Incidents involving lost and/or injured hikers are common. In any given month there are at least a couple of news articles describing a tragedy involving a trail hiker. The purpose of this article is to discuss proper preparation for a trail hike outing, and ways increase our chances of survival, should an unexpected event occur on the trail.
Here are two tragedies that have occurred just since the start of 2013. I have highlighted learning points in the text of each article:
FOX NEWS January 14 – Caught in freezing rain, Illinois man, 2 sons die while hiking on remote trail in Missouri: “On a weekend trip that was a surprise anniversary gift for his wife, an outdoors-loving Air Force veteran ventured out with two of his sons for a hike on a remote trail. Clad only in light jackets and sweaters, the three apparently didn't know how rapidly the weather would turn ugly… and that proved deadly. The cold had killed them….It was nearly 60 degrees Saturday morning when Decareaux and his sons set out on the popular trail…they were ill-equipped as the temperature sank into the 40s, and a storm that would drop 2 inches of rain set in, making the trail all but impassable…A passer-by spotted the hikers more than three hours into their journey and asked if they needed a ride but Decareaux declined, telling the man they could make it back. The sheriff said, "They just missed their turn back to the lodge. When it's dark you can't see the back of your hand.” The [overnight] temperature had dipped to the upper 20s by sunrise. No autopsies were planned, and the deaths were attributed to hypothermia.”
L.A. TIMES January 14 – Hiker recovering after rescue from Angeles National Forest: “An Arcadia man was in the hospital Monday after he was rescued from the frigid Angeles National Forest, where he had been hiking with friends. He survived 26 hours in the freezing cold, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials... [The man] and two friends went hiking in the West Fork area of the forest and attempted to go north on a trail in the late afternoon Saturday…. [The man] got separated from the group about 6 p.m. and endured below-freezing temperatures overnight as searchers tried to locate him…[the man] had only a light jacket and no flashlight, but search-and-rescue personnel found him walking.”
As you can see, any discussion of hiking safety has to begin with acceptance that mechanical accidents can occur, that weather can change rapidly and severely, and that we can become disoriented and lost. There is no room for over-confidence or arrogance when dealing with nature.
About 68% of missing hiker incidents occur in wilderness areas. With training and proper preparation, we can minimize our risk, and increase our chances of survival and rescue, should an unexpected event occur. As Canadian Bushcraft Instructor Mors Kochanski puts it, "The bush [woods] is neutral. It is neither for nor against me. My comfort depends on what I can do for myself and how much I know about using the bush materials around me."
Have a Hiking Plan:
Before we ever set foot upon a trail, we should obtain a map of the area and trail we intend to hike. Often maps can be found online, at regional Park Ranger offices, and at hiking and camping related businesses.
We should thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the trail we intend to hike and make reasonable estimates of how much time and effort your hike will require and plan our trip accordingly. We should also check updated weather reports for at least a day or two in advance of our hike, so that we can be aware of any changes, especially forecasts of severe weather. For safety, ALWAYS cancel if severe weather is forecast.
We should prepare a written hiking plan and leave a copy with a friend or family member. The plan should include essential information such as the date and time of our departure and return, as well as a “deadline” to notify search and rescue personnel.
Once you have established a hiking plan, it is extremely important that you not deviate from the plan whatsoever. Doing so could send searchers in the completely wrong location and delay rescue.
Hike with a Partner:
Whenever possible, it is very advisable to hike with a friend. If either you or your friend become injured, a second person is there to render First Aid or go get help. Having a companion is also safer for thwarting potential attacks by both 2 and 4-legged trail predators.
Priorities of Survival:
“The Rule of 3’s” is a common tool used in teaching survival: We can survive 3 minutes without Air, 3 hours without Shelter, 3 days without Water, and 3 weeks without Food. Air is a given, so if we become lost, our immediate priority is PROTECTION [shelter from weather, possibly fire making to maintain correct body temperature for conditions]. Our next consideration should be RESCUE [signaling], next is WATER procurement, and finally FOOD. British survival instructor Bear Grylls uses the phrase, “Please Remember What’s First” as an acronym to teach those four priorities of survival.
