Every week there are stories in the newspapers about hikers, backcountry skiers, climbers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts lost in the wilderness. Many times the story ending is a happy one; the lost person is found after a harrowing night in the outdoors and they return home to be reunited with their family. Sometimes, however, they lose their life due to exposure, extreme weather or injury and the ending is not happy.
As a believer in and encourager of folks getting outside, often, to explore the wilderness, here are ten tips you can follow to make your chances of survival higher should you become one of the lost ones.
1. Let folks know where you’re going. Also let them know with whom you’ll be adventuring and when you expect to return. This is a vital precaution we often are inclined to overlook, especially when we’re just headed out on a day hike in an open space park or the National Forest. However as movies such as 127 Hours: The Aron Ralston Story show, not letting anyone know you’re headed out can be a nearly fatal mistake.
2. Go with a friend. Sure, for the introverts among us there is nothing like a quiet, solo hike in the forest or up a ridge to clear your mind and body of all the gunk it has accumulated. However, if you get injured, having someone to go for help can make the difference in your survival.
3. Know where you are going. While this sounds simplistic, it is important to know where you are headed as well as where you are on the trail. So, include a map of the area (most open space parks have maps at the trailhead if you’re just doing a dayhike near the city or you can get a US Geological Survey Map of the region from a hiking or outdoor store) and a compass among the items you put in your backpack.
4. Dress appropriately. Remember mountain weather changes quickly, so even though it is perfectly appropriate to start out in shorts and a T-shirt plan for changes in the weather by including extra layers as well as foul weather gear (rain jacket and pants) in your daypack. If you don’t want to carry so much, then wear lightweight pants rather than shorts to begin with. Make sure you have a warm hat in your pack as well as a pair of gloves. Should you have to make an unexpected bivouac on the side of the mountain, you’ll be very happy you have extra clothing along.
5. Wear the right foot gear. Although you may be planning to follow a well-marked, well-trodden trail and tennis shoes may seem adequate, wearing a comfortable pair of weather-proofed hiking boots will protect your ankles on the hike and may save your toes from frostbite should you have to spend the night outdoors. The Rocky Mountains are called that for a reason, and as many trails get heavy use, you’ll find lots of loose rock as well as scree on some of the higher trails.
6. Carry a flashlight or headlamp. This is a lightweight item that can make all the difference should you be unexpectedly forced to spend the night outside. Additionally, many situations can occur where you might be delayed returning to the trailhead until after dark.
7. Bring extra food and water along. Hikers generally carry a lunch or some trail snacks in their pack for day hikes. However, thinking ahead to the possibility of an unplanned overnight and bringing a couple extra protein bars or a bag of trail mix can make survival more likely if you’re caught out unexpectedly. Additionally, having a way to purify additional drinking water (you should be carrying at least 3 quarts for a day hike) is great in case you’re forced to spend the night outdoors. Many experienced hikers will have a couple of gallons of water in their vehicle so they can drink before setting out and then have a fresh supply of water waiting for the drive home.
8. Carry first aid supplies. Having some first aid items are helpful for treating blisters, cuts and scrapes or the symptoms of altitude illness.The minimum first aid kit recommended by the Colorado Mountain Club for their hiking trips is as follows: (2) triangular bandages; (1) ace bandage; (8) sterile pads 4” x 4”; (1) 4’ bandage compress; (6) bandaids; (1) roll of adhesive tape; (4) Moleskin tape squares; (1) antiseptic soap; (1) tube of sunscreen; (1) tube of chapstick; (1) insect repellant; (8) pain reliever tablets (aspirin, Advil, etc); (8) antacid tablets; (1) small pair of scissors; (3) safety pins; (1) pair of tweezers.
9. Have a pocket knife. A classic Swiss Army style knife is essential for any hike. It not only already has your tweezers and scissors in it (see first aid above) but allows you to cut small branches for a fire, strip leaves for a layer on the ground and has many other uses.
10. Include some simple survival gear. No one ever thinks they might need to use survival gear including those who get stranded. Make sure you have fire starter gel or sticks (bring two or three types, each one different) plus a cigarette lighter and some water-proof matches. Try them out at home in wet, cold and windy conditions to make sure they work. A wire saw takes up almost no room in your pack and will allow you to cut larger pieces of wood for an emergency fire. Include a space blanket. Again, this is a lightweight item that can have a big impact on your survival. It can be used as a wind breaker, a heat reflector or a signaling device for air rescue. Finally, three large plastic leaf bags. For instant rain and wind protection put one over your head (with a hole cut for breathing), one around your legs and the third over your backpack.
Oh yeah – you probably want to have a small backpacker’s trowel, some TP and wipes with you, too. Nature always seems to call when you’re out on the trail.
So that's it. The essentials list for hikes and easy climbs in the Rocky Mountains. As my mom always said, “better safe than sorry.” A few extra pounds may seem like a lot while you’re hiking, however, when you need them, you will be glad you have all the items listed above. And think how much better conditioning you’re getting by carrying a few extra pounds!
Here are a few resources if you want to learn more: