The latest issue of the Appalachia Journal arrived last night and I immediately turned to the Accidents Section to read the analysis of this autumn’s accident reports. Established in 1876, Appalachian is America’s longest running journal of mountaineering and conservation. Published quarterly, it’s known for its well written stories and essays, and its famous accident report section. Incidentally, I met the current editor, Christine Woodside, when we both volunteered as Samaritan care givers for a rescue on Mt Washington, a few years ago.
There were quite a few accidents analyzed in this latest issue, particularly ones where hikers and skiers underestimated the danger of winter-like conditions in New Hampshire’s White Mountains during the autumn and spring shoulder seasons. One of the editor’s conclusions that drew my eye was the following quote, in response to a hiker’s inability to start a winter fire when he was cold and wet and had to spend an unexpected night out.[quote] An added survival note: practicing methods of lighting a fire in snowy, cold, wet conditions seems worthwhile.
While this would seem to be common sense, none of the winter hiking, backpacking, or mountaineering courses I’ve ever taken or participated in teaching includes a section on how to light a survival fire in snowy, cold wet conditions. Why is that, one wonders?
I think it’s largely because building campfires has been so thoroughly discredited by the Leave No Trace movement, which is ironic or unfortunate, depending on your perspective, because LNT ethics are considered less important than one’s survival in an emergency situation. LNT educators will tell you that the amount of damage caused by deploying a search and rescue team, where two dozen people tramp through the woods in a grid search, and helicopters search for you overhead, far outweighs the impact of building an emergency fire for the night.
Equally puzzling, are why hikers carry fire making supplies, but never stop to use them in many of the rescue scenarios described in Appalachia. Once you get below treeline (which is the most important factor for winter survival), stopping to make a fire and sit out the night (in addition to using your extra insulation to get warm), makes a lot more sense than stumbling around in deep snow, lost, and in the dark.
What about stoves? They’re certainly good for melting water, and every solo winter hiker or group should carry one. But stoves have their limits if you are cold and wet. Unless, you’re willing to set your clothes on fire, a stove is not going to help dry you off, nor is a single stove likely to satisfy a group’s energy needs for a night. A warming or signal fire would be much more useful in a serious emergency.
You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that US population growth will result in more people seeking winter recreation and more demand for emergency services. It seems that teaching more winter survival and self-reliance skills would be a way to help reduce hikers’ reliance on frivolous search and rescue call outs rather than making them the norm.
This could be as simple as having students practice preparing a winter fire site, gathering and preparing wood, and building and lighting a small fire in existing fire rings (in winter, when they’re buried by snow) using the techniques described in the above video. Fire can be a life saver, but only if it’s a taught skill.
If you’re a winter hiker, when was the last time you practiced making a survival fire in winter?
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