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SHERIDAN — As temperatures drop and snow accumulates, recreation in the Bighorn National Forest becomes riskier. Snow machines can break down, skiers can get lost and the chilling possibilities of frostbite or hypothermia set in.
Lt. Alan Thompson from the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office said the best thing a person can do to ensure safety when heading to the mountains is to tell someone who is not going on the trek where you’ll be and what time you plan to be there as well as leave.
He said this way, if something does go wrong, Search and Rescue can be notified in a timely manner and will have a starting point for a search.
As for what to bring, he said that depends on what the person’s doing and how experienced he or she is.
“Somebody that’s snow machined in the Bighorn Mountains their entire life is going to take different items than somebody that’s snowshoeing,” Thompson said.
While he said it’s ideal to take a satellite phone, he said he knows it’s not a viable option for everyone. And though some items will change depending on the sport, he said everyone should have at least a basic survival kit, which includes a heat blanket, matches, fire starter, compass and a change of socks.
Bighorn National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Susan Douglas said in a press release that additional items snowshoers, snowmobilers and skiers should take include an avalanche beacon, shovel and probing pole, which is used to slide through snow quickly and easily to look for buried victims during avalanches.
Douglas also said it is a good idea to pack a map along with your GPS system.
While it may seem like an obvious piece of equipment, in a time when technology reigns, it could easily be overlooked.
If you do find yourself in a difficult situation in the mountains, your next steps depend on how well you prepared.
Thompson said if you took the precaution to tell someone of your location before heading out, you should set up camp and wait for rescue.
“So your best bet is to find a location nearby that’s safe and provides a shelter,” Thompson said, “whether it just be trees or a windbreaker or a rock face or something like that, and set up a camp and stay in the same place so you’re not expending energy.”
While bringing some extra food and hydration is important, Thompson said this time of year he really suggests bringing something to melt snow in for drinking.
“But you want to caution people from actually eating snow,” Thompson said, “because it expends too much energy in your body and you don’t get the hydration out of it.”
Thompson said that even with the extreme snowfall of the season, it’s fairly easy to get a fire started, especially if you pack a fire starter.
He said bringing a hatchet, saw or rope saw would be useful in case you find yourself in one of these situations.
“Up on the mountain right now there’s a lot of snow, but the stuff that you would use for a fire, the tinder, is dry,” Thompson said. “It’s so cold that there’s no moisture in it. You just have to dig down and find the stuff that you can actually burn.”
With the temperatures the area has seen this season, Thompson said it’s possible to get frostbite or hypothermia quickly, and that time can drop to seconds if clothing is wet or inadequate.
Though Douglas said the USFS is sometimes asked to assist in missions, she said it’s really Search and Rescue that handles situations on the mountain.
Thompson said this season Search and Rescue has only gone on two searches. Both missions were a search for stuck vehicles, and one mission was to assist Big Horn County.
Though there hasn’t been much action needed from Search and Rescue, it’s always important to prepare for the worst, and Thompson said the most effective method of doing that, remains telling a friend where you’ll be.
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