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Peter Kummerfeldt: Prepare for bad weather outdoors, avoid danger

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Five broad categories capture most situations where a person may have to “survive” until rescued or until the weather conditions improve and the individual can rescue themselves.

The categories are: Becoming lost, being caught out after dark, becoming stranded, becoming ill or injured and unable to proceed and bad weather that makes continuing on dangerous. This article will look at “weather.”

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by Peter Kummerfeldt

Why is it so many people come to grief each year in weather-related accidents?  Why is it, with all of the weather information available, that people still find themselves trapped by storms, isolated by blizzards, caught out away from home or base camp by weather conditions that endanger their lives?

Part of the problem is arrogance. Our belief is that “we can handle it” whatever “it” happens to be.  Many have an unwavering belief in their ability to overcome the difficulties that wind, rain, plummeting temperatures, scalding heat and other extremes that weather may bring – some of these people die!

When you look back over the past thirty years in the United States, each year approximately 71 people are killed by lightning; 219 people die from heat-related illnesses and  27 succumb to the cold.  Tornadoes kill 65 people. Annually, floods drown 127 people and 1,800 more are thought to die in cold water incidents across the country. A further 52 die in winter storms. Hurricanes result in 16 more deaths.

The numbers shown are the fatalities – many more people suffered from the impact of the weather.

In the grand scheme of things, these are not large numbers compared to the numbers of non-weather related death. But would you want to be one of the ones that died? Of course not!

So what can be done to insure that you don’t become one of the unfortunate statistics?  Let’s take a closer look at these weather problems, and see what can be done to reduce the impact of weather on the activities that take us into the outdoors.

LIGHTNING is probably the least understood threat of all of the weather-related hazards.  Of the three hundred or so people each year who are hit by lightning, one third die and a high percentage of the remainder will suffer long term, often lifelong, medical difficulties.  While some who are killed and injured are inside, the vast majority are either working or recreating outside.

Safety Rules

  • Keep an eye on the sky.  Pay attention to developing storms – increasing wind speeds, and anvil-shaped clouds with lightning, are all signs of an approaching storm.
  • Be proactive – don’t wait until you are getting wet to suspend your outdoor activities.   Move into a substantial building or an enclosed vehicle.  A large dry cave also offers protection but move away from the entrance – shallow caves and rocky overhangs offer little or no protection.  Move away from isolated, exposed high ground and move toward lower, less exposed areas.  There are no “safe” areas – just “safer” areas!
  • The sound of thunder is a warning that a storm is brewing.  Thunder can be heard up to ten miles away. If you can hear thunder you are close enough to be hit!  Take shelter now.
  • Don’t be, or be connected to, the tallest object in the area.   If caught outside, move into low trees of even height and stand away from the tree trunks.  If above treeline, crouch down in the lowest area you can find.   Stay away from isolated trees. It is better to crouch down in the open than shelter under a tree that stands alone in a field.
  • Water is a great conductor of electricity get out of water at the first sign of a storm developing.  If  in a boat, go directly to the shore and move into shelter.  Continuing to swim, boat, wade or any other activity related to water is dangerous.
  • Move away from all metal which might conduct electricity (fences, railway lines, buildings, road barricades, telephone lines) and remove all metal (jewelry, metal framed glasses, coins etc.) from your body which can cause serious burns if you are hit
  • If part of a group, spread out.  Staying together increases the chance of more than one person being injured.
  • If you smell ozone, if your hair stands on end or if you experience any other unusual phenomena, a lightning strike could be imminent – protect yourself.

HOT TEMPERATURES cause more deaths each year than any other category of weather-related fatalities. Of these deaths, most occur in urban areas and in cities during heat waves.  The young and the old are most at risk.  Those who die from heat-related illness in the outdoors are people who became stranded as a result of vehicle accidents, become lost or end up in other circumstances that trap them in hot, arid regions without sufficient water.  Excessive heat also increases the risk of dying from all other causes.

