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Hiking Emergency & Recovery Protocols

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Last weekend we did a very difficult hike. Actually, to be honest we didn’t complete it. Despite hiking every week, and rucking on our road at least a couple days a week, we were turned back after four miles, 4,000 feet of elevation gain, and some extremely rugged terrain. On our walk back we began talking about what we would do if one of us was injured. We also talked about some emergency protocols we had already put into place.

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If you are a hiker, hunter, or anyone else who spends time in the great outdoors, you should have some emergency and recovery protocols in place. Today I’m going to talk about some of ours. The first part is pretty routine advice, but advice that I consistently see ignored, and have ignored in the past myself. Since being involved in a couple search and rescue operations I will never ignore this advice again. The second part of this article covers how we would handle an injury in the backcountry. If you venture out with a partner, this is stuff you should be thinking about ahead of time – not trying to make up on the fly.

Before You Go, Let Someone Know

Before you leave the house, you should let someone know. If you experience some sort of emergency in the backcountry your best bet is to get help on its way as early as possible. Many backcountry areas don’t have cell service, so sometimes the most effective way of doing this is through what is technically known as a “no-comm plan,” i.e. “if you don’t hear from me by….”

There are a few pieces of information that will be extremely helpful in getting a rescue on its way to you. The most common advice is to let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. If that is all you have time for, cool, but you can certainly do better. First, let’s talk about who I give this information to, and how I give it to them.

Who to tell: I always give this information to at least one person, and sometimes two. I make sure I give it to someone who is capable of acting decisively – I don’t want a weak-willed family member rationalizing and saying, “I’m sure Justin is fine…I’ll just wait a little while longer.” I don’t want to rely on someone who will be bashful about contacting the police, or someone who will be drunk or stoned by the time I am supposed to be back and forget. When the time comes to act, I want to know that a family member will act.

It doesn’t really matter if they’re local to you or not. If they are they can go out to the trail head and verify the presence of your car, that’s ideal (I’ll talk about why in a second) but not required. If they aren’t local they can still call emergency services and let them know you are not back by your drop-dead time. I would rather have someone decisive who is 1,000 miles away than someone who is indecisive waiting for me in the parking area.

How to Tell Them: I have nothing against a verbal report. However, I always, ALWAYS text the information to them, even if I’ve verbally told them first. People are busy. At the moment I am telling my friend about my plans is he listening to me, or is he reading an email? Is he in a fight with his girlfriend, or chasing his kid around? Is he trying to recover the keys he dropped between the counter and the refrigerator? Even if we’re face to face, is he fantasizing about the Netflix ‘n chill he’s got lined up later?

Even if he is paying the utmost attention, I’ve told him about a dozen hikes in the past two months – is he going to recall the details of this one? He knows he’s done this and nothing has ever even come close to happening. Is he really absorbing what I’m saying? If I send him a text, on the other hand, I don’t have to wonder. He has all the information in black and white. I do want to confirm receipt but as long as that text was scent and received, someone knows where I am and when to miss me. Now, let’s look at what I tell them.

What To Tell Them

Where you are going: I am very specific in this. I’ll give the trail/area and some information about where we are going to park. If possible I’ll give a trailhead, parking area, or mile-marker. My report will usually read something like:

“We are going to the Milk Creek Trail in the Northern Cascades, parking at the very end of Suiattle River Rd. It’s a 3 mile out-and-back (6 miles total). We plan to stay on the trail.”

What time you expect to be back: I also make sure to tell them the time I expect to be back, and the time that I will absolutely be back, barring an emergency. I am also very explicit about what to do if I don’t make it back. I think it’s often assumed that the other person will know what to do if you don’t show up on time. I don’t like making that assumption. I word it something like this:

“It’s 6 miles total, and we anticipate moving about 2 miles an hour. We’re leaving now and plan to step in the woods at 10, so giving ourselves some leeway we should be back to the car by 4 PM. If you don’t hear from us by 6 PM you should call the police.”

I always factor in some additional time. This is to account for rough terrain, unexpected gains in elevation, or other things that could slow us down, but don’t constitute an emergency. When making this plan, don’t forget drive times back to cell service. If you’re trailhead is an hour past cell reception, give this report before you lose service, and don’t forget to factor that into your expected return time.

Additional information: I always provide a few extra elements of information that would be good for the police/SAR team to know. This includes what we are driving, whether or not we have the dogs (and if so, which dogs), and how we are equipped. This last section goes something like this:

We are driving my car (silver 4Runner), no dogs. We have plenty of cold/wet weather gear, food, and water, a compass and a map of the area. 

