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Most folks react to long periods of cold and snow by huddling close to the wood stove and watching the news to see when it all might end. That’s one way to spend the winter, I suppose, but unless there’s a major storm in progress I can’t stay cooped up indoors for very long. Once the last flakes of snow have sifted down and I’m out there shoveling, and as soon as possible after that I strap on my skis or buckle my snowshoes and head for the hills.
One of the basic facts of winter life I’ve learned over the last half-century or so is that it’s really not that bad out there if you are dressed for the occasion. I have ice-fished on Schoodic Lake at minus 30 and have even spent a few winter days cutting pulpwood at 20 below zero. Fortunately, I had the proper clothing on and worked only as hard as necessary to keep warm. Working up a sweat in those kinds of temperatures can kill you because when you slow down all that sweat turns to ice and then you’ll feel the cold! Hypothermia is a slow, gradual process that can turn a fun day into a miserable one in just a few minutes. Never let yourself get so cold that you just want to sit in the snow and go to sleep. At that point you’re under the grip of hypothermia and things likely won’t go well for you after that. Get up, get moving, and find shelter and warmth.
Few recreational outdoorsmen need to face the threat of death when they go outside. A few hours of hiking, snowshoeing, skiing or ice-fishing are not likely to kill you if you plan ahead. It’s common knowledge these days to dress in several layers starting with under garments made of a good wicking fabric (there are plenty of options out there). Add a layer of wool or fleece covered with an insulated jacket or coat and you should be good to go – with the emphasis on “go.” Although that first step outside the door can deliver a pretty cold slap in the face, it’s amazing how comfortable you can be when properly dressed no matter how cold it gets. If I’m working the skis, snowshoes or simply walking at a decent pace I warm up and stay that way for the duration, sometimes warming up enough to lose the gloves and hat for a few minutes. The rule in winter trekking has always been to err on the side of cool rather than too hot.
It may take you a trip or two to discover what combination of clothing works best for you. Cold-blooded types can’t wear enough, it seems, while I can go with the minimum and feel pretty good all day. Of course, when it’s stupid cold out there with a biting wind, I just forget the whole thing and wait for balmier times. I have spent time outdoors when common sense suggested otherwise, but when the cold and wind become too much to bear I turn around and head for home. When there’s any doubt about the day’s weather patterns I will stuff an extra windbreaker or fleece jacket into my pack and add or subtract layers as necessary.
Speaking of packs, anyone who ventures into the hinterlands in winter should carry one. Mine is lightweight and comfortable with all sorts of pockets and pouches. I keep my pack loaded with basic winter survival gear and never leave the house without it. Inside is a Space Blanket, extra hand warmers, a working flashlight and spare batteries, my trusty Leatherman, a butane lighter and a fully-charged cell phone. Most important (to me, anyway) is my handy little gas stove, tin cup and container of tea, coffee and instant soup. I have long had a habit of wandering too far for too long, and when it’s time for a break it’s nice to be able to fire up the stove and enjoy a hot beverage while I decide which route I want to take back home.
Truth be told, I’ve only had to rough it overnight twice in more than 50 years of winter rambling but on both occasions it sure was nice to be able to wrap up in my Space Blanket and sip hot tea all night. The Space Blanket kept the wind out and the heat in, so I was quite comfortable despite the wintry weather. It’s not my preferred way to spend a cold February evening but it worked and I survived, which is about all anyone could ask.
On those occasions I used chunks of ice and handfuls of snow to make my tea, but these days I carry a couple of bottles of water with me. If I’m going to be out all day I add two or three more bottles and make sure I keep one for a spare in case of emergency. Believe it or not it takes a lot of snow to make a cup of water and it requires a lot of gas to bring a cup of snow to a boil. Bottled water is much easier to handle and boils faster, an important consideration if you must ration your gas supply.
I would not worry too much about getting lost or spending a night in the winter woods. At worst you can follow your own tracks back home, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Dress for the conditions, don’t over-exert yourself and stop often to keep your body temperature at a point where you are neither shivering nor sweating. Bring water or a hot drink and just enjoy the scenery. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you acclimate to the cold.
Maine’s natural winter beauty alone is worth the trip plus there are all sorts of bird and animal tracks to observe. If you’re feeling cooped up or cabin fever is getting to you, suit up and head outdoors for an hour or two. It’s good for the soul and it’s free!
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