Safety in the Back Country
I used to be terrified of bears. Seriously, I thought if I went into the backcountry, I would be hunted down by a bear and get eaten alive, a scenario where I would have my intestines hanging out of my belly as I watched the bear ponder whether she wanted a dessert course of my left leg or not. And although such a scenario is theoretically possible, it turns out that between 1960–1980 there have only been 82 major attacks by grizzlies and 35 major attacks by black bears against humans in National Parks (major meaning requiring serious hospitalization or death; black bear attacks seem so high because there are many more human encounters with them). That works out to about 6 major attacks per year. Comparatively, you are “45 times more likely to be killed by a dog than by a bear, 120 times more likely to be killed by bees than a bear, and a whopping 250 times more likely to be killed by lightening than a bear.” And when comparing driving to lighting “The odds of being hit by lightening are about 1 in 4.2 million. The odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are about 1 in 20,000.”
Instead of continuing to worry about bears, I’ve learned that there are other more realistic dangers that I should be prepared for when hiking and camping. I’ve also learned that driving to my hiking destination is far more dangerous than actually hiking itself.
Given how amazing and intelligent the human race is, we also do some of the dumbest things. If you are going to get hurt out in the wilderness, whether it’s on a short afternoon hike in a local park or a multi-week backpacking excursion, it’s most likely going to be due to something stupid you did. Do you know what the number one reason for a premature end to peoples’ backpacking adventures? Blisters. With that said, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Drowning is responsible for the largest number of fatalities in National Parks. If you don’t know how to swim, then don’t swim. If you aren’t familiar with currents of a river or open body of water, don’t go into it. If you have children, actively watch them to make sure they are doing ok. If you are kayaking or rafting, wear a life jacket. Drowning is something that is 100% preventable but unfortunately it is the number one reason people don’t come back from their trips to the parks.
- Ice and rain makes smooth surfaces, like the rocks you frequently hike over, very slippery. Use caution when on slippery surfaces and don’t fall off rock ledges. Take your time, make sure you are balanced and have a firm steadying grip with a hand on a wall, and you will be fine.
- Watch where you are going. You are in the woods after all, so gnarly tree roots and gopher holes will exist in your walking path. Tripping on or falling into these obstacles and twisting your ankle is a serious concern, so pay attention to where you are walking. Additionally, if you commonly find yourself rolling your ankle, maybe it’s a good idea to wear some boots that go above the ankle so it reduces your chances of injury.
- Bring enough water for your hike and be aware of where you can get some more if needed. I’ve seen plenty of unprepared people set off for a mountain hike with a little 12oz bottle of Poland Spring. I don’t know if these people ever reach the top of the mountain and die of thirst up there, or decide to call it quits early after they realize they’ve drunken all of their water halfway up and decide to turn around, but you need to bring enough water for the trip you are taking. Hiking, and backpacking especially, are very physical activities. You will sweat and you will need to replenish your body’s water supply. Bring an adequate amount of water and be sure you know where streams/springs/rivers are so that you can filter some more water during your trip.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of trail difficulty. If it’s your vacation and you want to go hike Half Dome (and you made reservations) and the last time you went hiking was 10 years ago, you might want to reconsider your trip. Hiking can be strenuous and the easiest way to injure yourself is to not be in shape for the type of hike you are planning on taking.
- And avoid blisters. Wear comfortable, broken in hiking shoes. Flip flops are bad (I’m looking at you unprepared tourist who thinks they can climb down into the Grand Canyon with flip flops and your 12oz of water). New hiking shoes that you bought for your trip and haven’t broken in yet are almost as bad. Also wear comfortable wool socks that fit well so they don’t rub and cause blisters. If you do start getting a blister, put some duct tape or a blister strip on it; don’t just keep walking, it will only get worse.
