The most important part of keeping your group safe is planning ahead. Think about the worst case scenarios ahead of time, and decide how you are going to deal with them if necessary. Then make sure everyone is prepared when the time comes. Here are some basic safety rules:
• Always leave a description of your proposed hike with someone, informing them of your route and planned return time, then let them know when you actually do return.
• Every hiker should have a buddy. Buddies should always know where their buddy is.
• Decide ahead of time what you are going to do if someone gets separated from the group. How long are you going to wait for them to return? Where should they go after realizing they are separated? When and how do you contact the local rangers for help?
• If hiking at night, the hiker in front (Point) needs to maintain voice contact with the person at the end of the line (Drag). Flashlights should be readily available, but often are not required if you let your eyes adjust to the stars and moonlight. If you have to hike on a road, stay on the left and face traffic with lit flashlights in your hand pointing slightly in front of you.
• Identify and verify the closest available medical assistance and exit route for each section of the hike. Sometimes on a long hike, help is days away and it’s no good to hike in that direction to find the ranger station or road was closed due to budget cuts. Make sure you have maps for your emergency exit routes.
5. When lost it is critical you stay put. It is okay to travel a very short distance in an attempt to get your bearings, but if unable you should return to the location where you first became aware you were lost. It is also okay to move a short distance away from a stream so you can hear better, or slightly uphill so you can see better. However, never wander around when lost as it makes it more difficult for searchers to find you. Upon realizing you are lost, blow your whistle with three short bursts, or yell loudly three times, wait and listen for a moment. Continue to repeat this sequence as you wait. Remind yourself that people are looking for you and given enough time they will eventually find you. Be patient, stay calm, don’t panic.
Getting Lost or Getting Separated From the Group
If getting lost means not being on the planned trail at the planned time, then being lost is part of the backpacking experience. While it is very possible to lose the trail on a long trip, it’s usually not a problem for an experienced group if they are all together and there are no other issues (like bad weather or running out of food). Backpackers in this situation should just study the map and do their best to get back to a trail. In fact, getting lost together is part of the fun of backpacking and it happens all the time. (However, getting lost on a practice hike means getting home late!)
A bigger problem is when hikers get separated from the group. There are lots of ways this happens (like when an adult goes off to find a shortcut and doesn’t return for a few hours), but when it does happen, it’s nearly always a disaster for the expedition because it takes time and energy to deal with the problem. Sometimes the entire trip even has to be abandoned to deal with irritated Rangers and distraught parents. (Lost hikers are always found eventually and usually in reasonable condition.)
The potential for getting separated should be discussed ahead of time, with the following guidance or policies in place. Hikers who are separated from the group should stay put. (This is much easier said than done!) It is okay to move a short distance away from a stream so you can hear better, or slightly uphill so you can see better, but stay in the area. Never wander around when lost because it makes it more difficult for searchers to find you. Upon realizing you are lost, blow your whistle with three short bursts, or yell loudly three times, wait and listen for a moment. Continue to repeat this sequence as you wait. Be patient, stay calm, and don’t panic. Remind yourself that people are looking for you and given enough time they will eventually find you.
In a worst case scenario, hikers should know the seven steps for wilderness survival from the merit badge: Positive Mental Attitude, Check for Injuries/First Aid, Make a Shelter, Build a Fire, Signal for Help, Find Water, and Don’t Worry about Food.
For summer day hikes along the coast or on urban trails, you can usually tell if its going to rain by checking the local weather forecast. However, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains rain can occur on any day with little warning, and you must be prepared with the proper protection.
Lightning is dangerous. You can estimate the distance to a lightning strike by counting the seconds between the strike and the thunder. Divide the number of seconds by 5 and this will be the approximate distance to the strike. Studies have shown that a second strike can occur 6 to 8 miles away from the first strike. Therefore, when the time between the strike and the thunder is less than 40 seconds you could be in danger. So, if you can hear thunder you need to take action.
• Separate and find cover under clumps of shrubs or trees of uniform height.
• Crouch down with feet and knees together, chest on knees, and hands covering ears.
• Spread out 15′ to 20′ from each other, but maintain voice contact.
• Stay off ridges and passes. You are typically better off at lower elevations.
• Stay out of broad open areas like meadows or lakes.
• Caves are not safe.
• Avoid single high trees.
There are always fires burning somewhere in the mountains, so waking up to the smell of smoke is not necessarily a calamity. However, forest fires move quickly and unpredictably – and they can be extremely dangerous if you end up near one.
If the fire is very close, don’t try and outrun it. (You cannot usually outrun a forest fire no matter how fast you are! And the super-heated air will play havoc with your lungs anyway.) Find the nearest body and water (like a lake) and jump into it. This will provide some protection, but the sad fact is that if the fire is close enough for you to be jumping into a lake for survival, then you have a big problem.
If the fire is far away, avoid it. Change your route if necessary. Listen to the rangers when they tell you that some areas are closed due to fires. One time, I was hiking in Yosemite and the trails near White Wolf were closed because of fires in the area. We had to hike almost 40 miles out of our way to avoid the fires. And, to this day, I still haven’t seen the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne! But it was worth the extra miles to avoid having some fire fighter wasting their time and putting themselves at risk to rescue our group.
Scouts often encounter snakes on outings, especially if they are looking for them. Most snakes are harmless. However, there are four poisonous snakes in the United States, and Scouts have to be prepared to deal with them Although poisonous snakes are common in some areas, bites are rare – and very, very few snake bites result in death. The four types of poisonous snakes are:
Rattlesnakes (found all over the western and southern United States). They are very common and all experienced hikers have seen them on the trail. Usually, the rattlesnake just slides away when they are aware of your presence.
Water Moccasins (or Cotton Mouth) – This is one mean snake, that will often stand its ground when threatened. Mostly its found near water from Virginia to Texas; inland from Georgia to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. It is often confused with common water snakes, but non-poisonous water snakes are usually much smaller.
First Aid for poisonous snake bites.
1. Remove any jewelry around the affected area.
2. Treat for shock – have the victim lie down if possible
3. Lower the bitten area to slow circulation
4. Get medical help as soon as possible
While Scouts were once instructed to cut open the wound and suck out the snake venom, this is no longer the case. Scouts with razor blades slicing up snake bite victims turned out to be a bad idea.
To avoid snake bites, Scouts need to pay attention (stay mentally awake). Watch where you put your hands if you are rock hopping. Occasionally look down at the trail, and keep your shoes on at camp. (In our Troop there was an infamous campsite on a 50 miler where the Scouts found six rattlesnakes after they set up their tents. Needless to say that the tent flaps were completely zipped up all night!)
A snake can only strike with authority within a distance of one- half its body length. So if you are careful, you can observe a snake without danger. Never – never, try to pick up a snake.
Even during the summer, snow fields are common along portions of many trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Prior to crossing a snow field, evaluate the situation. If possible, hike around the field, especially if it is steep or there is a hazard at the base of the field such as water, rocks or a cliff. As with some stream crossings, it may simply be better to turn around.
When hiking across a snow field, each member in the group should be separated by at least 10′. Take short steps and dig the uphill edge of your boots into the snow with each step. Stay away from rock out-croppings where soft spots and hidden voids occur, and listen for water beneath the snow. When crossing a snow field it is best to have an ice axe to self arrest in case of a fall. If you do not have an ice axe and should fall, try to fall in the uphill direction and roll onto your stomach, but keep it off the snow. Keep as much weight as possible on your toes and fingers, dig them into the snow to stop you from sliding.
Never attempt to cross a frozen lake. The possibility of falling through the ice is not a risk worth taking. Also, stay back from the edges of a frozen lake because they thaw first.
In the Sierras, snow can occur any time and it can be slippery and dangerous hiking in fresh snow. Snow can collapse a tent, or break a branch over a tent. If you awake to snow covering your campsite it may be best to wait it out, depending on the expected weather conditions. You should only attempt to hike out if you are fearful of more snow and you are certain of the trail location.
Coming Soon – Safety Information on the following