This story was originally published in April 2021.
One way to boost your safety while hiking in Maine, during any season, is by carrying the tools and proper clothing to stay warm. Even at the height of summer, lost and injured hikers are at risk of hypothermia, especially high in the mountains.
“In the summer we probably get more hypothermia [cases] than in the winter,” said Jim Bridge, a search and rescue instructor with the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. “The reason is, people know it’s cold out in the winter, so they take all the necessary stuff. In the summer, people just say, ‘Hey. It’s 62 and beautiful and sunny. I don’t need to take anything extra.’”
Two 2021 rescue missions conducted by the Maine Warden Service, with the help of local search and rescue teams, highlight the importance of carrying equipment to stay warm during hikes. Both took place on Saturday, April 3, a mild spring day that was followed by a cold night, with temperatures dipping below freezing.
In one case, a man hiking on the Appalachian Trail fell into water and became severely hypothermic. He changed into dry clothing, but even so, he couldn’t warm himself up. Deep in the wilderness, he was able to text a friend, who called 911 on his behalf. When rescuers found the hiker, he was unable to walk. They started a fire and offered him food and hot liquids. Once he warmed up, he was able to walk out of the woods to a waiting ATV at about 4:30 a.m.
If he hadn’t been found by the rescue team, he likely wouldn’t have survived the night, according to a press release by the Maine Warden Service.
“The scary piece is that it hits your mind first,” Bridge said. “The first thing you start losing with hypothermia is cognitive ability, so you don’t necessarily have the ability to stop and think: What should I do here?”
The other rescue scenario on April 3 involved a family that became lost on Tumbledown Mountain, a popular hiking location in western Maine. It was dark before the rescue team found the family huddled together for warmth near the top of the mountain. They weren’t wearing adequate clothing for the conditions, and they didn’t have enough food, water or light to make it off the mountain.
Rescuers lit a fire to warm the family, then guided them down to the trailhead, which they reached at about midnight.
“During the shoulder season months there’s a big risk [of hypothermia],” Bridge said. “Like right now, it’s a beautiful, sunny day. People might go out in a T-shirt and hike up Tumbledown Mountain, and that’s fine — if they get back down. But if they get in trouble, they’re out there without the proper equipment.”
As the rescue teams demonstrated in both situations on April 3, a small fire can help warm you up in an emergency situation. It can also speed the drying of wet clothing and gear, in addition to providing light, which will help boost your morale and serve as a beacon for rescuers.
A fire starter such as waterproof matches, a lighter or magnesium sparking tool is a small piece of equipment that could make a big difference if you become lost or injured while hiking.
“You should always have at least two different methods of fire starting,” said Bridge. “I carry a BIC lighter and waterproof matches in a waterproof container, and I have one of those fancy spark things. So I have three … it’s like wearing a reserve parachute. You wear it just in case the first one doesn’t work.”
Before placing a fire starter in your backpack, practice using it at home, suggested Sharon Kenney, president of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue.
“Yes, it’s important to carry a fire starter, but you also have to know how to use it,” said Kenney. “In the springtime in Maine, when it’s wet, it can be a challenge to start and maintain a fire. But it’s a fun thing to practice, especially with kids.”
Other emergency items that can help you maintain body heat in an emergency include chemical heat packs, sugary snacks and an emergency blanket — or, better yet, an emergency bivvy sack that will completely cocoon your body and trap in heat.
“They’re very small,” said Kenney. “It’s basically a reusable mummy-shaped sleeping bag that has a bit of reflective stuff to help reflect your heat back at you. It’s easy to carry.”
The clothing you wear hiking can also help you regulate your body temperature, Kenney said. Synthetic and wool clothing is preferable because it wicks moisture away from your body and dries more quickly than cotton. In addition, it’s best to dress in multiple layers; that way you can take layers off when you get hot, and you can add layers when you feel cold.
“For example, you might be going for a spring hike up a moderately sized or even small sized mountain, so you might be wearing light hiking pants and a T-shirt with a lightweight hoodie over it,” Kenney said. “Well, when you get to the top of that mountain or hill, there’s more wind up there and you’re going to get colder faster. The wind is going to steal the body heat from you. So it’s important to carry another layer of warm clothes that are dry such as a windbreaker and pants.”
When it comes to preparing and packing for a hike, carrying a fire starter and other equipment to stay warm is just one part of the equation. Other equipment such as a first aid kit, navigational tools, a headlamp and plenty of food and water is also crucial for staying safe and comfortable in the wilderness.
You should carry enough on a day hike to get you through a night in the wilderness, Bridge said. But that doesn’t mean you need to carry a tent, sleeping bag and pillow.
“You don’t have to be comfortable, just survive,” Bridge said. “Then it’s just an evening in the woods to laugh about when you get out.”
Accidents happen. So before going on a hike, tell someone exactly where you’re hiking and when you expect to return — just in case. Promise to check in with that person when you get back. That way, if they don’t hear from you, they’ll know where to send a search and rescue team.
“In an emergency, the most important thing for people to do is not panic,” Kenney said. “And the easiest way to not panic is to be prepared.”
If you do find yourself in trouble out in the Maine wilderness, don’t hesitate to call for help if you have the ability to do so. However, cell phone reception is spotty in Maine, especially in rural areas. For this reason, many hikers use satellite messengers such as SPOT or Garmin inReach.
“Don’t wait until you’re freezing cold and it’s already dark,” Kenney said. “Don’t be afraid to call for help because there’s a very large number of people in the state of Maine who would love to drop everything and come help you.”