Going into the forest any time of year requires planning and common sense. Heading out in the winter requires more planning, more common sense and a good deal of knowledge about winter in the woods.
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Downhill skiers know that ski resorts take safety quite seriously. Ski area boundaries are well defined and qualified members of the National Ski Patrol make sure everyone is safe.
The terrain is clearly marked indicating the ability level needed for different trails and there are lodges that provide shelter, warmth, food and a place to relax. At the end of the day, the ski patrol sweeps the resort from top to bottom to make sure everyone is off the mountain.
Back country snowshoers and cross country skiers are on their own when they head out. The only amenities available are the ones they take with them. Staying warm and dry and getting out of the forest is their responsibility.
Every ski season brings news that someone left the marked boundaries, got lost and died in the wilderness.
The forest in winter is an unforgiving place. Everyone should be aware of the main dangers: cold temperatures, wet weather, avalanches and tree wells.
Perhaps the worst combination is being cold and wet. Hypothermia happens fairly quickly and is deadly. People approaching hypothermia become irrational and begin shedding gear and clothing because they feel hot. From there it is a short trip to terminal disaster.
Avalanche awareness in the back country steers cross country skiers and snowshoers away from areas that are just too dicey. It takes training to recognize when to turn around. Avalanches can happen at any time and being trapped in one while out of bounds or in the back country is generally deadly.
One of the big dangers, especially for snowboarders, involves trees. Hitting one while skiing, boarding, or even snowshoeing can be a really painful experience. But what’s under the tree branches, especially in deep snow, is particularly dangerous.
When it snows evergreen branches collect snow and bend under the weight. Lower branches typically end up in the snow. Snow under the branches isn’t as compacted and can be pretty soft and deep.
Falling into a tree well is at best frustrating. They are hard to get out of. The deeper the snow, the harder it is. Hitting a tree and ending up in one — even in bounds —can mean you are hidden from view very quickly.
Snowboarders are the most at risk when it comes to tree wells. Going in feet first and staying right side up requires digging down to the bindings to release the boots. Snowboard bindings do not release under force like ski bindings do.
A snowboarder who ends up in a tree well upside down or face down is in serious trouble. Whatever oxygen is available will be exhausted long before it’s possible to release the boot bindings. If no one sees a boarder go into the well it’s unlikely he or she will make it out safely. Deep, soft powder presents the same danger. These dangers are amplified if the boarder is alone.
Cross country ski bindings do not release under pressure either. Most cross country skiers in the back country stay out of the trees but boarders tend to weave in and out of them, which accounts for the difference in accident rates between the two groups.
There are ways to avoid these dangers. Common sense is impossible to overemphasize. Ski or board within marked boundaries and be in control at all times. Always ski or board with a partner or group in the back country.
Leave a note, e-mail or phone message with information about where you are going and when you’ll be back. Realize that anytime you are out of bounds or in the back country you are on your own. Remember that the winter forest, while beautiful, can be deadly.
Be prepared whether you are at a resort or in the back country. The forest in winter can be fantastic. Just make sure you are ready for the experience.