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Winter Mountaineering

The 10 Essentials of Winter Mountaineering

Courtesy of the Genesee Valley Nordic Ski Patrol

Photo by David Schott

The purpose of this list has always been to answer two basic questions: First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Second, can you safely spend a night—or more—out?”

The original list of 10 “essentials” was revised in 2003 to include 10 essential “systems” which include what you might need to effectively deal with an unexpected injury, getting separated or lost and having to pass an unanticipated night out, or simply running out of food and water in the back country. Packing these items whenever you venture into the backcountry, even if just for the day, is a good habit to acquire. You may only need a few of them on most of your trips; however, you’ll probably never fully appreciate the value of the Ten Essentials until you really need one of them.

1 Navigation

Map and compass are now viewed as two components of a navigation system. A topographic map (in a protective sheath or case) should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, impossible-to-miss footpath or frequently visited nature trail. Handout maps, the type offered at visitor centers or entrance stations, usually provide only simplistic line drawings of trails and do not show the topographic details necessary for route finding. If, for example, you stray off the trail or need to locate a water source, you need a topo map.

Knowing how to use a compass in combination with map-reading knowledge, provide you with vital tools if you become lost in the backcountry. High-tech GPS receivers have not made compasses, whose history dates back to 12th-century Europe, obsolete. A compass weighs next to nothing and does not rely on batteries, and does not require a clear view of the sky, unobscured by trees or towering cumulonimbus clouds. So even if you’re a techie who relies heavily on a GPS for navigation, a traditional compass is an indispensable backup. Note: A compass equipped with a sighting mirror can also be used to flash sunlight to a helicopter or rescuer during an emergency.

If you plan to travel off-trail in the wilderness, consider taking a class to learn navigation techniques in depth.

2 Sun Protection

This item includes sunglasses, sunscreen (for skin and lips) and, for optimized protection in hot conditions, consider lightweight, skin-shielding clothing.

Sunglasses are indispensable, and you’ll need extra-dark glacier glasses if you’re planning prolonged travel on snow or ice. All sunglasses should block 100% of ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB)—a key function of quality lenses. UVB rays, the rays that can burn your skin, have been linked to the development of cataracts.

Wraparound lenses keep light from entering the corners of your eyes and also help buffer eyes from wind. Factors influencing your choice of sunglasses include lens types, frames, fit and, of course, fashion.

When choosing sunscreen, health experts advise choosing 1) a formula that offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, though SPF 30 is recommended for extended outdoor activity and 2) one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

A sunscreen’s SPF number refers only to its ability to absorb sunburn-causing UVB rays; measuring how it performs against UVA rays, (which over time accelerate the development of age related wrinkles and increase skin fragility) is a topic under discussion at the Food and Drug Administration. Active ingredients considered most effective against UVA light are avobenzone, ecamsule, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

The biggest mistake people make with sunscreen? Applying too little, dermatologists say. A thin application diminishes your protection. So glop it on; 1 ounce is needed to cover the arms, legs, neck and face of the average person. Depending on many factors (time of day, sweat and more), you should reapply as often as every 2 hours. And don’t overlook SPF-rated lip balm.

Lightweight, synthetic sun-protection clothing comes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Skin-care experts say using clothing to shield your skin is a good sun-protection strategy. Your activity level (and resulting perspiration) and the temperature are the factors that will determine if you choose to wear pants or shorts (or long sleeves vs. short sleeves) while outdoors. You’ll still need sunscreen for your face, neck and hands. A thin pair of gloves protects your skin from cuts as well as the sun.

We include measures to discourage biting insects, which are encountered during the summer months, as an important addition to your list for skin protection. No product beats DEET for protection from mosquito bites, tick bites and black flies. Deet can be purchased in concentrations ranging from 5% to 100% for application to clothing or directly to the skin. Although Deet has proven to be remarkably safe after more than 50 years of use, the Academy of Pediatrics recommends against use of concentrations more than 10% in children. Deet can harm synthetic fabrics like spandex, plastic watch crystals and eyeglass frames, and car upholstery. Composite repellents utilizing MGK 326 or MGK 264 and Deet are said to be more effective against biting flies. No more than 3 applications per day are suggested for children under 12 and these are not proven safe in young children. Botanical and herbal products, although quite safe, have been criticized for unproven effectiveness and short-lived protection necessitating frequent repeated applications. For more information on the safe use of these products consult the EPA website:

3 Insulation

This item was previously termed “extra clothing” However, insulation may also be provided by a space blanket or tarp. Conditions can abruptly turn wet, windy or chilly in the backcountry, so it’s smart to carry an additional layer of clothing in case something unexpected (you get hurt or lost, for example) prolongs your exposure to the elements.

