Wilderness Hiking and Survival Tips
Taking a Hike?
Going out into the wilderness is a privilege and an incredible experience. However, every year, people are killed or go missing, never to be found, in wilderness areas.
How can you avoid having your hike go horribly wrong? What is the best way to enjoy the back country whilst staying safe?
There are quite a few guidelines you can follow that will help ensure you don't become the next statistic...or even the next person to be evacuated by helicopter.
Do Your Research
Before the trip, find out everything you can about the specific area you are going in. What predators are there? Are there venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions to worry about? What is the weather typically like at the time of year you plan to go?
If possible, plan your trip to avoid temperature extremes. For example, you may want to avoid the desert southwest in the middle of summer and there are many areas which should be left to a professional in winter. If you absolutely must go to an extremely dangerous area, consider hiring a guide.
Make sure you are aware of any and all hazards in your area. Flash floods can be particularly dangerous and yes, a few people a year do get killed by lightning.
1. Never hike (or bike, ride or boat) into a wilderness area on your own. For multi-day trips, make sure there are at least three of you (so one can stay with an injured person and another go for help).
2. Always tell somebody where you are going and your planned itinerary. If hiking in a state or national park, tell the rangers your plans when you enter the park. In many back country areas handing over an itinerary is required to get a permit. Do it. Then stick to it as much as possible. If anything goes badly wrong, people need to know where to find you. Remember that your cell phone may not work.
3. Make sure you are fit enough for the planned excursion. Build up to longer trips if you don't walk regularly. If you are struggling to find time for short hikes, then walk to the grocery store, etc.
4. Pack it in, pack it out. This is for your safety and everyone else's as well as to keep the wilderness the way it's meant. In some back country areas, there may be a requirement to bury human waste...if so, stick to it.
5. Avoid alcohol. One drink after you have camped for the night is okay, but you do not want your judgment impaired. Do not drink during hikes or during your lunch break and limit alcohol consumption at other times. In hot or desert areas, leave the beer at home, as it can dehydrate you and worsen heat exhaustion. If at altitude, then remember that alcohol has a stronger effect. Needless to say, you should also avoid illegal drugs.
6. Do not smoke in wilderness areas, regardless of what you are smoking. This is a leading cause of wildfires.
Get the right gear
Here are some things you should make sure you have for your trip:
1. Clothing suitable to the climate of the area. Do wear long-sleeved tops...especially in the desert where this can be counter-intuitive.
2. Good, solid boots that fit and are already broken in. You don't want to be wearing new boots on a long trip. Hiking shoes are a cooler alternative, but the ankle support provided by boots can make a difference. Make sure that your boots or shoes have soles with plenty of grip.
3. A detailed, large scale physical map of the area you are going into. At most National Parks you can purchase good maps at the gate or from a ranger station. Alternatively, you can download and print hiking maps from the NPS web site. Maps can also be purchased from specialist suppliers. If you download and print a map, you will need to waterproof it somehow. Take more than one copy.
4. A compass. Trust me. You will want one.
5. A means of accessing GPS that does not require cell phone coverage. This either means a specialist GPS unit or 'off grid GPS' software for your smartphone. If using the phone you will also need a way to charge it without electricity. Hand crank chargers are readily available (and handy to have in case of power outages, anyway). However, GPS should never be a substitute for a physical map and knowing how to read it.
6. A comfortable backpack, as light in weight as possible and appropriately sized to you. The lighter and better-fitting your backpack, the more gear you can safely carry.
7. A water canteen and water purification tablets or a water filter. Remember that you drink more when hiking...and in desert areas, water and salt needs can skyrocket.
8. Electrolyte packages to add to your water. Lighter than Gatorade, and make a huge difference.
9. Food rations. Even if you're only planning on being gone a half day, take some food. Protein bars can be handy if you aren't carrying actual camping gear. In the desert, make sure at least some of your food has a high salt content. In England, try kendall mints...an old school energy bar that is both tasty and supportive.
10. A lightweight poncho. These beat out slickers because they also protect your pack. Rain pants are also a good idea.
11. A knife. If you don't have one, you will regret it.
12. A flashlight. Headlamps are the best if you are camping overnight as they keep your hands free. They're also LED based, so use less energy and last longer. Spare batteries are still a good idea.
13. A small first aid kit.
14. Bug spray and sun screen. Even if you think you'll need neither. Even in winter.
15. Consider hiking poles. They can make hiking much less physical strain (reducing the chance of injury) and are handy when climbing or descending steep trails.
1. The lightest tent rated for the conditions you are in, plus a sleeping pad.
2. A lightweight camp stove to boil water. Also, water purification tablets.
3. Fork, spoon and knife.
4. Can opener.
5. Water bladders - these carry more water than bottles and are ideal for longer trips. You drink from them through a hose.
6. Hand sanitizer.
7. A lighter AND matches. Just in case.
8. Freezer bags - very handy for all kinds of purposes.
9. Clothesline or similar lightweight rope.
The place you are going may or may not have dangerous wildlife. May being more common than may not. Here are some of the more dangerous varieties and what to do about them.
