There’s a simple trick I use to stay dry during winter hikes. The trick is so simple that it may even be a little obvious, but I rarely meet other people who employ it. Even more surprisingly, I tried searching the internet to find others who recommend this tip and came up empty.
Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising this trick seems to have been forgotten. I first learned it by reading an old book about Inuit history. The Inuit, of course, are indigenous peoples who have lived in Arctic regions for many thousands of years. I found the old book at my local library during a phase, in my younger days, in which I read just about every old book they had about tales of explorers and adventurers. I had a sense back then - and which I still maintain today - that old, dusty, faded books possess the best wisdom (unfortunately I don't know the title of the book anymore...I read it many years ago).
So what is this old safety trick used by the Inuit? I’ll get to that trick soon, but first a little background.
Outdoor activities in the winter have an extra edge of danger. The harsh cold of winter, especially in more northern climes and most definitely in high-elevation mountainous terrain, can quickly turn a misstep into a serious survival scenario. Getting too cold can be a one-way trip. Once hypothermia sets in, it can be impossible to recover unless you have outside medical support. On top of that, even mild hypothermia causes lethargy and confusion, robbing you of your best survival tool — your mental acuity and decision-making skills.
In the Mountyn Company’s study of survival situations (now over 120 case studies), we found that exposure was the second-most common injury experienced by lost hikers. In our case studies, 29% of lost hikers experienced an injury. The most common injury (51%) was a slip or fall leadings to a sprain, break, or contusion. But exposure represented 38% of the injuries experienced by lost hikers.
Counterintuitively, to prevent hypothermia in the winter, one must first avoid overheating. Overheating causes us to sweat, obviously, and this can create damp or wet clothes right next to our skin. Modern fabrics like sweat wicking long underwear and Gore-Tex obviously help allow our sweat to evaporate away from our body, but even they can’t keep up with excessive sweating.
Once your clothes are wet, your body will lose heat many times faster than it would if you were dry. Your damp clothes will start to cool you and you might feel a little better, allowing you to push on deeper into your hike. But once you stop, those damp clothes will start cooling you and they won’t stop even when your body gets back to an ideal temperature. Your body will continue to jettison heat and, if you aren’t careful, drop your core body temperature to unsafe levels.
If you make it back to your car, tent, lodge, etc, you won’t have to worry about this. You can strip your outer garments and dry out. But sometimes - and it’s always a surprise - we can’t find our way back. If you spent a day overheating your body, sweating through your clothes, under the assumption you’ll make it back to shelter before evening, you are increasing your risk of encountering a dangerous survival situation. The sun drops, a blizzard kicks up, you miss the turnoff to your car or lodge — all of a sudden, your wet, rapidly cooling, tired body is at high risk of becoming hypothermic.
The Inuit, according to one researcher, were fanatics about staying dry all the time. Their seal skin parkas worked great to keep them warm, but they didn’t breathe. So they developed the practice of always moving at a measured pace. Sweating was to be avoided. Of course, given the human body sweats 2-4 cups a day just doing nothing, there is no way to avoid some sweating. So the Inuit were extremely disciplined about keeping their clothes dry. Whenever entering a shelter, they would remove their parks, turn them inside out, and hang them to dry.
Mind you, these were people who would go on three-day hunting expeditions in temperatures of -22 degrees Fahrenheit with only the clothes on their back. The hunters would sleep by building a quick wind block, sitting on their gloves, pulling their arms inside their jack, and hugging their knees against their chest (not so different than the HELP position for cold water survival).
The above, however, is not the safety trick I’m talking about. I don’t recommend anybody venture into sub-zero temperatures for days on end without shelter or many other survival tools!
The safety trick, I have since learned, has its roots in a lesson from nature. Bears, with their thick fur (and layers of fat), have an excellent insulation source. But a little exertion turns that insulation into a curse. Bears would overheat quickly if they did not have an efficient natural radiator that can jettison extra body heat. This radiator, as it so happens, is found in their paws. The pads of bear’s feet (and their noses, for that matter) are full of extra blood vessel. Extra heat flows out of these blood vessels into the environment, helping keep a bear from overheating during those occasional 30mph springs it can take.
So now you might be seeing where this is all going. We humans, as it turns out, are similar to bears in that the palms of our hands serve as a similar “radiator” for our body heat. Besides having a high concentration of blood vessels, our hands also have more sweat glands than other parts of our body.
So here is the tip: when you are bundled up and traveling outside in the winter, you might at some point start to feel the slightest bit of overheating. At this moment, cool yourself down by taking off your glove. The hand - your natural radiator - will expel excess heat and cool your body.
I’ve used this trick many times, and not just in cold, snowy conditions. I’ve been fishing in cold rainy weather where “fish-on” means the adrenaline and activity kick up my body briefly. I’ve used it frequently on the slopes, where it can be very hard to maintain consistent body temperature as you navigate your skis or snowboard downhill and then jump on a long, slow lift to get back up the mountain. I use it all the time on cool-weather hikes and trail runs even when snow is not present.
So there it is. I imagine this is not a new trick to many of you, but for some this can be great tactic to integrate into your winter sports. And when you employ this tactic, you can appreciate that you are sharing in ancient Inuit knowledge as well as a modeling the natural lesson provided to us by bears.
Stay safe, dry, and warm (but to too warm!) out there.