Getting lost in the wilderness, mauled by a bear, or having to cut off your arm to escape the death-grip of a narrow slot canyon. These thoughts and images have crossed the minds of even the most casual of hiker. We who seek adventure in the wilderness areas of the world all know and understand that there is an element of danger in what we do. To some extent that may be in part what keeps drawing us back to that taller crag, the longer hike, and the higher summit.
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time outdoors then you have most certainly made mistakes. We all have. Each of us has made bad decisions, took unnecessary risks and applied bad judgement at one time or another. We can however with knowledge and preparation limit our chances of injury by reducing the number of bad decisions we make.
The most important aspect of wilderness safety is your attitude. If you can approach your safety with the right mindset it will greatly increase your chances of surviving an emergency situation with minimal damage.
Planning for Safety
Accidents do happen and if you spend enough time outdoors, it is not going to be a question of if an accident occurs, it’s going to come down to how well prepared you are to minimize the impact to yourself and your companions.
It is obviously impossible to plan for everything that could potentially happen to you while exploring the wilderness; however we can plan in order to mitigate the majority of threats if not eliminate at least some of them completely.
#1 Priority: Tell Others How to Find you!
Once you’ve determined where you are going you should either purchase or print out a second map of the area you are going to be visiting. Use a highlighter to highlight the trailhead and your intended route. Then use a second highlighter to mark your backup route if your primary plan needs to change due to unforeseen circumstances.
Using a permanent marker write down the names of everyone in your party, cell phone number(s), and date of anticipated return. Include your car(s) make, model color and license plate. You should also write down the local Search and Rescue contact information. Leave this map, highlighted and detailed as explained with a friend or family member with instructions to call Search and Rescue on a predetermined date and time if you have not communicated your safe return. The map, along with any recent photos can be given to the search and rescue team in order to aide a rescue mission.
Packing for Safety
We try and approach this topic with common sense and pack items that you will use. One of the biggest problems with a “survival” or “emergency” kit is that it never gets opened used or checked unless there is an emergency. In packing your emergency kit try to think of things that you will use normally, not just in an emergency situation. For instance, in my emergency kit, I pack Chlorine tablets or Iodine as a backup to my water filtration system. If we are on our way back down the mountain and my filter is still usable, I will use the Tablets to purify water for the hike out. This reinforces to me that I have them, reminds me of proper use, and forces me to rotate old ones out so that they do not expire. If my filter ever breaks gets lost, or is otherwise unusable on future trips, I know how to use my backup. In other words the things in your emergency kit need to be usable and you must know how to use them!
Not exactly rocket science here just a simple shift in attitude towards your emergency kit, how you use it and how you pack it. You bring things along for emergencies, but they are usable items on every adventure.
Like all of us you want to pack things for emergencies but you also don’t want to weigh yourself down with an additional 10 pounds of gear for “just in case”. So how do you find a happy medium and pack with a safety mindset?
The following items are what we believe you should pack in preparation for emergency use. This list is meant to be a basic overview to get you thinking about your safety; specifics on the hows and whys will be discussed elsewhere.
Backup Water Filtration
Dehydration is one of the most common issues faced on the trails and for long trips it is very difficult to carry all the water you need. If your primary water filtration system fails you will need a backup. Example: A UV Water Purification Light as your primary and Iodine tablets as a backup.
So I know it is very trendy to make a fire with two sticks but in reality is a difficult skill to learn. I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn how to do it, but I would not advise relying on it as a fire starting method. Carry some waterproof matches, but also carry at least one, if not two other forms of fire starting equipment. A good quality lighter is worth it’s weight in gold. If you use other methods like flint and steel, magnesum rods, etc… please please please, make sure to practice lighting fires with those items. If you truly need them in an emergency you need to know how they work.
Good strong lightweight cord has a million different uses and should be a staple in your backpack. Emergency uses include tying slings, making field splints, can be used in erecting an emergency shelter, lashing a knife to make a spear, etc. Non-Emergency use include repairing tents, hanging trash and/or food from trees, etc.
I always have a knife in my pack. My primary knife is a Leatherman multi tool that has proven incredibly valuable while backpacking. From opening packages to repairing our tent. Personally I find a good quality multi tool much more useful than a standard knife however many people will disagree with me in this matter. Either way In an emergency situation your knife may prove your lifeline, helping your to make dry tinder to help start a fire in moist conditions, to helping fashion supports for an emergency shelter. Make sure to buy a good quality knife and learn how to take care of it so that it doesn’t fail under the demands that you will require while backpacking.
ZipLock type freezer bags are incredibly useful and once you begin carrying them I would be willing to bet that you will always make sure have a few in your pack. I personally keep a couple gallon sized bags in my pack and inevitably I always use them. Whether to hold leftovers or seal used wrappers and trash in. In an emergency situation I can use them to hold and carry water if my camel pack or water container springs a leak.
Bandannas or Buffs are also one of those items that are multipurpose and can be incredibly useful in emergency situations. They can be used every day as head covering, dust protection, or a neck gator. In emergencies you can fashion a sling and use them as a large bandage or in severe cases a tourniquet can be made with one.
First Aid Kit
Of course no backpack would be complete without a simple first aid kit containing your standard items.
- Various bandages
- Cloth Tape
- A couple packs of pain relievers
- Anti-Diarrhea pills
A small lightweight tarp could prove incredibly useful in building a makeshift shelter during an emergency situation. Even if you make a primitive shelter a tarp can help add a layer of weatherproofing that could mean the difference between a dry night or staying up all night dodging puddles.
