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Editorial: Exploring in the hills? Take some pressure off Search and Rescue.

Image by Daniil Silantev, via Unsplash

Wandering around the snowy hills is wonderful – exploring is fun.  Even following well-trodden trails through the forest is refreshing – and it has proven health benefits!  It’s wonderful to see so many people going out in the local hills. But if people go out there unprepared (and they do!) and their simple little hike or ski tour goes wrong – if they badly sprain a knee or ankle, or take a wrong turn, follow an inviting slope and get turned around, or end up in some remote drainage as night falls, without any extra clothing or food, or any way to make a fire to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures . . . that might not be so good for the health.   

Frostbite can happen.  Or death.  But you can do several things to avoid those.

What to do?

First, let people know where you’re headed, and approximately when you hope to return.  

Next, take basic survival gear with you – stuff that will enable you to spend a night out in the bush if you must. Weight-bearing exercise is good for fending off osteoporosis, so carrying a day-pack filled with essentials is good for us, too, and it’s not all that heavy.  Always take that day-pack.  Please.

What should go in the pack:

Anyone can run a bit late sometimes.  Darkness falls early in the winter; always take a good LED headlamp with you.

Think your cellphone will save you, no matter what?  Think again.  Coverage is spotty out there.  But speaking of “spotty” – a Spot beacon or inReach device is a very good idea, because with it, you can keep people at home apprised of your whereabouts, or you can send a message indicating that you’d like a bit of assistance from your friends, or – if an emergency arises – you can press the red SOS button and wait for Search and Rescue to show up.  It won’t take nearly as long for them to find you if you’ve called for rescue with the Spot or inReach beacon, because it should pinpoint your location and they won’t have to mobilize large numbers of volunteer searchers and expensive trucks and so on to spend their precious free time grid-searching the hills to find you.

It helps to know how not to get lost in the first place.  Practice reading maps of the area. And have a good map with you, and a compass, too.  They don’t rely on batteries or satellite coverage.  Learn how to use them – it’s no use having a compass if you don’t know which end of the needle points north, or how to orient your map, or how to read contour lines. Anyone can become confused out there.  It helps to be able use a map and compass, or your GPS mapping, to get un-confused instead of just blundering around compounding the error.

While you’re waiting for help to arrive, you’d better be able to stay warm enough. Extra clothing is a must, and a good-quality “space blanket” or two should also be in your pack.  They’re light and compact.  If it’s winter, or wet out, and there’s no fire hazard, you may need to start a fire to stay warm; have good matches or some other reliable source of flame, and carry a bit of fire-starter with you, and be sensible in your efforts to start a fire.  Throwing a wet log on top of your fire-starter won’t work.  Dry, dead pine twigs (often found toward the bottom of standing pine trees) will burn well, and if you have enough of them they can get slightly larger bits of wood to burn.  

If you have to wait very long, like overnight or more, extra food and water will keep you much safer and happier, and will keep you from suffering as much from the cold.

Remember:  there’s no charge for being rescued, but all those Search and  Rescue people who go out to find injured or misplaced hikers, bikers, skiers and boarders are volunteers.  They’re well-trained and organized; they know what they’re doing, but they don’t get paid for it. 

So please, make their task a little easier: be easy to find.  Ensure that your chances of surviving an unexpected stay out in the woods are good, so you can tell your grandchildren about it.