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Preparing for Trouble: Don’t Die on the Trail

Posted by on Oct 15, 2012 | 2 Comments

This recent story caught my eye yesterday: East Coast Hikers Missing in Glacier National Park.

The hikers are presumably lost somewhere in a large, rugged area. Search and rescue has few clues.The winter weather could give this story a tragic ending.

In my still-in-progress trail running book, I included a section about how search and rescue works and what to do if lost. The book is still probably at least two months away from completion, but this information could feasibly be life-saving for anyone that may be heading out on the trails. I want to share it before the book is finished. Share this post with anyone you know that may be heading out to the backcountry.

What happens if you get lost? Or hurt? For anyone venturing into the wilderness, this is a real possibility. Preparing for trouble can help keep you safe or allow your safe return should you get in trouble. The more remote the area, the more important good preparation becomes. Follow these simple tips.

Before you leave for your run

ALWAYS tell someone where you are going, when you plan on returning, and who to contact should you not return. Exact information could include the trailhead where you will start, the number of people in your running group, gear (food, water, fire-starting equipment, clothing, shelter, etc.), your experience level, maps and compass, and your planned route. All of this information can be used by search and rescue to help plan a search effort.

Give the person an exact time you plan on returning. Give yourself some wiggle room in case you’re delayed. Instruct them to attempt to call you first in case you forget to call them. If they don’t get a response, give them an emergency contact number based on the area you’re running. They will forward all your information to the authorities, which will forward it to the search and rescue agency.

In the event this isn’t possible, you can leave a note with the same information in your car at the trailhead. If you don’t return, search and rescue will locate and search your car. I’ve never been a fan of this because I don’t want to advertise my whereabouts and return time to prospective thieves. If you do this, leave the note folded on the dashboard.

If the trailhead has a register, fill it out. Search and rescue will also use this to locate you.

If you do get lost or hurt

Knowing how search and rescue operates is useful to maximize their efforts to find you. First, stabilize any injuries and move to a safe place. For example, if you’re bleeding, stop it. if you’re on top of a summit during a thunderstorm, move to lower ground. If you’re in a flood plane during a rain storm, move to higher ground.

Second, assess the situation. If there’s a very good chance of finding your way out of trouble in a timely manner, a storm in closing in and you don’t have a means of building a shelter, or you didn’t tell anyone where you’re running, try navigating out. If not, stay put. If people are searching for you, moving makes it much more difficult to locate you. Understanding how search and rescue works will greatly increase the chances of being found. This is the process search and rescue usually uses to locate lost runners.

Search and rescue efforts usually start with teams checking obvious locations in the event you’re not really lost, like your tent, car, or home. This is done in the event you didn’t have a means (or forgot) to contact the person that reported you missing.

The SAR team begins the actual search my determining your last known location. They calculate the time that has elapsed since you were last seen and how fast you were likely traveling. Using this data, they can determine the size of the search area.

Before beginning the actual search, the SAR team will post people on roads, trails, and streams or rivers around the boundary of the search area. This serves two purposes. If you’re moving, there’s a chance you will run into one of the SAR team members. This also helps assure the search area doesn’t enlarge over time since it will be unlikely you’ll pass by one of the containment team members. This is the reason staying in one place is important- moving out of this search zone will dramatically increase the time it takes to find you since the initial search zone will be thoroughly searched first.

The search team will then dispatch small teams to quickly search the zone. They will check any place people may go when lost or injured such as shelters or caves, or check obviously dangerous places like cliffs. The goal of this stage is to end the search quickly, so the searchers aren’t especially thorough.

Shortly after, SAR may dispatch helicopters or airplanes to search from the air. They will look for signs like fires, shelters, or signals and notes left on the ground. They may or may not use heat detecting technology.

SAR may also use signalling methods like whistles, car horns, or yelling. If you hear any of these, attempt to respond. If possible, head toward the signals. It’s a good idea to mark your path in some way. This allows you to return to your shelter if needed and creates a series of clues if SAR stumbles upon your path.

If the initial search is unsuccessful, the SAR team may expand the search zone or, more likely, use a grid search of the area. The team will section off the area, then have searchers thoroughly search each section of the grid for any clue they can find. This is a very slow, manpower-intensive process and usually reserved for times when they are searching for an incapacitated person or a body.

You can greatly increase your chances of being found by following a few guidelines that will assist SAR.

Step one: Get safe. If you’re in a dangerous place (possible rock slides, avalanche zone, ridge or summit during a thunderstorm, a flood plane, etc.), move to a safe location. If you’re injured, administer appropriate first aid.

Step two: Protect yourself from the elements. The greatest danger in a survival situation is exposure. Heat or cold can kill a human surprisingly fast. If you are close to a known shelter, take refuge there. SAR will likely search those first, so it increases your odds of being found. If not, use whatever you have at your disposal to build a makeshift shelter. If you are prepared, you should have an emergency blanket and some cord. This can be combined with trees, sticks, or other natural elements to build a simple lean-to shelter.

