I love doing this – see other hiking myths HERE
Myth: A few shots of alcohol help to warm you.
Sipping your favored alcoholic beverage on a winter trail might make you feel good, but much more than a few sips is dangerous outside in cold weather. Alcohol opens blood vessels in your skin (the warm blush of drinking), which encourages loss of heat from your skin surface. And alcohol lowers your core temp a bit. “What if I’m dressed appropriately?” you ask. You might not lose a dangerous amount of heat if your skin is adequately protected, but you may lose the keen edge of mental sharpness.
So save the toddy for chats by the fireplace at home, or if camping, at least until camp is set up with a fire going and you only have to crawl to your sleeping bag if you get chilled. Even then or at a summit, moderation increases safety and the joy of being close to nature.
Myth: Drinking hot liquids warms you faster than drinking cold liquids.
There should be no misunderstanding about hydration: you must be drinking to maximize internal heat production and to perform at your best. You need at least as much fluid in winter as in summer. It is, however, almost impossible to drink enough hot liquid to raise the temperature of your body’s core. And you can drink cool water faster than you can sip down a hot drink. Yes, there is a psychological lift gained from a warm mug, but do not count on it to warm you up inside. Most of the time, drink cool liquid, preferably water, to stay warm in winter. For more on hydration, see my post here.
Myth: You lose most of your body heat through your head.
The amount of total body heat you can lose through your head, according to the myth, varies from half to as much as 85 percent. But your head accounts for only 10 percent of your total body surface! And guess what? That is how much body heat you lose from your head—10 percent. You do not lose heat faster or more easily from your uncovered head than other parts of your body. But 10 percent is more than enough to be concerned about, and ears and noses remain high on the list of favored sites for frostbite. Bundle up your noggin if hiking in cold weather or at nighttime when camping.
Myth: Hypothermia kills you within minutes of falling into icy water.
Those who die within minutes of plunging into deeply cold water are victims of drowning. This is because they panic, inhale water, go down, and never come up. Hypothermia, the dangerous lowering of your body’s core temperature, takes at least a half hour to become a problem, even in ice water. Gordon Giesbrecht, Ph.D., the guru of cold-weather medical research, suggests using the first minute after an unintentional cold-water dunking to calm down and control your breathing. Then, he says, use the next 10 minutes trying to get out of the water. After 10 minutes, the cold will have sapped your ability to move usefully. If you can’t get out, try to relax and float. Panic is debilitating in all emergencies including immersing in icy water. You have about an hour more of consciousness unless other medical conditions create problems.
Myth: All black and blue berries are safe to eat.
A common rule of thumb for foragers is that nearly all white and yellow berries are toxic, about 50 percent of red berries are poisonous, and most blue and black berries are safe to eat. As a guideline, this isn’t bad—but it is not good enough to keep you safe, so it is not MY rule of thumb. The key word here is “most,” and consuming a black or blue berry without knowing what specific kind of berry could prove fatal. For example, pokeberries and the blue berries of Virginia Creepers are lethal.
The only way to stay safe is: Do not eat any berry that you can’t positively identify. See Wild Plants Best to Avoid.
Myth: Look for food first when lost
If you get lost, should you start by looking for food first? NO! Assuming you can’t reliably reverse course to your last known milestone, the first thing you want to do in such a situation is look for shelter from the elements, then work towards signaling others, then search for water and THEN look for food.
The human body can survive without food for days before starvation. Nature, dehydration, and the elements can damage you a lot faster. For more information, see: Challenges on a Hike
Myth: Clouds protect against sunburn
On a cloudy day, sunscreen is often left at home when going for a hike. Why protect yourself if you cannot see the sun, you might think? What many people don’t know is that a thin cloud cover absorbs only about 10%-20% of the ultra-violet radiation. The remaining 80%-90% hits our skin if unfiltered by sunscreen.
Also, you should always remember that the higher you go up, the stronger the UV radiation gets. Its intensity increases by up to 20% per 1,000 meters of altitude! Appropriate sun protection on mountains is always important – especially in winter when snow reflects the UV rays. For more information, see: Sunscreen in the Wild.