Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The "Ten Essentials"

The first and most obvious rule of safe backcountry use is to always carry equipment that might become necessary in emergencies. Every backcountry user, even on seemingly insignificant day hikes, should carry the most basic equipment; commonly referred to as the “Ten Essentials,”

The key word is "essentials." The survival equipment, clothing and other resources you carry will increase your chances of surviving an emergency. Even backcountry users on short day trips should carry and know how to use the Ten Essentials.

Technically skilled and highly experienced rescue rs never go into the field on search or rescue missions without these ten essentials. Carefully selected, these items can easily fit within a small backpack.

1. Topographic map and magnetic compass - Too often, backcountry users venture deep into the backcountry without a map and compass. The fact that they are able to safely venture back out is usually pure dumb luck. With a map and compass, it is much easier to identify your location and direction of travel. This is especially important in the event that you become lost.  To learn to use these items, see the chapter entitled "Map and Compass" in the MRA's GeneralBackcountry Safety program

2. Flashlight or headlamp (with extra batteries and bulb) - How far do you suppose you could safely travel at night in the backcountry without a flashlight? Could you signal others, if you saw a campsite far away? A flashlight or headlamp makes travel at night possible and aids in signaling when lost.

3. Extra clothing (including mittens, hat, jacket and rain gear) - Hypothermia is the most common killer of backcountry users. Inability to maintain body heat can quickly rob an unsuspecting victim of all energy and common sense. Since severe weather may present itself very quickly in the backcountry, extra clothing should be carried to help maintain body heat.

4. Sunglasses - Especially in the winter, ultraviolet glare from the sun can cause blindness. Worst of all, the backcountry user may not realize this is happening until it is too late. A good pair of sunglasses, designed to limit ultraviolet light, will eliminate this risk.

5. Extra food and water - These items will maintain energy levels in the case of an emergency and help maintain body temperature in cold weather. While you can survive three days without water and three weeks without food, your energy levels will be seriously depleted without these.
6. Waterproof matches in waterproof container - Waterproof matches, available from most backcountry supply stores, are capable of igniting in high winds and/or blinding rain. Building a fire may be impossible without these. Fires are critical since they not only provide heat, but also make the job of search and rescue teams easier by providing a visible signal.

7. Candle/Fire starter - A candle burns much longer than does a match. This is helpful when trying to start a fire, especially if your firewood is wet.

8. Pocket knife - There are a multitude of applications for a pocketknife in emergencies. The common Swiss Army Knife is so-called because it is standard issue for the Swiss Army, which has devised 246 uses for their standard 7-instrument knife.

9. First aid kit - Proper first aid care is difficult, if not impossible, without a good first aid kit.  Backcountry shops carry several brands of small, lightweight first aid kits including small first-aid manuals.

10. Space blanket or two large heavyduty trash bags - These items can help provide shelter in an emergency situation and can be used as a raincoat or a windbreak. The additional
warmth they provide far outweighs their minimal weight.

This list of "Ten Essentials" assumes your trip is a summer excursion. At any other time of the year, be sure to bring more of the right kind of clothes. When choosing your equipment, remember that the body's ability to maintain its core temperature is critical to your survival in the backcountry.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of search fatalities would have probably survived had they carried and used the ten essentials. When you venture into the backcountry, you are often many miles away from civilization.   Emergencies often present themselves at times when qualified help is many hours away. This simple fact underscores the need to carry emergency equipment.

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What to do if You Get Lost

Imagine... it's a beautiful day. You've taken your camera and headed out for a short hike away from your campsite. The wild flowers are compelling and you wander about aimlessly for a few hours.  Two rolls of film later, you begin to head back for camp.  Suddenly, nothing looks familiar.  You look around for a while, trying to find something, anything, that looks familiar.  As dusk approaches, your heart beats faster and you become very anxious.  You have nothing but your camera and two spent rolls of film and without a flashlight, it will be impossible to find your way back.  Your head sweats and your heart pounds feverishly as you begin to feel the panic associated with being lost.

