Being saved by search and rescue is probably one thing that’s not on your hiking bucket list. And while you can’t control everything in life—after all, sometimes things like equipment failure just happen—there is a lot you can do to keep yourself safe on trail. This includes being well-prepared before you go on an adventure, knowing how to make good choices while you hike and understanding what you should do if you get into trouble.
Test Your Layers
According to search and rescue volunteer Yana Radenska, one of the best things you can do before you go on an adventure is to test your layers and see if you’ve packed enough. “On a normal hike, you should never put on everything you’ve packed,” she says. “If you do, you’re not prepared for the worst.”
Before your next hike, set up your own backyard experiment. Put on everything in your daypack, from your midlayer to your spare gloves. Then sit down and wait—this simulates being injured and waiting for rescue.
“Most people are surprised by how cold they get from simply not moving,” Radenska says. “Even on a nice summer day you can be chilled within 10 minutes. Now think about if it were dark or rainy.”
Depending on how well your layers stack up, consider adding more to your pack. You probably won’t notice the extra weight. And if you do end up needing them, those clothes will be worth their weight in gold.
Leave a Detailed Itinerary
Once your layers are perfected, the next big thing you can do to avoid meeting search and rescue on trail is leave a detailed itinerary of your hike with an emergency contact. You can download a printable one here or create your own. Be sure to include the following key elements:
- If you have not heard from me by (time) _______ on (day) _______ of (month) _______, call search and rescue at 911 and report me as overdue.
Information about yourself and your hiking partner(s)
- Medical issues
- Level of outdoors experience
Information about your hike
- Trailhead name and county
- Planned trails and route
- Camping locations and sites
- Backup plan
- Time of departure
- Expected time of return
Information about your gear
- Boot size and type
- Tent color
- Outerwear color
- Vehicle make, model, color and license plate
Have a Way to Call for Help
It’s also important to have a way to call for help if you get lost or injured on trail. Doing so can alert authorities much sooner than waiting for your emergency contact to respond. There are several devices to choose from. Some rely on cell phones, while others choose to go with a SPOT device or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).
Make Good Decisions on Trail
There is an art to knowing when to help yourself and when to ask for help. Being proactive is key. That’s because the easiest time to help yourself is before you get into trouble, by making good decisions on trail. Sometimes that means staying away from the edge of a cliff. Sometimes that means drinking enough water. And sometimes that means turning around, especially if you’re exhausted or it’s getting dark or you’ve run out of food. But what do you do when, despite your best intentions, things start to get a little iffy?
* National parks sometimes contract with private SAR services that may charge a fee. But wouldn't you rather live?
Wait Productively for Rescue
Even if you do end up needing to be rescued, there is still plenty you can do once you make your emergency call to help search and rescue help you. The most important things focus around staying safe, staying warm and staying visible.
- Stay in the same location where you sounded your alarm.
- Shelter yourself from the elements as best you can.
- Mentally prepare to be outside for a couple of hours, perhaps longer.
- Put on all of your warm clothes.
- Eat a snack.
- If you’re able to do so safely, move your body.
- If you’re incapacitated, you can still do isometric muscle contractions to generate heat. If you’re on the ground, try tensing and holding your stomach muscles for several seconds at a time.
- Put on something bright.
- If you hear voices or a helicopter, yell.
- Signal a helicopter by waving items like a shirt or tarp, or set your headlamp to blinking mode. If your headlamp doesn’t have a blinking mode, move your hand in front of the light to simulate blinking.