We suggest the following strategy: since extra clothing should be selected according to the season, ask this question: What is needed to survive the worst conditions that could be realistically encountered on this trip?”

Common options at any time of year might include a layer of underwear (tops and bottoms), extra socks and a synthetic jacket or vest, and a light weight wind-proof, water-repellent outer layer. And yes, humans lose significant heat through their heads. Thus, according to Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills, it’s smart to pack a hat or balaclava “because they provide more warmth for their weight than any other clothing article.”

4 Illumination

Headlamps are the light source of choice in the backcountry. Reasons include:

  • Hands-free operation (their No. 1 advantage over flashlights)
  • Low weight
  • Compact size (so they occupy minimal space in your pack)
  • Long battery life (in models using light-emitting diodes, or LEDs).

High-output LEDs (the 1- and 3-watt varieties) provide light output that is comparable to the output of incandescent bulbs, even those that use pressurized gas (xenox, halogen and other intensity-boosting gases). Because LEDs can handle rugged use (no filaments to break), offer vastly superior battery life and are perpetually evolving to higher levels of performance, the vast majority of headlamps these days are LED models.

It’s easy to overextend your stay on a picture-perfect mountain. If you’re trying to hustle out of the backcountry in dwindling light or trying to set up camp as the last bit of blue drains from the sky, a headlamp is an invaluable aid.

Many headlamps also offer a strobe mode. It’s a great option to have for emergency situations. Headlamps offer their longest battery life while in strobe mode.

Flashlights and packable lanterns also have value. Some flashlights cast very powerful beams and are useful for signaling during emergencies.

Always carry spare batteries—and if your light is equipped with an incandescent bulb, also carry spare bulbs. Every member of a backcountry party should carry his or her own light.

5 First Aid Supplies

Pre-assembled first-aid kits take the guesswork out of building your own kit, though many people personalize these kits to suit individual needs. Any kit should include treatments for blisters, multiple adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, pen and paper. Vinyl gloves should be worn whenever there is a risk of contact with blood or body fluids. The length of your trip and the number of people involved will impact the contents of your kit. It’s also a good idea to carry some sort of compact guide to dealing with medical emergencies, and if you must immobilize an injured finger, wrist, or extremity, duct tape is useful. Be careful when dressing wounds not to cut off the circulation.

The red cross wilderness first aid kit includes these items (discussed at length in a prior article of the Geneseean, spring, 2012)

Primary Kit

  • 1 premium roll-up dry bag
  • 1 first aid booklet & form
  • 3 triangular bandages
  • 1 signal mirror
  • 1 emergency whistle
  • 6 vinyl gloves
  • 1 scissors
  • 1 tweezers
  • 4 safety pins
  • 4 cotton tipped applicators
  • 2 mole skins
  • 2 lip balms
  • 3 first aid burn gel wipes
  • 3 sting relief pads
  • 1 glucose gel tube
  • 2 instant cold compressed
  • 4 triple antibiotic ointment wipes
  • 6 antiseptic towelettes
  • 2 thermometers (disposable)
  • 6 alcohol prep pads
  • 16 3/4” x 3” bandages (or equivalent)
  • 1 elastic bandage 2”x5 yds
  • 4 knuckle bandages
  • 4 wound closure strips
  • 1 5” x 9” combine dressing
  • 8 4” x 4” sterile gauze pads
  • 8 3” x 3” sterile gauze pads
  • 2 2” conforming gauze (stretch)
  • 1 1” adhesive tape roll
  • 4 acetaminophen tablet twin packs
  • 4 ibuprofen tablet twin packs
  • 3 reusable zipper-lock bags
  • 2 spf 30 sunscreen packets
  • 4 chewable aspirin
  • 4 insect repellent wipes (natrapel)
  • 1 penlight
  • 1 box waterproof matches
  • 1 space (emergency) blanket
  • 1 diarrhea medication foil pack
  • desirable add-ons
  • 1 breathing barrier
  • 1 soap or gel
  • 1 oil of cloves
  • 1 sam splint

