Hiking, camping and hunting in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains has its inherent risks that are well known. Some of these risks are based upon geographic location and some are just activity related. For a hunter who is wishing to stay safe in the mountains, it’s important to recognize these risks and have emergency plans in place — in case the worst were to happen. It is easy to get lulled into being comfortable in the Rocky Mountains year after year; however, they are — and always will be — a very dangerous and unpredictable place. Having an understanding of the risks, possessing certain safety equipment and having an emergency plan is important to insure that you come down the mountain every time you go up. Here are some important thoughts to remember this fall as you get off the beaten path and out of service.
Risks are part of everyday life whether you are driving to work or walking down the street, but hunters on the mountain are at an even more elevated risk. The elevated risk in the mountains has to do backcountry dangers as well as the inaccessibility to help. If you break a leg on your way to work, you call an ambulance or a friend to take you to the hospital; however, if you break your leg in the backcountry with no service you are in deep trouble. Something as minor as a rolled ankle can make it nearly impossible to get back to a trailhead before dark — not to mention if you had a broken bone or excessive bleeding. Before going to a certain spot to hunt, it is important to understand the normal risks that you might encounter, such as cuts, sprains, frigid temperature, dehydration and other normal risks. It is also vital that you look for more geographical risks like dangerous animals in the area. Are there grizzly bears, black bears, rattle snakes or other venomous/dangerous animals that you might need to be aware of before going into the mountains? Is there a chance of rocky hillsides, slippery slopes or snow-covered mountains that may make hiking more dangerous? Whenever you spend time to think about risks, you are more likely to be safer than a person going in blindly saying everything will be OK. Whatever risks you determine can be mitigated and, often, there is a piece of safety equipment or gear that will reduce the risk from happening or help if it does happen.
When it comes to hunting gear, it’s often determined that the less weight, the better; however, there are a few exceptions. Most of these exceptions are safety gear, food and water, which are and can be essential when you are miles from the trailhead. Understanding which risks have the highest chance of happening and the most dire results will help you determine what is in your pack. It is suggested that you always have a makeshift first aid kit with a way to stop bleeding, support a sprain or break, to treat infection and start a fire among other basics. If you are in grizzly country, I add bear spray to my side holster as a way to mitigate that risk. If hunting in snake country, bite-proof gaiters or a snake bite kit might be an important add in. If temperatures are fluctuating and you plan on being miles deep, a few extra layers might save your life if you get hurt and have to spend the night. There is a fine line between too much gear and not enough and it’s up to each hunter to figure that out before hiking in to hunt. You may regret hiking around a first aid kit until you stab your leg with a broadhead or fall down a rockslide and need to splint up your legs. Then, you will be happy at your preplanning. One item that I never leave without is trekking poles. Even if you don't use them on your normal hike, they are nice to have because they can serve as a decent crutch if needed. The thought behind whatever gear you pack is for it to be lightweight, but also serve its purpose. First aid can definitely serve its purpose when something bad happens.
No matter what risks are there and what gear you pack, the most important thing that you can have when entering the mountains is an emergency plan. This plan should start with letting someone know where you will be and when you will be out. Also, let them know when they should worry and call for help. In recent years, I have also taken great advantage of products like the Garmin InReach GPS, which allows me to text my location to phone numbers, emails and other InReach devices and includes an SOS option. This gives my family and I peace of mind while hunting for extended stretches well beyond cell phone service. The overall thought is that if you are hurt in the backcountry and cannot call for help, you want to know that someone will come looking for you so find a way to make this the case.
The Rocky Mountain backcountry poses plenty of risks to hunters, hikers and other backcountry enthusiasts, but when managed and mitigated appropriately it can be safe for all. Overall, knowing the risks, bringing the necessary safety gear and having an emergency response plan will allow you to go in deep with the confidence you need to come out safely. Each year, there are hunters and hikers who don’t make it out of the mountains due to animal attacks, heart attacks and injuries that happen along the way. This fall, be prepared and don’t end up like one of those people!