Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dan Crane: Adirondack Bushwhacking Safety

There is no way around it, bushwhacking in the Adirondacks is an inherently dangerous activity. The aggressive terrain, vast amount of wilderness, frequently changing weather conditions and the lack of wireless communication access makes dealing with any emergency situation a challenge. Although it is impossible to make backcountry exploration a completely safe endeavor, the principles of risk management can be used to identify, prevent and, if everything fails, ameliorate some of the possible negative impacts of those risky elements associated with bushwhacking.

Although much of what can be said about safety in the backcountry applies to both trail hiking and bushwhacking, the remoteness encountered by a bushwhacker makes safety precautions an even higher priority. The bushwhacker is typically far from assistance and therefore must be prepared to handle any conceivable emergency situation, or deal with the consequences. Managing the inherent risk involved in exploring the backcountry can be accomplished by being prepared for an emergency and taking the proper precautions should such an emergency present itself.

Whoever coined the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” must have been referring to bushwhacking. And prevention of any problem in the backcountry starts with physical training. Any training for bushwhacking should include both endurance training and core strengthening. Endurance training, such as running, swimming, walking or hiking is essential to prepare for the exertion necessary to bushwhack over steep terrain for many hours a day, not to mention crawling through blowdowns, stepping over logs and struggling through tangles of witchhobble. Core strengthening involves working the thighs, hips, abdominal and back muscles. These muscles assist with handling heavy backpacks, balance when stepping over logs or crossing beaver dams and navigating through rocky terrain. Preventing injury by preparing your body for the effort involved while bushwhacking is worth more than a whole backpack full of first aid equipment.

My training consists of endurance training four to six days per week augmented by resistance training on four of those days. The endurance training typically consists of running a minimum of three to four miles each day although I sometimes experiment with cross-training by biking, stair-stepping or using an elliptical machine instead. The resistance training consists of one to two hours of either core strengthening (i.e. chest, legs, back) or arms and shoulder strengthening. Each of the two training styles (i.e. core and arms/shoulders) is repeated twice per week. I perform my training year round since it is easier to remain in good physical condition than to get back into such condition.

Physical training is not the only way to reduce the inherent risks involved with bushwhacking. Traveling in groups, leaving a trip itinerary with someone and avoiding unnecessary risks are age-old backpacking precautions that should be heeded when possible by the bushwhacker. Typically a group size of 3 or more is ideal so at least one person could go for help while another can stay with the injured person. Although ideal, it is not always possible to find enough people interested in bushwhacking to assemble such a large group. Bushwhacking in smaller groups (or even solo) should not be avoided but the risks involved will be greater and one should take extra precautions to reduce such risks.

Leaving an itinerary with a responsible person along with the day you plan on exiting the backcountry are standard safety precautions that should be adhered to by the bushwhacker. It is best to give a detailed itinerary with the route planned and camping site locations although conditions on the ground often make it difficult to stick to such a plan. At the very least geographic landmarks should be given to define the area being explored (e.g. west of Moshier Creek, south of Pepperbox Creek and east of the county line). This narrows the search of the 6.1 million acres of the Adirondack down to a more manageable level.

Needless to say, unnecessary risks should be avoided as much as possible. When traveling through difficult areas, such as blowdowns, rocky conditions, stream crossing, etc. it is best to slow down and take your time, especially during wet conditions. At any point where you find yourself hurrying through difficult circumstances, it is best to stop and take a short break before restarting at a slower pace. This will drastically reduce the probability of an injury and reduce the chance of having to use your first aid kit.

I always leave an itinerary with someone I can trust before heading out into the backcountry. The itinerary consists of my planned route plus some side trips just in case I have some extra time. In addition, I always register at the trailhead since I typically start my bushwhack off an existing trail system. And I never pass on the opportunity to register in any lean-tos I encounter on my trip too. In areas where registers are not available I tend to write my initials and the date in small pebbles at key locations along my planned route just in case anything should happen along the way. I take these extra precautions since most of my bushwhacking adventures are lengthy solo trips which involve inherently greater risks.

