The five elements for mitigating risk are essential principles for planning your next backpacking adventure. Backpacking season brings an increase in news reports about disappearances and accidents on the trail. Recently, there was a report from California discusses the disappearance of an experienced hiker at a campsite in the Bristlecone Pine Forest. She was later found alive after four days. The report reveals that she had to flee her location due to a threatening person. Another story relates to the discovery of the body of a missing person on the Snake River in Wyoming. Backpacking and hiking are enjoyable outdoor activities to experience nature. However, they also have inherent risks. It is vital to develop a risk assessment and reduction plan. The following principles can help you build your risk mitigation plan.
1. Assess the level of wilderness experience and field skills of yourself and others
A person’s lack of experience and skills backpacking in the wilderness should indicate that they are a risk to themselves and others. One way to reduce that kind of risk is to take a more experienced partner on the trail. Their experience and skills will offset your weak areas. For example, I am not proficient in wild edibles and medicinal plants. If I attempt to eat something on the trail that may look edible, the results could be tragic. Yet, if I go on the trail with someone who has more experience in that area, I will learn more about how to recognize safe plants, making the hike more safe and enjoyable. Moreover, it is always better to go on the trail with a partner regardless of your experience or skills.
2. Know the level of health and physical fitness of yourself and others
It is vital to know your level of health and physical fitness. Health and physical fitness play an important role in determining the class of trail one should be hiking. For example, a person with some health considerations may be limited to hiking fully developed trails versus a minimally developed one.
Altitude and elevation also will influence decisions about where to go backpacking when one’s level of health or physical fitness is a concern. It may not be wise to take someone on a trail above 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains if they have a respiratory issue. Furthermore, someone who has suffered a previous heat injury should probably not be backpacking in the desert Southwest’s summer heat.
3. Understand the natural or human-made dangers of the area of activity
Many stories about people’s negative experiences in the outdoors reflect a lack of awareness of the risks present in that area. One type of natural hazard involves predatory animals, such as mountain lions or bears. Other inherent threats are those relating to the terrain, such as cliffs, water bodies, areas of deadfall, or unstable ground. Human-made dangers are those of human activity. These can comprise logging areas, areas of construction, or even previous criminal activity. There seems to be an increasing number of stories about backpackers being confronted by criminals on their hike. Thus, it is vital to know the criminal activity of your planned trail.
4. Analyze the local weather and weather anomalies of the area of activity
Weather is a contributor to outdoor risks. There are reports of sudden fog, rain, or dropping of temperatures even in the summer months in some locations. It must be remembered that some local weather patterns cannot be found in a national or local forecast. The people who live in the area can provide useful information on local weather activities such as afternoon thundershowers. Analyzing the local weather traits will help make decisions about what to put in your backpack, such as rain gear or a light fleece jacket. Thankfully, technology, like weather applications on your smartphone, helps sensitize you to weather dangers arising on your hike.
5. Identify the level of access to emergency help in the area of activity
Sometimes people, who go outdoors, do not take into account the availability of emergency help. It is essential to have a good understanding of what kind of emergency help is available. Additionally, it is crucial to know how to access emergency help in your planned area of activity. The importance of knowing how to contact emergency help is a critical part of your outdoor planning.
For example, one of the areas near me does not have a large number of park rangers. They tell you when you come into the park that most emergency help will be by airlift. They do not have the personnel or transportation available to go to your aid if you call for help. Thus, an expensive life flight to a local hospital awaits, should you dial for assistance. That kind of information influences your activity and what you have in your gear.
Some wilderness areas have no cell phone access. How will you get help in an emergency?
It is recommended that you develop a first-responder contact card. This card should have contact information for park rangers, first responders, and area hospitals. You should include emergency radio channels on the card if you are carrying a handheld radio with you.
Risk reduction is an important skill to develop and exercise for those who love hiking and backpacking. Your risk reduction plan has its limitations. Yet, without one, you may find your activity being less than enjoyable. Once you have identified the risks for your planned wilderness adventure, then develop and implement measures to reduce it. Your risk reduction plan should take into account the kind of activity (Mission), local and area dangers (Enemy), time of day, month or day (Time), the people involved (Troops), location (Terrain), and accesses to emergency help (Civilian Considerations). Once you have your risk mitigation plan complete, give a copy to those you will be making your communication checks while you are on the trail. As you plan your next backpacking adventure, remember these principles for reducing the risks.