Safety class: avoiding search and rescue

Get outside but be darn sure that it’s not your last trip. Plan and play while avoiding the whomp, whomp, whomp of a helicopter.

No one goes into the wilderness intending to be rescued. Even seasoned outdoor enthusiasts get into trouble. Unfortunately, outdoor emergencies are not rare.

Three facts of life

  1. There is intrinsic risk in the wilderness. Lightning, cold weather, falling rock. It’s not 100% safe. A twisted ankle can be life threatening if you are alone.
  2. Your safety is your own responsibility.
  3. You can minimize most of the risk with knowledge, equipment and planning. It’s imperative that you do.

Don’t let it happen to you

Keep expert stuff for experts. Knowingly accepting risk and managing it is quite different than walking into danger blindly.

Build your brain database. Essential skills such as navigation, surviving foul weather and first aid can be learned and practiced. Read books, search the net, hike with experienced people and take classes. Our supporters at the REI Outdoor School offer up a wealth of in-person and online resources.

Follow the golden rules

Hug a tree. If you’re lost, don’t walk in circles. You could walk back into an area that was already searched.

Self-evacuation is usually the name of the game. If walking might make matters worse (as in the case of a heart attack or brain injury), stay put and wait for help. Otherwise, if possible, plan on being self-sufficient. Walking out is often the best option.

Take the ‘search’ out of ‘search and rescue’. Communicate exactly where you are and then call attention to yourself with bright colors and by blowing a whistle. Personal Locator Beacons (which use satellites) or cell phones (which often don’t work in the backcountry) can save time and valuable resources. But they can also provide a false sense of security, meaning you might take greater risks. Don’t hesitate to call for help – waiting can make a bad emergency even worse – but be 100% sure that it’s a threat to life or limb before calling in the troops.

Reoccurring problems

  • Problem:Selling all of your worldly possessions only to be injured or quit shortly into a thru-hike.
    Solution: Don’t skip training day. Have some hiking and backpacking experience before attempting a life-changing long hike. You should know whether your body can handle it. Toughen up. Learn skills.
  • Problem:Pre-exisiting medical problems flaring up on the PCT.
    Solution: Consult your doctor before you head into the wilderness. Get fit (see above).
  • Problem: Family panics after not hearing from you for a while and calls search and rescue when nothing is wrong.
    Solution: Leave a detailed plan with your support person and stick to it. Tell them when you expect to check-in. And when you should be considered late. If you’re relying on technology that doesn’t always work (like a cell phone or some satellite messengers), explain that to them. You’ll need to teach your support person how to be savvy if they’re not an outdoor adventurer themselves.


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