It's a lesson we've learned time-and-time again, and no one is immune. We ourselves have been lucky—falls and accidents minor instead of the tragedies they could have been. We've seen others get similarly lucky in precarious scenarios, even as we've seen misfortune strike indiscriminately, too, regardless of backcountry experience, athletic ability, or all the best kinds of "trail karma." The thing about luck is that eventually it runs out.
It's something repeatedly covered in any legit Wilderness First Aid/Wilderness First Responder training:
There are no givens in the world of outdoor adventuring. Nothing absolute, save for the reality that each one of us is breakable, is fallible, and at some time or another we'll find ourselves in a place where we're either well prepared to respond to an unfortunate situation, or we aren't.
There are myriad ways to mitigate the likelihood of ever finding yourself in a dangerous backcountry situation. Here are are a few of our favorites, the ones we endorse from the bottom of our hearts based on our collective experience, and not because we're being paid or endorsed to write any of this (spoiler alert: we aren't):
THE TEN ESSENTIALS
Here's the list, with some extra notes from us:
- Navigation (map & compass) — Don't forget to leave a note/let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. And don't always rely solely on your phone for GPS. If it dies and you can't revive it, will you know where you're going/how to get home?
- Sun protection (sunglasses & sunscreen) — We don't hit the trails without a brimmed hat, either.
- Insulation (extra clothing) — Layers are your friend. The more waterproof, the better.
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight) — Don't forget extra batteries/solar chargers!
- First-Aid supplies — We'll be sharing what's in our backcountry First-Aid kits in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, this is a great basic starter kit.
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles) — We dig these match storage cases.
- Repair kit and tools — We'd recommend a knife and a small, light-weight bundle of rope.
- Nutrition (extra food) — This doesn't have to be anything fancy or heavy. If you get stuck out for longer than expected, those extra calories can make a major difference, especially in how well you problem solve.
- Hydration (extra water) — Being dehydrated can also lead to impaired decision-making and a whole mess of mental and physical problems. Don't skimp on water.
- Emergency shelter — We recommend an emergency bivvy. In a true backcountry emergency, a space blanket likely won't be enough.
We can already hear some of you thinking: "But, wait? I have to carry ALL of this stuff whenever I go for a trail run?" If you want to be prepared for anything and wholly responsible for yourself, then YEP, you do. If you'd rather go "fast and light" (to reuse a popular phrase from the past few years of mountain adventuring), and be wholly reliant on being able to call Search & Rescue to come save your ass (or someone else's) should you get lost/get hurt/get into any sort of trouble, then obviously we can't tell you what to do, and if you make that decision, odds are good you're not going to be carrying hardly anything from the list above.
But it's herein worth noting:
a) You might not always be able to call Search & Rescue. Please don't make that your sole plan in case of disaster. You never know what state you and/or your phone will be in when you realize you need help.
b) Search & Rescue teams are often comprised entirely of volunteers. They'll expend countless resources and risk their own lives to save yours, because that's who they are, but they'd feel a whole lot better about helping you if you make an effort to (help yourself, yes, and) respect how difficult their jobs become when people intentionally go out ill-prepared. Also, have you tried carrying someone off a mountain? It's HARD.
c) There are ways to limit weight while still carrying the Ten Essentials. No one is saying you have to carry a pack that weighs 20 or 30 pounds to have a great day in the mountains. Most of the items above can be found in back-packing sizes and weights, which means they'll be lighter, smaller, and more easily packed.
d) "Fast and light" in the backcountry without the Ten Essentials is the epitome of "it'll never happen to me." You're expecting everything to go wonderfully (and we certainly hope it does!) while not planning for all that could happen unexpectedly. It also means that should someone you're with and/or meet on the trail need your help, you won't have much to offer.
e) ALL OF THE ABOVE.
In summary, carry the Ten Essentials and everyone (especially your mom) will be happier for it.
You'll also look wise and capable, and who doesn't like looking wise and capable?
BEYOND THE TEN
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO -- Before heading out, check trail & snow conditions/trail closures/wildlife restrictions and/or sightings in the area you're planning to visit. Don't be that jerk running on a trail closed for rehabilitation and/or wildlife migration because you didn't take the time for a quick Google search.
LEARN TO READ A MAP -- Maps are amazing tools, and can be the difference between a great day and an uneasy one, but only if you know how to read one. Sign up for a local orienteering workshop/event, or find a friend/loved one who can teach you. And this might go without saying but we're saying it anyway: Make sure whatever maps you're using are the most updated versions for the area(s) you're exploring.
TAKE A LOCAL WILDERNESS FIRST AID COURSE (AT LEAST) — Wilderness First Aid courses are typically 2-3 days, most often from Friday-Sunday, and will be a quick overview of what you should carry in your First-Aid kit and how to respond to various dangerous situations while adventuring outdoors. We're both Wilderness First Responders and highly recommend that course IF you have some extra money saved up and 10 solid days to devote to it and essentially nothing else. If that isn't doable for you, a local WFA is a great alternative option, and will ensure you go into the wilderness with a basic understanding of what could go wrong and how to handle it if it does. We're big fans of the NOLS curriculum and courses, but there are lots of solid wilderness medicine options in the Northwest (and across the country).
TAKEAWAY & FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS
- Do you carry the Ten Essentials?
- What else is on your backcountry gear list?
- Have you taken a Wilderness First Aid and/or First Responder course? (If you'd like more information about either and/or want to know what to expect, we're happy to answer questions about the courses we've taken over the years. Just drop us a line!)
- Have a story about getting lucky and/or putting your gear and/or wilderness medicine knowledge to good use in a crisis?
Let us know via the comments below or shoot us an email at AllTheTrails @ Gmail.com.
Stay safe out there, and we'll see you on the trails!