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Outdoor Safety

Caution and sound judgment are the most important elements of wilderness emergency care. Being far from any sort of medical facility, one must always seek to avoid injury and dangerous situations. Although this may seem patronizing to note, one must be extra mindful of one’s health and welfare in the wild. Conditions that are easily aided in urban and suburban settings can be lethal in the out-of-doors.

Unfortunately, mishaps do happen. Therefore, in addition to prevention, preparation is key to dealing with outdoor injuries. Be sure to have at least one member of your party familiar with first aid practices. If you want to get out but have no first aid experience, consider going on a trip with the Outing Club, or becoming trained in first aid (there are courses available at the Medical School as well as through the DOC).

Here are a few things to keep in mind when in an emergency situation:

  1. Survey the situation and keep cool. Don’t panic. Decide exactly what steps to take before acting.
  2. Give necessary first aid to the victim (see below).
  3. Regroup all members of your party. Observe reactions of each member to insure that others are not in danger.
  4. Choose a messenger party to go for help.
    1. send at least two persons.
    2. leave at least one person with the victim.
  5. Give the messenger party a report of the injury and a map or sketch showing the exact location of the victim.
  6. Messenger party should:
    1. Take essential equipment (map, compass, flashlights, food, water, matches, protective clothing). Be prepared for a night out.
    2. Keep calm; hurry but stay safe.
    4. Conserve strength to be able to lead a rescue party back, if necessary.
  7. Group with the victim should:
    1. Make victim more comfortable. Maintain their body temperature. Protect victim from the elements.
    2. Set up a temporary camp.
    3. Maintain group morale. Stay positive. Prepare hot food and drinks for group members.
    4. Assign one person to remain with the victim at all times.
  8. Keep written log on the condition of the victim. Observe victim constantly until the rescue party arrives. Watch for:
    1. breathing irregularities
    2. heartbeat irregularities
    3. signs and symptoms of shock (increase in breathing rate and/or heart rate)
    4. bleeding
    5. blockage of air passageway by blood, vomit, tongue, etc.
  9. Emergency telephone numbers:
    • NH State Police (24 hours) — 911 or (800) 852-3411
    • VT State Police (24 hours) — 911 or (802) 244-8727
    • Dartmouth Safety & Security — (603) 646-2234

Winter Weather and Cold

  • Goals and schedules are good, but mindless adherence to them can put you in danger. Always be ready to turn back (or stay put, if visibility is low, for example), no matter how important your deadline is.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected - You never know when your car will get a flat tire, or you'll get turned around/lost walking to an obscure campus building and have to be outside longer than you planned. Always bring enough warm clothing with you to stay comfortable for a good length of time. Keep a sleeping bag or blanket in your car along with other survival items. Bringing a headlamp on a short hike can mean the difference between getting home safely and having to spend the night out.
  • Things break down in the extreme cold. Cars, bikes, some types of clothing. If you're not sure that your gear is going to work, check it out.
  • Stay hydrated - Good circulation is your best protection against the cold. Your body loses more moisture to the air during cold weather. Coffee, alcohol and even hot chocolate dehydrate you. Non-caffeinated Teas and water are your best bet. Also, your body won't stay warm if there's no fuel for the fire. Don't expect to stay warm outside if you skipped breakfast and lunch.
  • Watch out for cold-related injuries. Frostbite can happen quickly when it's cold and especially when it's windy. Cover all exposed skin and watch for hard, waxy skin that looks lighter than usual. The best way to rewarm early sings of frostbite is skin to skin contact, but don't risk spreading the problem.

Ice Safety


CONCORD, N.H. -- Officials at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department are reminding those getting outdoors this winter to stay safe on the ice.

"This year, we've already seen wide-ranging temperatures, deep snow and high winds that can shift ice on waterbodies," said Major Tim Acerno of Fish and Game Law Enforcement. "Outdoor enthusiasts should always test the ice before venturing out onto ice-covered waters."

Assess ice safety by using an ice chisel or axe to chop a hole in the ice to determine its thickness and condition. Continue to do this as you get further out on to the ice, because the thickness of the ice will not be uniform all over the waterbody.

Though all ice is potentially dangerous, the Cold Region Research Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., offers a "rule of thumb" on ice thickness: There should be a minimum of six inches of hard ice before individual foot travel, and eight to ten inches of hard ice for snow machine or ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) travel. Keep in mind that it is possible for ice to be thick, but not strong, because of varying weather conditions. Weak ice is formed when warming trends break down ice, then the slushy surface re-freezes. Be especially careful of areas with current, such as inlets, outlets and spring holes, where the ice can be dangerously thin.

Tips for staying safe on the ice include:

  • Stay off the ice along the shoreline if it is cracked or squishy. Don't go on the ice during thaws.
  • Watch out for thin, clear or honeycombed ice. Dark snow and ice may also indicate weak spots.
  • Small bodies of water tend to freeze thicker. Rivers and lakes are more prone to wind, currents and wave action that weaken ice.
  • Don't gather in large groups on the ice.
  • Don't drive large vehicles onto the ice.
  • If you do break through the ice, don't panic. Move or swim back to where you fell in, where you know the ice was solid. Lay both arms on the unbroken ice and kick hard. This will help lift your body onto the ice. A set of ice picks can aid you in a self-rescue (wear them around your neck or put them in an easily accessible pocket). Once out of the water, roll away from the hole until you reach solid ice.

