Thursday, June 4, 2009

Summer Camping, Hiking, etc.

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OK, today I'm going to shift gears and discuss a topic quite different from previous blogs.

This summer millions of Americans will be ill-housed, ill-fed and ill-clad. They'll be out camping. As one who enjoys camping, hiking, climbing mountains and similar pursuits, I look forward to that type of activity. However as a search and rescue volunteer I can also expect some late-night calls when some campers and hikers get in trouble. Some will be lost, some injured but all the subjects of such missions will be need some sort of help. In most cases we are able to provide that help, but we never get there as soon as the subjects would like.

Might you be among those needing search and rescue help this summer? Of course you hope not, but it happens. If you are heading into the backcountry you will be wise to prepare. Don't be like the two women who took a day hike in the Columbia River Gorge one Saturday. They didn't tell anyone where they were going or when they expected to return. Monday morning co-workers reported them missing but authorities had no idea where to begin searching. Finally Monday evening someone spotted their car at a trailhead. Because it was nearly dark, the real search didn't start until Tuesday morning. They were finally found Thursday!

Nor were those women the only people to make such a mistake. Just this last Memorial Day a couple went on a day hike within a few miles of where those women got lost. They somehow got on the wrong side of the creek and could not get back for two days. Fortunately, other hikers happened to pass within earshot of them and called for a rescue. Had that not happened there is no way of knowing when or even if that couple would have been rescued.

Of course the ideal is always to avoid trouble (see below). However the unexpected can happen so preparation is important. Had those women lost and stranded people had an in-town contact, it is probable they would have been rescued within a day of getting in trouble. Hikers should always have such an in-town contact who knows:

1. Where they are going,
2. When they expect to return, and
3. Whom to call if they do not return on time (usually the sheriff's department in the U.S., except in national parks where it is the Park Service).

If you get lost or injured, nobody is going to go looking for you until you are reported overdue. Even then, searches are much more effective if rescuers know where to start looking. The more information an in-town contact can provide, the sooner we are likely to help you. If we have your destination and planned route, that can make it relatively easy. If we only know the trailhead, rescue will take much longer because there is so much more territory to search.

So please, when you go hiking or camping, have an in-town contact. And when you return be sure to let that person know you're back so he or she doesn't activate a “bastard” search, a search for a person who isn't really in trouble.

Now, how about other preventative measures? As mentioned, it is much better not to get lost in the first place. A full treatment of that is beyond the scope of a blog but I can provide a couple of hints:

First, how do you not get lost? The answer is simple: you avoid getting lost by knowing where you are. No that is not a joke, it is very serious advice. Know where you are all the time. Know how to get back, all the time. Most people who get lost just weren't paying attention to where they were and how to return. Pay attention, starting at the trailhead and continuing throughout your hike. Notice which way your route runs, what is around you, and all the recognizable things you see, hear, or even smell. Try to make a mental map of the territory.

Beyond that, there are lots of ways to navigate safely. They are described in various places, including my own book, Bringing Yourself Back Alive (available from my web site, Have a map and compass, maybe even a GPS but most importantly know how to use them. No equipment is any better than your ability to use it or the actual use you make of it. I can think of several occasions when we've rescued people who had a GPS but either didn't know how to use it or just didn't use it properly.

Next, be prepared for conditions you might find in the outdoors. While there is little in the backcountry as dangerous as crossing a busy street at rush hour, the dangers there are different than what we face in the city. Most people know how to cross that street but few know how to navigate in a whiteout or how to avoid the danger of unstable terrain. Unless you are staying on well-marked, well-maintained trails you should get competent instruction before risking yourself in an unfamiliar situation.

My final and most important advice here is to always use your most important equipment – your brain. Be thinking and paying attention to your surroundings and to other safety issues. As a bonus, paying attention will help you enjoy the outdoors more.

So enjoy the outdoors, but do so safely. Be careful to know how to get back and how to deal with the unfamiliar dangers you may meet there.

1 comment:

J said...

Hal, I like your blog and the subjects you've addressed. I have an ongoing Google News Alert on the words "lost hiker" and get a daily feed of events that tie together the subjects of SAR, probability, group-think and decision-making. A search on Google News for "lost hiker" will give you an immediate demonstration.

There's a recurring admonition from readers that hikers shouldn't go alone, but the evidence I see from these stories shows that it rarely would make a difference. But also, I believe the more inexperienced people in a group, the more they are subject to group think and taking risks they wouldn't otherwise. Does your experience support or refute this idea?

ps The admonition against solo hiking is itself an example of group-think, IMO.