Whether you ended up there as a result of having to flee from a disaster, or it’s your idea of a fun weekend, backcountry safety requires a little bit of extra vigilance and preparation.
Today we will discuss the skills, tools, and habits you should have before you venture out.
What is the Backcountry?
According to the dictionary, “backcountry” refers to any sparsely populated rural area or wilderness. People who enjoy outdoor recreation; such as skiers, hunters, and climbers may use the term backcountry to mean that they are going off-trail, away from established routes.
When used in the context of a national park or other camping area, backcountry sites are those that are only accessible by hiking, away from any common infrastructure.
Some parks will establish designated fire pits and/or tent pitches at their backcountry sites as a way of limiting damage to the local ecosystem, while others leave it to the visitors to decide where they will set up camp.
In either case, backcountry campers are expected to carry in everything they will need for their stay and carry it all back out at the end of their visit.
The Ten Essentials
The Ten Essentials is a list that was first developed in the 1930s. A Seattle-based group of outdoor enthusiasts called The Mountaineers put the list together as a way of being prepared for emergencies in the backcountry.
As you would expect, there is a great deal of overlap with the lists for a 72-hour emergency kit. The original Ten Essentials list contained the following items:
- Sunglasses and Sunscreen
- Headlamp and/or Flashlight
- Firestarter (Tinder)
- First Aid Kit
- Extra Food
- Extra Clothing
In 2003, The Mountaineers revised their list, switching from individual items to a “systems” approach. The map and compass, for example, are now in a single “Navigation” system.
This approach allows for more customization as preferences demand and new technology become available. The new Ten Essentials list contains the following:
- Navigation – Topographic maps and a good compass. GPS receivers and altimeters are very handy, but they also require batteries.
- Fire – As we’ve stated many times before, always have more than one way to start a fire.
- Sun Protection – Prolonged exposure to UV rays can damage your eyes and skin. All sun protection should block both UVA and UVB.
- Illumination – Climbers like headlamps because they leave their hands free, but flashlights, chemical glowsticks, and candles all have their place.
- First Aid Kit – We’ve written on these before. Have one.
- Repair Kit/Tools – Be able to fix your gear if necessary.
- Nutrition – Have extra food on hand.
- Hydration – Always have extra water and ways to treat found water.
- Insulation – Dress in layers so you can more easily adjust your body temperature as the weather changes.
- Emergency Shelter – A lightweight hiker’s tent, a tarp, or a Mylar blanket.
As you can see, switching to this systems-based list will result in more than ten individual items, but accounts for the broad categories addressed by the Rules of Three (see our post from last month on the Rules).
Backcountry Safety Steps
Before you head out into the backcountry, take some time to study maps of the area. Make note of travel distances and directions (including elevation!) from your starting point to your destination.
Find out if any warnings have been issued for the area, such as wild animal sightings, avalanche conditions, or the potential for wildfires or floods. If you are going to a park or campground, a visit to their website or a call to the Ranger station should get you all of this information.
Parks sometimes close backcountry sites for trail maintenance, ecological recovery, or to protect animal migration paths, so double-check that the site you’ve picked will still be available.
Once you have an itinerary made out, make sure that someone else knows your plans. They should have copies of your intended routes, campsites, and estimated travel time/length of stay.
If you are visiting a park, check in at registration or the Ranger station. Most times, you will receive a backcountry permit, and that same information will be noted in their records.
If your destination has no official check-in area, leave a copy of your itinerary in your vehicle. This is good practice whether you are planning a vacation or have to evacuate suddenly.
Always make sure that someone else knows your plans, so if rescue teams need to be sent after you, the will be able to find you more quickly.
While you’re in the backcountry, awareness is the key to staying safe. Keep an eye on the weather so you’ll know if you need to move to a safer site (or go back home altogether).
This is especially important in the winter when snowpack can cut loose and create avalanches. There are specific pieces of safety gear related to this possibility, such as a rescue beacon that guides search parties to you, so if your plans involve traversing along snowy mountains, consider adding some of them to your kit.
Another danger to be aware of is the local animal life. A billion Disney movies to the contrary, the backcountry is not filled with friendly birds and cute critters that want nothing more than to help you.
Don’t approach them, don’t feed them (hang food and unburnable trash from a high tree limb where animals can’t get to it), and never get between a mother and her baby. Again, check with the park employees.
They will be able to caution you about any wildlife that has been spotted in the area and give you specific rules and suggestions concerning them.
Lost and Found
It is very easy to become lost in the backcountry. Not being able to use a map and compass, trail markers that are damaged or missing, the loss of light, getting chased by an animal, or just not paying close enough attention to where you’re going can all result in the sudden terrible realization that you have no idea where you are. If this happens to you, S.T.O.P.
- Sit – Don’t run around in a panic. Remain calm and in place. If rescue teams are dispatched to find you, they will start at the place you were last seen. Moving increases the search radius and delays your being found.
- Think – How can you attract attention? Are there clear spots in which you can be spotted from the air? Higher elevations where a light will be seen for miles? Can you attach a signal flag to a tree? Three short blasts on a whistle (or just yelling “Help!”) will alert anyone within hearing range that you need assistance. Repeat the signal often while facing different directions.
- Observe – If you didn’t tell anyone where you were going, chances are that you’re on your own. Look for recognizable landmarks in order to retrace your steps. If all else fails, try to find water or old trails and follow them downhill to civilization.
- Plan – Decide how best to use the resources available to you, whether in your emergency kit or scrounged from the landscape.
You won’t be caught in the dark after tomorrow’s post, in which we’ll discuss the light and power sources you’ll want to have in your survival kit.
The day after that, we will be reviewing how to use a map and compass. Hope to see you then!