1. Bears. Bears are feared out of proportion to the amount in which they actually attack humans but are, nonetheless, large creatures who should be treated with respect. To avoid confrontations with bears, make recognizably human noises when moving through bear country. Wear bells, talk loudly with your companions, sing. This will help keep you from taking Bruin by surprise. When camping overnight, hang ALL food from a thin branch out of the easy reach of bears. Or, at the very least, you might wake up to find your breakfast is gone. If you see a bear, make a lot of noise and jump up and down. If all else fails, play dead. Putting a shot in the air over the bear's head is also effective if you carry a gun. Many wilderness outfitters use bear dogs trained to herd bears away from humans.
2. Mountain lions. Another animal with a reputation that exceeds the reality. Mountain lions will generally not mess with a group but have been known to attack lone humans. A mountain lion will often back down if you throw rocks at it and it is possible to drive one off with an improvised weapon or a hiking pole. Do not run from a mountain lion as then it will become convinced you are suitable prey.
3. Snakes. The snakes where you are going may or may not include poisonous ones and not all poisonous snakes are dangerous to humans. Rattlesnakes have the worst reputation, but will generally warn before striking. (If going to an area where rattlesnakes are around, it's worth listening to an MP3 of their rattle a few times so you can easily recognize the sound). Most snakes will only bite humans if they are stepped on or otherwise provoked - many rattlesnake bites are the result of somebody getting too close to the snake's nest. Boots and long pants will also help protect you from snakes. Don't walk through tall brush or put your hand in crevices where snakes might be lurking. If somebody is bitten, try and get a picture of the snake. If you have cell coverage, call 911. Keep the bite lower than the heart. If you have to walk out, be prepared to do so. Remove clothing and jewelry from the extremity that was bitten, including rings.
4. Scorpions and Spiders. Some parts of the world have poisonous scorpions and spiders. Rarely, they can be dangerous. (Black widows, for example, are not actually that dangerous to a healthy adult, for all their reputation). Shake out all clothing firmly before donning it, look carefully before sitting on a rock and do not go barefoot in camp.
5. Large herbivores. Bears are feared. In Alaska, more people a year are killed by moose. Bisons have also been known to injure and kill people. Never pass between a female and a young animal and do not approach elk, moose, bisons or feral horses.
In all cases, do not feed wild animals. Do not even leave food where wild animals can get to it, most especially if in an area humans visit regularly, as this can tempt animals, particularly bears, to hang around that area in hope of a handout. Pack out all food waste. Never approach any wild animal and be very careful if you see a baby - attacks often happen when a human inadvertently gets between a baby animal and its mother.
Be aware of what the typical weather and climate conditions are for where you are going and when you are going there.
Learn to spot approaching storms and learn the drill for various weather conditions. For example, lightning goes to the highest point. Make sure that is not either you or the tree you are sheltering under. Go to lower elevations if possible. If all else fails, lie flat, ideally in a ditch or dip, until the storm passes. Remember that each second between lightning and thunder is a mile or so between you and the heart of the storm.
Distant storms can cause flash floods in some valleys and most especially in canyon country. Do not camp right next to a stream, especially in the desert. Also, do not cross a flowing stream if the water is above your ankles. Weather radio is vital in areas where flash floods are possible.
If it is hot, do not drink just water - use gatorade powder, Emergen-C or another electrolyte package in addition. Carry and eat salty snacks such as chips or pretzels. Be aware that the heat can cause you to lose your appetite and not eat sufficiently for the level of exertion you are putting in. Make yourself eat, especially if you are at altitude.
If cold, wear plenty of layers and always wear a hat and gloves. Hats are the most vital - you lose a lot of heat through your head. There's a reason it's the only part of us that still has fur.
Be aware that in desert terrain it can be very hot during the day and very cold at night. You will need a thicker sleeping bag than you probably think. Elevation also affects temperature. (It is not uncommon in the spring and fall for hikers leaving the Grand Canyon to get hypothermia from the sudden temperature difference between the outer canyon and the high, windswept rim). Make sure you always have an extra layer handy and ready to put on.
In some parts of the world, forest fires are a very real risk.
If the area where you are hiking is under a fire watch then campfires may be banned. Take food that does not have to be heated. Never build a campfire out in the open. If you are camping at an official site, it will probably have a fire ring or fire pit - use it. If not, you will need to dig your own fire pit, which should be at least 15 feet away from vegetation and your tent, and not under low hanging branches. Clear brush from ten feet away from the pit and circle it with rocks. In some places, digging fire pits is forbidden. Do not use lighter fluid to start a fire or leave a fire unattended. Douse the fire thoroughly when you leave or sleep, and cover the coals with dirt.
When hiking through areas prone to fire, do not smoke. If you do smoke, properly extinguish and pack out all butts. A smoldering butt can cause a fire hours later.