When hiking in the Colorado backcountry, situations can quickly go from great to bad to deadly. With so many unknown variables like weather, wildlife, and unforeseen injuries, it’s important to know what steps can be taken to make each adventure as safe as possible. The OutThere Colorado team sat down with Kerry Evens and Jeffrey Begay, two team members Classic Air Medical, high altitude helicopter-centric search and rescue crew based in Glenwood Springs, to get a few quick tips on how to prevent their airborne crew from being your final lifeline.

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GALLERY: An Inside Look at Heli-Rescues

Aspen - Stephen Martin - Classic Air Medical - Search & Rescue - OutThere Colorado-5
The Classic Air Medical crew hangs out in their Glenwood Springs headquarters. Photo Credit: Stephen Martin.

1. Familiarize Yourself With Terrain Features

Not only will knowing the appearance and names of nearby terrain features help you with your own navigation during a backcountry hike, it can also help you communicate where you are if you get lost. Remembering the name of a river or peak that you’re close to (along with directional cues) is extremely helpful when it comes to being found quickly.

2. Tell People Where You’re Going and When You’ll Be Back

Whether you’re hiking alone or not, it’s still a good idea to make sure others at home know where you are and how long you’ll be gone. This way they’ll be able to alert a search-and-rescue party in a timely manner if something goes wrong and you don’t return. Keep in mind that finding cell service in much of the Colorado backcountry can often be more difficult than finding water.

3. Avoid Overestimating Your Own Abilities

One common pitfall that can result in the need of a rescue comes when hikers bite off more than they can chew. If you plan to tackle a 20-mile hike, know how long this will take you and keep in mind that varied terrain can have a huge impact on time and exertion. For example, if you encounter a rocky field, it will likely take more time and energy to move through it than if you’re traveling down a trail. Know your route and be sure that it’s within your skill set to complete it.

GALLERY: An Inside Look at Heli-Rescues

4. Keep Track of Time

In mountain terrain, the sunset means temperatures will quickly drop. If you’re setting out into the backcountry, know how long you’ll be gone and prepare for even longer. You don’t want to overestimate your speed and get caught out in the backcountry at night.

5. Have the Right Gear

Think you’ll be encountering ice? Bring spikes. Covering a lot of altitude? Bring layers for lower temps. Not able to pack enough water? Have gear to sterilize water you find. Plan ahead and know what you’ll encounter to prevent a situation where you’re forced to use the wrong tools to get the job done. You don’t want to struggle your way up an icy slope only to reach the top without a clue on how you can safely get down.

Kahtoola Microspikes - OutThere Colorado
These Kahtoola Microspikes are a great example of essential gear for certain hikes.

6. Be Aware of Unique Characteristics of Area

Know what factors are unique to the area you’ll be trekking through. For example, what animals could you encounter and what do you do when that happens. This might mean packing bear spray or bug repellent. Additionally, know whether or not things like altitude sickness could become a factor. The more you know about the area, the more confident you can be in your preparation.

7. Know the Route

Don’t solely rely on a GPS to find your way. Batteries can die and electronics can fail. Don’t just assume you’ll be able to read a map. Plan ahead with your route and try to know the landmarks you’ll encounter that can guide you when all else fails.

GALLERY: An Inside Look at Heli-Rescues

8. Plan for Contingencies

Regardless of how well you prepare for your trek, accidents can always happen. Try to plan ahead for the worst. Bring extra layers, extra water, and extra snacks. Think about bad situations that might occur and be prepared to deal with them, even if this means doing a little extra research on something that probably won’t happen.

9. Learn Basic Map Reading

Reading a map might seem straightforward enough, but don’t make assumptions when your survival depends on it. Bring a map with you and actually know how to use it. Otherwise, it’s just a piece of paper filled with lines that might end up getting you even more lost.

10. Learn How To Use a Compass

Other things can fail, but a compass won’t. Similar to how you should treat a map, bring a compass and make sure you know how to use it.

Compass - phrawr (Flickr) - OutThere Colorado
Photo Credit: phrawr (Flickr)

11. Use the Buddy System When Possible

Some people love to hike alone. That’s just their thing. However, when possible and if you’re willing, try to use the buddy system. Having someone there can help when things get dire. Remember, teamwork makes the dream work…in this case, the dream is survival.

12. Ignore Your Ego

Don’t push on if you can’t. Sometimes you might have to accept the fact that you need help. A lot of times people will let a situation go from bad to worse simply because they’re too stubborn to admit they made a mistake.

13. Know How To Be Found

Perhaps the most important tip on this list – have a plan to make yourself easy to find when things go wrong. Things like a safety light, a fire starter, or even a whistle can turn into life-saving devices when they’re used to help crews locate someone. The Classic Air Medical crew shared several stories where they were able to find the people they were looking for because they had something with them that made them more visible from above.

There you have it, 13 tips that can help you prevent disaster in the backcountry from the mouths of two professional people finders. You probably noticed a theme of preparation. Know what you’re getting into and know what your Plan B, C, D, and E are for when Plan A fails.

*If you plan on being in the backcountry frequently, Classic Air Medical offers very affordable insurance plans starting at only $60 per year. Find out more information on their site.

GALLERY: An Inside Look at Heli-Rescues

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