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Winter wilderness hiking takes preparation

February 15, 2018 | Robert Katzer, MD
hiker in the snow with dog

Southern California’s sunny skies make it possible to enjoy its wilderness bounty year round. But don’t be fooled, it can get very cold at higher elevations. It may even snow when there isn’t a hint of rain nearer sea level.

When exploring the mountains and wilderness areas around Southern California, preparation is the key to a safe and satisfying experience.

Step 1: Understand the weather

Check the weather forecast before as well as on the morning of your trip. I don’t mean the weather outside your window. Study the conditions and forecast for the specific place you will visit.

Conditions can vary significantly throughout the region on any given day, and temperatures are far colder in the mountains. Know what weather to expect.

Step 2: Choose appropriate clothing

Packing layers of loose-fitting clothing is vital.

Skip the cotton. It isn’t the best material for exerting yourself outdoors in potentially cold temperatures. The phrase “cotton kills” is often thrown around among outdoor enthusiasts. That’s because cotton can absorb lots of moisture, whether from rain, water from creeks or ponds, or, most commonly, sweat. Having a wet layer of cotton clothing next to the skin promotes heat loss at a phenomenally high rate.

Instead, choose materials like wool or synthetics that will wick moisture away from your skin to a second insulation layer. Wool, fleece and down are good materials for this second layer. The outer layer, called the shell, should be resistant to both water and wind to prevent heat loss. Breathable waterproof and windproof material is ideal.

Be sure to pack warm mittens or gloves, a hat that offers shade and insulation, as well as a scarf or neck warmer.

Step 3: Pack food and medications

Plan to bring enough water and snacks for 24 hours in case you become lost or injured and there is a delay before rescue personnel locate and reach you.

If you take medication, be sure you have it with you.

Step 4: Pack other essential supplies

A day trip doesn’t usually require a lot of equipment. Still, you will need the following essentials:

  • A map of the area you’ll be exploring
  • Multi-tool that includes a small knife
  • Basic bandages, antiseptic and moleskin for blisters (What's in your home first-aid kit?)
  • A fully charged cellphone, which is your lifeline if you are lost or injured
  • A cellphone battery extender
  • A GPS unit, if possible
  • A flashlight, preferably with a strobe attachment, and extra batteries
  • A comfortable, adjustable backpack

While hiking, be sure to keep your cellphone turned off. Wilderness areas often have weak cell service, which means you can drain your battery if your phone is continually seeking a connection. Having a working cellphone is vital because it may help rescue personnel identify your general location.

Having a portable GPS unit is even better because it can pinpoint a much more precise location as well as aiding in navigation to keep you from getting lost.

If you choose to bring fire-starting materials in case of an emergency, be mindful of the high fire danger in our dry wilderness areas.

Step 5: Final preparations

Now that you have picked out the location for your perfect wilderness day trip, studied your map and have arranged all your gear, be sure to reach out to friends or family before you depart. Let them know where you will be going and what time you expect to be back.

Then if you do have an emergency and are unable to call 911, your friend or family member will be able to alert authorities that you are overdue and give a description of the general area to start search-and-rescue efforts.

Step 6: Enjoy your trip!

We are fortunate to be surrounded by wild lands of phenomenal beauty and recreational potential.

Hopefully these tips will help you plan your trip and assemble your equipment, then head out to enjoy all that the Southern California wilderness has to offer!

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