Start with Proper Clothing:
Clothing should be worn in layers. In that way, clothing can be removed or added as needed for the given weather conditions. Our goal is to maintain a core body temperature of 97-100 degrees and avoid overheating [Hyperthermic] or becoming too cold [Hypothermia].
Protecting your head from heat and cold is crucial. In cold conditions a wool pullover is an excellent choice. We lose about 20% [some claim as much as 40-50%] of our body heat through the top of our head, and a wool cap will keep your head warm, even when wet. They are inexpensive and available at camping and surplus stores. Always carry one in your kit in case of weather change. In hot conditions, a broad-brimmed hat with a tall crown will create shade and protect you from sunburn. The tall crown will create an air gap that will keep your head cool.
Gloves are a wise choice. In cold or wet conditions, wear woolen gloves with a wind and water proof outer glove shell. In hot conditions, wear a thin pair of leather gloves to prevent sunburn and protect your hands from thorns and thistles as you hike through vegetation.
In cold or wet weather, a wind and water-proof hooded jacket or coat is a good choice, with a light fleece or wool pullover, and a light shirt beneath that. These layers create “dead air” spaces that insulate you and help maintain warmth. A scarf helps conserve heat loss around the exposed neck. Pants should be a tight weave fabric to repel wind and water
Footwear should be a lightweight hiking boot with water-proof qualities [tennis shoes will not protect your feet from cold and wet, or impact with rocks in the trail]. The boots should be sized to permit you to wear 2 pairs of socks for comfort and to prevent blisters from forming. Wool or wool blend socks should be considered, as they will help
Minimal Kit for the Trail Hiker:
Wilderness survival instructor Dave Canterbury [thepathfinderschoolllc.com, Discovery channel DUAL SURVIVAL] teaches that survival is all about “conservation”…conserving calories, core body temperature, and body fluids until rescue can be affected.
When it comes to trail kit, Canterbury teaches what he refers to as “The 5 C’s of Survival” – Five kit items he feels are absolutely essential and must be carried whenever you are hiking or trekking. Canterbury states that these items will help you to survive being lost for a period of 24 to 72 hour. They are as follows:
1. Cutting tool – A good quality knife large enough to cut down a sapling, but small enough to perform fine carving tasks as well. A fixed or folding blade knife with a 3-4” blade is usually adequate [see APPENDICES 4].
2. Combustion device - A good Ferro cerium fire steel will give you fire for many hundreds [or even thousands] of strikes. An alternative would be a magnesium bar with a Ferro rod built into it.
3. Cover – Protection from inclement weather or the sun. A disposable poncho and/or an emergency “Space Blanket” are very good choices, although even a paint drop cloth or shower curtain from the DOLLAR STORE can also be used for the purpose of shelter if money is limited. A wool blanket is also an excellent choice as wool retains its insulative qualities even when wet.
4. Cordage – Cordage is essential for many uses such as lashing a shelter frame together, snares, etc. Personally, I like carrying a roll of Jute twine, which can be broken down into two or three smaller strands, and can also be used as a fire tinder when unraveled and teased into a nest. 550 Para cord [sheath and 7 inner strands and tarred Bank Line also work well.
5. Container – A steel cup or single-walled bottle that can be used to gather, boil, and disinfect water is essential. If you cannot make fire it may be advisable to drink untreated water rather than to risk death by dehydration before rescue.
In the photograph above, we see examples of the 5 “C” items that should be considered absolute minimal trail kit for a day hiker, including: a CONTAINER [A steel canteen. Water can be gathered and boiled and thus purified in it]; CORDAGE [Jute cord which, when unraveled, makes a very good fire tinder nest material]; COVER [a disposable poncho shelter in rescue orange and a “Space Blanket” for warmth]; COMBUSTION [2 means of making fire for protection/signaling/warmth, specifically waterproof matches and a magnesium bar shown here]; and CUTTING [a multi-tool knife with saw]. Also shown in the photograph are a Flashlight and a Light stick for signaling or finding your way in darkness]. All of these items can easily fit into a fanny pack or a daypack.
I would also recommend adding a good quality compass, a signaling device [whistle and/or mirror], and a small First Aid kit to your trail kit. A few water purification tablets and some tissue for field-expedient latrine would be good additions as well.
