Making winter survival just a walk in the forest
January 22, 2010
LAKE TAHOE – Almost every day is perfect for a walk or hike out in the forests at Tahoe. In the winter when the sun is shining on the crisp white snow a beautiful winter wonderland calls everyone to come out to play. The fun filled winter days provide incredible experiences deep in the Tahoe forests, until the unexpected happens.
The backcountry can be frightening as well as pleasurable. Tahoe’s backcountry is not the place to go unless prepared. Every winter search and rescue is called into action and most of the people needing rescue have relied only on a cell phone and calling 911 as their way of being prepared to survive an emergency in the backcountry. Neither one will keep you warm or provide nourishment while waiting to be rescued.
One of the most often encountered hazards at Tahoe is how quickly the weather can change. A bright sunny day can change into a wind and snow event within one hour and a short snowshoe excursion can have whiteout conditions appear without warning. But for a prepared backcountry traveler the experience can just be another part of the Tahoe lifestyle.
“Being able to navigate without visual signs back to safety and knowing compass skills is important for anyone spending time in the backcountry,” Wayne McClelland said.
McClelland leads a backcountry winter camping adventure several times a year for the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. It is as important for anyone planning to spend only an hour in the backcountry as it is for anyone planning to camp overnight to know how to use a compass and be able to navigate safely in whiteout conditions, he said.
“The best way to survive in the backcountry is to learn the steps to prevent getting into trouble in the first place,” said Steve Hale District Winter Sports Specialist with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Carson Ranger District.” A cell phone is not a substitute for a map and compass.”
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A GPS is another piece of equipment Hale considers an accessory rather than a necessary item to take into the backcountry. Proper planning, equipment and supplies in the backcountry are much more valuable than knowing wilderness survival according to both Hale and McClelland.
“Proper planning and preparation are more valuable and difficult skills than knowing “survival” techniques if for no other reason than you use them every time you venture outdoors into the backcountry (vs. the number of times you’ll really need to use a survival skill e.g.building a snowcave),” Hale said.
McClelland said another issue causing a short snowshoe adventure to turn into a problem is hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a life threatening medical emergency caused by becoming wet, or exposure to cold weather. It causes your body to lose heat faster than it can produce it, thus causing a dangerously low body temperature. If hypothermia is left untreated, it can lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system. Being properly prepared when heading into the backcountry is the best defense against hypothermia.
“Being equipped in terms of clothing, even if on a one hour snowshoe hike,” McClelland said is the best defense against hypothermia.
During the TRTA’s snow camping 101 McClelland and staff cover all of the winter travel hazards in Tahoe – from avalanches to hypothermia. Clothing needed for Tahoe’s backcountry can be found on the TRTA website along with a listing of guided snowshoe adventures. Taking the time to learn more about Tahoe’s backcountry from either the TRTA or the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest service will help your future backcountry experiences.