Before You Hike, Leave Critical Information

Vernal Fall in Yosemite...

Vernal Fall--image via Wikipedia

This has been a bad year for hikers and climbers in Yosemite. Extra snowmelt, combined with storms, led to deaths of hikers. A climber slipped while climbing the famous Half Dome in the rain. Hikers drowned trying to cross rivers. Backpackers were swept over Vernal Fall. Fourteen deaths have made it, so far, one of the deadliest years for Yosemite in recent history.

In New England and upstate New York, Tropical Storm Irene has contributed to problems for hikers and backpackers. However, there had been many search and rescue calls in New York’s Adirondacks before the storm, Irene. Heart attacks, capsizings, drownings, falls, and lost hikers kept searchers and rescuers busy.

As I read through the reports, one bit of advice came to mind: Don’t try to do too much, too soon, too fast. I’ve been guilty of this too, and I’ve paid for it. Rushing in Virginia just so I could make it to a post office and pick up a care package before the P.O. closed for the weekend, cost me an extra week on the Appalachian Trail.

 As I dug deeper into the reports, it was clear that some victims were not physically or mentally prepared to tackle so much. Extra snowmelt in the West should have meant extra caution and revised plans. In other accounts, hikers had left scattered information about their routes and destinations to loved ones. When they were expected to return and didn’t, families had to try to piece things together and scramble. Don’t forget, cell phones aren’t reliable in the wilderness.

This brings me to the planner and report forms at the bottom. I scanned the forms from the Adirondack Newspaper, Embark. These simple forms can make life easier for a lot of people and give you, the hiker, peace of mind as well. Searchers need specifics; rescuers need vital information. 

Don’t forget to take it easy out in the wilds. Life is too short–enjoy it.

Backcountry search and rescue reports for hikers

Search and Rescue Reports--provided by DEC

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14 thoughts on “Before You Hike, Leave Critical Information

  1. Thanks for taking the time to talk about this, I feel strongly about it and enjoy learning much more on this subject. If achievable, as you gain experience, would you mind updating your weblog with more details? Its very useful for me.

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  2. Sounds like a tough year in Yosemite. Building things up gradually is great advice – don’t rush out and do the hardest, toughest route straight away. Building up to it with a few shorter days to get to know the terrain, maps and your physical limits is a much better way to do it. Of course people only have a couple of days and want to rush out and do the best hikes they can regardless of weather forecast….we’ve all done it at one time or another.

    Are EPIRBS in common use in the States? We don’t use them much in Europe but in New Zealand people tell me they’re very popular. Of course they don’t stop you having an accident but at least let the emergency services exactly where you are.

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    • Yes, I agree with you. I’ve been guilty also of taking a chance on weather, but I don’t do it anymore. I’ve been lucky; and now I’m wiser. Phil, I’m not familiar with EPIRBS. What does it stand for? Thanks for your comments.

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      • EPIRBs are Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacons. They were first used in ships I think but have started to be used by hikers (sometimes they’re called PLBs – Personal Locator Beacons which is perhaps what you know them as).

        Basically if you get into trouble you set them off and they send off a signal that via satellite systems lets an office know of your location. As satellites pass over your location becomes more accurate and coverage is worldwide. I’ve used them when leading groups in remote areas.

        I did some hiking in New Zealand a few years ago and you could rent them from the park rangers offices while out hiking and they were really encouraging this. That said I didn’t rent one while I was hiking – tsk tsk….
        There’s a mega techie article on Wikipedia if you’d like to know more (or are having trouble getting to sleep!).

        Cheers, Phil

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  3. Decades ago, I was assigned aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Oceanographic Cutter Rockaway WAGO-377 (now decommissioned). One day, we were sailing about fifty nautical miles off the west coast of Africa. The Rockaway had spotted and had come alongside a canoe that had been carved out of a tree trunk. The man who was in it seemed quite unconcerned about his location, or being alone at sea. It was a beautiful day at sea. After realizing that he was not seeking assistance from us, we lowered some food and cartons of milk to him, and hoped that he had as much good luck as he had confidence in his own ability to reach his destination, whatever that may have been. We could not speak each others’ languages. He appeared so happy at his position, and also grateful to get some provisions. Yet, he was so far from shore, afloat in that log boat. Perhaps he knew of an uncharted island paradise; more likely, this is how he worked daily, catching fish far at sea.

