Monday Medical: Winter preparedness: Don't go without it

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Food, water and shelter are three essentials for human survival. Survival is possible for three to six weeks without one, and for three to six days without another. The third is so paramount that one cannot survive more than three to six hours without it.

If you thought "shelter," you are correct. Without shelter, the human body faces a risk of exposure to the elements, which, especially in the winter months, can be harmful, if not deadly.

Living in a region where winter conditions can last from October to June, it is important to know how to be prepared. Changes in weather happen rapidly, and other unexpected mishaps also may lead to cold-weather injury or worse.

Let's face it: We all have been caught unprepared. Not checking the forecast and getting caught in a storm on the pass. That day it was colder than you expected on the mountain, and you forgot your neck gaiter. Even at the ski area, just cruising along on well-groomed runs, cold weather injuries can occur.

"The best thing to do is to ski together, check each other and look for the tell-tale signs," Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said. "Check each other's noses, cheeks and earlobes, or anywhere skin is exposed."

If skin has begun to turn white, it could be frost nip or frostbite. It is essential to seek shelter - go inside and warm up. Kohnke adds that it is important to warm up slowly; do not jump in a hot tub or submerge in hot water.

In addition to checking one another, skiers and snowboarders should assess themselves periodically throughout the day. Take time on the lift to check for numbness, burning, tingling or itching sensations with exposed skin, toes and fingers. If you feel something, head indoors and warm up.

Clothing is the first line of defense, serving as your body's portable shelter. Wearing appropriate clothing for the conditions - no cotton - dressing in layers and carrying supplemental items such as a neck gaiter or balaclava in case you need them are key.

"The ski patroller's rule of thumb with clothing is, if you have it, put it on. If you don't have it, get it and take it with you," Kohnke said.

Mount Werner is just one of many areas where we chose to recreate. It is easy to think of Rabbit Ears or Buffalo Pass as our "backyard" since they are so close to home. However, one needs to be prepared. Since there are no warm lodges or condos to head to in the backcountry, I bring the means to create shelter and fire to keep warm.

As a member of Routt County Search and Rescue, I have a backpack ready to go in case we are called to help someone. This pack is filled with essentials that will get me through the night if necessary. Even if I am "off duty" and I go out for a few hours for fun with friends, I bring this pack.

Whiteout conditions, an injury or simply getting stuck might force someone - even the most experienced - to stay out longer than planned and call for help.

What I pack for survival:

- Food and water

- Extra clothing (in case clothes become wet plus a down layer for when I stop moving)

- Cell phone (turned off and close to my body to keep warm)

- All-weather space blanket (made of astrolar)

- Fire starters (matches, lighters, cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly)

- Camp cup - steel or aluminum (to melt snow)

- Thermos with warm decaffeinated beverage

- Headlamp/flashlight with extra batteries

- Tools such as: Leatherman/Swiss Army knife and saw

- First aid kit

- Whistle

- Navigational tools (compass, map, GPS)

- Avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel)

Whether you are heading out for a backcountry excursion or just up to the ski area, it is always good to obtain weather information. Call the snow report and take note of temperature and wind speed. Remember that wind will make it even colder.

If you go into the backcountry, have a plan, and tell others your plan - where you are going and when you will return. Also, consider daylight; give yourself ample time to return in daylight and avoid heading out late in the day.

Although shelter takes precedence over food and water, keeping hydrated and fueled will help the body generate heat.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking because these increase the risk of dehydration. Alcohol also may make you think you are warm when you actually are at risk.

Enjoy your winter activities more by being prepared and knowledgeable for the potential conditions and situations you could encounter. Stay warm!

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center and a volunteer for Routt County Search & Rescue. She can be reached at riley.polumbus@yvmc.org.

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