What you should know before heading into the woods

Before you head out to hike or to camp, make sure you are prepared — it could save your life



The woods of New Hampshire are some of the most beautiful natural places on the planet. And even for city-dwelling Granite Staters, the wilds of New Hampshire are within a very short walk or drive. But don’t let that ease of access to natural beauty fool you — New Hampshire’s woods can be unpredictable.

Some preparation before a jaunt into the wilderness, whether for a quick walk or an overnight stay, can save time, trouble, and maybe a life.

One of the most important things to do before taking off into the woods is to do some research on the area you are going to and know your equipment.

Scott Jackson, owner and founder of the New Hampshire Outdoor Learning Center in Loudon, said it’s a great idea to print out a map — even a topographical Google Earth map — of the area where you will be hiking or camping to get a sense of the terrain and path. You can bring a smartphone with personal navigation devices, but never rely solely on this or any kind of technology that relies on signal or battery power.

If you do bring a phone, Jake King, partner and lead instructor with Thrive Outdoors, a Windsor-based organization that offers wilderness skills training among other services, recommends also bringing along a small portable battery pack.

Along with a map, you want to make sure you bring a compass with you and most importantly know how to use it (see sidebar info box).

“The first thing you bring with you is knowledge,” Jackson said. “If you have all the tools and you don’t know how to use them, they won’t do you any good.”

Next, in addition to a map and compass, you want to make sure you pack some additional essentials. Jackson recommends bringing a folding blanket. They take up very little space, but can be crucial if you become lost at night in the cold. Not only can they be used for warmth, King said, but they can also be used as part of a shelter. Bringing a tarp is also a good idea.

You also want to make sure you pack two types of fire starter in case one gets wet. NHoutdoors.com, a website about all things outdoors in NH, recommends using a flint because it can still be used in wind or rain. You also want to bring a small first aid kit, a signaling mirror, a cutting implement, a whistle or other noise-making device and water.

In addition to bringing bottled water, Jackson said he also likes to bring a means of purifying water. Jackson said there are commercially available tablets that can purify water, straws that allow people to filter water as they drink it from a stream, and small hand-held water pump filters, all of which are lightweight and can fit into a pack.

Water can also be purified by using five drops of 2 percent tincture of iodine in clean water or 10 drops in cloudy water, or by boiling it for one minute, according to NHoutdoors.com.

It’s also a good idea to bring a spare set of clothes in case what you are wearing gets wet, because one of the biggest dangers in the woods is letting yourself get too wet or too cold (see sidebar on hypothermia).

While it’s not a bad idea to bring a bit of extra food, whether that’s a candy bar or a protein bar, Jackson said if you do, it’s mostly feeding your psyche.

“In a survival situation, water is always more important than food. People can go a long time without food,” Jackson said. “However, psychologically food plays a big part. …So throw a Snickers bar in, throw a PowerBar in, just something that takes your mind off the fact that you’re hungry.”

Once you’ve got your essentials packed, make sure to alert someone where you are going, what you will be doing, when you expect to get back, and a time that person should call for help if you haven’t checked in.

If you find yourself lost in the woods, Jackson said the first thing to do may seem counterintuitive: stay calm; you will more than likely be rescued.

“One of the most difficult parts of being lost is admitting that you’re lost,” Jackson said. “We always ask in our map and compass class, is getting lost a medical emergency? The answer is no. It’s not a medical emergency you just simply don’t know where you are. However, how you react to being lost mentally could cause you to do the wrong things and it could become a medical emergency.”

He said he’s always surprised to hear from people who have gotten lost that the first thing they did was start walking faster and faster to try to get out of the woods.

“You couldn’t be more opposite of what you should be doing, particularly if it’s getting dark,” Jackson said. “But people panic. They don’t want to be lost, and they are sure if they just keep walking they will come on to something. And most folks in fact do walk in a circle.”

Once you’ve taken a deep breath and admitted that you’re lost, Jackson said you should stay put.

“It really revolves around people that are looking for you,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for folks to realize, particularly if you’ve left information, ‘Hey, I’ll be back about 6 o’clock’ …. Around 6:30, 7 o’clock, they’re going to realize something is wrong. And if they are trying to find you and you are moving, you could effectively negate the search in a certain area.”

Once you’ve settled in a spot, start making yourself a shelter. Whether it’s a lean-to using a tarp and a tree or hunkering down beneath your solar blanket, you want to be able to stay relatively warm and definitely dry. King further cautions to lay down a layer of twigs, leaves or other debris on the floor of your shelter because the ground can draw considerable heat from the body if you sit directly on it.

Next, use your fire starter to get a fire going. This will help you stay warm and can help you purify water from nearby sources. The fire will also help keep animals away and can serve as a signal for those looking for you.

After you have your fire going, start looking for available water.

Both Jackson and King said while it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and on the lookout for animals like bears, moose or coyotes, it is not likely that you’ll have to tangle with any of them. Mostly, they said, those animals tend to stay away from humans, so if they smell you or your campfire they will likely head in the opposite direction.

But if you do stumble across a bear, make yourself as big as possible by waving your arms up in the air, make noise, don’t make eye contact and back away slowly.

With all of that done, the only thing you can do is wait.

“You can actually be lost in the woods of New Hampshire for a pretty long time without anything bad happening to you,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be a long night and I won’t lie to you, it’s generally not going to be a lot of fun to spend the night in the woods. …But being lost is a mental game. It’s how folks have sort of set themselves up to handle emergencies.” 

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

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