How to avoid needing an air evac
How can you avoid being "that hiker?"
Understand the Risk
We've had a record number of hiker deaths in CO this year, and one of the reasons authorities are citing is is the deceptive accessibility of harder and harder expeditions. Where challenging, hazardous terrain used to only be accessible to people with advanced training and equipment, technology and mass produced gear has opened up to casual enthusiasts like us. While these advances can help make backcountry forays safer if used correctly, when relied upon too much, they can become very dangerous.
One common themes is hikers relying on cell phones for navigational guidance and rescue. Hikers surveyed on the AT admitted to engaging in riskier behaviors when their cellphones were with them because they knew that rescuers were just a phone call away. I've seen it in my own behavior too. The knowledge that I can just pull up a route in AllTrails has often led me to neglect to bring a map of the area and decreased my pre-trip route planning.
Don't assume you'll be rescued
But it's a fallacy to believe that we can depend on Search and Rescue if we get into a snafu. I'm not dissing backcountry first responders; I was lucky enough to witness an alpine rescue firsthand early enough in my hiking "career" to appreciate the massive amount of manpower and logistics that go into it. It took the volunteer team more than 4 hours to reach the injured climber, and by the time they were able to transport him, darkness had fallen and it was painfully cold. The numerous news reports this summer of searches being suspended because of nightfall or bad weather reaffirm the facts: when you're in the wilderness, you have made yourself intentionally hard to reach. If you get into trouble, you need to be prepared to subsist alone for hours, even days, until a rescue attempt can be mounted.
Pack smarter not heavier
This doesn't mean you need to carry an entire REI aisle on your back. Paring down your load to just the essentials can actually increase your safety because it will avoid the exhaustion that comes with carrying that extra weight. These 10 items, though, are always in my day pack, regardless of the length of my hike:
- First aid kit
- Map and compass
- Pocket knife
- Emergency bivy
- Rain coat and pants (even if there is no rain in the forecast)
- Emergency food (depending on the distance, sometimes I just bring a Clif Bar, sometimes enough for a meal)
- Water filter (a tiny Sawyer Mini)
The more you know, the less you have to pack. Anything you bring with you that you don't know how to use is just dead weight. Spend time practicing with the gear that you bring to ensure that if you get trapped overnight you know how you'll account for your three basic needs: food, water, and shelter. You don't want to be figuring out how to build a fire and boil some water for the first time in the middle of a blizzard with a broken wrist.
Don't put your safety in the hands of someone else
And while hiking with a group can mitigate some of the risks faced by solo hikers, it doesn't negate the need for preparation. I find that a good rule of thumb is, "If everyone in the group was just like me, what kind of trip would it be?" If you prepare as if you need to be self-sufficient, you'll be much better equipped to handle challenges that crop up.
The bottom line is, spending time in the backcountry is inherently risky. No amount of technology or cool gear can completely remove that. Proper preparation, however, might just save you from spending an uncomfortable night above treeline or worse.