By Louis Cahill
With brutal cold weather pounding much of the trout water in the US, it’s worth taking a minute to think about safety.
Living in the south, life threatening cold weather conditions are not often a concern, but even here in Georgia, you can find yourself in trouble very quickly. In fact, the most dangerous situations are the ones you didn’t expect to go badly, and didn’t prepare. Something as simple as a stone rolling under foot can turn a pleasant winter outing into a survival situation. Some years ago I found myself in exactly that situation.
Fishing a fairly remote spot along the Appalachian Trail one winter, I took a fall and injured my knee. It was bad enough that I couldn’t walk on it. I was miles from the truck and there was no trail. I had about an hour of light. The temperature was about thirty degrees Fahrenheit and falling. I had three options. I could make my way out along the river. It was the longest route and there were some tough crossings. I could hike over a couple of ridges. A shorter route but I was not sure I could find my way, even in the light. Lastly, I could spend the night out in the cold without the first piece of survival gear.
I made a crutch from a forked tree limb and decided to make my way along the river. I fell a couple of more times but I did finally make it to the truck about ten that night. It was the first time I found myself in that kind of spot and it changed the way I thought about planing a fishing trip. I made some good decisions that day, and maybe some bad ones, but I took the time to learn a bit about surviving in cold weather and I recommend that everyone who fishes do the same.
I am a southerner, which makes me apprehensive about giving advice on cold weather. As our best trout fishing is in the winter, I do spend a lot of cold days on the river and I’m not a survival expert but I do take some common sense precautions. With that in mind, here are some tips on staying safe while fishing in cold weather.
Tips for fishing safety in cold weather.
By far the best way to survive a dangerous situation is not to find yourself in one to start with. That means starting with a good plan. You should know what to expect from the weather and be prepared for the worst. Know the area you’re fishing. Know all of your options for getting in and out, both on foot and by vehicle. If for example, you access your spot by driving in on a forest road, it might be smart to have a saw in the car in case there’s a tree down and a sleeping bag should you break down. Have a map or GPS for any hike in locations. If you expect bad weather, choose your location accordingly. That spot out back of the outlet mall may look a lot more appealing when it’s ten below and you take a swim. A nice warm Gap Outlet might be handy. Be sure someone knows where you are fishing and when to expect you back. Fish with a friend if possible.
Dress smart. That means more than piling on more layers. Wear loose fitting clothes which trap air and inner layers that wick moisture and dry quickly. Be prepared to insulate the areas where you lose the most body heat. Your head, neck, wrists and ankles. A spare stocking hat, dry in a ziplock bag, could make a huge difference.
Some simple survival gear is worth having. A buddy of mine carries a garbage bag and a candle as an emergency shelter. I don’t fit well into a garbage bag so I carry a reflective blanket. Having some way to make fire is great and, while a candle doesn’t sound like a real heat source, it can make a real difference in a confined space and will burn no matter how wet it gets. It’s also a good idea to keep a Snickers Bar stashed away. Hypoglycemia is one of the primary concerns in cold weather survival, along with hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite. Keeping your body fueled with simple sugars helps it generate heat and keeps you thinking clearly.
Handheld GPS units and global spot devices are pretty affordable these days. If you like backcountry fishing, either would be a great investment. Make sure batteries are charged for these devices and your cell phone.
Get to or make shelter
If things go badly the first thing you want to do is make a good plan for getting to shelter. Best case, that’s home but if that’s not possible any shelter is better than none. If you are injured or unable to find your way, that might mean some kind of improvised shelter, like your garbage bag, space blanket or even a forest bed. Here’s a great description of a forest bed that could save your life, from Outside Magazine.
“Stack logs into a rectangular frame about a foot wider and longer than your body. Then, layer two feet of compressed debris (leaves, moss, duff, cattails) on the bottom to keep the ground from conducting away your body heat. Next, pile up about three to four feet of more debris on the edges to create a body-sized trough. When it’s time to turn in, spread flat on your back in the trough and scoop the debris in around you like a blanket, covering yourself from head to toe. Yeah, you’re going to have dirt, rabbit droppings, and pine needles in your hair, ears, and nose, but it beats dying a slow death from hypothermia.” – Tony Nester:Outside.
Here’s a great video on building an improvised shelter with a space blanket at temps well below zero!
Know the basics of hypothermia
Hypothermia is greater danger in cold weather. You can become hypothermic in surprisingly mild weather if the conditions are wet and windy. It’s smart to know the signs of hypothermia and ways to combat it.
“Hypothermia is the lowering of the body temperature. Initial symptom of hypothermia is shivering. First you shiver. Then you shiver to the point that you can’t control it or stop it. This is your body trying to produce heat to warm itself. Sluggish thinking, irrational reasoning or next and eventually a feeling of warmth may occur. This is a critical point. You feel warm but you MUST at this point try to warm yourself up or you will die. But warming up brings on the sensation of pain again. But you must endure this or you will not make it. The will to survive is paramount here and it is at this point that many people give in and stop fighting to live. Death comes at around 77 degree core body temperature.” – survival-manual.com
The best way to avoid hypothermia is to stay dry and sheltered from wind. It’s important, if you are hiking or building a shelter that you not work up a sweat. Your body’s natural cooling system can get you into a lot of trouble in a survival situation. Here’s a great article on avoiding hypothermia from howstuffworks.com.
How to avoid Hypothermia
Make good decisions
By far the most important thing in any dangerous situation is staying calm and clear-headed. Making good choices that improve your situation is the key to staying safe, In addition to good old-fashion panic, cold weather presents some specific challenges. Hypothermia and hypoglycemia both have negative impacts on judgment and thought process. It’s important to take steps to stay clear-headed and to recognize when you are not. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes.
I hope these tips are helpful. Don’t let cold weather stop you from enjoying the outdoors and some great winter fishing. Just make a plan, be prepared and stay safe. If you have stories or tips for safety in cold weather, please share them in the comments.
Oh, and don’t worry about me this winter. I’ll be in the Bahamas!Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!