Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Backcountry Safety: Have An Emergency Plan

Wet time at Salmon LakeRainy days in the Adirondack backcountry provide an ideal opportunity for contemplation. Often my own woolgathering collides with the remoteness of the setting to divert my thoughts to disaster – the possibility of getting lost, being injured or the victim of some other calamity. One of my favorite topics of worry and woe is my lack of a comprehensive emergency response plan.

Every backcountry explorer should prepare an emergency plan, as it provides the necessary information to facilitate locating you should you become lost or suffer a serious, immobilizing injury.  Under more dire circumstances an emergency plan may mean the difference between a live extraction and a dead retrieval, or the worst-case scenario – an unmarked grave with accompanying animal nibbles.

I think a backcountry emergency plan should consist of two parts: a trip-specific itinerary, and also more general information to help locate me in the backcountry in the event of an emergency. 

The first part, the trip itinerary, should be standard practice for any backcountry adventure, whether just a few hours or a multi-day trek. At a minimum the location of the trailhead (i.e. where you will leave the car), an estimated route (including where you plan on camping each night), the members of your party and when you plan to return should be left with a responsible person.  This is especially important when bushwhacking, as the likelihood of encountering any assistance in the backcountry is much smaller, and even more important for solo trips.

But is an itinerary enough? Is this all the pertinent information required to perform a search and rescue? Does your responsible individual know the make, model, color and/or license plate of your vehicle? How about your camping habits in the backcountry? Can they describe the clothes you typically wear? Do they know your shoe size? These are the kinds of questions searchers will probably be asking.  Clearly, a trip itinerary is inadequate during a true emergency and more general information to help identify you in the backcountry is needed.

Backpacking resting along Red Horse TrailA second part of my ideal backcountry emergency plan goes beyond the basic itinerary to include information pertaining to the individuals involved, such as their physical descriptions, backcountry behavior patterns (e.g. campsite preferences), clothing (including make, color and size), shoe size and tread pattern, and what kind of shelter they are using.  A physical description of everyone in your party is the backbone, including their height, weight, eye color, hair color, identifying scars – the same details on a driver’s license. I’d also include unique identifying marks too, such as scars, moles, piercings, tattoos, implants or any other “improvements” that would allow authorities to identify your body if the absolute worst happens.

What about your backcountry behavior?  Do you typically search for exposed views and mountain tops, or slog in the boggy lowlands? How do you choose campsites?  Any typical backcountry behavior might be important to note if it will aid in narrowing your location in case of an emergency. Keep hobbies, fetishes and any embarrassing proclivities to yourself though, they offer little insight into your backcountry behavior and will most likely only embarrass you or your family during a search and rescue.

Clothing is another important component. What about listing each article of backcountry clothing’s make, color and size? Digital photographs might be helpful. Perhaps especially important would be a photo of the underside of your hiking boots as the tread pattern might be used to track you in the backcountry in the event you are lost.  I think including a list of gear is essential too, especially the high profile equipment such as shelter and backpack. I’d include the shelter’s color, maker and footprint, as they might be helpful in locating and identifying campsites.

Time is often of the essence during a search and rescue and getting important information into the hands of searchers could make all the difference.  Having an emergency plan, which includes both an itinerary and information to help identify you in the backcountry, could mean the difference between a rescue and a futile backcountry search in the event of a true emergency.

Photos: A wet afternoon at Salmon Lake, a campsite on Beaverdam Pond and backpack taking a break at Witchhopple Lake along Red Horse Trail by Dan Crane.

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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.

4 Responses

  1. scottvanlaer says:

    Nice Dan. Some really good points.

  2. Bruce says:

    All good information.

    I’m 71 and enjoy fly fishing in places that while they may be close to a road, cell service is often not available, and since I prefer being alone, there may not be anyone within sight or earshot. I have taken a couple of falls that had I been younger, wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but now take much, much longer to recover from.

    Last year I have invested in a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), with which if a situation arises from which I cannot get out of any other way (self rescue) or nearby help, it’s a simple matter of raising the antenna and pushing a single button for rescue. My unit is waterproof, floats, and when I’m fishing it’s attached to a chest strap, where it is accessible with either hand.

    That being said, there is still no substitute for basic preparedness and planning such as laid out by Dan.

  3. Curt Austin says:

    I was constantly confronted with this issue in 2012 when I climbed all the 46, by myself, at age 60. While those peaks are frequently visited, I was actually alone much of the time, including on my final peak on a cold day in late October on Marcy.

    The most awkward element of leaving my wife an itinerary was the “I should be back by” time. I found it was not safe to hurry down a trail in order to meet a deadline set inaccurately, so I stopped setting one. I was always prepared to spend a night in the woods, or an extra night.

    I found that I could call my wife from every peak except Allen (wouldn’t you know) (ATT). Otherwise, it was up to my wife to use her judgment about whether I was in trouble or not. My mindset was that I had to accept that I might suffer, or even worse – I was engaging in an activity with risks.

    I considered getting a PLB, but read that they were not, in fact, very reliable. Perhaps that’s changed.

    It was my second “46”, so I had experience. I have some professional background in risk assessment, and a healthy fear of the unexpected. No one is more than one wobbly boulder away from injury, except someone so cautious it would take two wobbly boulders in a row to put him down – that was me. (I think that happened once, but I survived.)

    • Bruce says:


      PLB’s were originally developed for boaters on the ocean, and relied on the fact they were in open water to make a connection. Based on actual use reports, and reviews by several organizations, I believe they are now as reliable as today’s portable GPS units which people typically use in the backcountry.

      There are a number of articles on the web about responders going out on false alarms, which usually involved people (mostly kids) who did not understand what the device was actually for and they turned a unit on accidently, or deliberately to see what would happen. For some reason, many of the false alarms I read about happened in Colorado. The test and emergency buttons on my unit are protected from accidental use by the antenna, until the antenna is popped up, which is wrapped around the unit.

      Units have a “test” function where you can see if it connects to one of the SARS (search and rescue) satellites, and/or send a “test” message. There are actually two tests…one to verify connection which can be done any time, and another which is supposed to be done at 5 min. before the hour so the receiving ground station knows it’s a test. Both are automatically limited in duration. The batteries in my unit are guaranteed for 5 years, even when using the test function periodically.

      Once the unit is turned on for real, it is supposed to be left on until responders arrive, and will operate for at least 24 hours. Once responders are given the GPS coordinates, there is a second signal on a different frequency they can actually follow to your exact location.

      Having backup instructions at the house is always a good thing. I wonder how many times responders called the house to tell the home folks they had received a PLB signal and were responding? That would certainly relieve some anxiety on the part of the home folks. I almost forgot, each unit puts out an ID number registered with the government, and when a rescue signal goes out, the ground station’s computer will show your name, a designated phone number and address that responders can contact. If you should move, you can update the registration information accordingly.

      Mine is the Rescu-Link which does not have real time GPS tracking or daily messaging ability. You pick the features you want (and pay for them).

      Here’s an excellent test and review page, there are others.

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