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Some Good Safety Tips To Keep in Mind While Visiting National Parks This Winter


Be careful out there! Backcountry slopes in national parks can pose avalanche threats, as the top photo from Glacier National Park shows, while the sugar-white beaches of Virgin Islands National Park are great for relaxing, but without sufficient sunblock you'll ruin your vacation. Top photo Glacier Country Avalanche Center, bottom photo NPT files.

Editor's note: All week long we've been talking up winter visits to national parks, whether they be cold-weather parks with snow and sub-zero temperatures, or warm-weather destinations, where the sand and water are warm and the sun is hot. Wherever you go, though, don't leave your safety behind. The following article from Gabrielle Fisher, the National Park Service's public risk management program specialist, offers some good tips to take with you to your destination. We'd also like to acknowledge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information on hypothermia and frostbite and the Mount Hood Meadows website for pointers on avalanche safety.

Winter is one of the best times to enjoy our parks! With majestic, snow-capped mountains and ice-covered lakes, winter provides scenic splendors with an array of exciting activities. While visitation peaks in the summer, national parks receive millions of visitors throughout the winter months, visitors who enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, camping, hiking in the backcountry, and attending ranger-led programs.

Many parks offer a variety of winter activities, and of course there are the southern, western, and Caribbean parks that provide an escape from wintry weather and opportunities for boating, fishing, snorkeling, or simply relaxing on a beach with a book. Here are some highlights from only a few of the hundreds of parks that offer great winter vacations:

Consider a trip to Death Valley National Park to enjoy hiking, backpacking, backcountry camping, and mountain biking this winter! Trails on the salt flats and in the park’s lower elevations are best hiked in the winter away from the summer heat. Or, grab your ice axe and crampons and climb 11,043-foot Telescope Peak or some of the other high peaks.

Escape to the island of St. John at Virgin Islands National Park where you can enjoy 75-degree temperatures, crystal-clear waters, wonderful trail hikes, and petroglyphs left by civilizations long ago.

Visit steep canyon walls that rise 2,000 feet above the Gunnison River at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. Ski along the South Rim Drive to access incredible overlooks or snowshoe trek the upper part of the Oak Flat Loop or Rim Rock Trail for great views of the canyon.

Ski or snowshoe along with dog mushers at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. If you can time your visit for the end of February, you can join in the annual Winterfest celebration. And perhaps you’ll get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis in the night sky!

Take a guided canoe or kayak trip this winter at Biscayne National Park in Florida. Then, boat over to an island campground and spend the night under the stars.

But enjoying a winter vacation in the parks requires planning and preparation. Check park websites to learn about possible trail closures, road conditions, and the weather conditions expected for your travel dates. Know the activities offered at the park you plan to visit so you can be prepared with the proper clothing and gear. As you prepare your winter adventure, remember to also consider these winter safety tips to make your trip more enjoyable:

* Sun protection is not just for the summer! Sun exposure is a risk all year round. Park visitors are often caught unprepared because they don’t realize that at higher altitudes UV levels are stronger and snow is a highly reflective surface that can result in even greater risk for sunburn. Use sunscreen (sun protective factor of 15 or higher) and wear sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck when engaging in outdoor activities.

* Treat your feet right! Wear sturdy footwear with proper tread. Snow-covered paths can be slippery! If hiking icy trails, be sure you've got good traction underfoot. There are a number of reputable devices on the market that will help keep you from slipping or sliding. Make sure your shoes are worn in and fit you right. A small irritation can lead to blisters that can sour an enjoyable hike very quickly.

* Check the weather conditions and dress accordingly. Weather can change quickly in winter months, so prepare for a wide range of temperatures and precipitation. Wear or bring layers that you can put on or take off as you go. Visit your favorite weather website and the park website for updated information on park conditions. Remain flexible and open to changing plans if you don’t feel prepared for the predicted weather conditions.

* Keep yourself hydrated and bring salty foods. Even in cold weather, you can get dehydrated. Bring plenty of water with you on hikes and salty snacks that will help prevent water loss. If you are backcountry camping, pack your water in, or purify through chemical treatment. No matter how clean or pure stream water looks, it could contain water-borne parasites and microorganisms that can cause discomfort and sometimes serious illness.

