Mushers must be prepared for worst while on the trail

Experienced sled dog enthusiast says coping with the cold is about knowing one's own limits

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

For some people, the extent of coping with winter weather is what they endure while walking from their car to their home or work a couple of times a day. But to Tustumena 200 mushers and other winter outdoor enthusiasts, being prepared for the cold requires a bit more planning and preparation.

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Joseph Robertia / Peninsula Clarion
Joseph Robertia / Peninsula Clarion

"Dealing with inclement weather is common with any winter sport, but especially with mushing," said Mike Barnett, a Kasilof musher in winter, and outdoor survival instructor with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in the summer.

Barnett, who is signed up for this year's T-200, already has seen temperatures near minus 50 during dog races this season. To contend with elements this extreme, he said rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach to winter survival, one of the things he practices and teaches people about coping with the cold is for them to know their own limits.

"It really depends on the person. Some people deal with the cold better than others, so it's important to know how your own body reacts in cold weather and then be prepared for it," he said.

The first step Barnett takes before stepping on the sled is finding out what weather is predicted, so he knows how to dress and what to take. However, since the weather can change rapidly, he also adds a little extra clothing and gear.

"I check the weather forecast religiously, but I still expect worse weather than what is called for and prepare for it," he said.

Barnett said knowing what to wear is an important part of staying warm, but this can be tricky for dog mushers. They dress in synthetic layers like most outdoor enthusiasts, but they must remember the conditions that are ahead. They may get warm while helping the team run up hills, but then get cool while travelling down hill. They also must expose their hands frequently to deal with tangles in the gangline, which can by risky to the digits when the weather is below zero.

"People just think hand and toe warmers, but the key is to keep the body's core warm. This can be tricky because if you under-dress you can get cold, but if you overdress you can sweat, which is almost equally dangerous at 50 below," he said.

Barnett said to contend with varying temperatures he brings a variety of items he can put on or take off as needed.

"I bring extra clothes, socks and a hat, and I keep them dry by putting them in Ziplock bags or garbage sacks," he said.

Barnett said he also never leaves home without a parka, or anorak with a fur ruff. Fur may be fashionable to some people, but to mushers it is all about function.

"The ruff blocks wind, but still allows you to see, especially in a storm. You can close them up and your respiration will keep you warm, and condensation won't build up on the inside," he said.

In addition to garb, Barnett said he also uses grub to fend of the cold.

"Your body burns more calories in the cold, and eating can keep you warmer, so I always eat fatty food to be prepared for the calories I'll burn. I eat a lot of bacon, and peanut butter, and I'll put a half a stick of butter into hot chocolate. On the sled I'll also try to balance it out by eating nuts, candy bars and stuff like that," he said.

Sometimes the unexpected can happen, though, and Barnett said he always prepares for emergencies.

"In addition to the extra clothes, I also bring a cold weather sleeping bag in a water-proof sack, and I always carry at least five different ways of starting a fire," he said.

For this incendiary arsenal, Barnett said he uses a few common items such as a lighter and matches, kept in at least three different places in case one source should get lost or wet. He said he also uses wax-coated, or vaseline-coated cloth or cotton balls, which can still be lit when damp.

"I keep them in a film canister and then just fluff them up and light them," he said.

Cotton isn't the only thing Barnett keeps in a film canister for fire starting.

"I also carry rubbing or grinding from a magnesium stick. It can be tough to use in the wind, but when it's calm, the magnesium burns so hot, it can burn the moisture out of wet kindling," he said.

As to his fifth heat source, Barnett said almost all mushers carry bottles of Heat, to power the methonal-based cook-pots used to boil water and make food for the dogs.

Sometimes all precautions are still not enough, and mushers can find themselves feeling a little chilly on the trail. Barnett said the key to survival when this happens is not losing your cool.

"The key is not getting frantic if you start getting cold. Just put on more layers and start moving large muscle groups, like pumping up and down. You want to generate heat, but not to the point of sweating," he said.

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