How to stay safe while enjoying the outdoors in cold weather

Last Sunday, about two dozen sailors fell into the Severn River when a squall of 40-mph winds blew in, flipping about 16 boats at a Severn Sailing Association event into the near-freezing water.

Of the 22 people believed to have fallen overboard, none were hurt, thanks in large part because most were wearing wetsuits, and the rescue team, a combined effort of Maryland Natural Resources Police officers, Annapolis and Anne Arundel County firefighters, the Coast Guard and good Samaritans, arrived quickly.

As is usually the case with such emergencies at this time of year, the rescue was a race against the clock.

Entering this weekend, the water temperature reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration off the coast of Annapolis was 41.4 degrees. In Baltimore's Inner Harbor, it was 40.6 degrees. According to the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force, a person in water between 40 and 50 degrees will become exhausted or unconscious in 30 to 60 minutes; the expected survival time is one to three hours.

As the winter weather intensifies, so does the danger of such accidents. As temperatures drop and nightfall comes sooner, boaters, hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts must take extra precautions.

Among the most important, not only in the winter but throughout the year, is checking the forecast. Last Sunday, the National Weather Service issued a marine weather statement at 1:28 p.m. warning boaters that gusts up to 40 knots — about 46 mph — were approaching. When the winds became severe within a matter of minutes about 2:20 p.m., the boats capsized.


"Whether you're hunting, or hiking, or fishing or whatever you're doing, before you even leave the house, check the weather forecast," said Candy Thomson, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Police. "It doesn't matter if you're on water or you're on land."

Thomson, herself a longtime outdoors enthusiast, said letting others know your whereabouts before heading outside is key to survival should something go wrong.

"If you're going to the mall, you may yell, 'I'll be back in two hours.' Or, 'I'm going to the movies, I'll be back in two hours.' Let somebody know where you're going and when you expect to be back. That way, we can start looking for you a lot sooner," she said.

This year, Natural Resources Police and the Maryland Park Service have responded to 38 calls for a lost person, when someone reaches out to inform that they themselves are lost. Officers also responded to 32 calls for a missing person over the age of 18 and 50 calls for a missing person under the age of 18.

"Sometimes we only know you're missing because your car has been sitting along the road or in a field or in a parking area near a trailhead for hours," Thomson said. "And somebody goes, 'Hey — how about that?'"

Perhaps taken for granted but crucial to any winter outdoor activity is choosing the proper clothing and gear.


Aaron Cupps, store manager at REI in Timonium, spent most of his life in Nevada before moving to Maryland. He has been snowshoeing for 15 years, and teaching it for 10.

"The thing with winter sports is that you're still perspiring and working hard, but you might not know it," he said. "So if you're not using the right base layers or the right clothing, and that stuff gets saturated with sweat, once you stop and that chill sets in and it's right up against your skin, you can really put yourself in danger if you're not prepared for that."

Preparing for winter excursions can be daunting, especially for novices, which is why REI is holding a fall/winter hiking class Jan. 18 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. The class covers basic gear, places to go, skills and safety, especially for winter sports.

"Winter sports is always tougher," Cupps said. "There's more gear. It's not as easy as throwing on your tennis shoes and going for a walk. Sometimes you have to make sure you have a little bit more. You've got to have good jackets, gloves and hats. There's a saying that we have: 'There's no bad weather. There's just bad gear.'"

While knowing how to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation is critical, knowing how to respond to one is equally important.

Liz Millhollen, safety and training director at the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School, one of the nonprofit outdoor education organization's approximately 40 schools around the country, is among the instructors who are required to be trained as wilderness first responders.

The course, which is approximately 70 hours long (with recertification every three years) is a mixture of classroom, workshop and book-based education that includes videos and scenarios, as well as simulations. It's run every year in February, largely because of the greater difficulty of responding to medical emergencies in the winter.

"We have an instructor each year that loves getting us outside. No temperature is too cold," Millhollen said. "What that teaches is that you have to take care of yourself and be prepared for every element."

In one simulation, the trainee encounters five patients scattered in the snow and must do his best to handle the situation with whatever he might have in his backpack.

"It's all the same core life-saving information that nurses and doctors know, but the context that they teach it in is that you are in the wilderness, and you have resources that a wilderness travel group has — sleeping bags, backpacks, ropes — and you're treating these medical scenarios given that context," Millhollen said.

Researching an area before you go, identifying and treating levels of hypothermia and monitoring body functions such as respiration, heartbeat and temperature are among the most crucial life-saving skills during the winter, she said, but perhaps the most important is assessing the situation before acting.

For example, if someone falls through cracked ice, attempting a quick rescue could put you at risk, too.

"Before you rush in and be the hero, ensure that you will be safe so that there's not two victims," Millhollen said.