Five tips to keep you alive in the backcountry

On a hike to Sunset Peak, Okla. Plan ahead to keep yourself safe on the trail.

On a hike to Sunset Peak, Okla. Plan ahead to keep yourself safe on the trail.

A recent Los Angeles Times story brought to mind some important things to remember when exploring the backcountry.

There is a beautiful place on the Utah/Arizona border called The Wave that has proven to be deadly for some hikers who were not prepared for the rugged terrain and high temperatures this landscape can throw at you. Here’s an excerpt from the Times’ story:

On Monday, Elisabeth Bervel, 27, of Mesa, Ariz., died of cardiac arrest after she and her husband left their two young children with relatives to hike in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument — not far from Utah’s Zion National Park-in celebration of their fifth wedding anniversary, according to the sheriff’s office in Kane County, Ariz.

Earlier this month (July), Ulrich and Patricia Wahli of Campbell, Calif., ages 70 and 69 respectively, were found dead near the site in 106-degree heat. And last year, a 30-year-old California man died after returning from The Wave after nightfall and falling into a canyon.

All of these incidents are tragedies that occurred not because of reckless behavior, but small mistakes that added up and ended with fatal results.

This is a good reminder of some things to think about before venturing out into public lands. It brings to mind some things to think about, whether you’re planning a big hike in the desert Southwest, the high country or any other remote area:

Know your abilities. If you’re a real novice, don’t pick a difficult trip or route, or be sure you’re with someone who has the experience needed to guide you – and the presence of mind to know when to pull the plug. Even if you’re experienced, don’t overestimate yourself, and take into consideration any new challenges you might face on your trip.

Know our health. I’ve seen plenty of stories of people who seemed healthy at lower altitude, then die from a heart attack while trying to hike a “beginner” mountain trail. If you’ve had cardiac issues in the past, or you’re not in the best of health, or you’re getting up there in age, get checked out by a doctor before tackling a major physical task. And if you’re recently coming off injury or illness, don’t just jump headlong into a massive challenge. I can speak from experience on that one.

Know the route. If it’s new to you, get a map and study it. Look online for information about route conditions. Have that map with you when you go, and be sure to look around you as you go – and even look behind you – to spot landmarks so you remember where you are. Getting lost amps up the danger factor in the backcountry. And of you get lost, don’t panic. Sit down reassess, and keep making decisions on what needs to be done next. But that’s a whole other subject for another post.

Consider the weather. Whether it’s high heat, afternoon storms or whatever, check those forecasts before you go. Monitor the weather while you’re on the trail. And be conservative when it comes to making weather-based decisions. I can still remember a Labor Day 2004 story of a guy who died high on Longs Peak, Colo., when he continued to the summit despite the onset of a snowstorm. Wearing summer clothes, he ended up dying from weather-based exposure. On the opposite end, consider the stories from the LA Times story excerpted earlier.

Be prepared in terms of water, food, clothing and gear. Remember, you’re not walking in the neighborhood park. There won’t be water fountains, vending machines or aid stations to serve you. On a typical day hike, you’ll need 64 to 128 ounces of water or more, depending on route difficulty, temperatures and length of time on the trail. On trips that last longer, bring a water filter and learn ahead of time where potential water sources might be. You’ll need enough food to fuel you for your planned trip, and then a little extra in case you’re out there longer than you planned. Consider weather conditions for clothing (synthetic fibers, a hat, sunscreen, a rain jacket, appropriate footwear, etc.). A first-aid kit, multi-tool, knife, compass and, yes, your cell phone are some good items to have with you as well.

Got any tips to add? Comment below. Let’s have some wisdom on this topic.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


9 thoughts on “Five tips to keep you alive in the backcountry

  1. I think you cover it really well – big one that seems to cause problems (especially in the winter months) is not bringing a light source. With the small size of headlamps these days there is no reason not to throw one in the pack or pocket. People always say they won’t be out that long/after dark, but if something goes wrong you will not regret it.

    • Another excellent suggestion. Headlamps are not expensive, they’re very packable, and coming from someone who has had to hike/run trails at dawn and after dark, they’re pretty invaluable. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’ve seen a lot of “lists of things to do to be safe when hiking,” most of them are stupid. Yours is one of very few that’s actually sensible. Probably because you aren’t laying ground rules, you’re instead giving people some hints as to how to use their brain. Well done!

    One thing I always do, and usually feel a little goofy about, is leave my plans with a responsible person in as much detail as possible. I’ll be doing this hike, in such and such county (because it’s the county sheriff that’s responsible for search and rescue), and I should be back at this time. If I’m not back by then, call for help. When I do a backpacking trip, I leave a description of my tent and the clothes I’ll be wearing, not too detailed but enough to be recognized. (Small yellow tent, blue parka, etc.) Every time, in case they tune it out and forget.

  3. As best you can, let someone know where you’re going, and if you plan to be gone several days, try to arrange a check-in at some point. People need to know when to start worrying about you.

  4. Pingback: Essential Reading – Campfire Chic

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