Winter recreationists planning a day trip to do some backcountry skiing in Turnagain Pass or some snowshoeing on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge don't need to pack every piece of safety gear available to ensure their well-being, but carrying a few small items can mean the difference between making it back to the trail head or spending a cold, dangerous night hoping to be rescued.
"I think one of the biggest problems is people think they're doing something pretty minor. They don't expect things to to go wrong. They assume they will be back at the trail head before dark," said Deb Ajango, an instructor at the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna. "If you study how accidents happen, that's pretty typical. One little thing leads to another little thing, and when you add them all up, something bad happens."
Ajango said a snowshoer or skier might be adequately equipped as long as he or she is back at the car by 4 p.m., but any number of factors taking the long way back, deeper than anticipated snow, a minor injury might push the planned finish time back.
"Then you're not prepared for the cold, you're not prepared for the dark," Ajango said.
The first step in surviving such a situation, Ajango said, is prevention: Don't let the little things snowball into something major. The best way to do that is to make sure you're prepared to deal with any minor inconveniences.
"In order to prevent something bad from happening, you need to protect yourself from the elements and be well-fed and hydrated," Ajango said. "... If you can just keep out of trouble, keep your head and keep warm, there's a lot of stories where people made it back to the car by midnight or one in the morning. They didn't have to deal with a big survival kit and never had to build a shelter or spend a night in an igloo. That knowledge is great to have, but it's not often that you have to use it."
More important, Ajango said, is understanding how the body loses heat, and how to capture radiated body heat in an insulating layer. A wind-proof, water-proof layer such as a Gore-Tex shell even a garbage bag will do in a pinch should be worn over the insulating layer.
"One of the things we teach in these classes is in the wilderness you want to prevent losing heat, and then generate your own heat. ... The way to generate heat is to eat, drink and exercise. That's actually more efficient than building a fire, or a lot of other things folks do or attempt to do," Ajango said.
She recommends several items to bring along on any backcountry adventure. At the top of her list is a pad made of a closed-cell foam material such as Ensolite to use when sitting on the ground.
Ajango said no matter how good your winter clothing might be, sitting on the ground will result in a loss of body heat. Ajango doesn't recommend inflatable or air pads because they don't have the same insulation properties of a closed-cell foam pad.
"I would say anybody that goes out, even if it's just a small fanny pack, (should pack) extra food, extra clothing, extra water, and a pad or something to sit on to protect your body from snow," she said. "Probably in the Alaska winter, a head lamp or some sort of light source, and maybe a couple of little handwarmers. I'd say for a day kit, that's all you need. Once you start to do something more serious, you can add from there.
"Almost everybody wants to go light. What I would advocate for is to go minimalist, but if you take that pack, plus a little bit of knowledge, you can keep yourself out of trouble and prevent problems from happening or prevent a minor thing from becoming a major thing."
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