Question: I love to hunt late-season, cold-weather deer, but I prefer to hunt by myself. That creates some safety concerns for my wife. What can I do to minimize the risks? — T. Wilson, Minnesota
Answer: Hunting alone requires a bit of planning, as does hunting in cold weather. Put the two together, and you'll need significant preparation to ensure a safe outing.
First, let's deal with you as a lone hunter. A Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) unit is invaluable for getting around the woods effectively and minimizing the chance of getting lost. For the solo hunter, I encourage using a unit that can also transmit brief messages to friends and family, from "I'm OK" to "Send help now," such as the SPOT. Or, carry a Personal Locator Beacon like the TerraFix from ACR, which can communicate a distress signal and get rescuers to your location quickly. However, because these devices can break and the batteries can die, I also recommend carrying (and knowing how to use) a compass and topographical map of the area you are hunting in.
In the event you do get stuck in the woods, make sure you carry an adequate survival kit. The ability to build a fire is paramount, as is having tools for shelter construction, collecting and purifying water, and signaling search parties. Hunting during the coldest months usually means a shortage of daylight, so plan accordingly by keeping a flashlight or headlamp close at hand so you don't have to dig for it.
Hand-in-hand with a survival kit is a well-stocked first-aid kit. And a better term here would be "self-aid" instead of first-aid, because your ability to independently deal with injuries can be the difference between a bad situation and a dire one. In this mindset, I always have two packages of QuikClot in my pack to deal with a serious bleeding wound as well as personal medications that can get me through a couple of days.
If you hunt from an elevated stand, a safety harness is mandatory. As a lone hunter, however, you will have to self-rescue if you do fall. There are a few options on the market, such as Hunter Rescue and Rescue Steps. But also have signaling devices close at hand such as a whistle, cell phone, or other items we've already addressed (I carry them in a plastic bag in my harness's vest pocket).
Before you go out the door, put together a detailed written itinerary and leave it with someone you trust with your life. It's helpful to make a copy of a map of your hunt area and use a highlighter to show where you will park, hike, camp, or generally be hunting. In the margin somewhere, write down the make, model and license number of your vehicle, the "no later than" time for your return, and phone numbers for the State Police, Search and Rescue, and/or closest Forest Service office to where you will be hunting.
Next, we can take on the cold-weather factor. Your clothing is critical. Dress in layers; think in terms of managing your body heat and avoiding moisture. Your base layer should be hydrophobic and move moisture away from your skin, mid-layers should insulate and allow an on-the-go adjustment, and the outer layer should be wind-resistant and, ideally, water-repellent. I like to include a vest and beanie in my pack no matter what; if I'm stuck out for the night, it will create a cocoon of warmth for my vital organs.
Last, prepare for€¦ you. Be hyper-vigilant of any medical conditions that, if not treated with respect, will get you stuck in a difficult situation. Additionally, be careful about overexerting, and don't let ego push you into a problem. And if you do encounter problems, keep a cool head (no pun intended). Admit what the problem is, and let your thorough preparation push away the possibility of fear or panic. Deal with the problem, however long it takes, and live to hunt another day. Hunting alone in cold weather has always been a special time in the woods for me. With these tips, it can be fun and safe for you as well.