For Extended Stays (2 days or more)

  • 1 vinegar
  • 1 denture adhesive/filler
  • 1 fire starter
  • 1 emergency sleeping bag

6 Fire

Matches headed into the backcountry should be the waterproof variety, or they should be stored in a waterproof container. Take plenty and ensure they are kept dry. Convenience-store matchbooks are often too flimsy and poorly constructed to be trusted for wilderness use. Save yourself some frustration and tote reliable matches on every trip. Mechanical lighters are handy, but inexpensive butane lighters don’t work well in the cold, and outdoor stores have an increasingly wide array of alternate fire-starting devices, but always carry some matches as a backup.

Firestarter, as the name implies, is an element that helps you jump-start (and possibly sustain) a fire. Of all the classic Ten Essentials, it is probably the one least commonly carried by wilderness travelers. But should you get stranded overnight in clammy wet conditions and you start to shiver, you need the means to build an emergency fire.

The ideal firestarter ignites quickly and sustains heat for more than a few seconds. Candidates include dry tinder tucked away in a plastic bag; candles; priming paste; heat “nuggets” (chipped-wood clusters soaked in resin). Even lint trappings from a household clothes dryer can work.

7 Repair Kit and Tools

Knives or multitools are handy for gear repair, food preparation, first aid, making kindling or other emergency needs. A basic knife should have at least one foldout blade (more likely two), one  or two flathead screwdrivers, a can opener and (though some people will call this a luxury) a pair of foldout scissors. The more complex your needs (if, for example, you are leading an inexperienced group), the more options you may want in your knife or tool.

If you carry a self-inflating mattress, you probably do not carry a repair kit for it. Typically, the only people who do are those who have endured a puncture deep in the backcountry. Depending on your outlook on Murphy’s Law, it’s an item worth considering.

Here’s a classic tip for carrying the basics of a poor-man’s repair kit: Wrap strips of duct tape (the universal fix-it product) around your water bottle or trekking poles so you can perform a repair without digging through your pack for the tape.

8 Nutrition (extra food)

Always pack at least an extra day’s worth of food. It can be as simple as a freeze-dried meal, but it’s even better to include no-cook items with nearly infinite storage times: extra energy bars, nuts, dried fruits or jerky.

The process of digesting food helps keep your body warm, so on a cold night it’s smart to munch some food before bunking down, and if you wake up cold, it helps to eat something, but remember not to leave animal-attracting leftovers inside your shelter.

9 Hydration (extra water)

It is suggested you always carrying at least 1 liter of water and a collapsible water reservoir. Depending on where you travel, consider carrying some means for treating water, whether it is a filter/purifier or chemical treatment.

When beginning extended travel along a ridgeline or in alpine conditions, consult your map and try to envision possible water sources. Try to resupply at the last obvious water source before beginning a stretch of unpredictable water availability. The time of year and the anticipated temperature may greatly influence how much water you will need to carry.

10 Emergency Shelter

Shelter is a new component in the updated Ten Essentials, one that seems targeted at day trippers. (Most overnight wilderness travelers already carry a tent or tarp.) The thinking is, if getting lost or injured leaves you stranded in the backcountry, something is better than nothing if you have to deal with wind or rain. Options include an ultralight tarp, a bivy sack, an emergency space blanket (which packs small and weighs just ounces), or even a large plastic trash bag. An ensolite pad greatly reduces the loss of heat from your body to whatever you happen to be sitting or lying on. It’s also more comfortable. The lumbar support of many backpacks can be removed and used as an insulating pad on which to sit.

11 Know Your Limits

The 11th Essential: Know your limits and the limits of other group members. Practice good judgement: have the good sense to turn back when you realize you are running out of daylight or beginning to feel lost. Most people gain a false sense of security by carrying a cell phone as a means of communication in an emergency, to ask directions, or to get information when you need answers. There is no denying the usefulness of these devices, however, cell phones lose battery power after 12-24 hours, and if you are lost in the woods, it’s likely that there will be inadequate reception. Consider alternate means of emergency communication like a whistle and a signal mirror. The most important tool for survival is between your ears. Having items in your pack has no value unless you understand how and when to use them.