Staying safe in the wilderness when you’re underprepared is no joke. We asked Search and Rescue team members to weigh in with their best advice.
Fall hiking season is upon us, and with it the wild unpredictability of Colorado weather. A 70-degree day can turn sleeting and freezing in a matter of minutes—turning a sunny hike into a nightmare. But maybe, just maybe, you are someone who’d make a park ranger proud, and you live by the “Six Ps” that Larimer County Search and Rescue emphasizes: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. But in reality, many of us are guilty of heading up a trail or into the woods without taking time to do or pack the necessary items (a tarp and rope; waterproof matches; a whistle; a small mirror for signaling; an itinerary to leave with a friend; a headlamp; an adequate first-aid kit) What happens, then, when you find yourself injured, lost, and underprepared at nighttime or a severe storm rolls in? Accidents happen in the wilderness, even to the most experienced of outdoor enthusiasts, and navigating those situations without resources at your disposal can be stressful and potentially escalate.
In 2015, Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Rescue Group fielded 188 calls, 119 of which became search or rescue missions in the field. Of those calls, well over half the victims were hikers. Meanwhile, Larimer County Search and Rescue received more than 90 calls last year, regarding everything from missing kayakers to injured bikers. (Not every call results in a field mission, however.) Regardless, distress calls from the wilderness are all too common. Here, we asked some search-and-rescue experts for their survival tips and advice (unanimously important: keeping a positive mental attitude) should you ever find yourself in the following scenarios.
You take a few wrong turns and lose the trail on what was supposed to be a day hike. You’re without a headlamp, matches, or overnight gear, and your only option is to spend the night at elevation.
“Most everyone can survive one night out in the woods unless there are extreme circumstances,” says John Lee, president of Larimer County Search and Rescue (LCSAR), who compiled input from his team for this article. “Preserve the body heat you already have. Gather a pile of forest-floor debris and crawl in feet-first so you can see and listen. You’ll probably not get a great night’s sleep,
but you will retain your body heat. If you can’t stay still, put that energy to work. Walk in small circles and keep your blood flowing.”
Don Davis, a member of LCSAR and owner of Loveland-based Wilderness Survival Institute of Colorado, adds that any sort of natural shelter—a rock overhang or a downed tree—can be improved with insulation such as dry pine needles, leaves, or grasses.
You cut yourself deeply on a slick, jagged rock, and the bleeding won’t stop. You’re miles from the trailhead—where you left the first aid kit in the car.
Sacrifice your clothing. Davis and Lee recommend tearing an undershirt or lightweight shirt into long, wide strips, folding one into a pad and applying pressure to stanch the blood flow, and wrapping the others around it as a bandage. “Arterial bleeding tends to flush the wound, so concentrate your attention on stopping the bleed, and let the medical community attend to the infection potential,” Lee says.
It was 65 degrees at the trailhead, but as soon as you reach elevation, a snowsquall moves in fast and furiously. Your only choice is to hunker down and wait out the storm, but you’re only wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and a windbreaker.
Conifer boughs are the best insulators, Lee says. “If you can’t find enough already on the ground, this type of emergency survival situation is the only time it is allowable to strip green boughs from trees, so take only what you need,” he says (note: having a knife here would be critical). “Pile them to a depth of [at least] four to six inches at an extent to protect your torso and head, then curl up in a fetal position. You can also stuff dry forest floor debris into the arms and torso areas of your windbreaker.”
Halfway into your backpacking trip, a major blister forms beneath your boot. It’s excruciatingly painful, and you can barely walk.
Smart hikers know to bring moleskin and apply it at the very first twinge of a hot spot, or to even preemptively cover potential problem points before hitting the trail, as Davis suggests. But there’s a technique once the skin is rubbed raw: “For this type of blister,” Lee says, “the moleskin needs to have a hole in its center, and be built up in layers to above the height of the blister. Then loosen your shoe enough to get your foot back in; that might even mean totally removing the lace and opening wide the tongue. Re-lace the shoe to hold it in place while minimizing pressure on the blister site, and slowly walk on.”
You take one too many shortcuts or wander too far from camp without a GPS, trail map, or compass. The result: complete disorientation.
The best strategy for navigating is S.T.O.P. (Sit, Think, Observe, Plan), Lee says. Beyond that, he suggests a “hub-and-spoke” search method to identify recognizable landmarks and reorient yourself: Start with your hub spot and move out in one direction (spoke), making sure you keep the hub in sight for as long as you can along the spoke trajectory. Turn back to the hub and pick another spoke direction if you don’t see a landmark. Both Lee and Davis also suggest celestial navigation as an alternative if the stars are out. “Knowing how to find the North Star at night will give you the north direction,” Davis says. To do so (in the Northern Hemisphere), locate the Big Dipper and find the outermost two stars on the cup of the dipper. Starting from the bottom corner, trace a straight line outward through both stars till you reach the first really bright star—that’s the North Star. Face it and you’re facing north. “And of course, knowing where the sun rises and sets will give approximate east and west directions.” While it may not get you back to camp, it might help you toward the direction of the road or trail if you have big-picture knowledge of where you started.
A spill down an embankment or a sheer face renders you unable to get back to the trail and hike out. Your phone batteries are dead, and you don’t have other signaling devices.
“Any unnatural grouping of three objects is generally considered a distress signal,” Lee says. “They can be in a line or a triangle, and they must be readily visible from the air, which means they must contrast against the background vegetation and be in a relatively open area. Then have something to wave—a white T-shirt or some bright color garment—when you hear or see an aircraft.
Keep waving; people often stop too soon, and it’s more the motion than the color which attracts attention.” Even if you’re not in a location that’s easily findable by search teams, Lee says, it’s crucial that you stay alert so you can hear and communicate with rescuers who may be in the vicinity.
One easy clue you can leave for a search party before you go: your scent. “Take your dirty socks or T-shirt off,” Davis says, “put them in a Ziploc bag labeled with your name, and leave it in the front seat of your car at the trailhead.” A search crew will find your vehicle, and any search dog that’s deployed will stand a better chance of picking up your scent in the woods with that simple aid.