A lot of people including myself keep an emergency blanket in my pack. They are lightweight and not incredibly durable therefore I am not a huge fan of them by themselves; however like a tarp they are a good addition for reflecting body heat when building a primitive shelter. It is one of those items that goes against my requirements though. It is only there for emergency, but it is very small and lightweight so it’s potential usefulness has earned a spot in my pack.
The best advice we can give and have followed ourselves it to make sure you do not surprise the animals that call the wilderness home. A surprised animal is going to respond in much the same way as a human. Either fight or flight.
Talking with your partner while hiking is a great way to let your presence be known. If you know that you’re in bear country and begin seeing signs of recent bear activity don’t be afraid to talk to the unseen bears. We hiked several hikes through Sequoia with my wife calling out
“HEY BEAR, WE’RE HERE TO VISIT YOUR FOREST, BEAR! HEY BEAR!”
Yes, I do understand that talking loudly and shouting out to unseen critters limits your chances of seeing these beautiful animals but it also limits your chance of surprising them and causing an undesired reaction from them.
For the record we saw plenty of Grizzlies in Yellowstone, Black Bears in Sequoia, Elk in the Rockies, and the list goes on; even while using these noisy tactics.
While setting up camp in the backcountry you typically do not want to eat where your sleep and vice versa; so set up a “kitchen” area away from your sleeping quarters. That way any lingering scents left behind will draw curious critters to the kitchen and not your bedroom.
Remember the ziplocks I suggested you pack? Put used food wrappers in them and seal them before putting them into a bear sack or bear container. Clean everything up, do not leave dirty plates and cookware lying around to deal with later.
I guess I should say it even though I suspect most people reading this already know, DO NOT under any circumstances approach any wild animal in order to get closer to it for any reason. Yes even if the reason is a cool Facebook Selfie.
Regarding snakes. There are only a few poisonous snakes found in the wilderness in North America: Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Water Moccasins and Coral Snakes. Rarely do snake bites occur above the ankle so good sturdy leather hiking boots can protect from bites. Snake bites are surprisingly rare. According to the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation; “The chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero”.; and, “Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten”. But in the case you do get bitten the most important thing to do is remain calm. Obviously easier said than done. Do not try to use one of those cut and suck snake bite kits as they do more damage than good in most circumstances and there is no proof that they are at all effective. As I was saying, if you do get bit, remain calm and if you are traveling with someone stay where you are and send them for help. Wash out the bite wound as good as you can and bandage it, trying to minimize moving around.
Insects are probably going to your biggest rival in the outdoors because there is very little you can do about them other than cover up. I am not a big fan of using chemicals in order to dissuade them but have been known to slap on the deet in certain areas although that didn’t even seem to help much as the bugs acted immune to the poison. Bug nets and long sleeves are your best friends in heavily infested areas. Try to not camp very close to water sources but as some of you already know, certain times of the year and they are simply unavoidable.
Getting to the trail:
Traveling safe includes everything from getting you to the trailhead until you unload gear back at home. For getting to the trail make sure that you know your route, have checked local weather conditions for any travel advisories and if you’ve done all of your pre-planning you should already know what the conditions are for parking at the trailhead.
On the trail:
Once on the trail we advise using comfortable hiking shoes with support. Good boots with ankle support is always a good idea to help prevent injuring your ankles if you stumble or twist it. Without getting to specifics, which we will deal with another time, make sure your footwear no matter what you choose is in good shape. Make sure your shoelaces are in good condition the soles are not separating from the shoe and still have decent tread to help with traction over potentially slippery terrain.
We also advise using trekking poles. Some studies suggest that trekking poles can help minimize joint impact and reduce shock absorption in the ankles; of course there are is a lot of debate in this area and really comes down to personal preference. Without a doubt however trekking poles do provide additional support when traveling uneven surfaces and can be used to probe murky water when crossing in order to locate rocks and of course the water depth. Trekking poles can also keep small animals such as snakes beyond arms length away if needed.
Above all when traveling to and on the trail do not take chances. If you are unsure about a route do not take it. For instance if you know that you can rappel into a canyon but do not know the routes out, do not do it! Go around. Take the long way if need be. The certain route is always the route to choose if you can. Remember you are out there to have fun not increase risk of injury. If you are in that big of a hurry that you are willing to take chances with your safety than maybe you should reevaluate why you want to backpack in the first place.
I am not saying to not do inherently dangerous activities because many consider rock climbing incredibly dangerous. But with the right mindset, adequate training and proper use of equipment; even apparently dangerous activities do not require “risk taking” behaviors.
If you enter the wilderness with the right mindset and appropriate preparation you will surprise yourself at the obstacles you can overcome. Hiking and backpacking often requires troubleshooting skills and innovative solutions for unplanned circumstances. Prepare yourself so that you can confidently adapt to any situation that presents itself before you.
Most importantly I cannot stress enough the mental game played when facing difficult situations. Remember that under stress we all react differently. No matter what you learn from us or from other sources do not underestimate your own ingenuity.
Use the knowledge you gain from us and others but remember to adapt to your own personality, the type and location where you adventure, and what makes you feel confident. In other words don’t pack a huge 12” Hunting knife if you’re not comfortable using one. Even if all the survival experts tell you that is what is best.
Remember this list is not meant to be exhaustive. It’s design is more in the way of getting you thinking about safety and packing those things that are going to give you the confidence you need to keep the right mental attitude when out of the ordinary situations present themselves during your adventure.
We here at the Outside Voice hope that we have provided you with useful information, but more importantly we hope that we’ve given you the base knowledge and thought process so that you can set yourself up for success no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.
So until next time, stay safe, stay positive and remember to get out there and use your Outside Voice!