You shouldn't always go through life expecting the worst to happen, but when you are hiking, it is extremely important to always be prepared for any emergency -- regardless of the difficulty of the trail or your hiking experience.
An unexpected emergency is just that -- unexpected. And while you can’t predict the unpredictable, there are several steps you can take to give yourself the best chance of combating most emergencies that may befall you. Here are 5 tips that will help you prepare for any emergency BEFORE it happens!
Make a plan & STICK to it
A hiking plan is something every hiker should utilize on every hike. Your hiking plan should be written down before you leave and given to a family member or friend before your depart. This will ensure that in the event of an emergency, all of your information can easily get to first responders as soon as possible. You can construct your own, or download one from your local Search and Rescue agency, but be sure to include the following:
Full names and dates of birth for all parties on the hike - This will help first responders identify all lost hikers and match any missing persons reports.
Vehicle description - Color, year, make, model, & license plate number.
The route you will be hiking - The name of the trail, as well as starting point and final destination. You could also include a timeframe: What time you plan to start and finish your hike, and if it is an overnight trip, where you will be camping each night.
A brief description of your experience level - This will help first responders be as efficient and prepared as possible.
How equipped you are - Do you have food and water for 1 day or for 1 week? Are you equipped with full shelter and cold weather gear or only light layers?
Emergency contact - If you are reported missing, who should be contacted immediately? A family member? A friend?
Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, STICK TO THE PLAN. This information will only be as good as you are at adhering to it.
Always pack survival essentials
Most hikers who are just planning on putting a few easy miles under their feet in the middle of the day aren’t going to want to pack for anything more. Why carry more weight than you have to, right?
But what if your easy day hike unexpectedly turns into overnight stay or even ends up lasting multiple nights. A trip or fall could lead to a broken bone, you could find yourself entrapped in a ravine or crevice, or lose your way in an overgrown trail. All of these accidents could lead to you having to survive for one or more nights on your own with nothing but the contents of your pack. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that your backpack is always full of the survival essentials -- and luckily, nowadays, most are so compact, lightweight and affordable that there is simply no reason not to carry them!
Navigation - Ensure you have the trail route mapped out for reference ahead of time, and if you are using GPS, carrying a backup paper map is still a good idea as batteries die and signal can be lost. Bring a compass (know how to use it!) and study your map ahead of time. Pay attention to landmarks near your trail should you lose your way or need to direct someone in to you. In addition to GPS for mapping purposes, turn on the GPS tracking feature on your cell phone. If you are within range of a tower, it may allow 911 to work with your cell provider to ping as close to your location as possible, should emergency befall.
Weather Protection - Always check the weather before starting your hike. Be sure to have sunblock in your first aid kit for the day, but as the temperatures drop, especially at night, a hat, gloves, spare socks and a fleece layer will be crucial. These items can pack up very small, as they have many warm layers specifically for hiking that are ultra-warm, ultra-light, and easy to pack. Space blankets and ponchos only cost a few bucks and take up very minimal space. Staying dry is of the utmost importance. Depending on your regular hikes, it may even be worth investing in a Bivy.
Light - Flashlight or headlamp, you will want at least one, if not both, if you're stuck out on a trail as night falls.
Fire - Depending on your location and the weather, a fire on a cold night could save your life. They are many great fire starter/survival tools out there that are very compact in size. Exotac offers a few great ones. Survival bracelets can also be extremely helpful because they are not only able to be worn on your but can also be used for a multitude of tasks. Outdoor Elements offers a few that a really like. But of course, there are always lighters, matches or chemical heat tabs, as well.
First Aid Kit - You can keep it small, but there are a few things you should definitely include: Band-Aids, medical tape, gauze, compression bandage, tweezers, a pocket knife (this can be used for many things) instant ice pack, pain reliever (aspirin or ibuprofen), and any personal medication required to be taken on a regular basis. I also carry a tourniquet. You never know when you'll need one, you cannot afford to be without one. It is imperative to learn the proper technique and criteria for application of ALL items in your aid kit (the tourniquet in particular, should you choose to carry one). They will do you no good, and could even make matters worse, if you do not know how and when to properly use them.
Nutrition - Food and water. Most hikers that get lost in the wilderness are found within 48 hours. This is a good timeline to use for the minimum amount of water and food to pack. You can also invest in iodine tablets or a water filtration system. There are many out there, some being extremely compact.
Stay on the trail
Trails are often maintained to an extent that deems them safe and passable. By staying on the trail you are nor only less likely to get lost, but if you get injured, it will be easier for Search & Rescue to find you. Many inexperienced hikers make the huge mistake of venturing into the woods at a random point with no trail marker or landmarks nearby. It’s hard enough to find a missing hiker when you have an idea of their location, but when a hiker calls into 911 and cannot describe where they are, you have a very dangerous situation.
Venturing off trail also severely increases the risk of accident. A fallen tree can cause you to trip and fall, boulders and rocks may cause sliding and you could find yourself stuck in a crevice. All of which could be fatal. In addition to being unsafe for you, it’s bad for nature. When wandering off into unmarked territory, your chances of experiencing a surprise encounter with wildlife increases tremendously. You are now in their home...and that is not a good thing.
As enticing as an unexplored grove of evergreen trees may prove, or as appealing as the challenge of climbing atop a large boulder may be...stay on the trail. Keep your footprint to a minimum...literally.
What to do if you get lost
When you realize you're lost, try your best not to panic and if you still have cell service, call 911 immediately. Take a few minutes to calm yourself down before doing anything. Begin by analyzing your surroundings. How long until dark? Do you need to find shelter? What is your elevation? If it is still daylight, try backtracking the trail utilizing landmarks and your map/compass.
a good way to remember these tips is with the acronym: STOP
*Pro tip: Take pictures with your camera or phone of landmarks/hazards along the way so you can refer back to them if you have to backtrack a trail.
As you begin backtracking, use rocks and sticks to signal your direction of travel and make evident footprints. Moving away from large running water sources is also a good idea as it will make it hard for you to hear others and hard for others to hear you. And if it is getting dark, stop hiking and find a safe place to set up camp until day break. Be sure to start a fire, this will not only keep you warm, and could prevent any wild animal encounters.
How can you help those helping you? Consider investing in a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) or SPOT (Satellite GPS messenger). Bright clothing is always a good idea as it makes you easier to see. Tuck a bright colored flag or scarf in your pack in the event you need to wave at helicopters.
In low visibility, shine your flashlight in a strobe sequence or reflect it off your space blanket to create a larger light source. Carry a whistle or air horn, and sound it at timed intervals of 3 to help rescue personnel find their way to your exact location.