Home‎ > ‎

Backcountry Safety

This is simply a collection of thoughts regarding back country safety. Nobody pays me for my opinion, but I've a little experience that might be of help to someone starting out. I'm not some world-renown adventurer. I'm not some extreme expedition fanatic. I am an outdoors enthusiast that has been fiddling around outside for a long time.

A lot of folks are scared to death of the outdoors. They freak out about every possible danger to the point that they are paralyzed by their fear. You might as well stop reading now if you suffer from this affliction as I can't relate. I'm not a psychiatrist in real life nor do I play one on TV.

I'm going to touch a little bit on mindset, preparedness, etc. The goal is to give some ideas, not to endorse products or come across as an absolute authority. I hope you can think through this stuff and extract a few nuggets that work for you.

I'm going to organize this into a few points a bit different from survival books.


Think about somebody other than yourself.

We are not islands, no matter what video games you play, your politics, marital status, etc. You don't get extra-lives, and somebody will be impacted by your mistakes - whether loved ones or Search And Rescue (SAR). Therefore I believe it is important to:
  • Let someone know where you are going and when you will return
  • Be prepared
Selfishness and laziness are killers. Hopefully that will make more sense after reading this.

Know yourself

We all exist in various stages of denial - i.e. we don't see things the way they really are. I believe the most dangerous denial is when we over-estimate our abilities and under-estimate the dangers. I believe this is most dangerous because we:
  • Don't say "no" when we should -
  • Don't prepare adequately -

Know your area

There is this romantic notion of venturing into the unknown, bravely facing each new adventure. But this is a load of crap inspired by Hollywood movies, where the actors retreat back to their RVs for a cup of coffee. Reality is that you need to know where you are going and what the area is like. Nowadays gaining this knowledge couldn't be easier as you can use Google Earth to "fly" over the terrain. But you need to take the task of obtaining this knowledge seriously enough to do it.

Know some basic skills

A few necessary skills:
  • How to navigate
  • How to deal with exposure to the elements
  • How to walk
  • How to deal with the unplanned
I've argued with my compass, but I gave in because I knew it was right. Certainly glad I had it with me because I would've had a miserable adventure without it.

I've huddled under a tree shivering because my sunny weather became a storm. I left my poncho at camp because I was "just going a little ways to do some fishing". Just me and the dog. Many miles away from the nearest human. I learned.

I twisted my ankle 4 miles in on a wilderness trail. All I did was forget to watch where I put my feet - it only took a moment. No fun. Now I use hiking poles as they give me more stability and lessen the impact to my knees.

Be realistic.

At my stage in life I can hike with a 35lb pack about 8 miles a day. That is my limit of an enjoyable hike. Do you understand what a given distance means to you personally? Some things to consider:
  • Are you going to enjoy it?
  • Are you going to be wiped out the following week?
  • Are you out of your mind?
I have solo bushwhacked 6 miles up a drainage and then hiked another 7 miles to get back to my vehicle. Made for a long, tiring day. Was it fun? Yeah for the first few miles it was cool to be off trail. But after 6 miles of Oregon Coastal Range terrain I was pretty tired and I had another 7 miles of dirt road and trail to get back to my truck. The last few miles were no fun. It looked easier on the map. It used the entire day up.

Once a friend and I did a 26mile cross-country trek. A very long day indeed. I could hardly walk the following week due to foot bruising. It made for memories but it was stupid.

I hiked a good chunk of the Grand Canyon in a single day. I went in 7.5 miles on one trail. Hiked across and around the bottom and came out 9 miles on another trail. The last 2 miles were agonizing. Once back on the rim, I discovered that I was going to have to hitchhike to get back to the vehicle. Stupid beyond belief.

Hunting is a thrill, to be sure. But packing out a game animal is not. The further in you hunt, the harder it will be to retrieve your game if successful. I don't care how tough you are, 100lbs on your back is going to make those miles very, very long.

Learn to chill

It can be hard to relax sometimes when you are alone in the middle of nowhere. Panic can kill you. Somehow you have to look at your fears and understand them. If you can't do that, then you shouldn't ever solo. Some things to think about:
  • Are you really on a schedule?
  • Does it really matter if you get to X spot in Y time?
  • Is there really a reason why you can't say "no"?
  • Is it really that bad?
Our society and often our lives in general are "go, go, and go". But when we are out on the trail, does it really matter when we break for lunch? Does it really matter where we camp? If the conditions get sucky, is there really any reason why we can't call it quits and do it another day? You're lost and it looks like you are going to spend the night in the woods. Is this really that big of a deal?


Humans have great big brains but are weak, slow and hairless. Humans rely on manipulating their environment to survive. So much for the obvious...

