Can you guess what the No. 1 cause of death in the backcountry is?
It’s not grizzly bears, or rattlesnakes or even riding your mountain bike off a cliff.
It’s the day hike.
People take a hike, never considering the what-ifs: What if I don’t get back tonight because I get lost or twist an ankle? What if a cold hailstorm comes up suddenly, drenching me?
“The most dangerous outdoor activity for any person is the day hike. And the most common cause of death is hypothermia,” said Lance Taysom. “Usually the problem occurs in fall as temperatures drop and suddenly it starts raining, perhaps catching someone by surprise. Usually, the most important survival tool you have is proper clothing.”
As a flight nurse and medic for Air Idaho Rescue, Taysom is quite familiar with what can happen to people who are unprepared. And, as a wilderness instructor for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), he recently taught several classes focusing on preparedness for outdoor recreational pursuits at the Saint Alphonsus Ski & Mountain Trauma Conference held annually at Sun Valley Resort.
“The enemy of survival is not trauma but, rather, pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue, cold, heat, fear, boredom, loneliness and despair,” he said. “And the people who survive are the ones who stay calm and confident. It’s a mind game. Those who survive are those who are patient and don’t give up.”
Familiarization and prolonged exposure without incident leads to a loss of appreciation of the risk, Taysom said. Now is a good time to take stock of what’s in your daypack or even your backpack.
And, with Christmas approaching, it’s a good time to drop a few hints to someone who may be looking for the perfect stocking stuffer or gift for under the Christmas tree.
Lance Taysom’s wife Cami Taysom, a nurse and wilderness instructor, keeps her day pack and backpack filled with what she needs to address the worst possible scenarios. She shared some of the “secrets” she’s learned over dozens of years of mountaineering, backcountry skiing and climbing around the world.
Of course, it all starts with the:
Wool, rather than cotton, makes the best socks for hiking and winter travel. Some hikers and skiers wear nylon socks next to the skin to prevent blisters and add another sock on top.
Make sure your boots have enough room for thicker socks as your feet swell as you go up in altitude.
And, if you notice a hot spot, cover it with duct tape or moleskin before it can turn into a blister.
For winter, there are heated socks, but Taysom said the wires in them hurt her feet.
“You can buy a ton of toe warmers for the price of the heated socks,” Taysom said.
Those who are camping during cold weather or wet or snowy conditions should take out removable boot liners at night and sleep with them to ensure they’re dry the next day.
Switch into dry socks while in camp. And it helps if those socks are a little bigger than the ones normally worn. Feet will remain warmer if they’re not constricted.
Wear liner gloves underneath outer gloves or mittens. That way you never have to expose your hand to winter environment.
Put zipper pulls on your jackets so you can pull your zipper up and down with mittens. And practice, practice, practice at home so it comes easy when you’re out in single-digit temperatures.
Heated gloves, such as Black Diamond’s, are sweet and they do work, Cami Taysom said. But you can buy a lot of heater packs from Costco before you spend the $350 or more it costs for a pair of battery-operated heated gloves.
If she’s climbing Baldy or the Matterhorn, Cami Taysom wants something synthetic, rather than cotton, next to her skin. Sweating in cotton can cause yeast infections, she said.
Lycra bike shorts can prevent chafing and allow for you to discard top layers as you get hot while still being clothed.
“I like outerwear with zippers on the leg that I can unzip for ventilation. Pants where you can zip off the lower leg, turning them into shorts are also wonderful.”
In winter Cami Taysom touts polypropylene underwear or merino wool underwear. She covers them up with an insulating, moisture-wicking and quick drying layer like Sporthill and a waterproof outer layer.
“I like thigh pockets to store my phone and a knife. And I hook my knife to my pants with a string so I don’t drop and lose it in the snow.”
Pants with built-in gaiters keep snow out of boots, she added.
During cold weather, Taysom typically wears fleece over her upper layer. Wind-stopper fleece is preferable. And she likes hoods that she can wear under or over her helmet. Make sure the sleeves are long enough that they don’t creep up, she added.
Puffer jackets can be broken down to pocket size and weigh nothing. But they don’t insulate as well as other jackets and shouldn’t be exposed to rain, as they are hard to dry.
Consequently, it’s important to have Gore-Tex or something else that can take the rain. Just be sure it’s big enough to layer.
A SOL Escape bivy sack makes an amazing shelter emergency shelter that’s breathable and weatherproof , said Cami Taysom. It’s water- and wind-resistant and reflects heat to keep you warm on a cold night, and it has a drawstring that allows you to seal in warmth. It sports a high-visibility orange color to catch the eye of rescuers, packs down small for easy transportation and it doesn’t get wet inside from condensation like some emergency bivy sacks.
Also useful in an emergency: Tyvek housewrap or nylon tarp with cordage.
In winter, it’s important to have a Therm-a-Rest mattress or some other kind of pad to insulate you from the ground, as the cold will suck the energy out of you.
Fire and Signals
Light My Fire Army Storm Proof matches, kept in a waterproof container with fire starters such as cotton balls, duct tape and Vaseline, are a must. If you trying to signal for help and it’s cloudy, burn something that will create black, rather than grey, smoke.
Flint fire strikers, such as those put out by MSR, are also invaluable.
“I cannot use a lighter, as they get wet, cold—they just don’t work,” said Cami Taysom. “I can use this with my gloves on, drop it in the snow and it still works.”
A glass signal mirror can be used for signaling, as can a whistle. One blast means, “Here I am.” Two, “Let’s get together,” and three, “Come now.”
Orange tape can be used to flag where you are if you need to camp off trail.
First-aid kits are highly personal, Lance Taysom said. Adapting a commercial kit may be an economical way to start your own. The key is to keep it simple, and know how to use what you put in it. And check your kit before and after each trip, replacing the items that were used or need replacement.
“The more you know, the less you need,” he said. “And know your kit. Can you retrieve a band-aid or safety pin in the dark without dumping everything out on the ground? Are your medications organized in clear plastic bags, each one labeled with dosages and cautions?”
One standby to be sure and include? Benadryl, as it can be life saving for those stung by wasp.
The one new piece wilderness rescuers are now suggesting people carry is a tourniquet.
Dr. Will Smith, who practices emergency medicine in Jackson Hole and in the Middle East, said tourniquets are being touted on the battlefield to stop bleeding. One in four of every soldier who died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars could have been saved had they not hemorrhaged to death. And doctors are now beginning to tout the value of tourniquets here in America for saving lives in car accidents and in the wilderness.
You could make your own, Smith said, but commercially available tourniquets are inexpensive and usually better than those fashioned in the wilderness.
You can cut down on weight and utensils by taking a spork, rather than a spoon and fork.
A big pot can be used for melting snow.
Iodine tablets or water filter are necessary for purifying water.
Earplugs keep out wind noise when camping.
Spare batteries are a must for headlamp.
A balaclava that fits under helmet can keep you warm and comfortable in storms.
Most of all, stay put
The one thing that you can’t buy but is good insurance is letting someone know where you’re going and when you plan to return. Carrying personal information, including an emergency contact on your person, can be valuable, as well.
If you’re lost, commit to spending the night while it’s still daylight so you can set up as optimally as possible.
And, if you get lost, stay put.
“Though we’re taught that, only 12 percent of those who get lost do stay put,” said Lance Taysom. “Ninety-two percent of those who are lost are found within 24 hours,j so you really don’t need to worry about eating crickets or catching frogs.”