I like to include this last bit for a couple of reasons. First, the car helps determine if you’re still out on the trail or not. If your car is still at the trailhead the police are probably going to be much more amenable to the idea that you are lost and initiate a recovery effort much more quickly.

I also like telling them that we are well-equipped. If a SAR team is coming in for me, I don’t want them taking unnecessary risks. I don’t want them rushing, for their own sake. I want to give them some peace of mind that we can take care of ourselves, at least for a while so they can proceed as safely as possible.

It is very, very important that you notify your contact AS SOON as you are back within cell coverage or back to your car. If you get cell coverage before you get to the car, wait until you are actually at the car. If you don’t get cell coverage until you’ve driven a ways, text as soon as you come back into service.

A legit search with our SAR team is going to involve at least a couple dozen people, an ambulance, a portable command center, cops, volunteers… Trust me – you don’t want that kind of effort made on your account after you’re out of the woods, just because you forgot to send a text. Don’t risk a SAR call-out, or breaking your friend’s trust; text him or her as soon as it is appropriate.

This portion – knowing that help will be on the way eventually – ties directly into the next portion.

What About Self-Recovery?

My girlfriend and I have always sent a good report to a trusted family member before we go on any backcountry hike – at least over the past couple of years. We always have the peace of mind that if something were to go wrong it’s just a matter of time before someone is coming for us, and that they know roughly where to look. What she and I have never discussed is what happens if one of us is injured on the trail, long before our anticipated return.

Our hike last weekend was a great example. We hiked four miles into the woods. During the entire hike we only encountered four other parties – on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. By the standards of the National Park we were in, that’s a pretty sparsely populated trail. It’s also a tough trail. Every online trail guide we consulted classifies it as “difficult,” “hard,” or “strenuous.” I can attest – it is all of those things and then some.

If something had happened to one of us along this difficult trail, there was no way the other could perform a carry-out. The injured party would be sitting there until some help arrived. I really started asking myself about an injury protocol: how do we decide to stay with the injured party, or go to get help? We developed a pretty simple algorithm.

Cell Service: Too easy! If there is cell service, we call for help, and stay together. Sometimes you can hike deep into the woods and still have service, as we did on a big portion of this hike. Well, at least I did. We are with different carriers and I retained service almost the entire time, but her service was dead before we even pulled into the parking area.

Important note: if you have different cell providers, one of you might have service while the other does not. If you have different carriers and one person goes down, check to see if his or her phone has service (assuming yours doesn’t, of course). If you don’t know what carrier your hiking partner has, it might still be worth your time to check his or her phone.

Most wilderness areas do not have cell service, though. A baseline assumption for the remainder of these problems assumes no cell service.

No Cell Service, Conscious and Stable: If the injured party is conscious and stable, the other party will leave to get help. It is on the uninjured party to assess the victim for consciousness and stability, and the likelihood of staying conscious and stable for the estimated round-trip to wherever help is likely to be encountered.

If, for instance, I tripped and tore something in my knee so that my leg could not bear weight, my girlfriend would hike out and summon help. If I had bled severely, there is a chance I might lose consciousness later, so that would have to be a judgment call by the uninjured party.  The party running for help will strip down to bare minimum gear (first aid and survival gear) and move as quickly as possible.

No Cell Service, Unconscious and/or Unstable: If the injured party is unresponsive and/or unstable, the other party stays, provides what care is possible for the injured party, and waits for another hiking party to come by. An exception can be made – again, as a judgment call – if the injury occurs very close (1/2 mile or less) to the trailhead or a recently encountered hiking party. There is too much that can go wrong leaving an unconscious/unstable victim to leave him or her unattended for a long period. Before leaving, the unconscious victim should be placed in the recovery position. At the worst-case scenario, help will be summoned when we both fail to appear, though it may be some hours later.

In summary:

  • If there is cell service, call, stay, and wait.
  • If there is no service and the victim is conscious and stable, go and get help.
  • If the victim is unconscious or unstable, stay with him/her until help arrives, or someone comes who can get help.

Closing Thoughts

This sounds sounds very simple. There’s not really any cool “if this, then that, except when” flow-charts involved. But it’s something that I admit we had never really thought about. It’s not a system you want to be formulating on the side of the trail, wondering if you’ve made the right decision or not. I admit that our strategy might adapt, or it might consistently remain as-is – we’ll see. But we’ll definitely be thinking and talking about it. The point is, have a plan. Even if it’s not the best plan, have a starting point to work off of instead of being caught completely off guard.

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