Shelter placement is a tradeoff between visibility and protection. If you build the shelter in an open area, it is more likely to be seen from above. However it also exposes you to the elements. It’s probably a better idea to build the shelter near a bare hilltop or clearing, then construct signaling devices in the open areas.

This step should also include building a fire if the weather is colder. A small fire build near the open side to a lean-to with a reflector on the opposite side will provide plenty of warmth.

Step three: Build signals for SAR. Make your presence known. The universal distress signal in the United States is a grouping of three. It may be three signal fires built in a triangle, three piles of rocks or clothing, three blasts from a whistle, etc. The ideal location is an open area that can be seen from a distance such as a bare hilltop or large clearing. Here are a few options for signaling:

  • Signal fires. The smoke from a fire can be seen in the daytime and the flames can be seen at night. To increase the smokiness, add green pine needles or leaves.
  • Clothing arranged in an “X.” Bright clothing can be seen from a long distance. If you have an abundance, leave a clothing “X” in a clearing near your shelter.
  • Signal mirror. I don’t usually carry a mirror when running, but they are a great signal device.
  • Rocks, logs, or dirt arranged in the shape of messages. Use whatever you have available to create notes in open areas. Write the letters “SOS” if possible, otherwise arrange three piles in a straight line or a triangle. If you move, also include an arrow pointing toward your direction of travel.
  • Rescue aircraft. If you see or hear an aircraft, find an open area and lie flat on the ground with your arms and legs spread. The goal is to be as noticeable as possible.

Step four: Procure water. After exposure, dehydration is the next danger. Humans can live about three days without water. If you have water, use that. Some people recommend rationing, others suggest drinking normally. There are merits to both approaches. I prefer to ration because it’s psychologically demoralizing to run out of water. Regardless of the approach, it’s important to avoid heavy exertion. Sweating wastes water.

I discuss methods to find water in a later section, including methods to purify potentially dangerous water. Drinking untreated water has risks ranging from illness to death. If you’ve exhausted your water and are in danger of dehydration, it may be worth the risk of drinking untreated water. Most illnesses may take a week or more before symptoms show up. If people are searching for you and you followed all the advice in here, you’ll be found before it becomes an issue.

Step five: Find food. Food is the last step because humans can survive for weeks without food. While it may seem like an immediate concern, the other steps are FAR more important. If you’re trapped in the wilderness long enough to starve, you probably didn’t tell someone when or where you were running. Even then, it’s unlikely that you would have remained missing.

If you DO need food, being familiar with local flora and fauna will help. As a general rule of thumb, most furry mammals can be eaten. So can snakes (cut the head off far enough back to remove poison sacs on poisonous species), fish, and insects that aren’t furry, brightly colored, or sting. Plants are more of a mixed bag. Some are okay, others will make you sick. Some will kill. It’s best to consult a field guide specific tp your area for better information. Or use Google. It’s quicker.

These steps constitute the most basic of survival tactics. Nothing can replace field experience. If you plan on spending a lot of time in the backcountry, a survival course taught by qualified instructors can be an awesome addition to your knowledge base.

First Aid Kit

In the event you experience any sort of emergency, a first aid kit can literally be a lifesaver. Unfortunately survival gear takes up a lot of room. Unlike hikers, runners have to be judicious about the gear they carry. What I decide to carry is heavily dependent on local conditions. Trail runs through the relatively safe Michigan countryside aren’t nearly as dangerous as backcountry mountain trails. Weather also plays a role. Cold, heat, precipitation, and the availability of shelter factor into the decision on what to carry.

If I’m close to civilization and running on popular, safe trails, I usually don’t carry anything. If I’m doing a longer run in a relatively safe environment, I may bring foot care provisions like a few band-aids, alcohol wipes (for sterilization), a safety pin (to lance blisters or remove slivers), and super glue (to close minor wounds).

If I’m running in adverse conditions that could present a danger or I’m traveling farther from civilization, I may carry:

  •     A butane lighter for firestarting,
  •     A space blanket for makeshift shelters, heat reflector, solar still, cord (if cut in strips), or emergency signaling device.
  •     A small, sharp pocket knife.
  •     A plastic poncho or garbage bag if rain is in the forecast.
  •     A flashlight with fresh batteries.
  •     A few yards of parachute cord.
  •     An emergency whistle.

These basic items can be used to build a shelter and build a fire. All these items together take up about as much space and weigh as much as two decks of playing cards and can be carried in a hydration pack, fanny pack (for those that want to channel the 1990’s), or water bottle pockets. I’ve even attached some of that gear to a wide-brimmed straw gardener’s hat.

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2 Comments

  1. wilberfan
    October 15, 2012

    Awesome. As someone who’s solo hiked many times, it’s good to know (or be reminded) of this stuff.

    I’m curious. Do you know if Micah True was found using the SAR techniques you mentioned here? Or was it just shear numbers of people out looking?