* Beware of hypothermia. Playing in the snow and hiking through it can be lots of fun, but make sure you stay warm. The colder it gets, the more difficult it is for your body to generate heat. When you begin to lose heat faster than you can generate it, you run the risk of suffering from hypothermia. Once your core temperatures gets too low, you have trouble thinking and moving. If you're in a group, pay attention to your friends' speech and movements. If you're alone, make sure your clothing remains dry and that you've got on enough warm layers. Some warning signs of this potentially deadly condition are slurred speech, uncontrolled shivering, and confusion. To combat hypothermia, get into a warm room or, if in the backcountry, build a campfire and make sure everyone has dry clothes on and warm drinks. In extreme cases in the backcountry, strip off your clothes and buddy up with the hypothermic person in sleeping bags.

* Frostbite. It's not too hard to suffer from frostbite when you've shuck your gloves to work the buttons and dials on your camera, or if you're hiking in bitterly cold weather with a good wind blowing on any exposed skin. You'll know its struck if you lose feeling and color in your fingers, nose, cheeks, ears or toes. The best response, of course, is to get inside. You can either warm the affected body parts by immersing them in warm, not hot, water, or with your own body temperature -- stuff your fingers in your armpit. Don't, however, rub the afflicted area with snow or massage it, as that can create more problems.

* Avalanche. Backcountry snowshoeing and skiing are great ways to explore winter-bound parks, but pay attention to your surroundings. Every year avalanches kill. So, be properly prepared. That means not only taking avalanche safety courses, but having all the requisite safety gear. Be sure before you leave the trailhead that your avalanche beacon is working, and that you didn't leave your probe or shovel in your rig. If your group needs to cross a wide and steep open slope, switch on your beacon's "transmit" button and proceed one at a time. If caught in a slide, use swimming motions in an effort to keep yourself near the surface. Since the snow will set up almost like concrete when the slide stops, if you think you're near the surface, try to stick your arm up through the snow so your friends can find you. If that's impossible (it can be hard to tell up from down in a slide), try to create an air pocket around your face with your hands and arms. As the slide slows, take a deep breath to fill your lungs and expand your chest. When everything comes to a halt, when you exhale you should have at least a little space for your lungs to expand for the next breath you take.

* Don't over-estimate your abilities. A great danger that's easy to fall into is over-estimating our abilities. Snorkeling is great fun at Virgin Islands National Park, but if you're not paying attention it's easy to swim too far from shore and get caught up in a current that will pull you farther out. Snowshoeing a park trail is fun on the way out, but don't forget you have to snowshoe back to the trailhead. Hiking down into the Grand Canyon is easier during the winter months because it's cooler, but sundown comes sooner and you don't want to be hiking back out in darkness.

* Avoid alcohol. Alcohol consumption can limit judgment, agility, and balance and should be avoided when engaging in recreational activities.

* Drive Carefully! Whether driving to, from, or in a park, drive the speed limit and watch out for wildlife! Roads in the parks have posted speed limits that must be followed. Unlike roads outside the park system, park roads don’t always have the same guard-railing, lighting, or smooth surfaces. Driving is the leading activity in our parks that leads to visitor fatalities.

Outdoor winter activities come with risks. However, armed with knowledge and preparation, you can manage these risks and prevent bad outcomes and most importantly have a fun park experience. Learn about some of the common winter risks and how to prevent mishaps well before your trip.

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They didn't mention avoiding cotton. I learned that the hard way. In general, wool, polyester, or polypropylene are preferred because they tend to dry faster and still insulate when wet. Wet cotton is probably worse than wearing nothing in cold weather because of its ability to transport heat away from the body.

It was not intended to be an all-inclusive list...and at the same time, the cotton industry has partnered with Polarmax to create a wicking cotton fabric.

I've actually tried older versions of technical cotton fabrics. I remember Champion sold their "Duo Dry Cotton", which they developed with Cotton, Incorporated (the marketing/research group representing the US cotton industry). It was interesting in the summer when I preferred to stay cool without getting overly clammy. I wouldn't have recommended it in the winter though. It didn't insulate that well when dry, and the drying capability (while better than untreated cotton) was considerably less than synthetics or wool.

I just mentioned cotton because it's the first thing I read about after I made my mistake wearing cotton while hiking in winter.

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