Discovering you are lost in the backcountry can be a frightening experience.  This feeling can be compounded by the five basic fears: that of being alone, darkness, animals, suffering and of course death.

At the moment you realize you are lost, the most important thing you can do is S.T.O.P.  (Sit, Think, Observe and Plan).  Do not run off frantically looking for a way out.  Rather, stop and assess your situation!  Use your head, not your feet. At this point your brain is your most important piece of survival gear.  The first ten minutes of being lost are when most search fatalities make their deadly mistake.

Whatever you do, don't panic.  In most situations you can survive 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food.  Force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly.  Rest assured that by remaining calm and relaxed, your chances of survival, which are quite good already, have increased by 50 percent.  Your primary goal now should be to stay alive, not to find your way out.  Help will be on the way soon after you are reported missing.  Sheltering the body and conserving energy is your greatest concern right now.

When you first discover that you are lost, stay where you are.  Yell or blow a whistle 3 times to signal your party or any others within earshot (a whistle will carry farther than your voice and requires less energy). Wait several seconds, then turn 90 degrees and try again.  Do so several times in every direction.  If you have no whistle, yell "HELP" rather than a friend's name. Doing so will help assure that your distress call is not ignored.

If someone yells back, let him or her come to you.  Rock walls and valleys play strange tricks with echoes and you may lose your potential rescuers by attempting to locate them.  In addition, your rescuers are most likely a group of people, so they will have a better chance of finding you than vice-versa.  If you do hear someone yell back.  No matter how faint his or her yell may be, stay put and keep yelling.  They may sound far away only because they are facing away from you and have not yet ascertained from where you are yelling.

If you are near a loud stream, move away before yelling or whistling for help.  Be certain to mark your way back to the stream, however, as you may want to follow that stream later if your calls go unanswered.  The same is true for windy areas where a howling gust can be quite loud.  Remember, someone may hear your call at times when you cannot hear his or her reply, especially in windy areas.  Do not give up yelling or whistling simply because a reply is not heard.

Stay Put
When setting up a search, mountain rescue teams follow certain priorities and make certain assumptions about their subjects.  These assumptions are based on behavior patterns of lost subjects.  An understanding of these assumptions may help guide you to a place that is searched early.

The first members of a search party are quickly dispatched to the point at which the subject was last seen (strangely enough, referred to as the "point last seen ").  They follow trails and streams near this last seen point, yelling the subject's name and blowing whistles.  This simple fact is reason enough to just sit still and wait for rescuers to find you.  Unfortunately, nobody does.  Less than 30% of lost persons are found within one mile of the last seen point.

Additional rescuers search areas of high probability near the last seen point.  Statistics on behavioral patterns of lost hikers have shown that 88% walk downhill when lost, 73% find and follow a trail or path and 82% are found in open areas.  Based on these facts, field teams often search downhill from the last seen point before spreading the search out in other directions. Air searchers are generally used soon after you are reported missing and weather permits flying. Plan to stay near open areas and be ready with signals.

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Let Others Know 
One important rule too often forgotten is to let others know exactly where you are going, with whom and when you can be expected back. I hate to sound maternal, but search and rescue teams often spend hours driving around on back roads  looking for a subject's vehicle before they know where to enter the field to begin a search. 

By letting someone know EXACTLY where you intend to go, when you expect to return and where your vehicle will be parked, you can eliminate the possibility of searchers having no idea of where to look.  Should your plans change in route to your destination, stop and notify that person of our new itinerary.  In addition, if you leave pertinent information on the dash of your car (e.g. name and phone number of your contact in town, location of travel/campsite and so on) search teams will have a very timely idea of your plans.  Otherwise, search teams can be of little assistance when all that is known is that you "went camping somewhere in the Gore Range." Whenever possible, utilize trailhead and summit check-in logs.  These generally exist at most popular National Forest trailheads and atop many popular mountain summits.

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association