Seven Common Mistakes That Can Kill Winter Hikers

Additional photos below.
NPS photo/VIP Marino via Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook page
Additional photos below.
Hiking in Colorado during the winter can be absolutely spectacular, but unexpected events that take place in a challenging, high-altitude environment can have dangerous or even deadly consequences.

Take this weekend's rescue at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sheldon Seaborn, a 58-year-old from Grand Forks, North Dakota, was located in an area near Alberta Falls after spending a night in the elements. When found, he was suffering from hypothermia, disorientation and exposure-related injuries that might have proved fatal if he hadn't been spotted by a pair of early-morning skiers who quickly summoned help.

How can other hikers avoid such a fate? RMNP public-affairs officer Kyle Patterson, who spoke with us last summer about parking-lot rage and human waste concerns at the park associated with the growing popularity of the gorgeous area, offers seven tips based on common mistakes made by winter hikers that can lead to big trouble. Some of them are associated with the latest rescue, while others aren't. But taken cumulatively, they can save your life if things go wrong while communing with nature during this breathtaking but demanding season.

Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook page
1. Check the weather forecast in advance.

"Looking at the conditions of where you're going to be hiking or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing is really important," Patterson says. "The weather may be fine when people start to go out in the backcountry, but then a storm can go through or the temperatures can drop and really change everything. And you need to understand the forecast at the location where you're planning on hiking. Estes Park might have one forecast, but once you get up to 9,500 feet, it might be very different."

2. Dress smart.

"You need to have the proper gear," notes Patterson, including "some kind of waterproof or water-resistant footwear, so that if you do get wet, you'll have some insulation that can assist you in not getting more wet. If you're in cotton clothing or jeans and you're not wearing proper footwear, your legs and feet can start to get wet. When that happens, you can go downhill very quickly, because your body loses the ability to keep you warm and insulate you. That causes you to get colder quicker. But the right clothing, socks and footwear can assist you in staying dry."

NPS Photo/VIP Schonlau via Rocky Mountain National Park Facebook page
3. Be ready for a night outdoors.

According to Patterson, "it's important when you're hiking any time of the year, but particularly in the winter, that you're prepared to spend the night."

She admits that this concept "can be hard for people to understand. They're thinking, 'I'm just going to go a mile and then turn back.' But it's really key in many situations. People may not expect to be out late, but they may get lost or turned around — and then, when they get in distress, they don't have the equipment to keep them warm through the night."

Among the key items to load into a backpack, Patterson points out, are "the tools to start a fire in the wintertime — and also a headlamp. If it gets dark, you can use the light to assist you on a snow-packed trail. And when it gets dark out in the wilderness, it really gets dark. So you definitely need to have a headlamp with you."

4. Don't expect your cell phone to work like it does back home.

"You can't rely on your cell phone to help you know what time it is or to be able to call for help," Patterson warns. "Your battery can die for lots of different reasons. One of those reasons in the wintertime is simply the battery getting cold — and even when the battery is working, sometimes the phones don't work. Cell coverage in the mountains is very spotty."

Continue for more advice about avoiding common mistakes that can kill winter hikers.