Survival tips for the high country

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Every year, more than a few hunters must be rescued from the wilds of Colorado. Hunters get trapped by snowstorms, injured in various types of accidents or lost in the woods.

Hunters must remember that altitude can affect their health and ability to move easily. And in the Rockies, weather can change quickly with fast-moving storms dumping a couple of feet of snow in just a few hours.

Be prepared for all types of weather, including wet, cold, dry and hot. Take appropriate clothing and the right camping gear. If possible, spend a few days at a higher elevation before hunting season to allow your body to acclimate.

Chances of heavy snowfalls increase in October, November and December. High-country hunters, especially those who backpack into wilderness areas and have to get out on foot, need to watch the weather closely and pick their escape routes before they even choose a campsite. Snow can obliterate trails or make them impassable.

Survival experts recommend that you never go into a wilderness area alone. Unavoidable accidents happen. Learn how to use a compass, take a map of the area and orient yourself before leaving camp. Also before leaving camp, explain to your hunting partner where you'll be going and when you plan to return.

Always carry a survival kit and know how to use it. Such a kit should include a knife, waterproof matches, compass, reflective survival blanket, high-energy food, water purification tablets, first aid kit, whistle and unbreakable signal mirror.

If you get lost, sit down, regain your composure and think for a few minutes. Many times people who are lost can figure out where they went wrong and make it back to camp. If you truly don't know where you are, stay put.

Papa Bear Whitmore, a survival expert who has taught Navy Seals, Green Berets and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police - and also Colorado Hunter Education courses - says survival is 80 percent attitude, 10 percent equipment and 10 percent skill and knowledge to use that equipment. His most important advice: "The best survival tool is your head. Use it."

If you are caught in a storm or forced to spend the night out, there are three keys to survival: shelter, fire and signal.

If you can't find camp and have to overnight in the wild, your first priority is shelter. Even if you have nothing else going for you - no fire or food - an adequate shelter that is warm and dry will keep you alive until rescuers find you. That means anything from an overhanging rock shelf to a cave, timbered lean-to or snow cave. Always prepare for the worst and build a shelter that will last. Cut boughs from evergreen trees and use them as padding and for covering.

Dress in layers and take extras with you. Put on layers before you become chilled and take off a layer before you become damp with perspiration. Staying warm is a process of staying dry. Do not dress in cotton - it becomes wet easily and is difficult to dry. Use wool, wool blends or synthetic clothing that wicks moisture away from skin.

Be sure to carry a quality stocking cap that is made of wool or synthetic fleece. You lose up to 45 percent of your heat around your head, neck and shoulders.

Winter headgear should conserve heat, breathe and be water repellent. The old saying, "If your feet are cold, put your hat on" is good advice.

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