Outdoors Information

Backcountry Safety - An Essential 10-Point Checklist


The call of the wild can be seductive. The exquisite beauty of the wilderness, the incomparable solitude, the simplicity of life on the trail, and the rush of living a bit on the edge attract thousands of eager backcountry enthusiasts. Sometimes enthusiasm gets in the way of wisdom and adequate preparation. Hikers, campers and other nature lovers can find themselves lost, unprepared or badly hurt. Colorado's Mountain Rescue Association reports its teams respond to more than 1,000 search and rescues per year. Victims often suffer from frostbite, dehydration, shock or severe trauma. Not all emergencies can be prevented, but many can. Poor preparation, poor judgment and hubris can be a dangerous combination that can lead to pure misery, injury or even death. Be wise and commit to the safety rules established by the experts. The following 10 rules are promoted by the officials of The Appalachian Club (www.outdoors.org) and the Colorado Mountain Club (www.cmc.org) :

#1 Alert Others to Your Plans - Be sure to tell family or close friends where you are going and when you plan to return. Fill out a hiker log at the Ranger Station in the wilderness area that you intend to visit. Know who can initiate a search and rescue in the area you are visiting. It may be the County Sheriff, but in the National Park system it's the Park Ranger.

#2 Educate Yourself - There is an ethic of self-reliance in the backcountry. You have to rely on your own abilities to stay out of a jam, or get yourself out of one. You must know your own limitations. If you are heading into a new area, study the guidebooks. Ask around to get as much information you can on the terrain, the type of experience, the topography, and any other features you may need to watch out for. Do not overlook the option of traveling with an organized group with a knowledgeable leader to give you at least an introduction.

#3 Expect Weather to Change Quickly - In many locations, weather can be unpredictable and unforgiving. Seasonal changes can add to this challenge most anywhere. Be sure to check weather reports before heading out, and if the forecast is dismal, postpone your trip. The trail will be there tomorrow.

#4 Dress to Prevent Hypothermia - Heed this advice, even if you are planning a simple day hike. The chief reason that people die in the backcountry is hypothermia or 'exposure' - a lowering of core body temperature. Jeans and cotton t-shirts become a real problem when they become wet and hold moisture next to the skin while drawing heat away from the body. Polypropylene and silk wick moisture away from the skin and help retain body heat. Next, consider insulating layers such as synthetic fleece or wool, and an outer shell that protects from wind or moisture. A hat will significantly help preserve body heat. Loose-fitting clothing is better than tight fitting. Feet can become cold if your belt or boots are too tight and impairing your circulation.

#5 Prioritize When Packing - The average survival experience lasts three days. To negotiate that, you will need some sort of shelter that provides a windbreak to keep you warm and dry, as well as water to maintain hydration, a fire starter, a back-up fire starter, and a mirror for signaling. Do not over-emphasize the usefulness of flares, strobes and flashlights. Someone may possibly spot them accidentally at night, but those intentionally looking for you will be searching in daylight. A fire is more useful. It is reassuring when you are tired, panicky and cold. It can warm you up, melt snow to keep you hydrated, or to treat a hypothermic victim with warm liquid. A fire can be a signaling device during the day. Remember the power of "3" - three fires in a triangle, three columns of smoke, three whistles and three gunshots, are the international signal for distress.

#6 Know Your Equipment - If you are not quite sure how to use your compass and topographical map, find the appropriate help or course at an outfitter or in a book by experts. Maps, compasses, and GPS devices are useless in your pocket. The time to read the instructions on your emergency fire starter is not when it is dark, you're cold, and your hands are shaking. Using your equipment should be second nature. Survival will be 10% equipment, 10% knowing how to use it, and 80% will be your own intelligence and attitude.

#7 Stay Hydrated - Drink a minimum of two quarts of water a day. Hydration is incredibly important in preventing hypothermia and in maintaining the ability to think clearly. If you lose two percent of your body's fluid content through normal sweat and urination, and don't replenish it, you can begin experiencing headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, increased heart rate and decreased muscle strength. The body cannot generate heat if it's dehydrated. If you are planning to get water from a river or stream, bring a water filter or some method of disinfecting or treating it. Some people boil it. In a survival situation, keeping yourself hydrated makes drinking any available water worth the risk. Although water-borne viruses do exist in rivers and streams, you will probably be rescued by the time that virus makes you sick. Staying hydrated is most critical.

#8 Feast on Carbohydrates - Carbohydrates provide quick and sustainable energy. Complex carbohydrates are best, but a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates is perfectly suitable. Bring foods such as fruit and granola bars that provide concentrated energy for the least amount of weight. Proteins, such as beef jerky, are the worst. Your body needs time and energy to break down proteins, and they can require a lot of water.

#9 Remain Calm - Keeping your wits about you in an emergency situation will prolong your life and greatly increase the odds of survival. Maintaining a positive mental attitude is the biggest advantage in a survival situation. This is especially important if you have an injury, a fatality, or someone who is hypothermic or giving up. These situations will have a debilitating effect on the group. Rescuers report that they have had people run away from them because they're in a hysterical, threatened mindset. Be cool and calm to help you survive. (Remember, the average situation lasts three days.)

#10 Stay Put - If you become delayed, don't take off in a different direction or try a shortcut. Alpine rescuers say that the biggest problem they have is that people are not where they are supposed to be. They are often miles from where they said they were going to be. If you become badly lost, settle down and stay put.

Get Wild...Stay Safe!

Copyright 2005 Karen B. Cohen All rights Reserved.

Karen B. Cohen is a performance and wellness coach living in a college town in rural Virginia. A lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Karen enjoys a variety of pursuits in the Upper Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is an expert yoga instructor and occasionally leads yoga hikes near her home. She is available for seminars, workshops and individual coaching, and can be reached through her latest project http://www.RockbridgeMag.com

(Karen@RockbridgeMag.com)


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