MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Don't be a dope in the woods

Even if you feel at home in the outdoors, a mistake can be fatal.

A hiker in Minnesota.

© Beth Gauper

A hiker climbs a rocky trail in Minnesota's north woods.

The first two weeks of summer 2011 were deadly in the north woods.

Near Marquette, a 62-year-old Michigan man died after his ATV became stuck in the mud, though his wife repeatedly sought help on the county road just a mile away.

In the Apostle Islands, a 19-year-old Minnesota man, paddling with friends, died after his kayak capsized. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 23-year-old Wisconsin man died after he left his family's campsite to fish.


Around here, we don’t have mountains to fall off or deserts where we might run out of water. We think we know our surroundings, so we fail to take even the most basic steps to protect ourselves.

Even those of us who — ahem! — think we're experienced.

In news accounts, you’ll often read of paddlers and hikers who died of “exposure.’’ That’s hypothermia, in which the body temperature drops, affecting the ability to move, think and act rationally.

It's the fourth most-common cause of death in the wilderness, according to Backpacker magazine. (Falling is the No. 1 cause, followed by drowning and heart attack.)

Frigid Lake Superior can cause hypothermia in half an hour. Hypothermia is a risk even in temperatures above 55 degrees, especially if it’s windy and raining and if the victim is tired and thirsty.

How do you prevent it? Easy — by carrying water and food, wearing appropriate clothing (on large bodies of water, a wetsuit) and not getting lost or separated from friends.

Unfortunately, many of us are lulled by our relatively benign surroundings.

Once, my husband and I nearly got caught on a remote stretch of Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail. It was late October, and late in the day when we reached what we thought was the halfway point on a five-mile hike.

But either the map was wrong or we’d misread it, because soon, we realized we were running out of daylight. In the dark, we’d be lost — the trail was covered by a thick layer of fallen leaves and marked only by yellow blazes on trees.

We ended up running the last few miles, arriving at our car with only five minutes of daylight to spare.

I don’t think we would have died, but we would have spent a very miserable night in the woods.

We’d made nearly every mistake in the book: No one knew where we were. We hadn’t brought a headlamp or any other light.

We had no food or water. We didn’t have warm clothes. We had no emergency blanket, lighter, knife or compass. We were complete idiots.

At a minimum, hikers should carry water, snacks and a map, and they should always tell someone where they’re going and when they expect to be back. If there’s a register at the trailhead, sign it.

It’s also smart to carry a compass and a small LED light.

Then, fill a fanny pack with a lightweight survival kit, as suggested by Backpacker magazine: an emergency blanket, two fire starters (a cheap butane lighter is best), signaling device (a whistle, if nothing else), knife or razor blade and a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil for making a cup or cookpot.

It also suggests making a candle out of the red wax around Babybel cheese (a great snack to stick into your fanny pack).

You could also carry a small tablet with wilderness first aid tips and other information.

If you do get lost, says the magazine, sit down, drink some water and think things through. Then note your location and surrounding landmarks carefully, and retrace your steps to the last point where you knew you were on route.

Don’t follow the closest creek downstream until it meets a river, thinking rivers always lead to civilization — that’s a myth, according to the magazine.

If that doesn’t work, find shelter, stay warm and dry and wait for rescue.

Above all, don’t let yourself get wet, because moisture conducts cold rapidly. The best clothing item? It’s not warm gloves, thick socks, a warm hat or a thick parka, but a waterproof and breathable rain suit.

Think you already know what you need to survive? Rate your survival IQ with the magazine’s 36-question survival quiz; you may be surprised.

And if you're a novice hiker, go on a guided hike. If you're a novice paddler, go on a guided excursion. Large bodies of water, especially mercurial Lake Superior, can be very dangerous for paddlers, even experienced ones.

Last updated on November 4, 2015