A Guide to Safe & Effective Planning for Trips into the Wilderness
What follows provides not an exhaustive guide, but information I learned along the way that can be helpful when things don’t go as planned. When considering an excursion into the wilderness, you should always remember: When you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Better to have your plan and not need it, than need it and not have it.
This Guide applies primarily for Day Trippers, who often become more vulnerable as they don’t expect to be out in the wilderness overnight. As a result, they often go out without the proper gear should an accident/injury, navigation failure, or storm necessitate an extended, overnight situation.
My wife, Pussanee, and I carefully prepare before we go into a true wilderness area. Our backpacks are huge, but we realize we alone bear responsibility for our lives. We want to give ourselves a chance to survive should that injury/accident, navigation failure, or storm arise. Still, you must accept the fact that no matter how much you prepare, sometimes Mother Nature turns out just too strong. Risks, though, should be calculated, not reckless.
A Well-Equipped Winter Traveler
Alex Lowe was a hero of mine in my mountain climbing days. He was one of the most careful mountain climbers of all time, yet an avalanche took his life in Tibet in 1999. That hit home for me because, no matter how careful you are, sometimes you face something both unexpected and, even if possibly expected, overwhelming beyond your abilities. Such events are risks we must accept if we are adventuring into wilderness areas.
However, you can help your odds. After all, there are careless mountain climbers and old mountain climbers, but no old, careless mountain climbers.
Two questions I ask myself before heading out into a true wilderness area are:
- Can I respond positively and calmly to an accident, emergency, or severe weather/storm?
- Can we safely spend a night, or more, with the gear we have?
If I can’t answer yes to both, I either get the supplies and training I need, or I don’t go. You can’t be foolish with the wilderness.
Since weather conditions can change quickly, winter adventurers especially need to carry the following
- Navigation (topo maps, altimeter, GPS, compass).
- Sun and bug protection (sunglasses, bug spray, sunscreen).
- Insulation (Extra Clothing) in a waterproof bag inside your pack.
- Illumination (headlamp, flashlight, batteries).
- First-Aid supplies. (We carry an extensive one from My Medic).
- Fire (bombproof lighter, small sharp axe or saw, matches in a waterproof container, fire starters).
- Repair Kit and Tools (Leatherman multi-tool and duct or electrical tape).
- Nutrition (jerky, nuts, granola, and dried fruit).
- Hydration (water, enough to accommodate additional requirements due to temperature, altitude, exertion, and emergency). Water Filter and in winter a small stove.
- Emergency Shelter (emergency tent, or small tarp, reflective emergency blanket, hand and body warmers).
I also carry a loud whistle, cell phone with GPS, extra batteries suitable for all my powered gear, and cash.
You can get in serious trouble in summer also, especially high mountain or remote wilderness areas. Also, if you don’t know how to orient your compass to your map, both are fairly useless. REI and others teach good, one-day courses in compass navigation, and I would take Classes 101 and 102, and practice a lot before heading out to a true wilderness area.
If you carry a GPS, you still need a compass and map as you can’t risk your life on batteries. I have only taken three navigation classes, so I don’t claim expertise, but I’m not helpless either. I understand that just because I am lost, it doesn’t mean my compass is broken.
Critical to rescue is to tell someone your route and stick to it; this makes a rescue much easier. Also, give them a time they can expect to hear from you, after which they will assume you need help and can alert authorities. If you’ve stuck to your route, rescuers finding you should be easier. Please watch the movie 127 Hours to see this point illustrated in agonizing fashion. We always file our route plan with someone responsible and stick to it. If we don’t contact them by a set time, they know to initiate a rescue.
Get Some Training
Pussanee and I are certified in Winter Wilderness Survival and hold a Wilderness First Aid certification from The National Outdoor Leadership School. We still feel that we need more training. Know when to abandon the trip and turn back; your life is not worth any trip. My friend Baltimore always says the only goal on an expedition is to survive; everything else is a bonus.
If you are in a remote wilderness without cell service, you will want to carry a satellite communicator with a personal locator beacon like this one that we carry: Garmin InReach Explorer. This device allows you to text people even with no cell service, and has an SOS button that, when pushed, will send your exact location to a call center which will initiate communication to the local search and rescue team, as well as provide them with your exact location. This device also navigates, giving you set way points to guide you back where you started. However, devices can and do fail, or get lost so, you must file a route and an expected return time with a responsible person.
A note about cell phones in winter: I place mine deep in my backpack, in a small pocket. I also place a hand warmer in the pocket along with the cell phone. This keeps the battery from freezing, which can happen quickly in cold temperatures. The GPS has a more robust battery and needs a clear view of the sky, so I hang it on my backpack.
When everything goes according to plan, the gear, training, and precautions may feel overdone. But when an unexpected storm hits and you can’t see, or when someone breaks a leg, the guidance here at least gives you a shot at effective and proper self-care, quick rescue, and survival.
My friend Ken and I got slammed with a blizzard while mountain biking high above Lake Tahoe on the Flume Trail in November of 2003. The forecast had called for a zero percent chance of snow and was 100% wrong. Ken got wet and cold and, properly prepared, I used the extra clothes as well as hand and body warmers to get him dry and warm. I also had my tarp and space blanket, along with fire making materials, but we got lucky and found a concrete outhouse even though we were 4 miles from the nearest road.
We stayed in there several hours until the wind died down; we even ate lunch in there. Sounds disgusting, but with 40 mph winds and a whiteout outside, the outhouse proved itself a lifesaver. Had we not found the outhouse, I think we could have survived with the tarp, space blanket, hand and body warmers, and fire-making capabilities; I am 100% certain we would not have survived without them.
Stay safe out there and remember: It’s always okay to turn back short of your planned destination if you have safety concerns. This is a hard lesson to learn, but a lesson that could save your life. Legendary Swedish adventurer Göran Kropp turned around 350 vertical feet from the summit of Mount Everest because his turn-around alarm went off, and it was too late in the day for him to get down safely.
This discipline kept him from being one of the eight climbers who were killed in May 1996, painfully detailed in Jon Krakauer’s book: “Into Thin Air.” He lived to fight another day and made the summit 3 weeks later. If he can turn back early due to safety, so can you.
President & Mountain Bike Coordinator, Elmhurst Bike Club
Graduate Winter Wilderness Survival School
Wilderness First Aid Certified
National Mountain Bike Patrol Instructor
Certified Mountain Bike Guide
Accredited Bike Medic
CPR, AED and Life Support Graduate
Video: What’s in YOUR gear collection?