Photo credit: Brady Miller
Though there is risk in everyone’s everyday life, risk has a way of compounding in the backcountry. If you get in an accident in town or near your home, an ambulance will be there in minutes; however, if you get in an accident in the backcountry, it could be hours or days until help arrives. To better prepare you for the ruthless and wild backcountry, it is good to review some of the worst-case scenarios you could encounter and how to survive them. This is not meant to scare you. Instead, it is to educate you to be more prepared and come off the mountains alive every time. The more you know, the more you will think twice before doing something that jeopardizes your life.
When thinking about getting hurt or dying in the backcountry, it is hard not to think about an animal attack, specifically a bear attack. Though bear attacks are rare, they happen every year to some hikers and hunters in the West. With the ever-expanding territory of grizzly bears, it’s safe to assume that these attacks will only become more frequent over the next few decades. The biggest key to avoiding a bear attack is to alert them to your presence. Bears generally want to avoid humans, so if you are making some noise, keeping your eyes alert for bears in the distance and storing your food away from camp, you should be in good shape. Using bear spray or a larger caliber handgun is also a deterrent that could save your life. If you were to get attacked by a black bear, it is suggested that you try to escape or fight back by hitting the bear in the face. If a grizzly bear attacks you, it is recommended that you lay on your stomach, protect your neck and play dead. It is common for a grizzly bear to increase the intensity of its attack if you fight back. Always leave your pack on to protect your back. Though bear attacks are rare, they can happen, so always be prepared when entering bear country.
The backcountry is typically a remote and rough place to travel by foot and can have some steep and dangerous terrain to navigate. We rely on our decision-making process and body to safely get us in and out of the mountains, but sometimes both fail us. Our minds may give us the confidence to do something that would be inherently dangerous and our bodies, which are worn out from hiking, may not be as balanced or dependable as they usually are. For example, you may think that you need to get around a cliff edge or across a steep scree field to get where you are going, but you might just fall and get hurt. Sprains, breaks and any head or neck trauma from a fall might just put you in a life or death situation, depending on the severity and where you are at when it happens. To avoid this, it is essential to think clearly and realize the real risks before deciding. If you are alone, you need to be even more cautious since no one is there to call for help or show first-responders where you are. Falls can be dangerous; however, falls without any medical attention can be deadly.
Clean water is necessary for survival in any situation, but specifically in a backcountry hiking and hunting situation. As a general rule of thumb, a person can survive three days without water; however, this can be reduced drastically based upon physical elements, exertion level, or even, individual body type. Water is essential. Always plan on having more water than you need and a way to filter water in the backcountry. In the West, water can be scarce, so planning and finding water sources is super important. A simple Sawyer Mini water filter or filtration tablets can make even the nastiest water safe enough to drink on a bacterial level. The last thing you want is to have a lack of water combined with diarrhea and vomiting. Be safe by planning to lack water and you will be better off for it!
Though the body can only survive around three days without water, a person can survive a lot longer without food — sometimes multiple weeks. Calories in the backcountry are super important and a person should plan each day appropriately by estimating their daily consumption based upon expected calories burnt. If a person were to get lost or stuck in the backcountry, dying of starvation is possible, but a lack of food will make a person make foolish decisions and reduce their stamina. A malnourished backcountry enthusiast may eat berries, mushrooms, dead animals or more just to try to stay alive and end up being poisoned because of these decisions. A person lacking food will have trouble thinking straight and making sound, logical decisions when navigating. Always plan enough food to last your time afield and then pack extra. A few extra day’s worths of rationing your food might just be enough to save your life if you get hurt and have to wait for help.
There is risk in all parts of the backcountry, but being aware of some of the dangers should help you prevent a lot of these mishaps. Be prepared when hunting in bear country or any habitat that has predators. If you make yourself known whenever possible, most animals will leave you alone. Always be cautious around steep and slippery terrain; even a 10’ fall is enough to immobilize or kill you. Ensure you plan your water and food appropriately and always have a backup plan and some extra rations of food — just in case. In part two of this article, I will go over some more ways that some backcountry enthusiasts could meet their demise if they are not cautious.