Forest ranger Patti Rudge teaches Backwoods Basics and Winter Survival


New York State forest ranger Patti Rudge, left, discusses “Backwoods Basics.” (photo by Violet Snow)

Suppose you and a friend are hiking up Panther Mountain on a winter day. When a binding on your snowshoe breaks, you have nothing to fix it with. You got a late start, and the sun is waning. Every time you step into a six-foot drift without your snowshoe, you sink up to your hip, and there’s no way you’ll get out of the woods by nightfall. What are you going to do?

Better yet, how could you have planned your expedition ahead of time to avoid spending a night in the woods? This question will be among the topics covered by retired New York State forest ranger Patti Rudge, when she discusses “Backwoods Basics” at the Phoenicia Library on Saturday, January 20, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. She’ll move on to the other question — how to survive an unexpected night in the winter woods — in a second class, “One Night Alone: Winter Survival” on Saturday, February 24, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., also at the library.


Rudge, who was the first female forest ranger in New York State, worked in the towns of Shandaken and Denning for almost 20 years. Her primary role was education, with occasional forays into law enforcement, search and rescue, and forest fire fighting. The talk she will be giving on January 20 emphasizes preparation — from the virtues of starting out early in the day to what to carry along — as well as trail etiquette that will make the hiking experience amenable to everyone.

“If you’re going on a hike to Giant Ledge,” said Rudge, “you might just go. But I’m going to tell you to take a step back and do the planning. Who do you want to go out there with? Who’s got the skills in case something goes wrong? Wear the proper clothing, ask questions, make phone calls, find out the trail conditions. Do you really need crampons, and what are crampons anyway? Do you know if the best parking lot is plowed?”

Etiquette includes not parking your car halfway onto the road, as well as making sure, if you’ve had the foresight to bring a shovel, that you don’t shovel snow from the parking lot into the road. Then there’s the trash issue. “No pits, cores, peels, or straws,” Rudge said. “You probably know not to toss your clementine peels, even if they’re organic. What about the apple core? We’ll go over the what-ifs and why-nots, right down to when you have to go to the bathroom. Don’t leave a yellow patch in the middle of the trail. We don’t have to know what everybody did and where.”

The best-laid plans can give way to the unexpected, even for experienced hikers. The February 24 class will cover what to do when forced to spend the night in the woods. “If you’re with the right friends,” said Rudge, “with the right equipment, right attitude, and right plan, you will live through the night. If any of those things are not lined up, you might not.” Members of the public don’t have to attend the first class in order to learn from the second — but it wouldn’t hurt.

The February class will cover how to create a shelter from the contents of your day pack, and Rudge will bring one along, properly packed, as an example. She’ll also touch on the challenge of building a fire in the winter woods. Illness or injury, of course, complicates the situation. “I always have counseled people to start the day early,” she emphasized, “so they’re turning around when there are two or three hours of daylight to work with. Then if something goes wrong, and one person gets off the mountain, the rescuers have daylight to work with. Some people start late — it’s just human nature. But when it goes wrong at 4:30, you have a very different picture than at two o’clock.”

Although these classes focus on winter hiking, many of the principles apply year-round. “The summer is more streamlined,” she said. “The longer day is to everyone’s advantage, and the weather is usually better, but the hypothermia issues I encountered were usually pre- and post-winter. People who visit from more temperate climates do not suspect it would get so cold in early December and March.”

A hazard of late winter and early spring, when the snow has melted in most places, is the persistence of snow on hard-packed trails, which become ice slicks. “No one will expect that,” she reported. “Few people are comfortable with bushwhacking. They’ll be walking without crampons, grabbing tree limbs left and right, breaking them off. Slide Mountain is a mess that time of year. If people had known more, they wouldn’t be there crawling on hands and knees on top of Slide. It gets back to winter etiquette.”

Rudge made it her mission to teach CPR to 100 people. She held one-day CPR classes at several locations around town, including the library. “The group that took it were so inspired, we begged her to do another program,” said library director Elizabeth Potter. Next came Rudge’s seven-session Red Cross “Responding to Emergencies” first aid course.

At that point, said Potter, “we all decided, whatever Patti’s teaching, we’re taking. She spoke about making the community more self-reliant. We all experienced being cut off for 10 days after the floods of Hurricane Irene, with no phone, power, water. Many of us live remotely down far-flung hollows or routinely wander alone in the woods, with no cell service. Community members are interested in learning how to handle emergencies because help is not so easy to get here.” The library has also hosted a state-sponsored training in how to administer Narcan to neutralize an opioid overdose. In the fall, Rudge plans to offer a hands-on workshop that will include building a debris shelter, plus details of fire-making.

It turned out that she did reach just over 100 people to teach them CPR. “I wasn’t sure I’d catch the youth,” she said. “I opened it up to 12-year-olds, if they came with an adult. We had a good handful of local youth, local elders, and people in the middle.”

“Libraries are becoming centers of life-long community-based learning,” said Potter. “People like Patti Rudge share their highly specialized knowledge with their neighbors. All are welcome, there is no charge, and we all gain from a lifetime of experience.”

The Phoenicia Library presents two classes taught by Patti Rudge: “Backwoods Basics” on Saturday, January 20, 1-3 p.m., and “One Night Alone: Winter Survival” on Saturday, February 24, 1-3 p.m. Both classes are free. The library is located at 48 Main Street in Phoenicia. For more information, see