How many of us have seen a rescue situation unfold on TV or the paper and think “How did they get into that mess” or “what on earth?”
Every year there are thousands of people that have to be rescued from various situations. Although from a distance it is easy to judge and say “I would never get into that situation”, it is worth analyzing how these things happen so we can be better at avoiding them.
Get the experience you need to succeed.
Lack of experience when going out on an expedition is one of the leading causes of catastrophe and fatalities. People that take on some of the roughest terrain and mountains take a lot of time to train and get into the proper physical condition.
Mount Rainier and the Spring Thaw
I am going to tell you a story about growing up in Washington state. We used to get quite a snow pack, and one of the more macabre jokes out there was that you knew it was spring when they started finding hikers on Mount Rainier. When you heard the stories about people hiking and dying it was hard not to ask “what on earth is a novice or unprepared person doing thinking they could climb a 14,000 ft volcano!
Sorry but that takes some experience.
A lot of people are fully capable of it and having a great experience but over estimating your level of preparedness or rushing into a major summit like that is foolhardy. Train the right way. Get out there with a friend or a group to prepare for the adventures you want to have. During a SHTF scenario, you are not going just to be able to strap on a pack that weighs 40 lbs or more and take off like a super athlete if what you are used to involves a desk during the week and a few short hikes on the weekend.
Plan on delays
Even the best-laid plans and routes can take a turn for the worse. You could be injured, caught in a storm, or any other number of scenarios. I always pack 1-2 days extra food and supplies than what I need when out camping or on the trail. I see so many people going out on the trail with not even enough raincoats for the party! Treat any trip like a major excursion.
Learn basic rules of orientation and navigation
In the mountains where I live going downhill is often a good bet and following some of the water. Eventually, you will probably run into something. All too many cases occur where people walk sideways on a ridge and get into dire straits. Be observant and listen. If you hear sounds like cars or trains. There are a lot of places that seem remote and such, but they are still within sound range of a major highway. The USA especially is not as wild and untamed as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, and there are plenty of places that you can wander off and get lost or get away from it all.
Have the right gear
Good gear costs money no doubt, but the price is nothing compared to the danger and suffering that can happen when it is ignored. There are deals to be had out there. I am the type of woman that has some expensive gear that I paid about 30% of the retail cost. I shop out of season and catch deals when I can.
No cotton for any hike where you may get caught out.
Synthetic fabrics keep you warm even when wet and they dry out fast. Poly pros can be had for a bargain if you buy them in the offseason. Make sure to get a weight that is suitable for your area. I made the mistake of getting the medium weight from LL Bean when lightweight is all that is needed here. Although our elevation is high, we are so far south that it is still too warm for those medium weights most days of the winter. If it varies a lot in your area, have two sets that are different weights to wear.
Remaining calm helps you make more rational decisions. It is hard to reason when you are super upset. If you have others with you, it can be even harder to remain calm, especially if you are in a leadership role. Children can go up the ante and then there is the fact that panic can be pandemic in a group. Once full panic sets in, the situation can be hard to get back under control without some major costs.
Bring signaling devices
A simple signal can make all the difference. There are many different ways to signal. A bright piece of fabric on a stick or better yet an infrared signaling device can alert rescuers to your position without a lot of effort. There is a big difference between the resources required for a brief search and the kind of operation that happens when a full-scale search of days duration is undertaken.
Learn how to signal
If you do need assistance or are trying to get others in your party back together again, knowing how to signal is going to be useful. Having some item of bright clothing or a brightly colored emergency poncho to use is one of the simplest ways. Hollering, flare guns, whistles, etc. are but a few of the other ways.
Have someone with you
Wandering off in the woods alone is great, but I tend to do it on my property and not without some type of protection. Going off by yourself or with your dog means no one is around if you run into trouble.
Tell others where you are going.
One mistake people make is not at least telling a friend that they are going out and when they should be considered overdue. This alone can avoid the whole rescue effort situation or at least get people looking for you sooner. If someone is found and helped before the situation is worse and takes more resources.
Have a solid map and compass and study up ahead of time
There is nothing like a paper copy of a map
Ok, I agree that GPS and electronic maps are great and so convenient, but they are not as reliable in an emergency as a paper map. I don’t just mean a paper map that is going to melt into a mess with a little water either.
When Matt and I use to backpack and camp more, we used to get the National Geographic series maps that while paper, was a coated material that you had to do a lot to tear and water would roll right off of them. I still have a few of those maps despite all the trips and carrying in packs that happened all those years ago. Be realistic about what type of map you need.
A detailed map that covers a 25-mile radius may be a lot more useful than a less detailed one that covers a larger area. Knowing where water sources are and the nearest possible towns and people are important. A good map can get you home and to comfort.
Water filter for even day hikes.
Don’t go on excursions without some way to filter water. You can go for a week without food or more but without water and if hiking you will get dehydrated quickly. You also don’t want to be tempted to drink water that is untreated because you are desperate. Getting Giardia or something like it can cause you to dehydrate even quicker and make you too weak to make the necessary progress for survival.
A Lifestraw or Survivor Filter is inexpensive and lightweight enough that you will not notice it in your bag.
Here are a few of the reviews we did on portable filters and a link to our comprehensive guide!
Pace yourself. Slow and steady progress is far better than exhausting yourself.
One reason that people get in rescue situations is when they become too exhausted to make it where they plan. If you have to get out of a place, then you need to pace yourself so you can keep going. Keeping a good pace will also help keep you warm so long as you are not facing very wet conditions too.
Taking a break here and there when you have the opportunity if the weather is not the greatest but you still need to push on. Consider if you should continue or shelter in place for a bit longer. This can be a difficult choice to make.
Plan for kids needs
Kids are a special consideration when out in the bush. You need to prepare for things to take longer and ensure they have gear. Kids lose body heat faster and have a harder time maintaining it than adults due to their smaller size. They also burn through calorie reserves faster since they are still growing. They will need more clothing than you to maintain adequate core temperature.
Don’t overestimate children.
Kids are great, but they require some extra attention. It is amazing how fast a child can move when excited about something new or scary to them. While some hikes are easy and straightforward and easy to keep everyone on the trail, there are some that are more challenging. Steep drop-offs or just slippery spots are areas where kids need extra attention.
Hypothermia is not just something that occurs in the winter or very cold conditions.
Did you know that you can get hypothermia even if the temperature outside is in the 60s? If you do not have raingear or some way of keeping warm and somewhat dry and a heavy rain comes through it can mean trouble. Never underestimate the power of nature and how fickle it can be. As someone that lives on the side of a mountain in a very tourist oriented area, I see a lot of people that think that just because it is hot in Asheville, they can take off into the national forest with barely anything on or with them for the day.
The thing about waterfalls is that they are gorgeous and mesmerizing. I live in an area with a lot of waterfalls and every year we have a lot of injuries and fatalities are not rare. This year has been particularly bad. One might wonder how that happens. Well, when you are staring up at a waterfall, the temptation can be to take a trail to the top to see it better.
The truth is that the view is better below where you are at. From the top, you might be able to see in the distance, but up top, it just looks like a drop-off, and then there is the fast-moving water to deal with. The rocks are slippery. Even if they are not wet, algae and moss can be slippery. Take your time on any trails and wear the right shoes.
These folks are being smart and enjoying the waterfall from below!
The right footwear can be a lifesaver.
Going out on the trail means walking a lot, and for that, you need good footwear. Blisters and sore feet can slow you down, and in a major situation, you may even suffer from infections. Hiking boots or any boot with good cushioning and ankle support are preferable. Don’t attempt major hiking in flip-flops or sandals.
Consider a guided trip if you lack experience
There are a lot of different guided trips pretty much anywhere you want to go. There are also plenty of hiking and prepping groups that you can go out with. A guide can direct you how to enjoy things safely and teach you some skills. Some trips are more hardcore than others so choose wisely, so you are not disappointed.
Know Your Predators
There are all types of predators out there both two-legged and four. While it is impossible for me to cover all of them here are a few. I suggest reading the past BDS post Surviving Wild Animal Encounters for more detailed information.
