As a former Wilderness First Aid instructor and certified waterfront lifeguard, I’ve heard this familiar saying often: “It’s not a matter of if [an emergency occurs], but just a matter of when.” To some, that might represent a brand of negative thinking that invites unexpected circumstances to sidetrack our hiking adventures. To others, it’s merely a warning that we need to do our best to control what we can and be as prepared as possible in the build-up to each outing.
I’ve been on backpacking trips where unexpected allergic reactions have occurred when we were miles away from rescue or transportation. I’ve had a personal near-miss where I lost consciousness and tumbled about 25 yards down a hill before coming to rest (luckily safely) on the banks of a rolling river. In my younger days, hiking preparedness wasn’t nearly as important to me as it is today. But I’ve learned (from experience) that you can never be too prepared when things go wrong. That’s why I want to take this time to share these 10 tips for hiking preparedness.
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1. Stay Calm
Your brain is your most important tool when things go wrong in the wilderness. If you allow your brain to be overcome with stress hormones, your ability to think critically will be compromised. Additionally, it will put the rest of your body in an undesirable “fight or flight” mode that can lead to ill-advised decisions. Consider this anecdote, which I’ll paraphrase from one of my favorite books on wilderness survival, Deep Survival:
Hiker goes out for a casual day hike in a new area. Hiker becomes wrapped up in the beauty and splendor of nature, losing track of time and bearing. As the sun dips lower, hiker realizes he/she is lost. Hiker panics and begins attempts to scramble up to a nearby ridge to get his/her bearings. As a result, the hiker is burning up valuable energy and moving further into a region that he/she is unfamiliar with.
Meanwhile, back at home, hiker’s family begins to worry and, once the sun goes down completely, they call Search and Rescue. They alert Search and Rescue to the general area where the hiker said he/she would be, but by the time Search and Rescue starts their search, the hiker has moved out of that region and significantly decreased his/her chances of being rescued.
Staying calm when things go wrong is the first step to overcoming unexpected events in the wilderness. When we panic, we compound the issue and make choices that, in hindsight, rarely seem rational or intuitive. By keeping our minds calm, we can listen to what our bodies need and, in most cases, increase our odds of overcoming the challenge that lies before us.
2. Assess Your Surroundings
One of the things we talked about often in our Wilderness First Aid courses was being able to fashion useful tools, splints, and other instruments from items that you’d typically find in a wilderness setting. Some simple examples include using a solid tree branch to act as a splint for a broken arm or harvesting dried pine needles for fire starter.
Assessing your surroundings is really a practice you should be refining in every moment on the trail. If you do so faithfully, you’ll be much more prepared when things go wrong. At the moment you recognize you’re lost, for example, recalling the fact that you passed a stream about a mile earlier gives you a landmark to shoot for and a practical place to have access to water if you have to spend an unexpected night in the woods.
In addition, continuously assessing your surroundings as you hike functions to build a mental catalog of bread crumbs that you can follow back home. Recalling that familiar V-shaped tree or heart-shaped boulder will help you re-calibrate your location and allow you to set a more accurate bearing to follow back to your starting location.
3. Make a Plan
Many hikers make the mistake of taking action before a good plan has been made. I’ve been there, done that, and I’m just happy I’m here to tell you about it. We once got lost on a hike down into the American River Gorge from the Pacific Crest. We were young, foolish, and made the inexcusable mistake of trying to “cut off” a few switchbacks on the way home, after a long day of hiking, cliff jumping, swimming, and beer drinking.
Once we realized we were too far off trail for our own good, we simply pushed on, hell-bent on finding a “lookout point” that would help us get our bearings. If we had stopped to think for just a second, we would possibly have realized that we were in a massive ravine close to the American River’s headwaters. From our location, everything went up and the foliage was dense. The likelihood of finding that “high point” was very low. Now, on this occasion we got lucky and did find a vantage point, but not until after we had expended a bunch of unnecessary energy scrambling under, around, and most often through, prickly Manzanita after prickly Manzanita.
Stopping and making a plan when things go wrong increases your odds of taking positive, inspired action that will actually help you remedy your situation. Take it from me: Action for the simple sake of action, especially when things go wrong, is a good recipe for compounding an already precarious situation.
4. Call for Help
Unfortunately, we are sometimes conditioned to feel like asking for help shows weakness. And God forbid we let anyone on to the fact that we might be flawed human beings! I recognize that asking for help can be a hard thing to do, but when it’s the difference between rescue and the bleak alternative, it’s an easy decision 10 times out of 10.
Carrying a radio, cell phone, satellite phone, GPS unit, or another type of distress beacon is especially recommended for those that like to spend multiple days in the wilderness at a time. When things go wrong, you’ll want some method for communicating with the outside world. While I firmly believe that self-care (or in this case, self-rescue) is the best medicine, it’s important to be prepared for a scenario in which you need help from an external source.
Consider investing in a beacon like the ACR ResQLink+ or a GPS unit like the Garmin InReach Explorer+. I know these items can look like a big investment up-front, but when it’s an item that has the potential to save your life, can you really put a price tag on that?
5. Attend to Your Basic Needs
When things go wrong while hiking, we have this natural tendency to turn our attention to what we think needs to happen to get us home. Whether you’re injured or you’ve lost your bearings, we often think that the best way to remedy our situation is just to get back to the trailhead. Today, I’m going to tell you that putting our focus on getting back to the trailhead is not always the best use of our minds.
Going back to our earlier story from Deep Survival, our aforementioned hiker has not gotten himself more lost and significantly decreased his chances of rescue and, therefore, survival. If our hiker had remained in the location he was in when it first dawned on him that he was lost, he would’ve been closer to where Search and Rescue began their search. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have taken much more than a strong signal fire for our hiker to be found within 24 hours.
In the book, the author tells the story of a small child that gets lost in the woods. Instead of pushing his body to its physical limits to “get home” or “find a viewpoint,” the child pays attention to what his body needs. When he feels hungry, he finds something in his backpack to snack on. When he gets cold, he finds a protected root system to curl up in. In his case, our child is rescued within 24 hours because he paid attention to his body’s basic needs. On the other hand, ignoring those needs can lead to fatigue, delirium, and a bunch of other complications that ultimately decrease your odds of survival.
6. Do No Harm
Piggybacking off the previous point, it’s important to realize that things are already in a less than desirable state when they’ve gone wrong while hiking. The aforementioned steps will help you avoid this, but it’s still worth mentioning that any action you take when things go wrong should improve your situation.
In waterfront lifeguarding, we take heavily about assessing the situation before we make the decision to undertake a rescue. To illustrate this point, consider a fast-moving river that’s approaching “flash flood” status. Now consider a trained waterfront lifeguard witnessing a dog or human being fall into this rushing river. Although our lifeguard is trained in a variety of rescue techniques, he doesn’t have the necessary equipment on-hand to perform a safe rescue.
While I firmly believe that humans are capable of tremendous acts of courage, bravery, and superhuman strength when the lives of others are threatened, I also recognize the importance of knowing our limitations. Ultimately, we need to avoid making a decision that compounds the situation and makes it worse. In the scenario above, we can easily see how our rescuer attempting to dive into the rushing river without the proper equipment could result in a second victim for other rescuers to attend to.
7. Navigate Effectively
Navigating effectively can make a huge difference when things go wrong in the wilderness. Whether you’re lost on your own or attempting to evacuate a member of your hiking group who has been seriously injured, every moment of ineffective navigation can result in the dwindling of necessary resources to keep your group alive and functioning at their best.
I don’t go hiking without a compass and a physical map of the area I’ll be hiking in. While I know the benefits of technology and the usefulness of modern GPS units, I love to have a backup navigation strategy that doesn’t rely on batteries or the strength of a satellite signal. Of course, if you’re going to rely on a map and compass to navigate in the wilderness, you better know how to do so properly (i.e. take a course!).
8. Know Before You Go
A lot of hikers make the mistake of not thoroughly researching a hike before they actually put their boots on the ground. Consider a military mission in which a group of soldiers is heading into mountainous terrain to rescue captured POWs. Do you think they’re going in blind? Of course not! And I know it’s a silly question, but I use it to highlight the importance of gaining as much knowledge about the area you’re going to hike in before you actually go there.
Our imaginary military mission is going to be a lot more successful if the soldiers know the terrain, are familiar with possible hazards and have a solid plan for how to navigate in and out as efficiently as possible. As hikers, these are all things we can research before we head out for a day hike or multi-day excursion. There are so many online resources, such as All Trails, that help us plan and prepare for hiking adventures.
Personally, I love stopping into local ranger stations to inquire about certain wilderness areas, animal activity in those areas at that time of year, any fire restrictions currently in effect, and any other knowledge the rangers at the station are willing to provide. There’s no substitute for hearing it firsthand from the people that, in many cases, have spent their lives trekking in, around, over, and through their wilderness regions.
9. Stock Your First Aid Kit
The quickest way for things to go from bad to worse if a member of your party is injured in the backcountry is to realize that your first aid kit is either out-of-date or empty. Checking your first aid kit and restocking any items that are low or missing should be part of your pre-hike checklist before every trip, especially if you’re planning on spending multiple days in a remote region. If you’re curious about what exactly should be in your first aid kit, check out my First Aid Kit List.
10. Invest in Training
If you’re serious about taking bigger, longer, and more challenging hiking trips, I highly suggest you invest in training that will make you feel more prepared and empowered to take meaningful actions when things go wrong in the wilderness. For starters, the American Red Cross offers Wilderness First Aid courses all over the country that will teach you “advanced skills to be used in emergencies when help from professional first responders may be far away.”
As you gain hiking experience and you want to continue your education, NOLS is an excellent organization to research. They offer a variety of wilderness medicine courses, expeditions, risk mitigation services, and custom education programs. They truly are “The Leader in Wilderness Education.”
Are These Tips for Hiking Preparedness Helpful?
As The Backpack Guide, I’m on a mission to explore wilderness, create learning opportunities, and connect with nature. These are the objectives that underline all the content I create on this site. I want to inspire others to recreate in their respective wildernesses and to do so in the safest, most enjoyable manner possible. I’m also very interested in the experiences of others in the wild and I want to create a community of people that share those experiences and the lessons they’ve learned as a result.
Now that you’ve read this article, I’d love to know if these tips are new to you and, if so, what you think about putting them into practice to prepare for your next backpacking or hiking trip. If this article brought up any questions, I’d love to hear them!
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Be Ready When Things Go Wrong!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these Tips for Hiking Preparedness and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. I’ll be quick to reply to any questions, comments, or concerns you feel like sharing!
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“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
– Edward Abbey
The Backpack Guide