Mountain rescue: Backcountry Survival – The Ten Essentials
Shorts and tank tops while hiking around Columbine Lake in summer are fine … until the sun goes down or a sudden hailstorm hits. During my six years as a volunteer with Grand County Search & Rescue, I have lost count of the number of missions where the subject was ill prepared for the weather.
Upon reaching the subject, the usual response is, “I was just out for a day hike.”
It does not take much, a sprained ankle, broken tibia, an unexpected rain or snowstorm, to turn “just a day hike” into a life-threatening emergency. If this happens late in the afternoon or far in the backcountry, the time it takes to notify GCSAR, mobilize and reach the subject could mean nightfall and a 30-degree or more drop in temperature.
When GCSAR responds to a mission, we always assume we will be out for at least 24 hours, regardless of how simple or short the mission is expected to be, because we have come to expect the unexpected. We recommend that anyone who ventures into the backcountry assume the same.
While our rescue packs include many mission-specific items that are not necessary for a simple day trip in the backcountry (ropes, anchors, webbing, harnesses, etc.), we all carry what is known as the Ten Essentials, and wear appropriate clothing. Stay warm, stay dry, and stay alive.
Regarding clothing, the simple rule to remember is “Cotton Kills.” Always wear wool or synthetics when in the backcountry. Wool socks will provide a degree of insulation even when wet. Cotton socks, hoodies, etc. will suck heat from your body. A typical fatality on Colorado 14-ers is the hiker in a cotton hoodie that gets caught in a summer thunderstorm and dies of hypothermia.
The Ten Essentials listed below should be considered the minimum. Additional items should be considered based on the terrain, time of year, and length of the planned trip.
1. Field pack capable of carrying all your personal gear.
2. Map and compass. Cell phones and GPS devices can be useful, but should not be depended upon.
3. Whistle, sunglasses and sunscreen.
4. Extra clothing – spare socks, wool hat, fleece, water repellent windbreaker, gloves.
5. Flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries.
6. Fire starting kit.
7. Knife or Leatherman type tool.
8. Food (2,000 calories), one liter of water plus purification tablets or filter.
9. Emergency shelter (such as a plastic tarp and cord or bivy sack).
10. Personal first aid kit.
All of the above can be obtained at any good outdoor store and results in about a 10-pound pack.
One summer afternoon we were called out on a mission to assist an injured hiker. Three women from out of state were hiking near Columbine Lake when one fell, incurring a fractured lower leg. One of the women ran down the trail until she could get a cell phone signal to call 9-1-1. When we arrived, the sun had set and the temperature was plummeting. They were huddled together in shorts and tank tops, shivering from the cold. We gave them our spare fleeces and hats, packaged the injured hiker into a Life Blanket and litter, and carried her out in the dark to the trailhead and a waiting ambulance.
This was a successful mission with a happy ending. They do not all end that way. If she had been hiking alone with no one to go for help would she have survived the night? Maybe, if it didn’t rain.
Chris Laursen is a member of Grand County Search & Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for over six years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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