Carrying a well-stocked first aid kit is essential for any bushwhacker. The ingredients of a suitable first aid kit for a bushwhacker are identical as those of the typical backpacker. There is a plethora of pre-packaged first aid kits available on the market to choose from. A cheaper alternative would be to create your own homemade first aid kit by purchasing those items necessary should an injury occur during an outdoor adventure. Some ideas for items to be included in a homemade first aid kit can be found here, here, here and here. It is not enough to carry a well-stocked first aid if one lacks the knowledge to use it in an emergency. For that reason it is a good idea to take a class in wilderness and remote area first aid. These courses are given by the American Red Cross and the Adirondack Mountain Club. Carrying a first aid kit and having the knowledge how to use it in the case of an emergency should leave you in good stead if an injury occurs while in the backcountry.

My first aid kit includes numerous self-adhesive bandages of all different sizes and shapes, gauze bandages, moleskin, alcohol pads, Spenco 2nd Skin® (for blisters and burns), waterproof surgical tape, a small elastic bandage and single-use Neosporin® packets. Also, I carry multiple doses of 200 mg ibuprofen tablets, Benadryl® antihistamine tablets, loperamide hydrochloride tablets (for diarrhea), pink bismuth tablets (for upset stomach) and 75 mg diclofenac sodium tablets (a prescription anti-inflammatory for my back). A space blanket, strike anywhere matches, birthday candles, a water filter straw, a needle and thread, several safety pins and some string round out my kit. In addition, I carry an emergency whistle, a small jackknife (with a blade, scissors and tweezers), sunscreen, lip balm and bug repellent in a separate stuff sack, which I keep in the outside pocket of my backpack for easy access.

Although a first aid can be effective for many types of injuries it is of limited usefulness if the injury is serious enough to prevent one from evacuating the backcountry. This is especially true for those who engage in solo bushwhacking adventures. In the case of a broken leg, sprained ankle or other incapacitating emergency it is wise to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) when traveling alone. Personal locator beacons are tracking transmitters which aid in the detection and location via a satellite system. They can be used to determine the location of an individual in an emergency leading to an efficient and timely extraction from the backcountry. A personal locator beacon is one of the most important (and expensive) pieces of equipment a bushwhacker should carry when traveling alone but hopefully never use. It is essential the PLB transmit GPS coordinates so that a search and rescue can be reduced to a simple rescue. A PLB should only be activated during a dire emergency where the situation is grave and the loss of life, limb, or eyesight will occur without assistance. But remember, a PLB cannot assist you unless you are conscious enough to activate it, so carrying one should never be used as an excuse to undertake risky behavior.

Three popular manufactures of personal locator beacon products are ACR Electronics, Inc., SPOT, Inc. and McMurdo, Ltd. They typically range from $150 to $400 and some require the purchasing of a subscription service for specific functionality.

Personally, I carry an ACR MicroFix 406 GPS Personal Locator Beacon, a recently discontinued product. It weighs about 10 ounces and cost considerably more than the current products on the market. I cannot comment on how well it works since thankfully I have never had the occasion to use it. But it gives me the peace of mind knowing I have some way to communicate with the outside world in case of a life-threatening emergency.

Hopefully this discussion of the necessary precautions one should take while bushwhacking has not frightened anyone from heading off the trail. Although it is prudent to be as prepared as possible for any emergency it is still fairly safe being in the backcountry. The most dangerous aspect of any trip is most likely the drive to and from the trailhead. It is important to be prepared but not lose sight of the fact that bushwhacking is supposed to be fun and exciting. So get out there, get off the trail and enjoy yourself but be ready just in case.

Photo: Blowdown by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking experiences at http://www.bushwhackingfool.com/.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




9 Responses

  1. Kevin B. MacKenzie says: