8 Tips For Trekking On Unfamiliar Terrain

There are 8 tips for trekking on unfamiliar terrain to consider when planning your next outdoor adventure. Even the well-experienced hikers can get lost and in trouble on the trail just as quickly as novices.

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.

Natural Hazards

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. 

Man-made Hazards

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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!

Article Review: Keeping it Real with Les Stroud

“Keeping it Real with Les Stroud: Survivorman is Here to Crush the Most Common Survival Myths”, Survivor’s Edge by Michael D’Angona, Winter-Spring 2017, p.7-11.

 

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Les Stroud

The topic of survival provides much to discuss between Michael D’Angona and one of the most recognized personalities in the survival world, Les Stroud. The interview of survival expert Les Stroud gives the reader a glimpse into his mind and heart on a broad spectrum of topics that are of interest to survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts. Les Stroud is the founder of Les Stroud Productions, which produces the Survivorman television series primarily for the Canadian network, Outdoor Life Network, and has aired in the United States in cooperation with Discovery Communications since 2006. The interview covers some five pages in the current (Winter-Spring 2017) edition of Survivor’s Edge magazine.

 

D’Angona introduces the article with a general overview of the misconceptions that most people have regarding the realities of actual survival in an austere environment. He says, “Often people miss the fine points of survival when they are just reading up on it or watching a show about it.” This statement provides the theme for the discussion with Les Stroud. After the introduction, the author segues into the interview by asking Les, “What do you believe is the biggest misconception that people have about survival?” The interview then moves from the general topic of survival to specific aspects of survival (e.g. tools and equipment, survival psychology, and education and training), the article ends with a question regarding survival television with Stroud’s answers.  Les Stroud’s remarks recorded in the pages of this article are set in the context of naming and clarifying some misconceptions about the realities of survival.  Overall, the article gives those new to the survival interest some helpful tips and important advice. Those who have been fans of Les Stroud and Survivorman for many years will find some repeated thoughts that Les has articulated over the years, especially in regards to survival television.

One of the more insightful questions that Les Stroud answered was about analyzing the survival decisions of others, who are in the field. Les answered, “When they say, ‘I could do that’, I say, ‘Yes, you are absolutely right—you could do that; anyone can learn to survive.’ When they say, ‘He should’ve done this or that,’ I say, ‘Oh yeah, well, you weren’t there and until you’re in the same situation, you shouldn’t judge what someone else might do or not do to survive. Armchair survivalists are no different than armchair athletes.” This is an important perspective for those just starting out in survival and woodsmanship or they are seasoned veterans with accumulated years of field time developing their field craft. It is easy to make decisions when one’s body is hydrated, properly fed, rested, and under no psychological or emotional duress, especially as a passive observer of some else’s experience. Yet, when the realities of being stranded or lost set in, the abilities in decision-making and critical thinking become affected. It seems that changing one’s paradigm from being lost or stranded to being safe and secure at home has more of an influence on survival decisions than methodical, logically thought out progressively intentional decisions (i.e. “I got get out of here!” vs. “Ok, here I am, now how do I get out of here”). Thus, until you are in a stranded or lost situation, there is no legitimate way of knowing what kind of decisions that you would make. Therefore, Les cautions the reader to be careful about second guessing others.

The most important tip that Les offers in this interview is found in his answer to the question that relates to depending on someone else’s abilities and knowledge in a survival situation. He relates that when he is with a couple, he asks them what they are carrying and usually the husband speaks up and delineates what he is carrying for survival in his pack. Les, then, states the following, “I pull the wife aside and I ask her what she has, which usually ends up with her telling her husband, ‘See, I told you I should have my own pack!’ But this doesn’t mean that teamwork and relying on others isn’t also part of survival. It is.” This harkens to a military concept of each person carrying the same items in their rucksacks. Soldiers, Marines, and Special Operations personnel, who carry rucksacks into the field use a basic packing list of items that each member of the group is to carry in their packs. Obviously, clothing sizes vary, but some items can be collected from a fallen service member’s rucksack in the heat of a combat situation (e.g. first aid kits, signal or lighting items, fire making items, land navigation items, ammunition, knives, multi-tools, food, canteens, personal hygiene items, cordage, etc.). This is what Les is implying here in his response. The wife should have the same survival items in her backpack that are in her husband’s pack. Moreover, she should be just as knowledgeable and proficient with them as her husband. Additionally, they should be communicating to each other as to what survival items are in their packs. Then, if the husband should become incapacitated in some way, the wife can continue and not become debilitated in her survival efforts. The concept that Les is articulating applies not only to a husband/wife team but to anyone who is with an outdoors partner or group.

One of the more interesting responses that Les gives in this interview are on the topic of survival reality television. D’Angona asks Les two questions regarding survival reality television. All of which are in the context of dispelling misconceptions about real-world survival. The first question that Les fields from D’Angona is about the mixed messages that the general television audience receives from reality survival television. Les answers by making a correlation between watching the Olympics on television and attempting to intentionally do a particular event without training. The rhetorical response that Les outlines has the obvious answer that you would not do it. The same is true of watching survival television and trying to intentionally do survival outdoors without training. You would not do it. The second question that Les answers regarding reality survival television is also about how easy reality television makes surviving look verses continually working at your field craft. He goes on to give some specific names of television programs that can be misleading about survival; Man v. Wild (Bear Grylls), Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, and Alone.

The last show named by Les, Alone, has generated some backlash against Les by some of the former contestants of the show Alone. Unfortunately, is seems that some of the critics of Les, by these former contestants of Alone, did not keep the context of the interview in mind before they took Stroud’s critique personally and began circulating their disappointments via social media. The truth of the matter is that Les (as well as Cody Lundin) is correct in his assessment of reality survival television verses the realities of actual survival. It is my assessment that Les Stroud’s comments were not a dig at the field craft acumen, survival ability, or survival endurance experiences of individuals in the field while filming a survival television program. Rather, his comments are coming from a broader perspective in articulating the dichotomy between television reality and the real-world realities of being lost at sea, stranded in a snow storm, or lost in the wilderness with so safety structure to fall back on.  Therefore, Les’ comments are a sobering reminder that there is no substitute for what Dave Canterbury calls, “dirt time”.  Les Stroud reminds us in his “Patagonia” episode of Survivorman season 7, “You can’t watch a survival program on T.V. and head out and imitate it. It’s not safe. It’s taken me years to know what I know, to have learned what I’ve learned and I practiced hundreds and hundreds of times with other people before I ever attempted anything alone.”

The interview article by Michael D’Angona with survival expert, television personality, and musician Les Stroud was an excellent read. It offers great insights and advice to survival novices and survival veterans alike. Photos by Laura Bombier give a refreshing touch to this article. Her photographs reinforce the fact that Les Stroud is a credible, experienced survival expert that everyone can learn from in regards to survival in the outdoors. D’Angona did a wonderful job interviewing Les Stroud. This article should be read by everyone interested in Les Stroud, Survivorman, survival, or the outdoors.

William H. Lavender, II

Lynchburg, VA.