Outdoor Winter Safety Tips

By Kris McNeal – Chief Operations Officer at The Duluth Experience

duluth winter adventures

Winter recreation can offer a more fulfilling experience when compared to the warmer seasons that many associate with outdoor adventure. From our city parks to the deep wilderness, there is great splendor and solitude in the quiet winter woods – it’s something that many of us look forward to. It’s part of who we are.

The winter adventurer faces a set of challenges – similar to those encountered during the summer. Some consider the winter to be less forgiving and without the proper preparation, winter recreation can be a struggle.

With the right preparation and planning, you can greatly reduce the challenges that Old Man Winter throws at you. By following these five winter safety tips you can spend more time enjoying the winter expedition and less time struggling for survival.

Winter Safety Tip #1: Know Your Route and Let Someone Else Know Too

This is the #1 winter safety tip for a reason folks… it’s critical (and it’s important during all seasons… not just winter). Knowing your route and where your “outs” are can mean the difference between an incredible winter experience and a dangerous struggle. Knowing your route helps prevent you from getting lost and keeps you on-track towards your planned destination.

Prepare for your winter outing by studying a map of the area well before you lace up your boots. Even if you’re just hitting Lester Park to do some evening cross-country skiing after work… know the area in case you need to get out quick. If you’re exploring a new area, bring maps with you and take a compass.

Bonus points for knowing how to use that compass!

Kris McNeal Winter Adventure

Kris has been leading trips into the winter woodlands of Northern Minnesota for over a decade and has some great tips that will make your next adventure safe and fun! Image: The Duluth Experience.

While you study your maps you should make note of an appropriate compass bearing that will get you back to your starting point or to the nearest road or structure. I call these locations “outs” and they can be critical in case of emergency or if you lose your way. These are locations where you can find your vehicle or locate other people to help get you back to civilization.

Ok. This part is also very important… always remember is to let family member, friend, or close relative know where you will be traveling and when you should be expected to return. If it is a longer trip, I sometimes leave a map with a responsible friend or family member so they can see my planned route and I give them an expected return time. I will also tell them “if you don’t hear from me by this time, you should contact the proper authorities”.

The time I give tends to be a little after what I expect in case I get slowed down due to a storm, get side-tracked, or make my way out but need time to return to my starting point. If I’m going hiking with my dog baker and we’re headed out for a day trip I give a return time in the evening. If we’re winter camping in the Boundary Waters that wiggle room might be a day or even two. This will depend on your skills in the woods and what you feel comfortable with.

Letting someone know your planned route and timeframe is critical, otherwise how will anyone know where you are or where to start looking in a worst-case scenario? The most important step of all to remember is actually contacting that person when you return to let them know you are safe and sound. This will prevent a needless search and rescue for you and the great headaches resulting form it.

Winter Safety Tip #2: Use Proper Clothing and Layering Systems

When thinking about your winter apparel there are a few main ideas to take into consideration – temperature, wind, and moisture. We know that winter is cold, and up here in the Northland, it’s really cold. With temperatures ranging from 32 to -50 degrees Fahrenheit, your body has to work overtime to keep you warm and to maintain normal bodily functions. You can reduce the stress on your body by dressing warmly and carrying extra clothing in your pack. It is better to be safe than sorry with your clothing choices. You always want to have extra clothing in case the elements are more severe than expected or the weather changes dramatically – a frequent occurrence in the North Woods!

winter photography preparation

Bundled up for a winter photoshoot. Stacie is wearing multiple layers that can be added/removed as needed along with good winter boots, gloves, hat and scarf. Image: William Hurst Photography.

When choosing the proper attire for winter, you want to focus on fabrics that will block the wind, manage your moisture levels, and have enough loft (i.e., air space) to keep you warm. The outdoor industry standard is to avoid cotton because “cotton kills”. This is due to the fact that cotton retains moisture and is a poor insulator and you will lose body heat 25% faster with wet clothing. Once cotton is wet, it is incredibly difficult to dry, especially in the winter.

You want to choose fabrics such as wool, down, and synthetics, which are great at wicking moisture and are much quicker in drying. When these fabrics are tight fitting, they are held close to the body and will pull moisture from your skin and bring it towards the outer most parts of the garment.

Related: Check out The North Shore Winter Photography Workshop.

You want to choose clothing with high amounts of loft. Fabrics with good loft have lots of little air spaces that can trap warm air that helps keep us insulated. This idea came from observing nature and is easily demonstrated by animals that survive our harsh winters. Whitetail deer, for example, have a thick coat of hair that acts as a natural insulator. The hair follicles are actually hollow, which gives them more air space to trap heat. Humans can’t grow winter coats but we have the next best thing, down and fleece layers which serve the same purpose – creating a thick layer of warm air insulation.

Wind is also an important factor to consider when dressing for the outdoors. In winter months, the wind can take a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and make it feel like -40. Not only will the wind dramatically drop the outside temperatures but it will also strip precious heat away from your body. When this happens, your body has to work harder to keep you warm, resulting in decreased energy levels and general misery.

fat tire bike adventure Duluth Experience group

Ride with friends and let folks know where you’re going… and when to expect your return. This is the best defense against an unplanned struggle to survive. Just do it. Image: The Duluth Experience

The best way to defeat the wind is to wear wind-breaking layers with high stitch counts to block the wind and keep you warm. Rain gear, windbreakers, shells, and coats lined with wind-stopping materials will often do the trick. However, there are cons to wind-stopping materials, the biggest one being poor moisture control. These fabrics tend to be very tightly woven, and they do not allow moisture to travel outwards, resulting in a buildup of moisture on the inside. This can be combated by wearing wind clothing as the outermost layer, or unzipping them and taking them off to prevent getting wet from sweating. There are wind layers out there made of materials like Gore-Tex that are designed to help wick moisture, but they are costly.