"Be Prepared" is the Boy Scout motto and I believe it is very relevant. "Preparing" is not about gear as much as it is accessing the conditions and thinking through the scenarios one might encounter. Thinking is your strongest asset and it is very hard to fix bad thinking with gear.

Gear is the stuff you have with you when you need it. Obviously something went wrong if you don't have it with you when you need it. The "right" gear varies with your experience level and the prevailing conditions.

If you research backcountry fatalities, you find that major causes of death are:
  1. Exposure
  2. Accidents
These issues are made serious because of isolation from civilization, i.e. you can't duck into a coffee shop to wait out a blizzard and there is no hospital to treat your rock-fall induced concussion. So being prepared is partly having a plan for staying alive.

Here are some things that drastically improve your odds of survival when things go wrong:
  1. A partner
  2. Education and the ability to think clearly.
  3. The ability to implement shelter and fire.
  4. The ability to notify SAR of you dire situation.
The following examples are real: (1) You are shivering uncontrollably and your partner sets you down out of the wind, wraps you in a space blanket and builds a fire. (2) You feel like you just can't get warm and you are shaking hard. You realize that you are in the first stage of hypothermia so you shelter yourself as best possible, bundle up, build a fire, eat and drink. (3) The weather worsens and you realize that you're not maintaining and you aren't going to be able to hike out. You trigger your PLB and wait.

Dealing with Exposure

There are many different facets of exposure and I can't address them all. But there are a few basic concepts that vary in importance based on the time they take to kill you:
  1. Temperature extremes. You will die within hours if your core temp falls too low. Shelter is the physical thermal barrier between you and the surrounding cold. Shelter can be a space blanket, a good coat, a poncho, a tent, etc. It can also be a cave, a rock cleft, a pile of leaves, a lean-to, etc. etc. A heat source can supplement the effectiveness of a shelter. For example, wrapping yourself in a space blanket and sitting in the sun can warm you up. Hunkering down behind a log for windbreak and building a fire can warm you up. Putting on a poncho while moving can trap body heat and warm you up. There are many possibilities. Personally, I always carry my poncho and fire starter. Always.
  2. Dehydration - Going without adequate water can kill you within a week. Dehydration makes you more susceptible to hypothermia. It will cause confusion, weakness, cramps, headaches. Carrying water and having the ability to secure a water source is important.


If a branch falls hitting you on the head, knocking you unconscious, how long before somebody renders aid? If you break your leg, how will you get out? If you fall and impale yourself on a sharp branch, how will you stop the bleeding? These are all possible in the back country and it behooves you to think them through.

The Evolution of Gear

The above picture isn't an endorsement for a particular knife, rather it is a pictorial explanation of how my thinking on gear has changed over the years. Left to right is a time-line covering 20 years ago to today. As I said earlier, "gear" is what you have when you need it. I always have the right-most itty-bitty multi-tool, because it disappears in the pocket and is generally handy.

Building a Fire

Once upon a time, back in the days of covered wagons and dinosaurs, kids learned how to build fires. It was just part of the normal training as one grew up. Nowadays a lot of folks haven't a clue, and that is a problem. The above picture shows some fire starting gear that can work reasonably well and doesn't take up a lot of space. Left to Right we have:
  • Spark-lite, Self-contained spark source with tinder - doesn't require much practice, but you do need to have some general fire building skills. It is bomb-proof, water-proof and small enough to slip into your pocket without issue.
  • Boy Scout ferrocerium rod - requires a sharp steel edge, (knife, etc.) and a high-degree of fire building skill. Definitely not something you want to depend on without a lot of practice. Will light a Triox bar.
  • REI Storm matches - burns like a fireworks sparkler for approximately 10 seconds - will only light on the package striking surface. Will not blow out. Requires a moderate degree of fire building skill. Packaged relatively robustly and still small enough to fit in the pocket.
  • Strike anywhere matches in a Ziplock snack bag - these small matches don't burn long and you have to know what you are doing. They are small and will ride in your pocket fairly well. They're pretty cheap too.
  • Triox bar - MilSurp, - This is by far the best "tinder" I've ever used. It will light with a spark. A large bar will burn for 6-7 minutes. You can break off chunks to conserve. It works in the wet and cold. It is packaged for a direct nuclear strike.
Fire building is a serious skill and the above stuff is just some things that I know will work. I personally always carry an ignition source and tinder, mainly because I spend a lot of time in the PNW where you almost need to call in a napalm strike to get a fire going. What you carry is your business, but you must invest the time to figure out what is going to work for you. Forget the BS you see on TV with "Man versus Wild", (that guy is a toolbag), - you will die a slow death if you think you can rub sticks or bang rocks to light a fire.


