This story was originally published in April 2021.
One way to boost your safety while hiking in Maine, in any season, is to carry the proper tools and clothing to stay warm. Even in the height of summer, lost and injured hikers are at risk of hypothermia, especially in the high mountains.
“In the summer we probably have more hypothermia [cases] than in winter,” said Jim Bridge, search and rescue instructor at the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. “The reason is that people know it’s cold in winter, so they pack everything they need. During the summer, people just say, ‘Hey. It’s 62 and nice and sunny. I don’t need to take anything more.
Two rescue missions in 2021 led by the Maine Warden Service, with the help of local search and rescue teams, highlight the importance of carrying gear to stay warm while hiking. Both took place on Saturday, April 3, a balmy spring day followed by a chilly night, with temperatures dropping below freezing.
In one case, a man hiking the Appalachian Trail fell into water and became severely hypothermic. He put on dry clothes, but even so he couldn’t get warm. Deep in the desert, he was able to text a friend, who called 911 on his behalf. When rescuers found the hiker, he was unable to walk. They lit a fire and offered him food and hot liquids. Once warmed up, he was able to get out of the woods to get to a waiting ATV around 4:30 a.m.
If he hadn’t been found by the rescue team, he probably wouldn’t have survived the night, according to a news release from the Maine Warden Service.
“The scary thing is that it comes to your mind first,” Bridge said. “The first thing you start to lose with hypothermia is cognitive ability, so you don’t necessarily have the ability to stop and think: what am I doing here?”
The other April 3 rescue storyline involved a family who got lost on Tumbledown Mountain, a popular hiking spot in western Maine. It was dark before the rescue team found the family gathered for warmth near the top of the mountain. They weren’t wearing clothes suitable for the conditions, and they didn’t have enough food, water or light to leave the mountain.
Rescuers lit a fire to warm the family, then guided them to the trailhead, which they reached around midnight.
“During the shoulder season months, there is a big risk [of hypothermia]”Said Bridge. “Like right now, it’s a nice sunny day. People can go out in their t-shirts and climb Tumbledown mountain, and that’s fine – if they come back down. But if they have trouble, they’re out there without the proper equipment.
As rescue teams demonstrated in both situations on April 3, a small fire can help keep you warm in an emergency. It can also speed up the drying of wet clothes and gear, in addition to providing light, which will help boost morale and serve as a beacon for rescuers.
A fire starter like waterproof matches, a lighter or a magnesium spark tool is a small piece of equipment that could make a big difference if you get lost or injured while hiking.
“You should always have at least two different methods of starting the fire,” Bridge said. “I carry a BIC lighter and waterproof matches in a waterproof container, and I have one of those fancy spark things. So I have three…it’s like carrying a reserve parachute. You carry it just in case where the former would not work.
Before you put a fire starter in your backpack, practice using it at home, suggested Sharon Kenney, president of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue.
“Yes, it’s important to have a fire starter on you, but you also have to know how to use it,” Kenney said. “In the spring in Maine, when it’s humid, it can be difficult to start and maintain a fire. But it’s a fun thing to practice, especially with kids.
Other emergency items that can help you maintain body heat in an emergency include chemical heat packs, sugary snacks, and an emergency blanket – or better yet, an emergency bivy bag that will completely envelop your body and trap the heat.
“They’re very small,” Kenney said. “It’s basically a reusable mummy-shaped sleeping bag that has a bit of reflective material to help reflect your heat back towards you. It’s easy to carry.
The clothes you wear while hiking can also help regulate your body temperature, Kenney said. Synthetic and woolen clothes are best because they wick moisture away from your body and dry faster than cotton. Also, it is best to dress in layers; this way you can take layers off when you’re hot and you can add layers when you’re cold.
“For example, you can do a spring hike on a medium or even a small mountain, so you can wear light hiking pants and a t-shirt with a light hoodie over it,” Kenney said. . “Well, when you get to the top of that mountain or that hill, it’s more windy up there and you’re going to get cold faster. The wind will steal your body heat. It is therefore important to wear another layer of warm and dry clothing such as a windbreaker and trousers.
When it comes to prepping and packing for a hike, carrying a fire starter and other gear to stay warm is only part of the equation. Other gear such as a first aid kit, navigation tools, headlamp, and plenty of food and water are also essential to staying safe and comfortable in the wilderness.
You should pack enough on a day hike to spend a night in the desert, Bridge said. But that doesn’t mean you have to carry a tent, sleeping bag and pillow.
“You don’t have to get comfortable, just survive,” Bridge said. “So it’s just a night out in the woods for a laugh when we go out.”
Accidents happen. So before you go hiking, tell someone exactly where you’re hiking and when you plan to return, just in case. Promise to check with this person when you return. That way, if they don’t hear from you, they’ll know where to send a search and rescue team.
“In an emergency, the most important thing for people to do is not to panic,” Kenney said. “And the easiest way not to panic is to be prepared.”
If you find yourself in trouble in the Maine wilderness, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you can. However, cell phone reception is spotty in Maine, especially in rural areas. For this reason, many hikers use satellite messengers such as SPOT or Garmin inReach.
“Don’t wait until it’s freezing and it’s already dark,” Kenney said. “Don’t be afraid to call for help because there are so many people in the state of Maine who would love to drop everything and come help you.”