Wearing the proper clothing is only one step to staying warm, the other is how you layer these items for maximum thermal efficiency. The outdoor industry tends to rely on the 3 Ws: wicking, warming, and wind layering… in that order. The wicking layer comes first. It’s your tight fitting base layer that helps move moisture outwards (wicking). The warming layers provide insulation and have all the little air pockets to trap heat close to your body. The third layer is the wind layer. This layer is typically worn as the outermost layer to prevent the cold winter winds from stripping your body heat away. When using this layering system properly, you will spend less time losing energy and heat to the elements and more time playing in the snow.

Winter Safety Tip #3: Bring Water and Snacks

Traveling in winter is hard work, often taking more time to reach your destination that in the summer. You body has to burn more fuel to keep up with all of the extra effort as you travel. You body also needs to burn extra fuel just to keep you at a constant 98.6 degrees. To help you keep your energy levels high and to travel at an efficient pace, you must eat well before, during, and after your trip. Eating a big meal, high in fats and proteins before your trip will keep you fueled and on top of your game. Also having high-energy snacks to munch on while traveling will help you keep the tank filled and your spirits high. Another factor to consider is always packing extra food in case you find that you have lost your way or an emergency occurs. The worst thing that can happen is being stuck in in the winter woods with no food, the essential ingredient to keep your body warm.

Just because it’s winter and it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you don’t sweat. In fact, due to the snow, you exert greater efforts to move through the woods than you do in the summer. This also means more sweating, especially if you don’t shed layers as you get to warm. It is essential that you carry plenty of water for your trip, plus a little extra. I know what you are thinking, “why don’t I just eat snow if I run out?” Unfortunately this is a bad idea. You will burn more energy to melt the snow than the water it is worth. Your best bet is to drink plenty of water to stay on top of your mental and physical game.

Winter Safety Tip #4: Bring Emergency Gear

winter Survival Gear

A water bottle, headlamp, pocket knife, storm-proof matches, tinder (in the orange tube), a basic first aid kit, and a bit of paracord or rope are great items to carry with you on any adventure. Image:
The Duluth Experience.

On top of packing snacks, water, maps, a compass, and extra clothing, you want to pack a few essentials for that worst-case scenario. These emergency situations can be bad enough on their own, but add in the extremes of winter and you’re left with a true survival situation. Packing a few more essential items can make your bad situation a little better.

Pack a lighter or some waterproof matches, and couple this with a small piece of quick start fire starter all packed in a zip lock bag to prevent any moisture from damaging your items. You never know when you may have to start a fire either to stay warm, to regain vital body heat, or to melt water for drinking. Having a fire source and quick light materials can be the difference between life and death.

Bring an emergency blanket! These very cheap reflective blankets that weigh next to nothing and can keep you incredibly warm by efficiently reflecting your body heat back towards you instead of losing it to the environment. These can also double as a rain barrier or a makeshift shelter if necessary.

Related: Learn about preparing for winter photography adventures.

Bring your phone! Yes I just said that, and it can pay off. You should never rely on your phone when you’re in the woods but it can be a useful tool in a true emergency. And if there isn’t service where you are currently located, there may be some on your attempt to get out of the woods. Another thing to keep in mind is that even if you cannot get enough reception for a call, you may be able to send a short text. It’s an easy thing to bring and if you truly want the winter woods experience, just turn it off and throw it on the bottom of your bag.

The last items I would highly recommend are a first aid kit, a pocket knife, a headlamp, and a small amount of rope or para-cord. These items may seem pointless on a day trip, but even the most experienced outdoor person can get lost or hurt, even in a city park. You never know how long you may have to brave the elements before help can find you or you find your way out. Any small lightweight items that can help your cause in an emergency are worth it.

Winter Safety Tip #5: Know Your Limits

Knowing the limits of your body and recognizing when to turn back are very important in any outdoor scenario. Recognizing when you body is becoming fatigued is an important outdoor skill that might be the key in getting you home safely. If you reach a point where you cannot go any further… you’re in trouble. When you reach a point of exhaustion in the winter, you body will not be able to maintain the proper heat levels to keep you warm. Your body and mind also begin to slow and you my make some decisions that you wouldn’t normally make, some decisions that could put you in danger. The best course of action is to know your limits before you leave and have a pre-planned spot on your route to turn around. It is crucial to remember that every mile forward is another mile that you must travel back.

These few winter basics may seem mundane or common sense to you, but it is important to keep them in mind and practice them every time you travel outdoors during the winter. You rarely see an emergency coming and you most certainly don’t think you will ever be lost. But these things do happen and they happen often. With some basic preparation and planning you’ll be prepared to really enjoy the harshness of winter without putting yourself in an unnecessary survival scenario.

Now get out there and have some fun. It’s snowing.

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Explore the North Shore this winter and celebrate our amazing Winter Adventures with Kris and The Duluth Experience Team!

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