If you are to be in an area that could have venomous snakes, then you need to have a snake bite kit. You also need to remain calm or keep the person that is bitten calm. A rapid heart rate encourages the spread of venom from the site and can make the difference in major snakebite.
People handle snakebites differently. Some people recover and to better than you would expect while others can have permanent damage or take an extended amount of time to recover.
Rocky outcroppings and desert areas are the most likely places for snakes. They need the sun to get warm. During colder times snakes can be slower and less likely to successfully attack, but you should still not let your guard down.
There is an old rock quarry at the college I went to. Warren Wilson College encourages the use of the trail system, and one of the more popular trails goes right by the quarry. Several people have been bitten by rattlesnakes while stopping to rest at what seems like a neat spot. Don’t rest in rocky piles when there are plenty of good places nearby! I wish they had a sign or something up to warn people.
Snake boots and thick pants are advisable in areas with high snake populations. I would say just avoid these areas altogether, but that is not possible for everyone.
Be aware of signs of wildlife
Fishing on a scenic river in Alaska might sound like a dream come true, but there are some animals out there that want that fish too. Salmon fishing can turn deadly it interactions with bears are not avoided or handled appropriately.
One of the best things you can do in this situation is to be aware of your surroundings and have adequate protection from bears. Even if a bear does not fatally injure you, there is a good chance that you might be injured in a way that requires serious medical attention.
There are bear sprays out there, but you have to be quite careful using them. A lot of people have made the situation worse by angering bears with the sprays but not causing them to be incapacitated enough to not do major damage. If the wind is blowing then a can of spray that is not aimed well may result in you getting more of the spray then the bear or at least enough of a portion to put yourself at a disadvantage.
A large handgun in .44 caliber was the choice of many in Alaska when I was there. If you prefer a rifle than a .35 or similar size is recommended. The .35 Marlin Matt bought me as a birthday present the first year we were together was intended to be my bear gun while roaming the woods.
Consider your defenses
Going into any situation where there are a lot of factors at play is best done by thinking defensively. In fact, that whole point of this article is to show you how to be on the defense so that you can enjoy your time outdoors without finding yourself in a rescue situation or at the least, decreasing the severity of your situation enough to get out. Things happen, and not all survival situations can be avoided even with well thought out strategy and defense.
While it is a subject that many avoid, National Parks and public areas are notorious places for disappearances and crimes. While some death and disappearance can be attributed to suicide, injury, or getting hopelessly lost, the truth is that some of the worst predators out there are people. Just because it is the woods and seems remote doesn’t mean that some don’t use these areas for things truly horrific. An 80-year-old couple a few years back was killed while out on a hike.
A grandfather out fishing went missing and come to find out, a fugitive on the run killed him.
Even if someone does not fatally harm you outright, waking up in the woods with an injury or no supplies can be deadly in itself. Be aware and hike with a few people or have adequate personal protection when trekking. Avoid letting unknown people, especially those that seem like they have no business being in a place, close to you or anyone in your party. While it is good for people to help others, be cautious about stories of distress. Emotions are powerful things, and people will use them to take advantage any way they can.
For some weapons options beyond firearms and knives, check out the post Best Non Lethal Weapons for the Prepared Individual.
Fording water requires special care
There may be a time where you need to cross moving water. Not knowing the depth is a major concern but even if you can see or know for a fact that the water is not over your head, you need to consider the current moving against you and the load you need to carry above water level. Flash flooding is another issue that can lead to water levels that are high and situations that require you to ford an area to get out.
Make sure to protect your feet if you decide that fording is necessary. I know that boots that are wet may seem like they would be miserable but you do not want to cut or scrape your feet. After you ford the water, take your shoes off and wring them out or dry near a fire. If you strip down to just your shoes and carry clothing over your head, you will have something dry and warm. Of course, you want to avoid hypothermic conditions so keep that in mind when deciding if you should cross a river or not.
Have you ever found yourself in a rescue situation? Do you have any examples that were in the news in your area that we can all learn from?