    Sailors are pretty hardy souls. Several months prior to the above episode, I had met a family (husband, wife, with two young children) who were circumnavigating the globe in their sailboat that was about 30′ in length. We met where their sailboat was tied up, at the western entrance to the Panama Canal. I’ve always wondered if that family completed their global journey safely.

    Hikers are hardy souls also. But I’ve met some unprepared ones. You may have seen them also, in August, hiking up a mountain on a sunny afternoon, wearing sneakers, shorts, and teeshirts, with no packs. As I recall reading, most recorded deaths on Mount Washington in New Hampshire have occurred in August, due to sudden and extreme changes in the weather. It’s often so nice at the bottom of Mount Washington in the summertime, that it’s sometimes difficult for hikers, inexperienced and otherwise, to appreciate that untamed beauty.

    Ray Anderson has encouraged his readers more that once about preparing for the worst conditions on the trail. Leaving critical information with family and friends about one’s planned hike (or sailing/flying route) is one of those important and sage advisories that Ray has provided us. Avoiding bad luck, such that encountered by Aron Ralston, the canyoneer who was accidentally trapped in an Utah canyon in 2003, and amputated an arm to escape, is not completely avoidable today, even for those who are best prepared.

    However, if I were to sail or fly alone, or hike alone, or with a small group for any appreciable distance, I would do something to take the ‘search’ out of ‘search and rescue’ as best I could. I’d consider it an obligation to carry a ‘Personal Geopositioning Device’ (GPD) that can broadcast my need for help and also my location to those search and rescue organizations that monitor distress signals. This obligation would not be only to myself, but to loved ones, and to rescue team members who place themselves oftentimes at risk. These devices have various other names, such as Personal Tracker, and Emergency GPS Locator. They are generally seen in hiking stores/magazines, or web-based advertisements, and through online stores. I needn’t advertise them here.

    Weighing a pound or so, and costing about three pairs of hiking boots, admittedly with annual fees, are these such constraints that not carrying one for oneself, or a group, is justifiable? Taking the search out of search and rescue could save one’s life or that of others in conditions that Mother Nature, Bad Luck, and Accidents sometimes conspire in the wilds, whether that wildness is at sea, in the air, or on the land.

    I believe that it’s an obligation to oneself and to others to minimize risk in the wilderness. This doesn’t mean that the wilderness, in whatever form it takes, will be risk free. It will remain an untamed beauty for us to enjoy, and to heed.

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    • Thank you, Dave, for an insightful and thoughtful comment. Where to begin. Truthfully, I need to research the Personal Geopositioning Device (GPD). I don’t have one and don’t recall seeing them out in the wilds, but they may be stuffed into backpacks and, therefore, I wouldn’t know. I agree that such a device would take the “search’ out of search and rescue. I will dig into this topic and mark it for a future post. Thanks again for your comprehensive comment.

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      • I’m going to research cost and weight of a sat phone. It might be good for special isolated hiking conditions. Sending a signal and then waiting, without talking to someone, is a downside, but it’s an alternative. I suspect as the electronics improve, and sat phones become smaller and less expensive, they will become popular with hikers and outdoors people.

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      • Ray

        finally read comments . Glad you’re thinking about getting a locator. Sat phones going to be pricy for the subscription service that you’ll hopefully never use, I suspect.i

        Axel

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  4. I’m going to research the cost and weight of a sat phone. The PLB is an alternative, but just sending a signal without talking with someone is a downside. I suspect as the electronics improve sat phones will be less expensive and lighter, and become more popular with hikers. Thanks, Phil.

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