Mountain rescue: The survival kit: Smart, simple, effective |

Mountain rescue: The survival kit: Smart, simple, effective

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue
Unable to walk, this subject spent two nights out in Arapaho Creek without food, water, shelter or fire. He had crawled a mile and a half on his back before being found by a hiker.
Greg Foley/For Sky-Hi News |

The Sierra Club, the Boy Scouts, the American Hiking Society and a number of other outdoor organizations all tout some form of “Ten Essentials” list that should be carried whenever you venture into the backcountry.

But really, who wants to carry a heavy backpack on a day hike? What could possibly go wrong on a half day hike or bike or ski? You already took the precaution of telling a dependable person where you are going and when you will return, right? You hydrated at home and had a big breakfast? Not a cloud in the sky?

It’s true that the chances of an accident happening on any given day are pretty slim. Traveling on easy terrain in popular areas and staying on the trail minimizes your risk and makes carrying any kind of pack seem like overkill. I can’t say that I advocate gearing up for an afternoon run or a rip around the mountain bike trails, but I would still recommend key items like a raincoat and a cell phone. A couple years ago while x-country skiing near my home I tore a hamstring. If I hadn’t had my cell phone I would’ve had to crawl a mile and a half to a road.

Just a small step up from that, though, is a whole different situation with a new set of hazards. Longer hikes into the wilderness, peak ascents, backcountry ski tours. Traveling in areas with no cell service. Hiking alone, bushwhacking or traveling at night. Not being able to avoid bad weather ­— rain or snow, wind or lightning. Exploring areas with no water source or avalanche danger in the winter. Each of these details adds another level of risk, and another reason to carry the right survival gear.

I could tell story after story after story of rescues that we have done involving people just out for the day. Many of them would have had a better outcome if the person or group had been prepared for even simple problems. Commonly it’s not that the victim did anything wrong to cause the emergency, accidents do happen. I’m remembering the woman who had a tree fall on her up on Knight Ridge during a wind event, or the local who was bucked off his horse four miles from the trailhead in the Vasquez Wilderness.

Or the clergyman who blew out his knee when the trail collapsed under him. He spent two nights out and crawled a mile and a half on his back, dragging his bad leg. He was dressed in shorts and a light jacket, ran out of food and water and had no shelter or fire. He hadn’t told anyone where he was going.

Even though the probability is low that you will have an accident or emergency, the consequences of not being prepared or taking the proper precautions are high. If backcountry travel was sold as a product, as in a guide service, you would be signing a waiver that’s states the risk: you could be injured or die. Is this a gamble you are willing to take? Is this an acceptable risk, or unacceptable?

People ignore risk all the time. The “human factor” is a proven concept that describes how people do things that they know are unsafe due to thought processes that allow them to bypass prudent behavior. Invulnerability, summit fever and peer pressure are some of these “human factors.”

Whatever the reason or logic, it’s very common for people to head into the backcountry unprepared when it is so simple and inexpensive to put together some essentials that live in your pack. Recovering from a bad situation is often much easier with basic survival tools. There is no substitute for a flashlight after dark or a map when you’re lost. Ask yourself this question: What would I do in an emergency if I couldn’t call for help?

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 37 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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