Outdoor Living

Avoid Injuries and Stay Safe While Enjoying Backcountry Hiking

Every year, hundreds of Americans get lost, injured and even die while hiking through remote sections of national parks and other wild spots in the United States. We asked the members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) to share their experience and they came up with these five survival tips for safer hiking. CNPSR outdoors experts know what they are talking about: the group's nearly 600 members -- most of whom spent their entire careers working outdoors -- account for a total of more than 17,000 years worth of National Park Service (NPS) experience.

Coalition Spokesperson Roger Rudolph, the former chief ranger of Yosemite National Park, said: "A summer or fall hiking adventure does not have to result in injury, death or a costly search-and-recovery mission. Most incidents like this are preventable with just a little planning."

Here are the five tips from CNPSR to assist with planning your summer or fall hiking adventures:

  1. Have a plan and share it. Whether hiking solo or in a group, you need to become familiar with the area you will be hiking, the hazards, and the expected weather. The process of getting ready will include obtaining maps to review the area you will hike, briefing all members of the group on route selection, having a turn-around time, and developing alternate route selections. Let someone know where you are going, when, your departure point, your planned route, and expected time of return. A tip for when you are underway: It is always a good idea to pay attention to landmarks from all angles, as these "markers" sometimes will change dramatically in appearance depending on light, elevation and your angle of observation.
  2. Make sure your equipment, clothing, and food are up for the trip. Test your equipment before leaving. Having a little extra clothing, especially for inclement weather, may weigh a bit more, but it is worth it when things go sour. The same rule of "a little extra can't hurt" applies to food and drink. During the hotter summer months, extra water is especially important, even on shorter hikes and even in areas of high humidity. Dehydration comes on quickly and leads to other more serious problems. Better to lug around more than to be stranded with less than you need to survive.
  3. Know your limits -- and those of the other individuals in your group. A military unit travels at the speed of its slowest member and that is a good way to think about how to hike. Constant communication is also key: If traveling in a group, you should use a buddy system. Checking your partner for energy levels, blisters, food consumption, and fatigue can prevent problems down the trail. Jim Brady, a coalition member and the former chief ranger of the National Park Service and Superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, said: "Almost every park ranger knows of rescues or body recoveries that resulted from poor conditioning and bad judgment. Hiking is supposed to be fun, not a life-and-death struggle."
  4. Always bring along about proper emergency equipment. When hiking by yourself, ensure that you have, at a minimum, a first aid kit. Some recommended items include band-aids, medical tape, over-the-counter pain relievers, moleskin, anti-bacterial ointment, and a compress or two, and spare headlamp batteries. If traveling in a group, have a "community" first aid kit with additional splints, pads, and braces. Tony Bonanno, a CNPSR member and the former chief ranger of the NPS Intermountain Region, said: "EMT gear is a good idea if you have someone along who knows how to use it. Mine includes extra matches, needle and thread, a flare, mirror, and whistle. Remember that splints often can be improvised using what nature or innovation provides, such as branches, pack frames, blankets, coats, sleeping bags etc."
  5. Learn in advance what to do if things go bad. Park rangers typically encourage hikers in genuine distress to "hug a tree," which means staying where you are until help comes to you. You can last a long time with the gear you have with you. Whistles, mirrors, cell phones (when they work) are priceless. A lost person who wanders around aimlessly -- especially in inclement weather -- can turn a merely bad situation into a truly tragic situation. It is better to be lost and then found (even if a little embarrassed) than to be carried out of the wilderness in a body bag. When traveling in a group, if someone sustains an injury, good judgment is required to determine if it is: safe to proceed; better to send someone (two people, if possible) back for help; or "hug a tree" and wait for help.

Want to learn more? Members of the Coalition recommend that parents and grandparents consider purchasing a copy of the video or DVD entitled "Lost... but Found Safe and Sound" from the Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR). The ANPR presentation provides priceless information that a child can use if he or she is lost in the woods. You can find ordering information at the Association's website, http://www.anpr.org/lost.htm. (Note: CNPSR is not affiliated with ANPR and shares in no way in proceeds from the sale of Associations videos and CDs.) You can find the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees on the Web at http://www.npsretirees.org.

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