Many of these items can be found at garage sales. Old U.S. G.I. stainless steel canteens are common and can sometimes be bought for .25 cents or so. They can be heated with the cap off and a boil achieved to sterilize water. Place the warm canteen against your kidney [outside your clothes] and you can warn your blood as it circulates. Another source is the DOLLAR STORE.
Recently, I was perusing the shelves at the local DOLLAR TREE store and I saw items that could be used to easily make a 5' C's Trail Kit for under $10.00: 1.) COMBUSTION: Cotton balls/Petroleum Jelly [Fire Tinder] and Penny Matches. 2.) CUTTING: Paring knife with blade cover. 3.) COVER: Shower curtain. 4.) CONTAINER: Aluminum water bottle, single walled [can boil/sterilize]. 5.) CORDAGE: Cotton Twine, 420' [can be braided] or Nylon clothesline. Hmm, that's only $7.00 so we can add a mini-First Aid kit and a whistle or mirror and still have money left for the sales tax.
If you are planning for a full day excursion, you should consider an expanded trail kit [an expanded kit is shown in APPENDICES 1-4]. You should already be wearing layered clothing that is appropriate to the weather in your area, but you should add gloves and additional clothing to an expanded trail kit.
Something to avoid is “Kit Mentality” – this is a tendency to become so caught up in gear and equipment that it becomes the driving force for the outing. The purpose of getting outdoors is to enjoy nature and relax. Too much gear is heavy and noisy and will ruin your outdoor experiences.
What else should I carry?
Besides the items listed above, you should carry any medications that you may need, such as for allergies or asthma. If you wear prescription eyeglasses, it is wise to carry a spare pair in case you fall and damage the pair you are wearing.
It is also highly advisable to carry a form of identification with emergency contact information. This should also include any medical conditions you may have and list any medications you may require and/or be allergic to.
Another item worthy of consideration is an ALTOIDS TIN MINI-KIT. This is a back-up survival kit that is carried in a pocket, on your person, at all times [The kit fits into an ALTOIDS mints tin, hence the name].The intent of this kit is to provide you with the means to survive if you lose your main trail kit or pack, such as being swept while crossing swift-moving water.
Finally, a hiking stick is very useful. It helps maintain balance on rocky or loose ground, and can be used as a pointer or for retrieving a dropped object [rather than reaching into brush and getting stung by nettle or snake bit].
In this photograph, we see an ALTOIDS tin containing the following items: [Left vertical row] Brass snare wire, Jute Cordage, Waterproof matches, 1 qt. bag [water collection]; [Center vertical row] Signal Mirror, Button Compass, Whistle, Pocketknife, Ferro cerium Rod/Striker; [Right vertical row] Fresnel Lens [solar fire making], Band-Aids, Pencil, Air-to-Ground Signal Sheet.
Lost or Injured…now what?
If you become injured, your first step is to remain calm, assess the injury, and determine whether it is POSSIBLE and/or ADVISABLE [two very different concepts] to hike out. If the answer is no, such as a severe laceration from a fall, your next step should be to treat the injury/treat for shock, seek shelter, and await assistance/rescue.
If you become lost, you have two choices: attempt to back-track your trail, or shelter in place and await rescue. Many people continue to keep walking on the same course in the hope of finding their way out, but most often this will only result in becoming even more lost. The rule is, if you are not sure, STAY PUT!
One of the questions that frequently arises is concern about wild animals such as Mountain Lions or Bears. The chances of being attacked are very small. You have a much greater likelihood of self-inflicted dangers [dehydration, mechanical injury or becoming lost] than an animal attack. However, we still need to practice awareness. I have written a document on this topic [“Wildlife Encounters - what hikers need to know”] which will help answer your questions regarding potentially dangerous wildlife.
PMA – *Positive *Mental *Attitude:
Having some survival knowledge and equipment to survive a trail accident is not enough. Having a Positive Mental Attitude [PMA] is hugely important to surviving being lost or injured in the wild. The ability to remain calm and work to meet priorities, improve your situation, and enhance your chances of rescue are critical.
A friend of mine served with a SAR unit in the San Joaquin Valley and described finding a missing bicyclist who appeared to have panicked after becoming snake bit. They located his body by following a trail of abandoned trail gear [common], including his hydration bladder. He was found to have died from shock within a mile of a community. This is truly a tragedy because he might still be alive today had he remained calm, thought through the problem, and kept a PMA.
