Staying Safe Outdoors in Winter

Winter landscapes provide clearer views but also new challenges to those venturing outdoors. This blog post will share some general considerations to help you stay safe in colder weather.

For many people, the colder months seem like an end to outdoor adventure, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you want to get outdoors in the cold, you can embrace winter’s challenges as an opportunity to learn new skills.

Why You Should Get Outdoors in Winter

Still not convinced that outdoor adventure fits with the cold weather? Consider these reasons for venturing out of your comfort zone and braving the cold.

Solitude: Winter is a great time to relax indoors and rejuvenate, but if you are willing to venture outside, you’ll find fewer crowds in many of your favorite places. Instead of packed hiking trails and campsites, winter can offer solitude that truly quiets the mind.

Better Views: The warmer months bring the excitement of fully leafed-out trees, and fall, of course, offers gorgeous colors as leaves change. In winter, deciduous trees lose their leaves, which means that you can see much further into the wooded landscape.

Higher Water Levels: If you’re a paddler, then you should monitor your favorite rivers during the colder months. Get some cold weather gear to stay safe on the water, and you’ll be rewarded with higher water levels and exciting rapids.

Know Your Landscape and Its Hazards

Before leaving for your trip, get familiar with the place you’ll be traveling and the likely hazards you will encounter. Start by checking the weather, focusing on temperatures, rainfall, and wind speeds.

But be aware that apps do not know everything, and weather can be unpredictable. For this reason, you’ll want to consider the likely extremes of what you might encounter. Ask questions like:

How cold could it get?

If it starts to rain, is there shelter?

Could rain cause flash flooding?

Will I be at risk of high winds?

Can I finish my trip before dark?

There’s no need to psych yourself out with imagined hazards, but you should take a realistic look at the area and activity and be prepared for possible weather issues.

Choosing Proper Clothing

Winter Clothing should be tailored to your activity—hiking, paddling, skiing—and to the likely hazards you could encounter.

For most activities, clothing should be worn in multiple layers, which allows you to remove clothing as you get warmer. Usually, a base layer will be clothing that wicks water away from the skin; a mid layer that warms your body; and your shell layer to keep out wind and water.

When choosing clothing, avoid cotton as it soaks up water and takes a long time to dry. Better choices include synthetic or wool layers. These fabrics dry more quickly and keep moisture away from the skin.

Once you’ve chosen layers to protect your core, remember to cover exposed skin and extremities. Think a hat, gloves, and neck gaiter, depending on the severity of the weather you expect.

Remember to Keep Eating and Drinking

When it’s cold, people sometimes become so focused on the activity and staying warm that they forget basic necessities like eating and drinking. To help remind you to eat and drink, keep food and water within close reach while adventuring. If you’re part of a group, make a pact to remind each other to eat and drink regularly to keep energy levels up.

Remember that water can freeze. Some options to protect your water bottle from freezing include using an insulated sleeve or putting the bottle in your backpack instead of an exterior pocket.

Know the Signs and Treatment for Hypothermia

While we love cold weather adventure, we must acknowledge that it comes with risks, one of which is hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when you are exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods and your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, a condition that can quickly become life threatening.

The Center for Disease Control offers this simplified list of symptoms:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

If you spot any of these symptoms in a member of your group, stop the trip immediately, call 911, and offer treatment:

  • Get the person into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove their wet clothing.
  • Warm the person’s core. Since you’re outdoors, use dry blankets, clothing, or even skin-to-skin contact.
  • You can give them warm (not hot) drinks, but do not give them alcohol.
  • After their body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrap them in a warm blanket.
  • Get the person proper medical attention as soon as possible.

For a more in-depth discussion of hypothermia, check out this video. Made in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, “Cold, Wet, and Alive” appears dated but the information is current and useful.

Leave a Travel Plan with a Trusted Person

This suggestion is true for any season of adventure, but especially when risks are higher, you should leave a detailed plan with someone you trust. Your plan should tell them where you are going, when you plan to return, and what they should do if they don’t hear from you.

Your plan should be detailed. Give the name and location of your trailhead (if hiking), and if it’s a multi-day trip, include where you’ll be camping for each day.

Make it easy for rescuers to find you should something go wrong.

Want a Safe Introduction to Winter Paddling?

Wherever you are, we hope you’ll take some time to get outdoors and enjoy the winter world.

If you’re in central North Carolina, consider booking a winter paddling trip on Saxapahaw Lake with us. 

You’ll paddle a canoe on calm water and receive instruction on staying safe on the water in colder weather. It’s a great family experience, and if you want to build on these skills, try one of our introductory paddling courses, which can be tailored to your needs.