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Wintertime
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by Dan Soeder | 2006

Outdoorsman and Outings Chair Dan Soeder shares his techniques for enjoying the special pleasures of being outdoors in winter.

Short days, long nights, and a chill in the air. Yes, it’s winter, and the slow time of the year for our outings program. But many activities are still planned, and thanks to that big body of water to our east, the Atlantic Ocean, temperatures around here tend to stay fairly tolerable until at least mid-January.

I grew up in Cleveland, where it’s not unusual to have a foot or more of “lake effect” snow on the ground by Thanksgiving. I don’t even bother trying to get there for a visit at Christmas anymore, because the chance of snow is too great. I learned the hard way that it can be a long, miserable drive in a snowstorm. Yet, since moving to the Baltimore area, I have been delighted several times by being able to ride my bicycle down the B&A Trail on New Years Day, wearing shorts! We walk the dogs, hike in the woods, and even do some mountain biking in winter. About the only outdoor activity I won’t do locally is kayaking, because cold water is a lot more dangerous than cold air.

Of course, some people actually enjoy snow, and see it as something other than a nuisance to be shoveled off the driveway. There are some activities on the list below for the skiers, sledders and snowshoe fanatics among us. Many of these are open-ended on the dates, because it is hard to predict snow around here, but if you are interested in participating, contact the leader for the plans when you see white stuff falling from the sky.

The keys to safe winter outdoor activities are simple: 1) pay attention to the weather, and 2) dress properly for the conditions. If a storm is coming through with rain, snow, wind and cold temperatures, skip the trip. This is an outings program, not Navy SEALS training. We don’t have to go out in dangerous weather, and we shouldn’t. Going outdoors in bad weather greatly increases the opportunities for getting lost, being stranded, or worse. Many hikers have come to grief that could have been avoided if someone had simply checked the weather forecast first.

Dressing properly for the cold means dressing in layers. Layers allow you to add on or peel off clothing in response to changing conditions. Winter clothing should consist of at least three different layers. The base layer against the skin ought to be something soft and comfortable that will wick moisture away, keeping you dry. Silk long johns are my personal favorite, but there are many synthetic “technical” fabrics that work even better. Avoid cotton—it absorbs moisture and keeps the wetness next to your skin, where it will chill you. The next layer should be insulating—a synthetic fleece or a wool sweater that will trap air and warmth, but won’t absorb water. The outer layer should be a wind-and-water resistant shell, such as a nylon or polyester parka, or wool coat. Cotton is okay as an outer layer if it is treated to repel water.

Why the paranoia over water? Because it chills us. Water absorbs much more heat than air at the same temperature. It is also extremely effective at carrying heat away as it evaporates, which is why sweating cools us in the summer, and chills us to the bone in winter. If the body gets too cold and the core temperature drops below 96 degrees F, we enter a state called hypothermia. This can be very dangerous—hypothermia is the fourth most common cause of death in the outdoors. (The top three are falls, drowning and cardiac arrest—see Backpacker magazine, October, 2006, for details.) A person in the early stages of hypothermia will shiver uncontrollably, and have difficulty walking, talking and thinking clearly. He or she needs to get inside and get warm. More advanced hypothermia may result in a state of extreme mental confusion, lack of muscle coordination and possible unconsciousness. This is a medical emergency; if you encounter someone with serious symptoms of hypothermia, a call to 9-1-1 is in order.

The other medical problem to worry about in cold weather is frostbite. This occurs when exposed skin or extremities begin to freeze under cold temperatures or high wind chill. The best way to avoid frostbite is to stay dry, wear warm gloves and socks, cover all exposed skin (including ears, nose and cheekbones), and remember that cold and windy is more dangerous than just cold. People with poor circulation are especially vulnerable. Soaking in warm water can rewarm cold extremities. A body part that actually freezes requires immediate medical attention.

Speaking of medical issues, I want to mention that the Howard County Group has scheduled a Wilderness First Aid Training class for two weekends in January. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in backcountry areas where the paramedics may not be close, you should consider taking this class. It deals with diagnosing and responding to injuries and illness when you are 6-8 hours from medical aid. It certainly won’t turn you into a physician, but it will allow you to render some meaningful help to a victim when the professionals may not be available for awhile. Please contact Ken Clark at 301-725-3306 or kenclark7@comcast.net for details.

Despite the need to dress for the cold and be aware of the weather, wintertime can be wonderful for outdoor activities. The bugs are gone, the trails are virtually empty, and with the leaves down, the vistas are open and long. The cold air is bracing, and a hiking a forest path after a fresh snowfall can be an incredibly magical journey. Please check out the outings offered below. More information and updates are available on the chapter and group web pages. So bundle up and go take a hike! See you outside.

 

Dan Soeder is the MD Chapter Outings Chair (Dan.Soeder@sierraclub.org).

 

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