Building your skills:
There are many good books and online sources, such as YOUTUBE videos, that can help you learn self-reliance and wilderness skills
In my opinion, the single best way to build your skills is to perform outings close to home. In my case, there is a state park with a dedicated campground for hikers and bikers. It charges a low fee for a campsite [$5.00; E-sites at MDO are $25.00]. At least twice a year I hike there and spend a day and night to try out new gear and practice fire-making skills. This helps sharpen my skills for outings to more isolated locations, and helps build confidence and comfort for staying out-of-doors. You should always try to practice at least one primitive skill set when on any outing.
BUSHCRAFTUSA.com: A free forum for persons interested in learning bushcraft skills. The site is family-friendly and moderated for clean content. They also offer bushcraft skill lessons for free on a section of their forum.
BUSHCRAFT OUTFITTERS: Quality outdoor gear for the serious woodsman. Visit their website at http://www.bushcraftoutfitters.com/
CENTRAL COAST BUSHCRAFT: San Luis Obispo based group. Lots of good tips and information. Visit their FACEBOOK page.
OJAI SEARCH & RESCUE HIKING PLAN: This is a really nice hiking plan pdf available from Ojai Search & Rescue. Fill one out and leave with a friend or family before you go out. Besides information of use to SAR personnel, it also includes a box for a map drawing of your planned hike.http://www.ojaisar.org/Files/HikingPlan.pdf
SELF RELIANCE OUTFITTERS [PATHFINDER SCHOOL, LLC]: Premier bushcraft school and supplier of bushcraft and survival equipment. Owned/operated by dave Canterbury [co-host of DISCOVERY CHANNEL'S "DUAL SURVIVAL" television show] http://www.thepathfinderstore.com/
“SAFETY TIPS FOR TRAIL HIKERS” by Manny Silva, Central Coast Active magazine article: A discussion of personal safety from 2 and 4-legged predators on the trail http://www.centralcoastactive.com/flip-books/CCA5Flip/
SURVIVAL RESOURCES, INC: Excellent source for trail survival gear. Visit their website at
APPENDIX 1: Advanced Trail Kit [Left] fleece jacket, knit cap, wool gloves, leather gloves. Cap is especially important as you lose 50% of heat via top of your head; [Centre, top clockwise] 25' nylon rope, AMK 2.0 bivvy [4 oz.], Space Blanket, Emergency poncho, map/pencil/notepad, toiletries, Sierra cup/water purifying tablets, canteen and cover, flashlight/spare batteries, monoscope, energy food/drink mix, signal mirror [US MK3 Type 1], fire making kit; [Right] Daypack, First Aid/Trauma Kit, crash shears, POCKETMASK rescue breather. All items displayed on a blaze orange poncho, which makes excellent signal panel [NOT SHOWN: Knives, compasses].
APPENDIX 2: Fire Making Kit Tin containing Flint/steel, char cloth and jute tinder; 2 tinder sticks; magnesium bar/striker; match safe with matches and jute tinder; USAF 3/8" Ferro cerium rod mounted in deer antler. Dave "Pathfinder" Canterbury suggests having five means of making fire at your disposal [include 2-3 primitive skills in that] as nothing ever works all the time, every time.
APPENDIX 3: First Aid Kit Basic First Aid kit in green box at bottom; Emergency blanket, crash shears, pocket-mask, and lots of trauma dressings are essential for the trail. Trails have lots of perils [slides, falls, falling rock, etc.]. You or a member of your party [or a stranger] may require wound dressings for a fracture or laceration.
APPENDIX 4: Every Day Carry [EDC] Every Day carry or EDC, are those items that should always be carried on your person at all times….a knife and a spare means of making fire. In the photograph above we see a waterproof match safe, a small flashlight wound with Gorilla tape and a can opener is attached by Para cord. Knives [top to bottom] are: WESTERN 932 6" clip blade with saw blade; Gerber APPLEGATE-FAIRBAIRN folder; LEATHERMAN "Super Tool 200"; HARTZKOPF lock-blade pocketknife with saw blade; VICTORINOX "Spartan" pocketknife. Any of these knives are a good choice for urban or trail uses.
© 2013, MANNY SILVA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED