Coquitlam Search and Rescue is suggesting that hikers post a “trailhead selfie” to social media before heading out on a hike. I believe that this is an outstanding idea and a great use of social media. It will at least provide search teams with enough useful information to start their search and hopefully rescue those in distress. That being said, I also believe that it could also give the unprepared another false sense of safety when heading out into the mountains without the proper gear.
I know how easy it is to be prepared for the unexpected, and it frustrates me to no end to hear that our volunteer SAR teams had to risk their lives to rescue someone who didn’t bother to be ready for what Mother Nature threw at them. I’ve always loved the outdoors and am more comfortable in the bush than anywhere else. I’ve also studied wilderness survival and primitive skills for as long as I can remember. So I could survive out in the wild in spite of what situation is thrown my way, but only because I never enter the woods without being prepared for 72 hours on my own.
As much as I hate list articles, I’ve relented and compiled five basic steps to safely enjoy time out in the woods and maximize survivability in case of trouble.
1. Always tell someone where you are going
This is by far the most important step. If you ignore every other step, don’t ignore this one. Whether it’s a day hike or a multi-day trek, always tell someone you can trust (not your stoner roommate who still thinks it’s the ’90s) where you are going, who are you going with, when will you make contact upon your return, and what to do if you are overdue. You will never be found if no one knows to look and no matter how popular you may think you are, you might be surprised how long it will take before anyone notices you’re missing. Do not rely on your smartphone to call for help because it is always one puddle away from being a paper weight.
2. Be prepared
Never go out unprepared. Mother Nature has a habit of not caring that you are in her way. If she wants to slam a massive storm into the mountain you’re hiking on, there is nothing you can do about it. Your job is to stay safe and alive until you can either self-extract or one of our trusty local SAR teams delivers you from the wrath of Mother Nature.
Human beings are climate control freaks, we travel from one artificially controlled climate to another all because we are living outside of where we are best suited to live. Humans are tropical beings who lack the ability to maintain body temperature in non-tropical areas so we rely heavily on our artificial microclimates to keep our core at a consistent temperature. When you go for a hike, you need to bring what you need to set up your own microclimate or your unexpected night on the mountain is going to suck more than you could ever imagine.
Whether you carry the 10 essentials, the 10 Cs of survivability, or your own homemade preparedness system, you must have the ability to shelter in place, keep warm, hydrated, and signal for rescue. Don’t trust your life to a pocket survival kit or a survival paracord bracelet; they always lack a shelter component, which is essential to staying dry and warm. Building a proper preparedness kit will give yourself every advantage for when the worst happens. If you find yourself lost or injured, it is you and what you have with you that will mean the difference between life and death. There was only one MacGyver, and chances are most of us wouldn’t be able to survive the night with just a handful of random objects we pull from our pockets, so be ready!
Coupled with a good kit, make sure you are dressed appropriately to the terrain and the weather. Flip-flops and yoga pants are not going to keep you warm in the pouring rain. We live in a temperate rainforest, so have the clothes to keep you warm and dry.
3. Know basic bushcraft skills
Knowledge is power. Don’t assume that just because you’ve watched every survival show ever made that you know how to make it in the bush. Actively seek out the basic skills of shelter construction, knot tying, fire making, navigation, first aid, and primitive skills. Nobody ever said, “Damn, I wish I’d never learned how to survive in the woods.” Knowledge will always be a benefit, but above all practice the skills you learn, and believe me when I tell you it’s quite fun to go out and practice a new-found skill. Nothing is more satisfying than rubbing sticks together and creating fire like in 10,000 BCE. Just remember you are not Bear Grylls or Survivorman. What they do on TV is for your entertainment; trying to copy them may get yourself into more trouble than you bargained for.
The Internet and YouTube are outstanding resources to learn bushcraft, and we have ample wilderness to practice in, so get out and do it.
4. Keep calm and survive
Don’t panic. If you are lost or injured, don’t start to panic—just remind yourself that you’ve taught yourself how to make it in the bush and that everything is going to be okay. You are just as lost as you were before you realized just how lost you are; the only thing that changed is you’re finally admitting to it. If you’ve followed the first three steps, you’ll have SAR teams all over you like a chipmunk on a bag of trail mix. If you haven’t followed the first three steps, then may the odds be forever in your favour.
It’s hard not to panic, but if you’ve taken steps to be prepared, you can have shelter, fire, and a hot drink ready to go in less than 15 minutes with minimal gear and knowledge.
5. Be seen and heard, and make your presence known
This is not the time to be taking in the beauty of the West Coast in quiet reflection, so get your whistle out and make some noise! Three blasts of a whistle is a universal signal of distress. Do this every one to five minutes until you hear a response, but whatever you do don’t try to yell; your voice will last about as long as it does at cursing the Canucks’ performance in the playoffs. Also be ready to get a signal fire going and to jump around like a fool when you hear that chopper overhead. I personally carry an orange B.C. Lions towel in my pack whenever I go out for the sole purpose of flagging down rescue.
Enjoy the great outdoors, but be safe doing so. Most of us will never need to be saved, but for those who do some basic preps can and will save a life. At the very least, post a trailhead selfie and hope the SAR team gets to you before exposure does.