The following was written by two students, Ariella and Colleen, for their Backpacking class.
The Lewis Deane Nature Preserve is an 85-acre piece of land overlooking Lake St. Catherine in Poultney, Vermont. It was donated to Green Mountain College by Bill and Linda Osborne in 2002. The preserve was named after Bill’s godfather, Lewis Deane, who gifted the land to his godson. The purpose of the preserve is to provide opportunities for education, research, and outdoor experience to students and the community.
On April 8th, LiHigh School students and advisors went for our first hike of the year on the preserve. We went to the ridge line on St. Catherine Mountain, an easy uphill hike with a few rocky sections on the trail. Besides witnessing a breathtaking view of the lake, the hike provided an opportunity for our backpacking class to put their skills to the test.
The weather on April 8th in Poultney, Vermont was snowy, cold, and slightly windy. Students and staff had to dress appropriately for the weather. This meant layering up in lightweight, warm clothing. It never hurts to have too many layers, which you can always remove if you become overheated.
Having appropriate footwear was also a necessity. While the day was cold and snowy, the past few days had been warm, which caused the ground to thaw and the trails on the preserve to become muddy and thus slippery. There were a couple of wet feet due to being unprepared. Thankfully since this was a short hike, this was just uncomfortable; over a longer time or in harsher weather, being unprepared could result in hypothermia or frostbite.
Hypothermia is a condition where the body temperature drops dangerously below the normal range (below 95°F). If someone becomes hypothermic, it is important that they are moved indoors or somewhere warm as soon as possible. Once the person is in a warm environment, remove any wet clothing and dry them. Wrap them in warm blankets, towels, coats, sleeping bags, or anything that is available. It is important to protect their head and torso first. Use warm water bottles wrapped in towels (so they don’t come in direct contact with the skin) or other heated objects to gradually heat the hypothermic person up. Ensure that they are heated gradually so that heart arrhythmia doesn’t occur. If there is no other heat source, another person (preferably naked to provide as much skin to skin contact as possible) can provide warmth to the person suffering from hypothermia. This should be a last resort as it is not the most effective way of treating hypothermia. The healthy person would be much more useful building a fire, making sure no one else is suffering from hypothermia, and attending to other tasks.
Frostbite is a condition where blood vessels and the surrounding tissues freeze. Frostnip is a superficial cooling of tissues that does not involve cellular destruction. Frostnip can be treated by submerging the cold tissues in water that is approximately 105°F and no more than 108°F. People with frostbite can prevent further damage to their body by following the same heating procedure but should receive medical attention as soon as possible and no more than 2-3 hours after the frostbite occurs. In severe cases of frostbite, parts of the body may have to be amputated.
The weather on Friday provided the ideal situation for the backpacking class to put their basic survival skills to the test. The students created an emergency shelter. The spot we ended up in was a grove (which offered some protection from the wind) that was downhill from, but not out of sight of, the ridgeline. We were equipped with an emergency blanket and had to craft a shelter that fit two people in it. We found a dead tree that had one end propped up on another tree. We used this as a support beam for our emergency shelter. It is important to have the heat-reflective side of the blanket facing inward to preserve body heat. We placed logs on the outside of the shelter to hold the sides down and filled the holes at the foot of the shelter with pine branches. We also collected pine branches to layer the floor of the shelter with. This layer offers protection from the cold, wet ground. Ideally the barrier should be at least a foot off of the ground, for an emergency shelter a few inches should provide enough of a barrier. Our next step would have been to elongate our shelter by propping up branches to provide a better wind barrier. The result is a 5-10 minute shelter that will protect you from the weather.
In addition to building an emergency shelter, the backpacking class started a small campfire. The only resources we were provided were three “strike anywhere” matches. Unluckily, everything on top of the mountain was wet due to recent precipitation. Fortunately there were resources on the mountain that we could use to build a decent fire. We found a limited amount of semi-dry dead grass, white birch bark, some dead branches that had been sheltered by the forest, and some dry pine needles.
To start we built a nest out of the grass and filled it with bits of birch bark (which is highly flammable and water resistant). Once we had lit the nest, we fed the fire with more bark and pine needles. As soon as the fire was big enough, we fed the flame with twigs and branches. We should have made a teepee out of small branches over the nest and built our fire up from there, but with many eager hands attending to the fire we ended up making a few mistakes. One of which was not building the fire the correct way. Another was making trails of tinder leading away from the fire. We were lucky everything was wet because otherwise we could have started a forest fire.
The biggest takeaway from the hike was knowledge of basic survival skills. If you are stuck or lost in the woods, having these skills could save your life. Knowing how to dress, to create a basic shelter, and build a fire would keep you from losing your life. Knowing how to build a fire could also be beneficial when it come to purifying water and cooking food, which could be needed skills if you are stuck in the woods for a long period of time. Having this knowledge is important when you go into the woods and will be useful during future hikes and backpacking trips.