All trappers should constantly be aware of the potential hazards, which they might face while trapping. Young trappers should practice the “buddy system” and should always try to avoid venturing out on the trapline alone. Also, it is a good idea to get into the habit of always letting some responsible person know exactly where you are going and approximately when you expect to return. All trappers are advised to take a first-aid course and to carry a first-aid and survival kit with them. The items needed in this kit would depend on how remote the trapline is. Some of the most common hazards likely to be encountered on the trapline are discussed briefly below.
Hypothermia (exposure) is one of the most dangerous hazards a trapper is likely to face. Extremely cold weather is not required to cause hypothermia. In fact in wet, windy weather, hypothermia can occur at temperatures of 40 to 50° F or higher. Hypothermia can occur in minutes if a victim is immersed in cold water.
Hypothermia results from loss of body heat and is characterized by uncontrollable shivering, difficulty in speaking, and loss of coordination. If body heat is not restored, death will result. Hypothermia is especially dangerous because the cooling of the body slows mental processes and leads to irrational thinking and mistakes in judgment. Also, the loss of coordination can result in stumbling, falling, and the loss of the ability to walk. Pulse and respiration slow and the victim lapses into unconsciousness and, unless help is rendered rapidly, dies.
Early signs of hypothermia should be a warning to the trapper to seek shelter as quickly as possible. Build a fire. If possible, remove wet clothing and get into a warm sleeping bag or dry clothes. Drink hot fluids and eat high-energy foods such as candy or dried fruit. Do not consume alcohol, as this will lead to a further slowing of body functions. If with a partner, share body heat. In extreme cases of hypothermia, full recovery of body temperature may take hours, and medical assistance, if available, may be required to gradually bring the body temperature back up to normal.
Frostbite most commonly occurs on exposed skin (nose, ears, face) or the extremities (hands, feet). It results from the freezing of the flesh and is indicated by whiteness or blanching of the skin accompanied by a tingling sensation. Feeling in the affected area decreases and the skin will be cold and frosty. The best treatment is thawing in warm water (not hot). Do not rub the affected area. On the trapline, a bared hand can be held over the face until the frostbitten areas hurt again. In extreme cold do not handle metal objects (such as traps) with your bare hands or frostbite can result in a very short period of time.
Many trappers have the necessity to travel on ice, but it should never be considered entirely safe, even under the coldest conditions. Ice on lakes and ponds is generally stronger than river ice because the currents create weak spots. Ice near shore is often weaker because of buckling action breaking and refreezing it. Springs in lakes sometimes cause upwelling of warmer water, which can weaken ice, and schools of fish such as carp, may congregate and create thin ice spots because of the water circulated by their fins. Ice can be a foot thick in one spot and only 1 inch thick 10 feet away.
New, clear ice is generally the strongest. Ice mixed with snow or slush appears white and is not as strong as clear ice. “Candle ice” results from solid ice decomposing (usually in spring) and forming into long vertical needles. This ice makes a hissing sound when walking on it.
As a general rule, 2 to 4 inches of clear ice are required for a single person on foot, and 5 to 7 inches are required for a snowmobile. There is no general rule for white ice and personal judgment is required. It is a good idea to check to see how thick the clear ice is under the white ice.
Candle (“rotten”) ice appears black and is not very strong for its thickness. Usually, candle ice under 2 feet thick is unsafe and good judgment is needed even on ice thicker than that. In most cases, this ice is safer in the early morning if subfreezing temperatures occurred the night before causing the vertical needles of ice to freeze together.
If you break through the ice, always turn around and attempt to climb out at the point where you fell in, since the ice held you to that point. Even if near shore do not continue on, but turn back the way you came. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken ice and work forward by kicking your feet. If the ice breaks, maintain your position and slide forward again. Once onto unbroken ice, don’t stand but roll away to solid ice.
If you are with someone else and they break through, do not rush to the edge of the hole to attempt to rescue them. Throw them a rope or extend a pole, branch, or other object to them and pull them out.
Once out, get a fire going as quickly as possible unless shelter is close at hand. If no shelter is available build two fires, one on each side. If traveling on a snowmobile, carry extra clothing and a sleeping bag and change out of your wet clothes. Wool clothing is preferable to down or synthetics and will provide some insulation even when wet.
Cuts are one of the most common injuries to trappers. A supply of bandages, adhesive tape, and gauze dressing will be sufficient for most minor cuts. Butterfly bandages can be used to temporarily pull together a deeper cut that could require stitches.
One of the worst situations that can occur is to cut your foot or leg with an axe. For that reason, it is a good idea to use a saw rather than an axe whenever possible. If a cut is made through your foot, do not remove the boot if at all possible because you will be unable to get it back on. Push an absorbent dressing through the cut in the boot, and then tie something around the boot to apply pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding.
Heavy bleeding can usually be controlled by applying pressure directly to the wound. If that fails, pressure may need to be applied to a pressure point on the body, or, as a last resort, a tourniquet may have to be applied. A tourniquet cuts off blood flow and can lead to gangrene and loss of a limb if not frequently loosened. Trappers should take a first-aid course or consult a first-aid book before attempting these techniques. Elevating an affected limb will ease blood pressure and slow bleeding.
It is easy to get ‘turned around’ while trapping, especially in an unfamiliar area or when it is impossible to see landmarks. Trappers should always carry a good compass and an accurate map. Even in more settled areas fog, rain, or snow can obliterate familiar landmarks and cause difficulties for the trapper without a compass.
If you do become lost and you do not have a map and compass to help guide you out, make yourself comfortable and stay in one place until you are found. It is a good idea to carry some sort of survival kit.
Getting Caught in a Trap
All trappers face getting their hands accidentally caught in one of their own traps while setting or checking. For foothold traps on land, this seldom presents a problem, since the trapper can usually open the trap by applying pressure to the springs with his feet.
Never reach through the ice with your hands to check or attempt to find a trap. If your arm is through the ice and your hand is caught in a trap, you are in serious trouble. Use a trap hook to recover traps or make certain that you have cut a hole large enough to pull the trap up through if necessary.
If you are caught in a conibear trap, use a rope with an end loop to free yourself. Place your foot in the loop, double the rope through the holes in the springs, and pull upward on the free end with your other hand or by looping it over your back and holding it in your teeth (ask an instructor to demonstrate). Practice this release method before needed and when setting large body-gripping traps always have a length of rope with a loop close at hand. Always use a safety device when setting these traps.