Recent hiking mishaps and icy trail rescues offer a good reminder of the dangers of outdoor winter activity, according to Stephanie Lareau, an emergency medicine physician at Carilion Clinic and associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.   

“When heading out in the winter, hikers should remember temperatures drop drastically when the sun goes down and it’s very easy to get cold quickly when you stop moving,” said Lareau. “Making sure to dress in layers can be important so you can shed layers while moving not to perspire and add layers when it gets dark or you must stop moving for any reason.”

Outdoor activities have grown in popularity during the pandemic as somewhat of a reprieve from the monotony of being trapped indoors. So too have the number of injuries and accidents involving hikers – from the novice to the experienced.

“The most common injuries we see in the emergency department during the winter typically result from slipping and falling on icy surfaces,” she said. “These injuries include ankle sprains, ankle fractures, hip fractures, and wrist fractures. In some circumstances, people can also develop hypothermia from getting stuck outside for a prolonged time after being injured.”

Important reminders when hiking on ice and snow

  • Footwear choice is important when trails are snowy or icy. Waterproof boots with ankle support can help. Wool or synthetic socks can help prevent cold feet. Depending on the conditions, you may also consider yak tracks or micro spikes which fit on shoes to help aid with traction on slippery snowy or icy surfaces. 
  • It may also be best to avoid trails with a lot of exposure or scrambling, where a slip and fall could cause significant injuries. Travel is much slower in snowy or icy conditions, therefore it is important to plan accordingly and remember the sun sets much earlier in the winter.
  • Icy trails pose a big risk to hikers as conditions change rapidly between shady and sunny sections of trail. Many trails are exposed and a slip and fall off the edge of a trail can lead to significant injuries and a long rescue. It’s also important to pay attention to trail blazes as even familiar trails can look very different when snow covered, and it can be easy to wander off trail unintentionally.
  • When hiking in the winter it's important to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Know if there is cellphone service where you are going. Also remember electronic device batteries don’t last as long in the cold weather.

Lareau says it’s almost impossible to over-prepare when hiking in the ice and snow. “Consider being prepared to spend the night out. Having an emergency bevy sac or shelter, some high calorie snacks and a headlamp can make a night out more bearable. Research the 10 essentials for hiking and make a kit to take on your next hike.”

Stephanie Lareau background

In addition to her work in the Carilion Clinic emergency department and teaching at Virginia Tech, Lareau is director of the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship which helps medical professionals get additional training in environmental emergencies such as hypothermia, hyperthermia, and other weather related outdoor problems.

To secure an interview with Stephanie Lareau, contact Bill Foy by email, or by phone at 540-998-0288.

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