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Winter Safety and Comfort: A Top Priority at Open Sky (Part One)

The Open Sky Team

Open Sky utilizes a hybrid base camp/wilderness model year-round and maintains two base camps: one in Southwest Colorado during summer months and one in Southeast Utah during winter months. 

At Open Sky, we are committed to maintaining the highest risk management standards in all aspects of our operations. During the winter, Open Sky implements specific winter wilderness risk management practices and protocols that encompass all aspects of programming, including course area management, gear, staffing, staff training, student education, nutrition, and activities. 

Course Area

Every fall, Open Sky completes its transition from its Colorado course area to the desert canyon country of Southeast Utah. Here, the arid landscape is dotted with juniper, pinyon, and sagebrush, as well as interesting and dramatic rock formations. This high desert habitat provides expansive views and opportunities to find remnants left behind by an ancient civilization. 

 The climate in Southeast Utah is hospitable, precipitation is infrequent, and sunshine is plentiful, providing an ideal environment to engage in deep therapeutic work. Winter in the desert typically features clear skies and mild temperatures, with the average high ranging from 41 to 61° F and average low temperatures from 20 to 32 °F. The average snowfall accumulation is between 0.5 to 4.5 inches. 

 Weather is monitored continuously with twice-daily forecasts provided by phone or radio to the field guides in each team. If inclement or unusually cold weather (below 10° F) is in the forecast, however, students do not leave base camp for expedition and stay comfortable in their shelters during passing storms.  

Shelter

At Open Sky, each team’s base camp is furnished with a large tipi and a custom yurt-like tent structure containing a high efficiency wood-burning stove, which provides shelter and warmth during winter. These structures also provide areas to gather, prepare food, eat meals, and dry gear. Firewood is stocked throughout our operating area for easy access. 

 Open Sky staff consistently evaluate the program’s infrastructure needs and make any necessary investments to ensure we provide a safe, quality experience for students. As we transition into the winter season, our field and operations team are hard at work expanding and fortifying wall tent pads, rebuilding fire pits, weather proofing trail systems, and optimizing sites to improve visibility for supervision.   

Gear

To ensure student success in the field during winter, Open Sky makes sure students have what they need to thrive. Every Open Sky student is outfitted with exceptional gear designed specifically for winter conditions. This gear includes:   

  • insulated winter hiking boots 
  • sturdy over boots 
  • winter socks 
  • thick long underwear 
  • fleece jackets 
  • deep winter sleeping bags 
  • warm puffy jackets
  • insulated gloves
  • knit hats 
  • neck gaiters 
  • waterproof outer layers

The sleeping bags provided by Open Sky are rated to negative 30 °F and students also receive two insulated sleeping pads, so they stay warm and comfortable as they sleep. Our field staff also teach students how to make a “warm buddy”—a Nalgene water bottle filled with hot water and wrapped in sock—to add to their sleeping bags for extra coziness.  

 Students receive two of each base layer (thick and thin) so they have clean and dry base layers at all times. In the winter months, Open Sky’s operations team does the students’ laundry on a weekly basis, ensuring that they have a fresh set of clothes and at least three pairs of clean, dry socks at all times. Camp shoes are also provided so that insulated hiking boots and NEOs (over-boot covers) may be dried overnight. 

Staff Training

A foundation of Open Sky’s commitment to safety is the intensive training that all field staff receive. Our guides are highly qualified and experienced outdoor professionals committed to students’ physical and emotional well-being. Each student team at Open Sky is led by field guides who are nationally certified Wilderness First Responders (WFR); many of our field guides are also trained Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT). 

All Open Sky field guides are required to complete a mandatory curriculum for winter wilderness risk management training. This course provides guides with a comprehensive understanding and competency in winter camping skills and best practice risk mitigation. Guides are well-versed in the ways in which our bodies can lose heat and are trained in weather-related injury identification and treatment. During the winter, each student receives extremities checks (hands, feet, and head) a minimum of three times per day and more frequently in specific situations.

Our emergency response team meets quarterly to address seasonal needs and a variety of response scenarios. These in-service meetings are required for program management, field guides, operations staff, and field managers. Additionally, we hold a 90-minute field staff training each week to address safety, wilderness skills, course curriculum, and other risk-management topics. Beyond internal training, Open Sky routinely coordinates with the local community to ensure effective collaboration and best practice protocols are in place. 

Staffing

Open Sky is the only wilderness program with an around-the-clock field manager and field medic who live in base camp 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Open Sky employs two full-time field medics, with minimum credentials of either Wilderness-EMT or registered nurse. There is always one medic living in base camp and embedded in the field to oversee the safety and well-being of each student. The field medic is available to respond rapidly in the event of illness or an emergent need. No other wilderness program provides this level of around-the-clock medical support. 

Student Education

Experiencing wilderness therapy in the winter is a unique opportunity for students to develop inner strength and resiliency as they master new skills. Upon enrollment, each student is provided with the Open Sky Student Pathway, an educational guidebook specifically designed to educate students on self-care in the wilderness. A primary goal of the Student Pathway is to empower students with the information they need to thrive in the wilderness environment. Students engage in practices to support their physical safety and self-care (hydration, temperature management, and wilderness skills) as a part of progressing through the therapeutic curriculum of the Pathway. 

Nutrition

Nutritional needs change season to season, and we adapt our meal planning to reflect these changes. We modify the Open Sky diet during winter to include more calorie-dense foods, such as extra protein, butter, peanut butter, and nuts, so that sufficient calories are consumed to offset additional energy demands of winter temperatures. We also provide frequent hot beverages and carefully monitor students’ water intake and hydration.  

Program Accreditation

Open Sky was the first wilderness therapy program to receive the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) accreditation, developed and conducted by the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) and the OBH Council. This voluntary accreditation, granted by an independent, third-party group of professionals, ensures that we not only meet the minimum state regulations but also meet or exceed the industry’s standards of preferred practices. OBH accreditation requires achieving an independent, comprehensive accreditation standard including five protocols addressing winter wilderness safety and risk management. Open Sky’s OBH accreditation is periodically reviewed and renewed, signifying our unending commitment to best practices in quality, safety, and risk management. 

Open Sky provides all students the gear, food, shelter, and support to manage safely in a winter wilderness environment, allowing them to thrive as they move through their therapeutic process in the program.  

Key Takeaways

  • Safety is the highest priority at Open Sky and the program implements specific winter wilderness risk management practices and protocols that encompass all aspects of programming. 
  • Each team’s base camp is outfitted with shelters and resources appropriate for the winter season. 
  • Each Open Sky student is provided high quality, winter-specific gear and clothing to keep them warm and protected in the winter months. 
  • Open Sky winter staff are required to complete winter wilderness risk management training. 
  • Each student team at Open Sky is led by field guides who are nationally certified Wilderness First Responders (WFR); many are also trained Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT). 
  • Students learn how to manage their physical safety and self-care (hydration, temperature management, and wilderness skills) as a part of progressing through the program. 
  • Students are provided high-calorie, nutritious food during the winter months. 
  • Open Sky is OBH-accredited, which requires meeting five protocols addressing winter wilderness safety and risk management. 
This is the first part in a two-part winter blog series. Stay tuned for part two, where we explore why winter is a particularly rich time to engage in therapeutic work in wilderness.

December 2nd, 2022

The Open Sky Team