How to stay safe when hiking
As his left foot hung limp like it had snapped in half and one of his wrists throbbed with pain, Neil Parker listened to the soft trickle of water over rock that came from the waterfall he had just fallen off. A 6-metre drop, the impact of his fall had immobilised the experienced bushwalker’s leg so that he had no other choice but to lift and drag its dead weight behind him as he sought help.
In late 2019, Neil fell from a waterfall on Mount Nebo, just north-west of Brisbane.
“My left foot just below my ankle, clean snapped in half,” he told press at the time. “The whole bottom of my leg came loose.”
He had plenty of experience and painkillers, but not much food. For the next two days, he dragged his leg for little over a metre at a time before having to stop to rest. In agony and with no other choice but to repeat the movement when he had the strength, Neil crawled 3 kilometres before he was rescued.
In an analysis of over 100 news reports of those who had been lost in the wild, the team at smokymountains.com found that 41% of those who had gotten lost on a trail had accidentally strayed from the trail. A lot of the time this occurred at junctions in the trail, where it can be unclear in which direction to walk next. National Geographic reports that in U.S. national parks in the ten years before 2014, day hikers were four times more likely to require search and rescue than overnight backpackers. On the world-renowned Appalachian trail, dozens of hikers get lost each year. 98% of them are found within 24 hours.
Staying safe when hiking is not just for those epic adventures, but applies even more to a quick day trip.
Tips for staying safe when hiking
Remember the 4 essential packing principles for your hiking safety.
1. Protection (sun, cold, shelter, fire)
Protection when hiking covers how you keep yourself cool and in the shade when it’s hot as well as warm and toasty when it’s cold. Think of this as split between night and day.
Day: pack for sun protection. This includes sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat. Simple!
Night: pack to keep warm. This includes what you wear (adequate insulation) and what surrounds you (shelter). If it is just a day hike, an emergency blanket will provide shelter if you get lost, while being light as a feather in your pack as a substitute to bringing a whole tent. If you are on a day hike, even if it is during the warmer months, pack a compressible down jacket to keep you warm at night.
Finally, what is one of the best ways to stay warm? Fire. Wrap a lighter up in plastic so that it is waterproof and carry that in your pack. Even better, a flint stick firestarter is resistant to moisture and can be included in a lightweight survival kit.
2. Navigation (maps, illumination)
A clear reason why day hikers are so much more inclined to require emergency services? Overconfidence in their ability to navigate. Anybody can get lost on a trail, simply through a lack of attention and straying from the trail.
Never rely solely on your mobile phone for navigation. Print off a map of where you are headed and wrap it up in a plastic bag to keep it waterproof. Bring a lightweight compass to at the very least send you in the right direction if you know where you are supposed to be headed, and at the best help you navigate exactly where you are on the map so that you are no longer lost.
With a compass, you are much less likely to require any of the other essentials because it will save you from getting lost. In other words, a compass is your most important safety accessory when hiking. For this reason, it is a good idea to be confident without a phone (i.e. know the basics of navigating without technology).
It’s a lot harder to navigate if you can’t see. When you are lost off the trail, you are more than likely going to have to spend the night in the wild. You can survive perfectly well without food, but a torch will help you navigate your terrain much more easily, especially if you are in a desert environment and it is safer to walk when it is cool at night.
Of course, what will beat all of your accessories is an Emergency Locator Beacon. Knowing that day hikers are at risk through a lack of preparation and posessions when hiking, an ELB can be a vital and small piece of equipment that will help rescuers locate your position using GPS. However, remember that these are for emergency use only, so only use if you have exhausted all options of finding the trail again.
3. Treatment (first aid, repair kits, tools)
A small first aid kit will help with minor injuries and abrasions.
Walking poles aren’t just great for your joints. When Neil Parker fell six metres down a waterfall and broke his leg, he used his walking poles as splints to stabilise the injury.
A repair kit for your gear, such as a small knife, scissors and duct tape can come in handy when in an emergency.
4. Sustenance (food and water)
Even if it is just a day hike, pack some extra dry foods. Just imagine that you might get stuck out there in the wild for two days. You might enjoy some filling staples such as nuts and granola bars.
You can survive a long time without food, but you won’t survive long without water. Never go on a day hike without water, but beyond this, pack water purification tablets that you can potentially use if you run out of your own water and find a natural source.
Tips from an experienced guide
Tasmanian-born Declan Hunn has been guiding hikers for over six years across famous trails like the Overland Track, Jatbula Trail and the Larapinta Trail. He currently leads guided treks as part of Trek Larapinta who run guided hikes of the world-renowned 223km Larapinta Trail in Australia's Northern Territory.
