*This article first appeared in The Denver Post on May 11, 2019. Written by Heather Balogh Rochfort *
Summer snowmelt is underway and with the flowing water comes the approach of hiking season.
Colorado is prime for outdoor activities like hiking and camping, but many outdoor enthusiasts gear up for the weekend without the most important skillset: how to take care of yourself or others in an emergency situation.
Colorado native Aaron Hutchings is a former Marine who has survival certifications through Sigma III Survival School. Hutchings (or Hutch, as he prefers to be called) is a lead Instructor for Mountain Marrow, a local school that teaches outdoor skills for high-stress situations. We asked him for his top 10 survival tips that any adventurer should know before heading out on a day hike.
1. Create a trip plan
According to Hutch, a trip plan is like insurance: it can go a long way toward making sure you get help if you need it. But in this instance, it’s free. Before you head out on your day hike, shoot a text to your favorite responsible adult, whether it is mom, dad or your best friend. In the message, include a photo of the beginning of your adventure; a screenshot of your location on a GPS app; a photo of your entire group; your general itinerary details; and why you are going. “It sounds like a lot of information,” Hutch said, “but it ensures rescuers would be looking for the correct people with an accurate profile. For example, people picking berries would not likely head above treeline.”
2. Don’t make the situation worse
If you find yourself lost or injured, try not to panic. According to Hutch, a common mnemonic device used in the military is STOP ‘EM:
- STOP moving so you don’t worsen your situation.
- THINK about your current situation and what you need to change for it to improve.
- OBSERVE yourself for injuries and your surroundings for clues. Do you have cell service? How does the weather look? Does anyone know where you are?
- PLAN to stay where you are (if you can sustain it) to await rescue. If you are in an unsafe situation or in an area where you will not be found, plan to move elsewhere.
- EVALUATE yourself and do a quick risk assessment. Be honest with yourself and make sure you are comfortable with any plan changes.
- MAKE it happen. Once you’ve settled on your plan, stick to it unless it becomes dangerous or fails. “Straying from your plan, or ‘shooting from the hip,’ will likely worsen your situation,” Hutch said.
3. Cautiously navigate
“We always advocate staying static when possible,” Hutch said. But if you are certain that you need to relocate to find the trail and cannot identify any landmarks like mountains or rivers to use for reference, mark your current location so it is visible from a reasonable distance. From there, walk in a straight line toward the area where you believe the trail exists. Always maintain a visual with your starting point; never lose your line of sight. If you can’t find the trail, retrace your steps to the starting point and do the same thing again in a different direction.
4. Always bring a first-aid kit
No matter how short your day hike is, be sure to bring a first-aid kit so that you are prepared in an emergency. In addition to the basics, don’t forget to consider items specific to you: extra daily medications in case you become stranded or an Epi-Pen if you know you could need one. Moreover, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the items in the kit. They won’t serve much purpose in an emergency if you don’t know how to use them.
5. Pack an emergency shelter
Day hikers frequently shun emergency shelters like tarps or bivvy sacks, figuring they won’t be outside long enough to warrant their inclusion. According to Hutch, your clothing is a mobile shelter that will isolate and insulate from precipitation, sun and exterior temperature fluctuations. Learn how to layer properly and add a quality poncho to your kit. Not only will it allow you to continue your hike in the rain, but it will also double as an emergency shelter if you get stuck out there.
6. Consider building a fire
Hutch acknowledges that many people think a fire is always the answer, thanks to its light, warmth and overall morale boost. But in Colorado, he said you should only build a fire if absolutely necessary for survival. “Ask yourself whether you can build it safely and without risk of a wildfire,” he said. After all, an out-of-control fire could put you at further risk, as well as have a lasting effect on the ecosystem.
7. Don’t forget your whistle
It is ideal to bring a pea-less whistle, or the type that does not use a small ball in the chamber to create a sound. Often, these balls get jammed with dirt or saliva, so they are less reliable. If you find yourself in trouble, use your whistle to emit three long blasts, the universal distress signal.
8. Quench your thirst
Dehydration can be deadly when you are stranded outside. Hutch suggests sipping when thirsty (avoid gulping), but don’t ration your water. Consider your water quantity when you are contemplating remaining static or moving to a new location since hydration will play a large role in your success. Hutch always recommends hikers carry a small water filter or purification tablets to treat water found in the wild.
9. Conserve your calories
Most hikers have some snacks in their backpack, but Hutch advises to wisely consider your water situation in addition to the calories. Digestion requires water so the calories may do more harm than good if you don’t have the appropriate hydration to accommodate the food. According to Hutch, humans can survive for up to three weeks without food, so calories are less of a concern than water. Of course, if you have both water and nourishment, eating is acceptable.
10. Don’t forget the fun
“Most of us explore the natural world because it’s fun and beautiful,” Hutch said. “Constantly worrying about what could go wrong is not a fun way to adventure.” He suggests that hikers learn some basic skills in a fun way so that they feel prepared, confident and eager to hit the trail.