Snowmobile riders should keep ice safety in mind, too. "Check local conditions before heading out on snowmobile trails or on the ice. Don't assume a trail is safe just because it's there!" says Acerno. Ask about conditions at local snowmobile clubs or sporting goods shops before you go.

To download a brochure from Fish and Game called "Safety on Ice - Tips for Anglers," Click Here.

Winter Camping

This article is a useful treatise on good winter habits.

Distress Signals and Being Lost

In an emergency, the best way to signal is with three short calls (audible or visible) repeated periodically. Visual signals may include three flashes from a flashlight, three fires; or in the day time, sunlight reflected with a mirror, or smoke puffs. Anyone recognizing such a signal should acknowledge with two calls by the same method if possible, then proceed to the distressed. Most areas in New England are well traveled, so help should come soon. The best plan is to remain where you are, especially when lost.

However, as always, one’s best judgment must be used. If an area is remote, the situation desperate, or the weather bad, it might be best to study the map and determine a place where more people are likely to be. When traveling to this place, it might be helpful to leave heavy packs behind — but be sure to take all essentials in case the rescue is delayed. At night, try to seek or make shelter. It is helpful to know that even the most remote places in New England usually have highways and roads within a few hours walk. Following streams downward will eventually lead you to a road. Make sure to use your compass.

Often overlooked, it is an extremely good idea to leave a trip itinerary with friends before heading out, so that people know exactly where you are and when you expect to return.

First Aid

First aid should always be administered by a certified member of the group. If no one is first aid educated then follow these general guidelines. Keep in mind that these are only guidelines and cannot take the place of certification.

Do not move the patient until the extent of injury is determined. Treat the patient in the following order:
Ensure that the airway is open. If the patient is unconscious, use the head-tilt, chin-lift maneuver or the jaw thrust.
Give mouth to mouth resuscitation if patient stops breathing. If heart stops beating, begin cardiac compressions (CPR) at a rate of approximately sixty compressions per minute.
Apply direct pressure to any bleeding areas. If this does not control the bleeding, apply finger pressure to an artery where it passes over a bony surface between the wound and the heart. After appying dressings to the wound, do not remove them, just keep adding more guaze on top of the older dressings.
Elevate the lower body, keep warm and dry. Abate pain with aspirin-type drugs.
Always check first for neck and back injuries before moving (see below). Splint with anything available including undamaged limbs. Pad well. Try to immobilize joint above and below fracture. If it is a femur fracture, pull traction and keep it pulled.
  1. Control scalp bleeding by direct pressure.
  2. Look for unconsciousness, unequal pupils, or bleeding from the ears, mouth, or nose. These indicate urgent evacuation to the hospital.
  3. If above is not present and patient is conscious, victim may walk if: aware of time and place. minimal ache at spot of injury, no nausea or vomiting, no paralysis or weakness, and no neck stiffness; victim may not walk if: severe headache, unequal pupils, pulse rate less that forty-five beats per minute, nausea and vomiting, loss of orientation, or defect in visual field.
Suspect neck and back injury in any fall of significance (three time body height) or violent trauma (car crash, etc.).
If injury is suspected, patient will need to be immobilized (splinted) by trained personnel, then transported on a rigid stretcher. Send for help.
In the meantime, the priority is to keep the victim warm and dry. Remove wet or damp clothing and replace with warm blankets or sleeping bag and rap a tarp outside the blankets. Get patient onto a foam pad, lifting whole body as a unit. Don’t be shy — a neck or back injury may not kill, but cold absolutely will.

First Aid Kit

Short of having full first aid training, always be sure to carry a small first aid manual. There are several small wilderness first aid manuals that outline the essentials, and are good to stuff inside your first aid kit on even the shortest excursions. Listed below is a good, inexpensive first aid kit. It is a good idea to put these items in a waterproof case (a heavy duty plastic zip-lock works well).

  • Gauze Pads, 3" × 4"
  • Band-Aids (all sizes)
  • Pain Killer, aspirin-free, twenty tablets
  • Athletic Tape
  • Ace Bandage, 3"
  • Moleskin, 6" × 6"
  • Safety Pins
  • Scissors (small is fine, but sharp)
  • Tweezers
  • Antibiotic Ointment
  • Personal Medications
  • Surgical Gloves

Finally, if the above-mentioned life-threatening injuries have discouraged you from venturing out-of-doors, know that the common blister is far and away the most common ailment. Moleskin works wonders in treating the symptoms, but first try to prevent the cause. Since the hands and feet are the most commonly afflicted areas, make sure that any foot and hand wear fit properly. Do all you can to break in equipment before venturing out. Tape known problem areas on feet with medical tape or duct tape before starting and treat all “hot spots” when they first become noticeable. Keep in mind that even well-worn equipment may cause blisters if the outdoors-person is not accustomed to a particular activity or motion.

Last Updated: 7/25/18