What is an important staple a hiker should always take with them?
A classic Tasmanian response here, but a waterproof layer – a quality gore-tex jacket or similar material. You can never be sure what the weather is doing, and if worse comes to worst, having a layer that keeps out the wind as well as the rain will keep you much more comfortable in the event of an emergency. Even if the weather is good, once you've stopped walking, taking the wind chill away from a well-earned sweat makes your breaks all the more pleasant.
What did you learn in your Wilderness First Aid qualification?
The wilderness first aid qualification covers a lot of issues that extend forward from an initial first aid response, and tackles scenarios that you are less likely to face in an urban or general workplace environment, just due to the outside factors that are present in the work as a bushwalking guide. For me, the highlight of the wilderness first aid course is the encouragement of forward planning. The issue of long term injury management in the wilderness is a challenge that I enjoy dealing with, as once you get past the initial accident/injury/illness the issue of what to do next arises, which can be more complicated than dealing with the incident itself. Conditions often don't allow the immediate evacuation of an injured party, and making sure that yourself, other responders and the patient are managed and kept as comfortable as possible in the long term was definitely a game-changer in my time as a first-aid responder.
What tips do you provide your guests before guided tours?
Making sure that you're comfortable comes down to a lot of self-management on these trips. I always recommend that people take the time throughout the day to check in with themselves and resolve any issues along the way. A great example are feet. Many people try to be stoic when their feet start hurting on a hike and push through till lunchtime with pains and discomfort along the way, only to discover that they have developed blisters, which can put a real negative spin on the rest of their walk. I always encourage people to stop when they have an issue with their feet and look at how their boots are fitting. Do they need their feet taped? Are their laces tied properly for how they walk? Are they wearing the right socks for the conditions? It is always easier to stop for 5 minutes, solve the problem as it's happening and continue in comfort than potentially hamper yourself for the rest of the walk.
If someone does get lost, what do you recommend they do first?
Take a minute, breathe deeply and get yourself calm. (When lost at a junction), if you were on a marked track and you can see the previous trail marker or the track itself make your way back to it and wait there until someone comes or you become confident where the track goes next. If you are away from any trails and can't see anyone or the track, sit yourself down and get as comfortable as you can. Take stock of what you have with you, and what can help you in this situation (maps, mobile reception, your food and water supplies, emergency communications, shelter, etc). If you do have an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or an In-reach, send out a distress message. Using a PLB or an EPIRB is for life-threatening emergencies so they are a last resort only. Once you've taken stock of your supplies and your situation, settle yourself in and wait for someone to come to you, do make noise regularly, but don't shout yourself hoarse as you might need to call again when someone hears you.
How to improve your chances of being rescued
The old adage of cool heads prevailing rings true when hiking, especially if you are hiking alone. Panic can turn an unfortunate situation into a dire one very quickly, as it impairs your ability to make clear and smart decisions. Remember the following to improve your chances of being found when lost.
Focus on being found
It can be especially tempting when hiking alone to focus on survival when people realise they are lost. This is understandable. We have all been inundated with movies and television shows that focus on the tips and tricks that ensure survival, from fashioning stone tools to starting a fire.
However, look at most stories of survival in the wild and you will come across to key factors: preparedness and focus. Survivors often have the right tools (such as navigation) to help them relocate a trail or be found faster, while their focus on being found from the first moment they find themselves lost, rather than survival, helps them make decisions that lead them towards safety.
It can be hard to stay calm when lost hiking. Once you realise you are lost, simply stop, take stock of your situation and make a plan. Sit down and assess your surroundings, think about where you have come from, try to identify landmarks on your map. Don't head off until you have made a plan, such as for how long you will walk, in what direction, and how you will stick to this direction (break branches in the direction of your travel to refer to if you want to head back to where you started).
The most important thing to help people find you is to let two people know of your plans before you head out and sign any logbooks at the start of a trail.
Decide if you will stay or go
It is not always a good idea to head off in search of rescue. If you are in a vehicle or are stuck on a trail or road, it is best to stay where you are and become accustomed to your surroundings. A car is much more visible than a person and as long as you have notified friends/family of your plans, they will know what to look for and where you are likely to be.
If you didn't notify anyone of your plans, have no food and no access to water, then moving from your location in search of open space (so that you can be seen by air rescues) and water might be your best option.
Practice deep breathing
It sounds strange, but maintaining control over your breathing will help control your fight-or-flight response so that you can make rational decisions. Whether it is in a survival situation or just a sports competition, control of breath is vital for your ability to make smart decisions.
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