January 21, 2016

Skate Through Winter Safely: Precautions for Fun and Safe Outdoor Winter Activities

Old Man Winter isn’t always the safest playmate. Cold weather, limited daylight, and snow and ice can all pose dangers. But a little preparation can help keep you out of harm’s way as you enjoy all of the outdoor recreation western North Carolina has to offer.

Keep an Eye on the Clock

One of the biggest threats to outdoor safety during the winter months is darkness, said Hal Royer, MD, a primary care physician with Brevard Family Practice. “The days are shorter, so where you choose to venture or exercise is very important,” he said. “If you’re out on some remote trail, and it gets dark on you, the situation could become hazardous very quickly. But even just jogging or cycling near your home can be dangerous when night falls.” Dr. Royer suggests that you wear bright colors when you’re out. You should also have some kind of light with you or on your bike – not only to help others see you, but to increase your own visibility. Your best safety bet, however, is to avoid starting your activity in the evening.

Share Your Plans

If you’re going to spend time off the beaten path, you should make others aware of where you’ll be. That way, if you don’t return home when expected, others will know where to look for you. This is important advice any time of the year for those who live in western North Carolina, but it’s especially important to heed during cold-weather months when a person stranded outdoors for a long period of time could develop hypothermia. “When I lived in the Piedmont, it wasn’t such a big deal,” said Dr. Royer. “You could go out to a park or a greenway, and there were usually plenty of people and neighborhoods nearby. But here, you can go to Pisgah or Bent Creek, and those areas are much more remote. And you have to remember that there are plenty of places around here where you won’t have cell phone reception.”

Another precaution you can take when you’re out hiking or biking is to always wear a road ID. This is something that includes your name, contact person, drug allergies and any medical conditions. Dr. Royer said this can be a lifesaver if you experience an injury or accident and others must come to your aid.

Prepare for the Conditions

When it’s cold, dress in layers. This helps hold the warmth in better. Wool and fabrics that wick away moisture are particularly recommended, said Dr. Royer. It’s also very important to keep your head, feet and hands properly covered. And if there’s any rain or inclement weather in the forecast, make sure your shoes and coat offer protection from wetness. Most outdoor stores offer waterproof, all-weather clothing, as well as thermal apparel. If you spend a lot of time outdoors in the winter, it might be worth your while to invest in a weather-friendly wardrobe.

Even though it’s winter, you don’t want to forget your sunblock. Your UV exposure will increase at higher altitudes. And if the sun’s out while there’s snow on the ground, the reflection can easily lead to sunburn. So whether you’re skiing at a winter resort or just spending a snow day sledding, make sure your skin is protected. In addition, it’s a good idea to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare.

Use Common Sense

If something doesn’t seem like a good idea, it’s probably not. Starting a hike at 5 p.m. isn’t smart. Nor is trying to ice skate on a frozen pond. In western North Carolina, we rarely have the prolonged, extreme cold necessary to create thick sheets of ice. Here, the ice is usually thin and doesn’t provide a uniform covering. This means it’s extremely dangerous to walk or skate on.

Ice isn’t just a hazard on lakes and ponds, though. During winter, you should always be aware of any surface you’re on. If you’re out for a walk, you should avoid icy sidewalks and pathways. Even the most cautious among us sometimes venture out without the best judgment.

Finally, be on the lookout for what’s around you. If you’re sledding or tubing in the snow, make sure you do so away from roads, trees and other structures. “Common sense and preparedness really do go a long way,” said Dr. Royer. “Be aware of your surroundings, think ahead, let people know where you are, and keep your head and torso warm. If you do those things there’s no reason why you can’t be as active in winter as you are the rest of the year.”

Hal Royer, MD, is a primary care physician with Brevard Family Practice. (828) 884-9362

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