What are some considerations for survival in the wilderness?

Be a wilderness survivor

Welcome to the San Juans, some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in America and blessed with numerous trails to explore. Much of it is wilderness and/or very remote from help. These are rugged mountains, a young area geologically, with demanding terrain. Even experienced mountaineers and hikers have gotten lost here. In summer, the major dangers are dehydration, fatigue, falls, hypothermia--and weather.

Hiking at high altitudes is hard, tiring, thirsty work. Mountain distances and steep, wet, or unmarked trails can be deceptively difficult. Such strenuous exercise is both dehydrating and fatiguing. It's not uncommon to need two to three--or more--extra quarts of water when hiking at altitude. Thirst is a late indicator of water debt. (Taking salt tablets is not recommended since most people have plenty of salt stored in their bodies.) People and their animals have contaminated most streams, so assume mountain water is unsafe.

Hypothermia--the lowering of body temperature when heat is being lost faster than the body can regenerate it--is a sneaky killer. It usually occurs between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a typical summer temperature range in the mountains. Wet clothing, wind and exhaustion are chief contributors to hypothermia. Early signs are shivering, loss of concentration and impaired judgment. Being able to stay dry and warm with extra clothing layers is crucial, especially in bad weather or in any exposed situation.

Weather is always a limiting factor for mountain excursions. Storms blow up over ridges without much warning and sudden lightning storms are common. If a storm is approaching, get off peaks, ridges and exposed ledges. Open areas, lone trees and shallow caves are also unsafe in thunderstorms.

To make a mountain trip--whether long or short--safe, successful, and pleasant, the following tips are offered:

  1. Never go alone. A party of two is minimum, four is better. With four, if someone is injured and can't be moved, two persons can go for help and one can stay.
  2. Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to return. (For those who do hike alone, this may be crucial to your survival.) Then, if trouble arises, help will be on its way in a relatively short time. It's also important to let people know when you've returned. Otherwise, someone may be out searching for you when you are safely home in bed.
  3. Take a safe minimum of equipment. Sudden weather changes will make a hat, fleece jacket, gloves, raingear, and sturdy boots mighty welcome. A map and compass, whistle, space blanket, plastic garbage bag (wind and rain protection), matches and candle, a knife, water, empty can, tea bags, bouillion, and high-energy foods (candy, nuts, fruit, etc.) make survival easier. A walking stick or trekking poles save the knees on steep downhills and make stream crossing easier.
  4. Make sure young children know what to do if they are separated from the group. (Hug a tree and stay put!) Children can cover a surprising distance in an hour and help may be much longer than that in coming. They may be frightened or think they have done something wrong; assure them that help will be coming if they do get lost.
  5. Your head is the best survival tool. If the unforseen does happen--you are lost or injured--don't panic. If you can hike out safely, plan your route beforehand. Otherwise, save your strength by staying put to decrease the chance of injury or hypothermia. This makes the job of finding you easier. Hiking out at night is not advised; steep trails and loose rock are risky even in daylight. Try to find or create shelter using tree branches or whatever is handy. Clear the ground and build a fire pit in an open area for warmth and signaling.
  6. If someone in your party is lost, determine and mark the point last seen. (This helps searchers and dogs make a quicker find.) Make a hasty search for the missing person; if unsuccessful, send for help, before dark, if possible.
  7. Ouray Mountain Rescue recommends that people put their phones in airplane mode while hiking to preserve battery life.  If there is an emergency, rescuers will need the reporting party to have battery life on their phone.  
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Ouray Trail Group Ouray Colorado

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