When Cpl. John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service and his fellow wardens head out into the Maine woods, they try to over-prepare. Their jackets float, they wear thin layers of wicking materials and in their outside pockets, they carry “picks of life” — small ice picks that can be used to grab ice if there’s an emergency.

For families in Maine facing another month or two of snow, experts like MacDonald argue common sense and adopting the “Always Prepared” mindset won’t just make for a better time outdoors, but could saves lives. One day it may mean making sure you bring a headlamp or a change of socks. Another day it’ll mean packing enough water for a 12-hour hike.

“There’s really no magic other than to tell people to use common sense and don’t put your life at risk,” MacDonald said.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control showed that between 2006 and 2010, at least 2,000 people in the United States died of weather-related causes. The highest percentage, 63 percent, of those incidents were attributed to exposure to cold, hypothermia or both.

MacDonald said that while it’s impossible to qualify the reason why most Maine outdoor emergency situations occur, people usually aren’t setting out with the intent of putting themselves in danger.

“People may think they’re going out for a quick ride or hike during the daytime when it’s warm and they don’t anticipate breaking down or having to stay the night,” MacDonald said. “You have to venture out with the possibility that you may need to be out there for awhile, it’s just kind of a preparing for a worst-case scenario thing.”

He and others recently offered a few tips and tricks for keeping the entire family safe while enjoying time outdoors this winter and into spring.

Stay visible

According to research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, pedestrians are three times more likely to be struck and killed by a car after the fall time change because both drivers and walkers are adapting to the changing light. Roads also become slippery after the rain and snow, and the water can create a glare making it almost impossible to see at times.

Have your child wear brightly-colored outdoor gear, stay away from blacks, dark blues and gray. Look for clothing that has reflective tape or markings on the front and back to enhance their visibility.

Play safe

MacDonald said wardens do not mark safe or unsafe lakes or waterways for ice skating in the winter which means it’s up to adventurers — ice fishing families, skaters and others, to decide if they want to venture out.

Common courtesy in Maine dictates ice fishers place tree boughs on the ice after they remove a shanty or structure covering up a fishing hole. However other than that, there is little to indicate where ice may be weak or broken.

“We are not experts on ice,” MacDonald said. “Ice is a natural feature that occurs and depending on the body of water, it’s going to have variations … we can’t simply say ‘This lake is safe, this is not.’”

He recommends people educate themselves about ice, stick to bodies of water they are familiar with and check the ice before they go out. If your family is headed out to a new lake or pond, consider reaching out to a local snowmobile club, which may have information about the safety of the waterways in the area, MacDonald said.

He added that for snowmobilers, the number one cause of incidents is excessive speed because people lose control.

“People need to drive within their capabilities and remember this is a family-oriented sport, there are children out on the trails too,” MacDonald said.

Snow piles and banks along the sides of streets can also pose a danger, particularly to children playing while waiting for a bus or walking home from school.

They can also collapse.

In 2008, an 8-year-old boy in New Brunswick, Canada, suffocated after a snow tunnel he built collapsed. Remind children that while it may seem like the banks make a great place for a fort, they risk not being seen by drivers pulling in and out of driveways or alongside a street to park. They should also always play with a buddy and consider leaving at least one or both legs outside of the fort in case it collapses.

Stay warm and hydrated

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends dressing young children in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear in the same situation. If you’re dressed in a jacket, jeans and a hat, add a fleece under your child’s jacket and long johns under his or her pants. Several thin layers will keep them drier and warmer than large fluffy ones.

Also, talk with children about the symptoms of frostbite which include lethargy, cold, tingling and painful skin. Common sites frostbite include toes, fingers, the tip of the nose, ears and cheeks.

And despite what sounds like advice for hot weather, experts also encourage outdoor enthusiasts to stay hydrated. Consider bringing children in occasionally to warm up and hydrate with hot chocolate or decaffeinated tea.

Bring safety gear

MacDonald said he reminds people to not only think about bringing safety gear, but to practice with it before hand. Keep equipment in outside pockets so you aren’t scrambling through multiple layers during an emergency.

Most cellular phones will not work in the Maine woods, or even in places like city forests, so experts recommend people consider bringing some sort of other communication device like a GPS.

Also consider packing a first aid kit, a headlamp or flashlight, a fire starter, snacks and extra clothing, especially when out with children. Check out the Appalachian Mountain Club’s list of essential gear for winter day hikes for more recommendations.


Natalie Feulner

Natalie Feulner is a journalist and “semi-crunchy” cloth diapering momma to a rambunctious toddler named after a county in California. She drinks too much tea and loves to climb rocks but not at the...