How to survive when you’re lost in the woods in winter

  • Doreen Michalak of Peterborough and her dog, a Belgian Malinois named Neeko, go over some of the procedures for a winter woods rescue. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Doreen Michalak of Peterborough and her dog, a Belgian Malinois named Neeko, go over some of the procedures for a winter woods rescue. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Doreen Michalak of Peterborough and her dog, a Belgian Malinois named Neeko, go over some of the procedures for a winter woods rescue. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Doreen Michalak of Peterborough and her dog, a Belgian Malinois named Neeko, go over some of the procedures for a winter woods rescue. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/25/2021 4:18:37 PM

Nobody goes out for a hike in the woods thinking they will need to be rescued – until that short excursion leads to spending a night in Mother Nature.

Being prepared for anything can really mean the difference between life and death, and Doreen Michalak has seen it first hand. Michalak, a Peterborough resident and volunteer with New England K9 Search and Rescue, said taking the necessary steps before embarking on a hike, hunting trip or backwoods camping excursion can prepare even the most experienced outdoors enthusiast in the event that something doesn’t go according to plan.

The gear

According to the Hike Safe brochure by the US Forest Service and NH Fish & Game, there are 10 essential items that should be carried every time someone leaves for a trip.

“Just to be prepared to stay the night,” Michalak said. “Can you survive overnight? Whatever that particular night will bring.”

The list begins with a map and a compass.

“You’d be amazed how many people can’t read a map anymore,” Michalak said. “To me that’s a real problem.”

People have become too reliant on their cell phone for directions, Michalak said, but it can’t be relied upon when out in the wilderness.

“Your phone is fabulous until you run out of service or the battery dies or you drop it in the water,” she said.

Being able to locate where you are on a map can be the difference in finding your way back on trail or spending the night outside.

“You’d be amazed how many people have no sense in the woods,” Michalak said.

Charlotte Miller, assistant manager at EMS in Peterborough, has done some extensive hikes. In 2014, she hiked from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia along the Appalachian Trail and two years later, Miller hiked 1,000 miles from the Mexico border to Yosemite on the Pacific Crest Trail. And she learned just how important a map can be.

“I always carry a physical map,” Miller said. “If I’m going somewhere new, I always have a map.”

Having the proper clothing, including extra layers can help prevent hypothermia. And it’s always better to have too many layers than not enough. Michalak said that having three thin layers is better than one thick layer, and a rule of thumb is four to five layers.

“You should have enough layers in your backpack to be comfortable in any temperature,” Michalak said. And this time of year, you have to think about footwear, including microspikes or ice spikes.

“In New England, especially in the winter, nobody should be hiking without traction,” Miller said.

Extra food and water may take up space in your pack, but if forced to spend more time in the woods than you planned it can become a lifeline. Sugary foods, like bars, are crucial because those kinds of foods can provide instant energy to keep the blood pumping and increase body temperature, which also plays a part in preventing hypothermia.

“It can be so avoided,” Michalak said. “Hypothermia is the major fear when you’re out unprepared in the cold.”

Michalak said it is actually a good thing when you’re shivering in cold environments because it keeps your body warmer, adding that once your body temperature begins to drop, “it can be very difficult to recover from it,” she said.

Even if you don’t plan on being out into the hours of darkness, bringing a flashlight or headlamp will ensure you will have light in the case that your trip goes longer than expected.

In the event you do get lost and need to warm up, having matches and a firestarter can go a long way. But only if you know how to properly start a fire.

A first aid and repair kit is critical, and something Michalak always brings as part of that is duct tape.

“Duct tape should be on top of your list,” Michalak said. It can fix anything from a rip in clothing to helping support something like a broken finger.

When people get lost, one of the first things they want to do is yell out for help. While that is one way of trying to alert others to your situation, it can make an individual tired. A whistle is looked at as a more effective means to communicate your location.

“It’s easier to be loud with a whistle,” Michalak said.

Always bring rain and wind gear in the event that weather conditions change and it’s always best to have a pocket knife available.

“Those are things you should have at all times,” Miller said of the essentials list. She always keep hand warmers in her pack – just in case. “Even in the summer. You need something to give you that warmth.”