A shelter can most anything that insulates you from the temperature extremes. When you are wandering around in the backcountry, it is a good idea to have at least one way to augment your outerwear. Left to right we have:
  • $2 space blanket - a miserable piece of junk but better than nothing. Weighs nothing. Fits in your pocket. Will provide a degree of protection. You seriously need to open one up and try it before thinking it is adequate.
  • $13 light-weight Dri-ducks poncho - excellent basic poncho - much, much better than a space blanket. Will last for years if you avoid tearing it up. Will keep one person relatively dry in a nasty storm and blocks the wind. Very light weight.
  • $25 mid-weight, humongous nylon poncho - you can easily cover you and your dog with this and ride out a storm. Will make a small tent or you can roll up burrito-style. Great for mid-day naps.

Self Defense

I'll admit right now that I'm not one of those gentle people who try to get along with all God's creatures big and small. I don't believe that everybody is basically good, nor do I believe that predators eat the sick and weak and want to leave humans alone. So if you do believe all of that, then skip this section or it will piss you off.

Your security is your responsibility.  Never-mind what the summer hire ranger says in the park, if a bear grabs you in the middle of the night, you will die if you think a pimply-faced college kid in a uniform is going to save you. I'm not advocating breaking any laws. But I am telling you that you are total fool if you don't take responsibility for your own security.

The basics:
  • Warrior mindset - don't be a victim. Make up your mind that you will act decisively to defend yourself.
  • Situational awareness - When your "spidey" sense tingles, pay attention to it! When people or animals are out of place, acting funny, etc., don't ignore it. Instead go into alert mode.
  • Augment your defenses - Do you sleep like a rock? Bring a dog with you that doesn't. Are you Chuck Norris? If not then carry bear spray, pistols, revolvers, ninja swords - whatever you are proficient with (and legal) to stack the odds in your favor.
  • Go on the offensive! - Don't wait for some sleaze bag to make the first move. Get in his face and tell him to buzz off. Oh I know the popular "don't escalate the situation" thinking says otherwise, but if you wait, you are giving the dirtbag time he doesn't deserve.
Anti-gun people are mentally defective. A gun is the best tool to project overwhelming force against your opponent. But guns are expensive, heavy and sometimes prohibited by mental defectives. I whole-heartedly endorse hikers packing guns. I would much rather encounter a lady with a gun than a lady with a Rottweiler. The lady will control the gun and the gun won't decide by itself to attack me. But I've seen a lot of ladies who can't control their dogs. I hate wasting my bear spray educating her "baby who wouldn't bite anybody".

Now there are times when you can't legally carry a gun and there are times when you can't carry enough gun to deal with the problem. In these cases I believe Bear Spray is the better choice. Bear Spray is lighter, cheaper and has an excellent track record against brown bears and mountain Grizzlies. Not as good against black bears but still pretty effective. Bear spray works on humans too, but unfortunately some humans won't give up after getting sprayed and they need to be shot dead. So if you are hiking Denali, carry Bear spray and/or enough gun. If you are hiking the Appalachian trail carry bear spray and enough gun to kill the human waste that won't take a hint after being sprayed.

OK, so you can see my attitude about self-defense in the back country. I hike more comfortably and sleep a whole lot better when carrying a weapon, and that makes it worth it to me.

A Final Thought on Life and the Meaning of the Universe

Backcountry safety is a discipline, a mindset, much more than a bunch of gear. You have to choose whether you are going to survive or die - it is a personal matter. If you assume that somebody else will rescue you - you will probably die. It is your choice.

Gear is meaningless if you don't have it when you need it, so you need to figure out how to have enough to survive in your chosen environment.

Reality is far different from a video game. There is an investment you need to make to develop important skills like navigating, walking, sheltering, and fire building.

What I carry

If you bump into me on the trail, beside a lake, or archery hunting, you will always see one of the following on me.

Left to right:
  • A small stuff sack with couple loops sewn on to hang on my belt. Contains my large nylon poncho and Spark-Lite firestarter. 1lb. - when I'm just puttering around fishing, etc. after I've dropped my main pack.
  • Mini hydration pack. Carries Dri-Ducks poncho, fire starter stuff, TP, munchies, bottle of water, headlamp, etc.. 3lbs - Good weather and fairly short day hike.
  • Large hunting pack. Usually a 3 liter bladder, large poncho, gloves, hat, poly-pro top, firestarter, etc., etc. 10lbs - when the weather is sucky or I'm going on a long day hike.
  • Not shown - an 80liter back pack. When I'm backpacking.
I navigate with a simple compass and map. I fly over my areas with Google Earth to familiarize myself with the terrain as part of my trip preparation. I carry a map with enough info to identify major landmarks and trailheads - so that I know roughly where I am at all times.

I always carry a small pill container with Aspirin (heart attack), and a two day supply of vital meds. Always. And I always have toilet paper - one of those life lessons.

There is a lot of other stuff I'm not going to mention as you need to make your own list.