Mountain Rescue: Hunter Education is not just about firearm safety

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue

Hunting season usually brings an uptick in search and rescue calls. That’s only to be expected given the large numbers of hunters in the woods. Only hikers outnumber hunters as the subjects of search and rescue incidents in Colorado.

Last week Grand County Search and Rescue rescued a hunter in the Williams Fork who took a nasty tumble, hit his head, hurt his back and injured his ankle. He was unable to walk the half mile down to his camp. He went down on a ridge top where there was a lot of blowdown, making travel very difficult. Luckily, he had cell service and was able to call 9-1-1.

By the time we got to him around 11:30 p.m., he was also complaining of being cold and thirsty. He had a headlamp, but was not dressed for the cold. He did not build a fire. Fortunately, he was able to walk out after some first aid, hydration and with assistance from our crew. A litter evacuation would have been extremely difficult and time consuming.

Rescuing a subject from a known location is exponentially easier than rescuing a subject who’s lost or unable to communicate. We were able to go right to last week’s hunter because his several 9-1-1 calls yielded a high confidence GPS location. Adding the search element increases the complexity of the operation and almost always compounds the survival problems for the subject. Many of our most intensive searches are for hunters.

Hunters as a group are usually pretty well prepared for a simple day hike in the forest. It’s when something doesn’t go as planned that they often need search and rescue. Injuries, accidents and illness like heart and altitude problems in the backcountry often turn into emergencies. Since hunters are most often solo in the woods, being self-sufficient is critical.

As with any backcountry traveler, we recommend carrying basic survival gear, which includes proper clothing. Wool or synthetic clothing maintains its insulating properties when wet, while cotton draws heat from your body and takes a long time to dry. The ability to make a fire or shelter, to navigate with a map, compass or GPS and illuminate the forest at night will increase survivability. Hunters who become lost don’t usually die from thirst or starvation. They die from exposure.

According to case studies* of lost hunters, only 40 percent are adequately equipped for their emergency situation. Besides injuries, accidents and illness, weather and darkness play a large role. With 18 percent of lost hunters, weather played a major factor. Darkness was a contributor in 33 percent of lost hunter cases.

Some other interesting facts from lost hunter case studies:

• Hunters often take shortcuts that result in getting lost.

• Many hunters will go to great lengths to walk out on their own unassisted due to ego and other factors.

• While pursuing game, hunters often end up in difficult or unfamiliar terrain without regard for exhaustion or navigation.

• They typically under prepare for extremely foul weather.

• Hunters tend to over extend themselves into darkness and push beyond their physical abilities.

On the positive side, hunters are usually dressed in orange, making them easy to spot, and will use their weapon to signal for help. Many will attempt to build a fire or shelter, and 33 percent of lost hunters walk out unharmed.

Hunter safety classes cover survival skills, but without some practice, preparation and experience that classroom lesson doesn’t translate very well when the sun goes down and the mercury drops. As long as 60 percent of hunters don’t have the right gear for spending the night out in bad weather or other unplanned emergencies, odds are hunting season will continue to be busy for GCSAR volunteers.

*The Textbook for Managing Land Search Operations by Robert C. Stoffell.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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