Safety Rules:

  • As ambient temperature rises, your body’s need for water will increase.  The evaporation of water from the skin is the body’s primary way of eliminating excess heat.  Without water to sweat, body temperature will continue to rise until cell function ceases and you die.
  • When the environment is hotter than 98.6° F you will gain heat from the environment and your body temperature will rise.  Finding shade and adequate supplies of water are critical to your survival.
  • Be especially careful in hot, humid environments where the high humidity interferes with your body ability to sweat efficiently.  Water that is dripping from your skin does not remove heat.
  • Salt is important to your well being but it is not necessary to take salt tablets.  The salt you eat with your meals is sufficient.  During periods of severe heat, eating saltier foods (pretzels, potato chips etc.) will help to replace the salts lost in sweating.  Drinking large quantities of water and not consuming enough salt can result in hyponatremia,  a medical condition that can be fatal.

COLD TEMPERATURES: Man is a tropical animal and has to rely on clothing, shelter and food to maintain a body

Winter campsite showing prepared campers in snow.

Be prepared for cold,  and you can enjoy winter weather!

temperature of 98.6° F!  Exposure to temperatures below normal body temperature, without adequate protection, will eventually result in hypothermia which can become life threatening if not reversed quickly.   A lowering of your body temperatures quickly starts a chain of events that begins with shivering, reduced hand and finger dexterity and ends with cardiac arrest.

Safety Rules:

  • Wear, or have with you, clothing that that will keep you warm and dry when weather conditions place your safety at risk.
  • Wear, or have with you, clothing that prevents wind from penetrating your clothing
  • Put on additional clothing before you become chilled.
  • Your head must receive special attention. Carry a stocking cap and a windproof hood to put on when temperatures drop and wind speed increases.
  • Temperatures do not have to be extreme for you to quickly loose hand and finger dexterity.  Gloves and mittens should be a part of your emergency clothing.
  • Select footwear that will keep your feet warm and dry.

Wind: Unlike finding yourself in an extreme cold or hot environment where the danger is more obvious, wind is generally thought of as an annoying phenomenon without significant life-threatening ramifications until tornadoes and hurricanes enter the picture.
But, as long as wind is moving across the surface of exposed skin – heat is being removed.  In hot conditions this can be beneficial: In cold conditions, this heat loss and the subsequent body temperature drop can become life threatening.  An outer layer of clothing that is not only waterproof, but also windproof, is a vital part of your clothing ensemble.  Studies have shown that with a windproof outer layer you can get by with much less insulation.

The combined effect of wind and temperature, wind-chill, creates a condition where the temperature itself wasn’t that low, but to know how cold it felt, you have to figure in the effect of the wind. The “wind-chill” charts used by weather forecasters have recently been revised and now more accurately portray the danger faced by people when recreating in windy cold conditions.

Safety Rules:

  • Carry a windproof, waterproof outer layer and put it on before you get cold.
  • In windy situations, turn your back to the wind and then look for any obstruction or barrier that you can shelter behind.  Once out of the wind, you only need to protect yourself from the ambient temperature, not the wind-chill. The difference can be life-saving!

Peter Kummerfeldt has walked the talk in the wilderness survival field for decades.

Born in Kenya, East Africa, Peter came to America in 1965 and joined the U.S. Air Force. He is a graduate of the Air Force Survival Instructor Training School and has served as an instructor at the Basic Survival School, Spokane, Washington; the Arctic Survival School, Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Jungle Survival School, Republic of the Philippines. For twelve years, Peter was the Survival Training Director at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He retired from the Air Force in 1995 after 30 years of service.

In 1992, concerned with the number of accidents that were occurring in the outdoors annually and the number of tourists traveling overseas who were involved in unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening incidents Peter created OutdoorSafe.com

He is the author of Surviving a Wilderness Emergency and has addressed over 20,000 people as the featured speaker at numerous seminars, conferences and national conventions.

Check out Peter’s blog at: OutdoorSafe.blogspot.com


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