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Mountain Rescue: Survival kit essential for backcountry safety

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. My teammate Chris wrote an article for this paper back in April on this very topic.

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?

You are correct – 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. Unless I fall down and break a leg I should be able to muddle through even a nasty rainstorm or darkness if the sun goes down. My mountain bike pack has a bare minimum of survival tools – raincoat, small knife, space blanket, mini first aid kit (a couple Band-Aids), some water, an energy bar and bicycle repair stuff. Of course I’ve got a cell phone to call for help.

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. Travelling 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.

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 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.

Here are the survival items that live in my personal hiking pack: first aid kit, knife tool, compass, para-cord, headlamp, space blanket, whistle, sunscreen, water filter, firestarter kit and GPS with map. Total weight is right at 2 pounds. Combined with some extra food, layered synthetic clothing and proper footwear I feel confident about being prepared when leaving the trailhead.

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 greg.foley@grandcountysar.com. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.


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