Backcountry Safety Starts With 10 Essential Items

A hike in the backcountry – whether a few hours’ jaunt or a series of overnighters – always should begin with thorough research of the trail system and a check of the weather, says Teresa Burgess of El Paso County Search and Rescue.

The physical gear you carry should always include these “10 essentials”:

  • Map and compass for navigation. “Don’t just have them, know how to use them,” Burgess said.
  • Flashlight or headlamp. Confirm batteries are at full juice.
  • Emergency shelter.
  • Extra clothes/emergency insulation – “even if it’s something simple like a plastic trash bag you can poke your head through to keep your body warm.”
  • Sun protection, in the form of sunblock, sunglasses and/or a hat.
  • Water. Tablets or portable filtration systems can be used to purify creek water so it’s safe to drink.
  • Food. “I always take more water and food than I need. If something happens and you have to spend a night, at least you’ve got that.”
  • Fire starter. “You should always have two ways to start a fire. Take a lighter because matches don’t always work.”
  • Tools, repair kit, pocket knife – “for all kinds of reasons you can’t anticipate.”
  • First-aid kit. “It doesn’t have to be big, just something with the basics – ace bandage, alcohol swabs, packet of painkillers – in case you do fall or get a scratch.”
  • Burgess also suggests backcountry hikers carry a whistle.
  • “If you’re lost or hurt, your voice can’t carry far, and yelling for help, you’re going to lose your voice really fast,” she said. “A whistle has a nice high pitch that stands out from any ambient noise.” The universal sign for help is three sharp blows of the whistle, she added.

    To conserve battery power, cellphones should be turned off or set to airplane mode.

    “If you’re out in the wilderness and your phone’s searching and searching for a signal, it doesn’t take long to die so that when you need it, it’s not going to work,” she said.

    Recognizing and responding to your body’s signals of distress – even if you’d prefer to power through – are key to a safe backcountry excursion.

    “Altitude sickness can happen very quickly, especially for people who don’t understand altitude,” Burgess said. “When I go hiking, I always try to pay attention to my body. If I feel tired or bad, I will turn around and go back. The mountain’s not going anywhere.”


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