When hiking or backpacking, the relationship between outdoor clothing and personal safety is obvious. We know our woods wardrobe should be comprised of layers. On the base layer we avoid cottons in favor of moisture-wicking fabrics. With outer layers we look for ventilation, wind protection and water resistance. In between it’s always good to have a lightweight fleece handy when extra warmth is necessary. Various combinations of the three keep us covered in all conditions. But how many of us consider clothing color as a safety feature?
“Clothing that stands out from the environment is helpful in search and rescue situations,” said Nathaniel L. Berry, a retired Maine game warden. “It’s also important to consider the season. Reds are easy to spot in winter, but can blend in with the leaves in the fall, especially when viewed from an aerial search. Of course, hunter orange is always the most visible.”
Confession time: I’ve never really taken color into consideration when choosing hiking clothing. My wardrobe is packed with chameleon colors such as black, green and brown. It wasn’t until a recent online EMS transaction that, when ready to click purchase on a forest green thermal base layer, I had a moment’s pause.
I know what you’re thinking: What does the base layer color matter in search and rescue situations? Before you conclude I’ve jumped the shark on this topic, consider this: When disoriented from hypothermia, it’s not uncommon for people to actually remove clothing. This is something warden Berry has experienced first hand.
“It was shortly after a snow storm and extremely cold,” he said. “The man had been missing for several hours so hypothermia was a concern. I found his mittens first, which had me worried he was shedding clothes. When I finally found him, there was no doubt he was hypothermic. He was lying in a thicket of evergreens with his pants around his ankles and no long underwear on. Doctors later confirmed that he wouldn’t have survived another hour in the woods.”
The point of this article isn’t to scare everyone into dressing like a Cabella’s mannequin or an eighties neon sign. And just because I don’t have a sense of style doesn’t mean I’m trying to take you down with me. On the contrary, Northeast trails are punishing gauntlets of rocks and roots, keeping the door to injury open for even the most experienced hikers. Add New England’s notoriously fickle weather, and the possibility of getting disoriented or hypothermic—a four-season threat—isn’t out of the question, either.
So why not have an article or two of clothing that helps a search? That simple question convinced me to switch the forest green base layer to whatever fancy word EMS is currently using for orange. Would you do the same?