Wild Safety

Geraint Smith Photography

At the close of another foraging season,  I’m thinking a lot about how lucky I am to live in a place so beautiful that it is continually drawing  me outdoors. Those of us who live in the southwest tend to cherish the wild spaces, and I can honestly say that some of my most joyous and reverent moments have come when I was alone in the mountains.

I hope that most people feel the same way about their own region, and that makes this a good time to talk about safety in the wild places.  Everyone knows that tracking and backpacking require careful safety preparations. What is often ignored is that even short hikes need forethought and planning. An online friend of mine posted about this recently  and caused me to reflect on the time that I was taking a half day hike into terrain  that I would have sworn I knew like the back of my hand, confidently went off the trail to forage, and after a while realized that I was good and lost.  I had few provisions with me because it was a short hike in a familiar area, and to compound the problem, I had not bothered to inform anybody about where I was going because I would be back before they ever got the message. Don’t do this. I did figure my way out,  but it could just as easily have turned into an embarrassing and expensive rescue that was a real waste of Forest Service time. Or worse.

So, in my view, the following are the absolute bare minimum in the way of provisions for safety on day hikes. They belong on your person, not in your vehicle, because what if you can’t find your vehicle?

1. Adequate water. By adequate, I mean more than you think you need.

2.  Adequate warmth. A featherweight metallic “space blanket“ is surprisingly warm and keeps the wind off your skin. A way to start a fire is a real necessity, but don’t  rely completely on fire, because if it rains you’re sunk.

3. A way to locate yourself and to signal, and adequate battery back-up.  If you should be injured, knowing how to find your way back is rather cold comfort if you can’t actually do the walking. Be sure you know how to use your emergency signal.

4. Crucial: A reliable person who knows where you are going and roughly when you will be back, and will actually do something about it and alert the right authority  if you don’t return in a fairly timely manner.  Exact location is often unknown, but you certainly know the general area that you are going to. If you should have to use your emergency signal, it won’t do you much good if you are signaling to empty air.

Shelter, warmth and water are much more important in immediate terms than food, but something that tastes good is cheering.  Any experienced forager can find something to prevent starvation most places in most seasons, but it may need preparation that your situation does not permit. Even for short day hikes I carry dark chocolate in my backpack because, in an emergency, it would give me the will to live 😉.

If you can, take a wilderness survival course. Few things increase your wilderness confidence as much as assessing your surroundings and concluding that you could live for days to weeks if you had to. A man I was told about, a military veteran who finds civilian life pretty difficult, once went overnight camping with his dog and the dog got lost. No way would he leave without his dog, so  he spent a couple of days tracking the dog through the wilderness, collecting water from streams when he found them and hunting small game with his pistol for food. He found his dog and they made their way back over a few more days, with him now hunting for two. Both got home safely, and, per my informant, the veteran commented wistfully that it was one of the best weeks of his life. You don’t want to have to survive in the wilderness, but it’s a good idea to know how to do it.

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