- During the spring and summer, lighting can be a serious concern to hikers. Whether you are above the tree line on a mountain top or walking through a large plain or valley, you should always be aware of the weather and know what to do in case of a lighting storm. In short, find a grove of smaller trees to hide in and crouch down onto your toes. If you are with a group, spread yourselves out to reduce chances of all of you getting hit. Caves and rock overhangs might look dry and safe, but you are better off staying outside of them since lighting can jump across shallow cave openings — only deep caves will offer protection. For more information about staying safe in a lighting storm while hiking, read the Hiking Dude’s guide to lightning safety.
- Rain and snow shouldn’t stop you from going on a hike, but if you intend on becoming wet and cold during a hike, make sure you have dry clothes to change into afterwards. Whether it’s back at your car or once you set up camp for the night, you will want to change into something warm and dry so you don’t get hypothermia.
- Trees will kill you — if they fall on you that is. Don’t take a lunch break under a dead tree or a tree with a dead limb. A sudden gust of wind can make that dead wood fall right on top of you. Also, setting up your tent under the cover of trees is nice, especially when it’s raining, but make sure those trees aren’t going to fall over and crush you in your sleep.
- Know how to identify poison ivy/oak/sumac. The last thing you want is to dig your cat hole in a patch of poison ivy and not find out until you start itching later. Avoiding these plants is your best bet, but if you do think you came in contact with them just wash up with soap and water to try and get the skin irritating oils off of you as soon as you can — if you wash them off within a few minutes of contact it is likely you won’t develop a rash.
- Trails should be mostly clear of stinging nettles, prickers, and other sharp plants, but be aware of and avoid them anyway. They are not fun.
- Ticks can carry Lyme disease which is something you want to avoid. Wear long sleeves and pants if the weather is cool enough to avoid them landing on you and biting into your skin. If you do find a tick on you, remove it immediately. As long as you remove the tick within the first 12 hours of contact, you should avoid contracting Lyme disease. After hiking or before going to bed, do a tick check to make sure you don’t have any on you.
- Mosquitos suck. Bring bug spray, especially something with DEET. If you want to be all hippy about it and use only natural products, that’s fine, but maybe you are not the kind of person who gets eaten alive by mosquitos. But if you are like me and the mosquitos are determined to drink your blood, then use something with DEET in it.
- Speaking of bears, although I mentioned that bears should be the least of your concerns you still don’t want to be stupid around them. Always make your presence known while hiking (shouting “hey bear” every once in a while seems to be effective status quo message) so as to not sneak up and startle a bear. Bells around your ankles or on your bag don’t work as well. Wild, non-habituated-to-humans bears will attack you if they feel threatened, like if you sneak up on them while hiking. If you do spot a bear in the distance, be loud and make your presence known. Slowly back away and give the bear room. The bear will probably do its own thing and walk the other way. Don’t ever run from a bear, because 1)they are faster than you and 2)by running you are initiating a game of cat and mouse. 99.99999% of the time this is all you need to know. For more information, read a book on the subject — I highly recommend Bear Attacks Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero. The author has lived among and studied bears his whole life and hasn’t been injured by a bear yet. Also, this book is really fun to read on a plane — people will most definitely ask you questions about what you are reading.
- Poisonous snakes, mountain lions, and other predatory animals: these animals probably aren’t interested in you as a food source. Make your presence known, heed any warning signs, and stay out of their way.
In addition to being aware of the above scenarios, it’s also good to take a few additional safety measures when going out into the backcountry.
- Let someone know when and where you are going and when you should be back. If you aren’t back on time, they can inform a search and rescue team to go find you.
- Know where the closest hospitals are and have their phone numbers handy. If you do need someone to take you to get medical attention, or you need to take someone yourself, at least you will know where to go.
- Always talk to rangers about where you plan on hiking. They will let you know of any dangerous conditions, or if certain areas are closed due to washed out trails, fire danger, animal activity, etc… Listen to these warnings/closures and don’t get upset if you have to change your plans. If you do end up hiking somewhere that you aren’t supposed to, then you are dumb. This is how people get eaten by bears.
- Finally, know some general first aid skills and carry a first aid kit on longer hikes/overnight trips. Usually the worst injuries you will receive are a cut or a blister. Being prepared to treat these are important though, otherwise infection will spread and you will not be a happy camper.