When thinking about outdoor safety, one word immediately comes to mind: preparedness.
Nature is an endless source of joy and wonder. But can also be cruel, unforgiving, and unpredictable. This split personality is, I believe, what makes spending time outdoors so rewarding; delighting in beauty while simultaneously challenging your body and your mind.
At the end of the day, if any one of us were to be pitted against the full force of nature without support, there would only ever be one winner. But our ability as a species to plan ahead, share knowledge, and use tools means that in the course of life, we most likely won’t find ourselves in a situation like that.
And so the very best outdoor safety advice has always been (and will always be) along the same lines:
- Respect nature
- Educate yourself
- Plan ahead
- Carry the right kit
A fifth piece of advice is to stay alert. The number of times I see people outdoors with their headphones in, blocking out sound… It just seems like an accident waiting to happen. It’s one of the reasons AfterShokz open-ear technology is so cool because it means you can listen to music as well as being alert to your surroundings. Below are a few more tips on preparing for the elements.
How To Handle Getting Lost
I once got lost in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, CA. I was with my wife and 3-month-old daughter. Our guides had left us to attend to a family emergency. We took a wrong turn trying to get back to the car.
We had no water, no food, no outdoor clothes, and no cell reception.
Oh! And it was evening....
After an hour of ever-rising panic, we spotted a small group of people and tagged along, eventually we got back to our vehicles (which were the last two vehicles in the park) and headed home in the darkness.
In the grand scheme of things, it was not the most dramatic experience. It was only an hour after all. Our friends knew roughly where we were and would have alerted the authorities. But it was nevertheless one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, largely because of our baby.
Telling people where you are going is probably the single most important thing you can do from a safety point of view. Be as precise as you can about location and timing. This was the only thing that stopped the blind panic setting in for me.
It’s also a really good idea to know how to read a map and use a compass for all but the shortest, best-marked, simplest trails. You may also consider investing in a GPS tracker (or even an app on your phone) but I personally would never want to rely on technology alone. Understanding basic navigation skills is essential for outdoor safety.
For longer trips to the backcountry and folks who are ultra-cautious, you may want to invest in a personal locator beacon.
I could go on about this topic all day, so if you’re interested in more information about managing a situation where you get lost, you might want to read this article.
How To Prepare For Bad Weather
Thankfully, I haven’t personally had a really bad experience with the weather. I do remember my friend struggling on one occasion when I was in college, though. Some of us were going camping in the mountains and the weather didn’t look great. My friend asked to tag along and when we set up camp 10 miles from the nearest road, we discovered he’d bought a comforter and a pillow.
No sleeping pad. No sleeping bag. Just a comforter and a pillow. Which got wet almost immediately!
He had a seriously cold trip, hardly got any sleep, and in retrospect was lucky that was as bad as it got.
Being prepared for adverse weather conditions is a really important ‘element’ of outdoor safety. Be aware that the weather can affect you physically (from heat stroke to hypothermia). And it can affect your environment (for example, flash floods, falling trees, and rockslides to name but a few).
You should always be aware of the weather forecast before venturing out. Even if you don’t believe there are any safety concerns, it’s a question of comfort at the very least. The Scandinavians allegedly have a saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather; just the wrong clothing.
I would go further, though, and suggest that because forecasts are unreliable, it’s well worth researching common weather phenomena in any given region at any given time of year. Sure, snow may not be forecasted, but if snow is not uncommon at that time of year, you really want to know that it’s a possibility and plan accordingly.
And finally, it’s that education and planning piece that’s ultimately important. It’s no good just being aware that thunderstorms are a common occurrence...you want to know what to do when camping in a thunderstorm.
If you can assess risk and also seek out information that will allow you to mitigate risk, then that’s really the key to unlocking outdoor safety.
Encountering Wild Animals
Which brings me to my next point. No guide to outdoor safety would be complete without a nod to wild animals. And do you know why that is?
Is it because wild animals pose one of the highest risks to people outdoors?
It’s because people perceive wild animals to be a risk.
The reality is that you’re 50x more likely to be killed by lightning than by a bear. Which is why the ability to properly assess risk is so important, IMO. I would encourage anyone reading this to prioritize learning about navigation and understanding what to do in adverse weather conditions before they educate themselves about dealing with animal encounters.
That said, once you feel confident with common outdoor safety matters then it would do no harm to educate yourself about what to do if you see a snake or a bear. It might come as no surprise that staying alert to your surroundings is one of the best ways to avoid an animal encounter. Blocking out sounds, for example, would not be advisable. And if you were wearing headphones, you’d definitely want them to be ‘open ear’ (AfterShokz-style!) so you can also stay tuned in to what’s going on around you.
Tips For (Safe) Hydration
Having, or sourcing, enough clean water is one final essential safety tip. You can find some great advice for staying hydrated in the summer on this very blog!
In addition to those tips (and especially for anyone setting out for longer trips or hiking in drier climates), you’d be wise to calculate in advance how much water you will need. (Hint: it’s about 1 pint for every hour you plan to be hiking).
The safest bet is to carry all of it in yourself. But if you are certain that there will be water sources along the way, then you may only need to carry a decent water filter. (Water-borne diseases and parasites are no joke so they really are an essential bit of kit if you plan to drink from streams or lakes).
With a bit of education and preparation, you massively increase the chances of a safe outdoor trip. Focus on navigation, weather, and hydration as priorities, researching rarer risks as and when you have time. Good luck!
About The Author
Bertie Cowen is the editor of EffortlessOutdoors.com, a blog that aims to help more people get outdoors more easily. You can also find him on Twitter.