustion forces you to stop, however briefly, your body hear production instantly drops 50 percent or more. Violent incapacitating shivering may begin immediately and you may slip into hypothermia in a matter of minutes.
  • Appoint a Foul Weather Leader - make the best protected member of your party responsible for calling a halt before the least protected member becomes exhausted or goes into violent shivering.
  • Symptoms - If your party is exposed to wind, cold, and wet, think hypothermia. Watch yourself and others for symptoms.
    • Uncontrollable fits of shivering
    • Vague, slow, slurred speech.
    • Memory lapses, incoherence.
    • Immobile, fumbling hands.
    • Frequent stumbling. Lurching gait
    • Drowsiness - to sleep is to die.
    • Apparent exhaustion, inability to get up after a rest.

Treatment for Hypothermia

  • The victim may deny he/she is in trouble. Believe the symptoms, not the victim. Even mild symptoms demand immediate, drastic treatment.
  • Get the victim out of the wind and rain. Strip off all wet clothes. If the victim is only mildly impaired, give warm drinks. Get the victim into warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag. Well-wrapped, warm (not hot) rocks or canteens will hasten recovery.
  • If the victim is semiconscious or worse, try to keep him/her awake. Give warm drinks. Leave victim stripped. Put the victim in a sleeping bag with another person - also stripped.
  • If you have a double bag, put the victim between two warm donors. Skin-to-skin contact is the most effective treatment.
  • Build a fire to warm the camp.

More hypothermia information via medlineplus.gov.


Frostbite is the freezing of skin and extremities on the body. Most often frostbite affects exposed parts such as fingers, toes, nose, chin, and earlobes. Frostbite occurs frequently when temperatures drop below freezing and there is prolonged exposure to these temperatures. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include a loss of feeling and a pale appearance of the affected extremity. Treatment of frostbite includes seeking medical attention and a slow rewarming of the affected areas. Frostbite information via medlineplus.gov.

Outdoor Winter Clothing & Gear

Recreationists should carry the 10 Essential Systemsnavigation, insulation, illumination, emergency shelter, first aid supplies, water, fire, repair kit and tools, nutrition, and a form of communication. 

When enjoying outdoor winter recreation opportunities, always wear layers as weather can change rapidly. These items are key to staying warm in cold/wet weather:

  • A hat to keep your head warm.
  • A scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth.
  • Sleeves that are snug at the wrist to keep water and snow out.
  • Mittens or Gloves (mittens are warmer)
  • Water-resistant coat and shoes.
  • Several layers of loose-fitting non-cotton clothing.

Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind. Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton. Stay dry - wet clothing chills the body rapidly. Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm. Also, avoid getting gasoline or alcohol on your skin while de-icing and fueling your car or snowmobile. These materials in contact with the skin greatly increase heat loss from the body.

Do not ignore shivering – it's an important first sign that the body is losing heat! Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors and/or find ways to reduce exposure to the cold.

Here are some tips on dressing for success from a volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service: