There are 8 tips for trekking on unfamiliar terrain to consider when planning your next outdoor adventure. An Associated Press story about a hiker from the state of Virginia who was found dead after going missing on a day hike in Mexico on December 30, 2014 provides some helpful insights on hiking on unfamiliar terrain.
First, the positive aspects of the story inform us that person did have a communication plan. He sent a selfie picture to his wife and then a couple of hours later sent a text message. This was probably very helpful information that aided the Mexican Search and Rescue (SAR) teams find his body.
However, two important pieces of information from this article that were revealed was that the man did not have any survival training and that he had gotten lost while on day hikes in his past. The story goes on to relate that he was able to self-recover from being lost on previous occasions; however, this time he was in a foreign country and navigating on unfamiliar terrain. What are some key learning elements from this story regarding hiking on unfamiliar terrain whether you are hiking in the United States or abroad?
1. Establish A Plan
First, have a plan. That means you need to have a plan for conducting your hike from start to finish. Planning your hike must involve determining your route, your expected time of return to your starting point, establishing way points on your GPS if you are using one. There should be an integration of an emergency plan should you get lost or injured while hiking. You should ensure that you have adequate food and water for the area, time on the trail, and time of year. Now the question arises as to how you plan the actual hike upon terrain upon in which you have never traversed.
2. Conduct A Map Reconnaissance
The first step in planning a hike on unfamiliar terrain is to consult a map. With the advent of iPads, Tablets, and GPS devices, Google Earth, topographic terrain applications are available for most of these devices. If you cannot afford the electronic stuff, there are paper maps that can be purchased. If you cannot find a map that covers your area of interest prior to your trip, you can buy a map at your intended location once you have arrived. Another way to get information on the terrain upon which you are unfamiliar is to do an internet search. There is no reason why you cannot get some idea of the terrain you wish to hike if you are hiking anywhere in North America or Europe. Asia, Central and South America, and Africa may present some challenges in regards to obtaining information, but it is not impossible.
3. Conduct A Risk Assessment
Conducting a risk assessment of your planned outdoor adventure is critical to a safe hike. It is essential to understand the risks of the area and incorporate risk mitigation into your plan. There are several ways to conduct a risk assessment. The simplest is to take a piece of paper and list the risks, such as dehydration, then under the risk, list ways to mitigate or control that risk, such as carrying a water treatment kit. The U.S. Army Composite Risk Management Worksheet is a useful tool for conducting a risk assessment for planning a backpacking trip on unfamiliar terrain.
4. Identify The Terrain Hazards
Generally, there are two types of hazards to consider on any hike, man-made and naturally occurring risks.
The naturally occurring hazards are the most likely to be encountered. Naturally occurring hazards encompass wild life, dangerous plants and insects, and weather. Your local bookstore, library, and outfitter store can provide information on the natural hazards pertaining to the area in which you desire to hike. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website can provide accurate weather assessments for the area you wish to hike in the United States.
Another risk to consider when hiking over unfamiliar terrain are the man-made hazards that may exist on your route. Man-made hazards can be construction areas, logging areas, mining areas, or places of war, insurrection, or high crime areas. A hiker from North Carolina was recently killed by members of a drug cartel while he was hiking in Mexico. His story illustrates the importance of understanding the man-made hazards on a particular hike.
Travel Restrictions and Warnings
Another important aspect about man-made hazards to consider for hiking in foreign countries is to check and heed the warning and travel restrictions published by the U.S. State Department. Sometimes tourists in foreign country like to take a treks away from the places that are established for tourists. It is critical to understand and heed the travel restrictions issued by the U.S. State Department. We do not have perfect knowledge of any particular foreign area. Therefore, it is imperative to integrate our government’s travel restrictions and warnings into any trek that will transpire in a foreign country.
5. Establish and Publish An Emergency Plan
Another planning consideration in regards to hiking on unfamiliar terrain is to plan for emergencies. I have watched several documentaries about mountain climbing, hiking, and endurance races. Most of the unfortunate incidences discussed in these programs center on the fact that the individuals affected were not prepared for emergencies. I have also read several news stories over the last few months where hikers had to be rescued who were lost or injured while hiking. Their testimony was that they were not anticipating any problems on their hike. The take away principle from the experiences of others is always prepare for the worst scenario that can happen on your hike. Never go on a hike, regardless of length of time or distance without an emergency plan.
6. Incorporate A Personal Emergency Survival Kit
Your emergency plan should incorporate a personal emergency survival kit. The kit should address the basic principles of survival: Shelter, Food, Fire, and Hydration. The best survival kit is the one that you develop on your own. There are several resources available that will help you understand how to build your own kit. Your personal survival kit should be tailored for your particular hike and for the time of the year in which you will be backpacking. The challenge for taking emergency survival gear into foreign countries for backpacking is the aspect of the survival knife. Consult the laws of the country in which you desire to travel regarding knives and multi-tools. It may be that you have to buy one of these items after you arrive in the country of your destination. There are some seasonal aspects to consider when building your survival kit.
7. Incorporate Seasonal Gear
One aspect of risk mitigation for trekking on unfamiliar terrain is to understand and incorporate seasonal gear into your packing list. You can not pack for every single contingency. Your backpack will be too heavy to carry if you try. Therefore, it is important to tailor your packing for the particular season and kind of terrain upon you will trek. This is called, modularity.
Summer/Fall Gear Considerations
At a minimum your backpack should have for a summer or early fall hike the following items: rain gear, such as a waterproof tarp or H2O proof outerwear. Wet weather will be the one weather hazard that you will encounter in most locations in the summer or fall in North America or Europe. Therefore, in addition to the basic survival kit items, consider some type of rain gear to put in your backpack. The temperatures will fluctuate as the earth transitions from summer to fall. It is beneficial to include some kind of light to medium cold weather gear, such as, a packable jacket and fleece cap. The Columbia Watertight II Jacket (Packable) is a great example of raingear for backpacking.
Winter/Spring Gear Considerations
Hiking in the winter to early spring brings its own weather risks. Cold weather gear should be part of your packing list if you are trekking during this time of the year. One type of winter gear to bring on a hike in the winter are snowshoes. The MSR EVO Ascent Snowshoes are an example of snowshoes for hiking. Hand and Body warmers should be a consideration for your packing list. Winter outerwear such as the Columbia Alpine Action Jacket with Omni-Heat technology is the kind of winter gear to consider putting on your packing list.
8. Get Formal Survival Training
Another aspect of the news article mentioned above was that the wife of the hiker reported that he did not have any survival training. This is unfortunate. As many resources, websites, and television programs that are available that cover survival, nobody should be without some kind of knowledge of the basics of survival.
If you have never had any training on survival techniques in the wilderness, I would recommend that you conduct an internet search of some good videos that give sound instruction on such important information as building shelters, starting fires, etc. The best information for those not familiar with survival techniques are Les Stroud’s Survivorman video series. Dave Canterbury and his Pathfinder School provide good instructional videos also.
If you can afford it, take a survival course before your next hike. There are four places of instruction that I would recommend: Dave Canterbury’s Pathfinder School , Cody Lundin’s Aboriginal Living Skills School , ESEE Knives’-Randal’s Adventure and Training School of Survival , and the Sigma 3 Survival School. Some of these schools have ex-military veterans as instructors, who have experience and expertise in training survival techniques. Having an understanding of survival basics and some, familiarity on how to use basic survival equipment, such as an individual first aid kit, is better than no knowledge at all.
In conclusion, hiking on unfamiliar terrain can be an exciting experience; however, failure to plan and anticipate problems increases the chances of a good hike turning bad. Stay on well-used paths and do not venture off into areas for a great selfie or a great view of the scenery. Remember that even the well-experienced hikers can get lost and in trouble on the trail just as quickly as novices. Therefore, stay informed, stay safe, have a plan, and enjoy your hike.
See you on the trail!