NH Fish & Game offers a hike safe card for $25 for an individual and $35 for a family. People who obtain the cards are not liable to repay rescue costs if they need to be rescued. For more on hiking safety and the hike safe card, visit

Knowing your surroundings

There are other steps people can take to aid in a search and rescue, if it gets to that point. Always tell someone where you plan to hike, what trail you’re taking and when you plan on returning.

“It’s extremely important to have a base timeline and location of where you’re going to be,” Miller said.

While many search and rescue missions result in finding the individual, there are other more tragic outcomes as well.

“There have been a number of hikers that have gone missing and they’re gone for good,” Michalak said. “But people don’t die in the wilderness because something goes wrong. It’s because a series of things went wrong in a row.”

Miller said being ready for anything will help if something does go wrong.

“Every trip is different, every location is different and the challenges are going to be different,” she said.

While Miller has never “had an experience where I lost my way,” she has had a few instances where she had to make quick decisions.

During a two week trip in the White Mountains in 2019, she was forced to end her trip early four days.

“It was because I ran into unexpected weather,” Miller said. “I was not as well prepared as I should have been.”

It was June 14 and she only had summer gloves and no microspikes. What started with some rain and wind in the morning changed to ice and strong winds as she went up in elevation.

“I was not anticipating ice on June 14,” Miller said. But as she made her way toward Mount Jefferson, conditions deteriorated quickly.

“I quite literally crawled for four miles to get below the tree line,” she said. “I couldn’t even stand up without getting tossed around.”

Michalak said if you do get lost and attempts to self rescue have not resulted in finding your way, it is best to stay in one spot, especially if enough time has passed where you believe a search may be underway.

“You’re better off to stay in one place,” Michalak said. “If you’re moving around it’s nearly impossible to find you because it’s easy for you to move into an area that’s been searched.”

Michalak said there are plenty of people who get lost and self rescue, but children should never attempt to do so.

“When they know they are lost, they absolutely need to stay and take note of what’s around them,” she said.

She also said it is important for children to carry their own gear.

“If you’re old enough to hike on a mountain, you’re able to carry a bag,” she said. “It makes no sense if your kid gets lost that you’re carrying their gear.”

Michalak said New England K9 Search and Rescue will do free demos for children to show them what to do if they get lost.

Collecting yourself

When people realize they are lost, Michalak said, a sense of panic sets in.

“You just want to find the trail,” she said. “But it’s a guarantee when you’re in that state of mind, you’re going to get yourself more lost. When that panic sets in, it puts a lot of people in danger.”

Knowing how to build a shelter is imperative when forced to spend a night in the wilderness. Covering yourself with leaves and putting a thin layer on the ground can help reduce the amount of body heat loss.

Michalak admits she used to be lax about hiking and looks back at scenarios where she would not have been prepared to spend a night in the outdoors. Miller said the No. 1 thing someone can have is common sense.

“I made a decision quickly when I realized,” she said of her White Mountains trip in 2019. “You need to take a moment to assess the environment, where you are with your day and the equipment you have with you. It’s about constantly evaluating your situation and making intelligent choices.”

And she learned that quickly during her trip through the Pacific Crest Trail, where she pushed through when she probably shouldn’t have.

“It could have easily been different,” Miller said. “Even the most prepared people make poor choices.”


Michalak said that the warmer months are probably more dangerous because that is the time of year when people don’t think about the gear needed to survive overnight. She’s seen so many people go out for a hike in a t-shirt and shorts with no other clothing to speak of.

“People get caught off guard,” she said. A 60 degree day at the bottom can result in below freezing temps at the summit – and depending on the mountain, that could happen during the day.

Miller said things can change quickly in terms of weather, regardless of the time of year.

“And it’s all year round in the White Mountains,” she said. “On a beautiful 75 degree day, it can still dip down into the 40s and below.”

Search operations

Michalak said her organization will conduct anywhere from 30 to 50 search and rescue operations in a year, working with NH Fish & Game and Vermont State Police. She said a search typically begins in the last known location as well as drainage areas. But every search takes time.

“Sometimes you’re talking five hours before anyone can get to you,” she said. And that’s if they know where to go.

Every search is different and presents its own set of challenges, Michalak said, and you never know what state a person will be found in.

She said it is imperative for people to swallow their pride if they truly feel like they’re lost.

“It’s incredibly important to know when you’re out of your element,” Michalak said.

Michalak said the use of dogs significantly aids in a search, considering it can take five teams of rescuers three to four hours to cover a half mile radius, something one dog can do on its own.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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