Brady Miller making a fire to stay warm on a late season hunt. Photo credit: Luke Dusenbury
In part one of this article, I went over four events that could kill you in the backcountry if you are not prepared. Predators could attack, you could fall and get injured or killed, you could get dangerously dehydrated or even starve to death. Though most of these events are unlikely, they all happen every year in the mountains of the United States and throughout the world. In part two, I will go over a few more ways that you could die in the backcountry. Again, this article is meant to go over real ways that people die doing the same things you do, so that you can be prepared enough not to have it happen to you. No matter what we love to do, we all want to make it back to our homes, families and live to hike, camp and hunt for another day so avoid these worst-case scenarios.
Hypothermia is possibly the easiest way to accidentally die in the backcountry. First off, what exactly is hypothermia? Hypothermia is when your body temperature drops and your organs and nervous systems cannot function properly. The bad part about hypothermia is that your body stops working, so you get to the point where you cannot even help yourself or try to save yourself. A person can die within 15 minutes if submerged in freezing waters or as little as one hour if on dry land. Typically, people get hypothermia in the backcountry after getting wet or because they are ill-prepared for the environment. In the mountains, above 10,000’, the weather can change in minutes, dumping rain, then snow — all as temperatures drop 20 or more degrees. This can lead to a dangerous situation if you do not have adequate shelter, fire or gear. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to be prepared and make intelligent decisions before leaving the truck. Always have backup gear in a dry sack and a way to make a fire. If you fall in the water, you need to get out of the wet clothing as soon as possible, switch into dry clothing and then start a fire to attempt to warm up. A space blanket is another option to have with you as it weighs nothing, but will reflect your heat back onto yourself. Hypothermia is the real deal and can kill within minutes, so be prepared and save your life.
Though it’s easy to think about the mountains of the West and all of the snow and freezing temperatures that go with it, hunters also hunt during warmer times of the year and in warmer states. States like New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada have extreme summers with some days well over 100 degrees. Combining this heat with bodily exertion can quickly become a dangerous and deadly combination. People can undergo heat exhaustion, heat strokes, become dehydrated or have a heart attack because of physical activity in extreme heat. When it comes to hiking and hunting during these scorching days, you need to make sure you have a plan, plenty of water and do not overdo it too quickly. If you are used to the heat, you will most likely be better off than a person visiting or hunting from out of state. No matter what: be sure to understand your limitations and pay attention to your body.
It doesn’t matter if it is a broadhead, a knife, a sharp stick or rock or your trekking pole, accidents happen and you can get hurt, stapped, sliced or diced in the backcountry. Even if you are lucky and just get a surface wound, you still need to take care of it or infection can take place. If you are unlucky and get stabbed or puncture an artery, you need to know how to stop the bleeding. A quick YouTube search of wilderness first aid may just give you enough know-how to stop the bleeding and get the situation under control. Always have some basic first aid essentials in your pack, including antiseptics, bandages, wraps, ibuprofen and more. Several good backcountry first aid kits are already packed with necessary supplies and do not weigh too much. If you get an accidental wound, take care of it immediately. It will reduce the chances of it getting worse.
Though many western states are very arid and water can be scarce, drowning can still be a killer. Whether you are in a boat, raft, crossing a frozen lake or wading across a stream, you have a real risk of drowning. When we hunt, the water is cold and we are wearing boots and a heavy back. One slip in knee-deep, fast-moving water could be enough to send us downstream and into deeper water. If you get stuck in debris or rocks underwater, that may just be your end. To avoid this, always take your pack off when you are in a boat or raft, do not cross frozen lakes or ponds and make sure to find a good, wide and slow-moving part of the river or stream to wade across if it is necessary. Personally, I have been knocked down by water during a spring bear hunt when the snowmelt creates fast, cold waters and it is not fun. Though I didn’t drown, I quickly got very cold and had to swap out clothing and start a fire to warm up and avoid hypothermia. Just remember: even the best swimmers may not fare so well in full hunting gear.
Each year, thousands of Americans die in vehicles accidents. Some of these are on highways, but some also occur on back roads. It doesn’t matter if you are in a highway vehicle or off road vehicle; you always run the risk of getting into an accident or hurt. If you do this in the backcountry on some rough roads, an ambulance will not get you anytime soon. Make a good decision in your vehicle; always walk steep sections, ensuring road conditions, stability and traction and do not be afraid to say no and walk. Even the best chains cannot help on a muddy western road or when 2’ of snow is on the ground. It is also essential to always have emergency supplies in your vehicle if you get stranded or stuck away from the highway or nearest town for a while.
Though your chances of dying in the backcountry are slim, they are still higher than someone who never sets foot in the mountains. Understanding your surroundings, the environment and having some basic know-how is super important. Of course, we cannot be afraid of every creek, road, temperature swing and abrupt stop, but we can exercise our minds and think about the what-ifs. If we can picture some of the worst-case scenarios before doing an activity, we may just avoid the accident altogether. This would give us a better hunting experience and get us off the mountain in one piece. Ultimately, there are a lot of ways we can die in the mountains, but simply reading this article, watching some YouTube videos on first aid and being a little more prepared will reduce your chances. Be safe this hunting season and be sure to come off the mountains.