Safe travel starts with advance planning
There have been a spate of high profile searches for missing hikers in the Adirondacks this summer, most of which have ended with positive outcomes.
And while the state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers are often quick to rescue those who get injured, once a person is lost there is almost always a common thread: those hikers are unprepared.
Richard Guinan, a hiker who was missing for two days on St. Regis Mountain managed to survive his ordeal, but rangers stated he was unprepared. And just this week, the body of Alex Stevens was found after he was missing for two weeks. The last people to see Stevens said he had shorts and sandals on, hardly appropriate attire for fall weather in the Adirondacks.
But what does it mean to “be prepared?”
The first thing one should do when planning a hiking or backcountry trip should be obvious: Figure out where you want to go.
Once that’s done, make an itinerary, and — just as important — stick to it.
There are myriad forms floating around the internet and Facebook which have fill-in-the-blank lines that provide a solid way to let others know where you’re planning on going. But that information is useless if it’s sitting on your kitchen counter or if you leave it with an unreliable friend.
An itinerary can be elaborate or basic, but the necessary information includes where you’re going, when you’ll be back and who you are with. It’s helpful to include more information such as make/model/color of your car and what you’ll be wearing, and the particular trailhead you’ll be leaving from if there’s more than one option.
The itinerary should be given to someone you trust, not the bartender you just met last night. And the person doesn’t even have to be close by, just so long as they’re reliable enough to pay attention to when you’re supposed to return.
Something as simple as a text message to a relative can be sufficient, but make sure the person you’re trusting knows to call 911 or DEC dispatch if you don’t return on time.
As a related note, the itinerary you plan may or may not work out. The key is to not change it too much. For instance, if you plan to hike Cascade and Porter mountains, let your contact person know that you might only do one of those peaks depending on the amount of time you have. Just don’t decide to go do Mount Marcy if your itinerary says Cascade and Porter.
Once you’ve decided where to go and let someone who will follow up know, it’s time to pack your bag.
Make no mistake, there are essentially no hikes in the Adirondacks that don’t require you to bring some supplies in case of emergency. And the longer the hike, the more you should be prepared.
First and foremost, water and food are needed, and it’s better to bring extra than to run out. For water, pack what you think you need and then add some more. Same goes for food: Make sure to bring enough to eat and then think about what you’d need to get through an unplanned night in the woods. A couple of extra granola bars could provide much-needed calories in the event you get stranded.
Next up is a map and compass, and no, your phone does not count. In fact, consider it dead weight because if the screen cracks or the battery dies or it gets wet, that’s exactly what it is.
Guinan was relying on his phone and was lucky enough to get a call out to his wife before the battery died, but in all other ways, his phone was useless.
The nice thing about carrying a paper map and decent compass is that there are no batteries to die. But more important than having these items with you is a basic understanding of how to use them. Can you orient your map to north? Do you know how to set the declination on the compass? If not, take a class, look it up online or ask a more experienced hiker. Most importantly, don’t wait until you’re lost to try and figure this stuff out.
Any time you go into the woods, you should also have a first-aid kit with you. This doesn’t have to be anything serious or heavy. There’s no need to carry a defibrillator into the woods, but some band aids and gauze can relieve most of the common ailments hikers will endure, and mole skin or duct tape can help with blisters.
In addition to the first-aid kit, be sure to bring some sunglasses and sunscreen in case you’re left exposed to the elements. Sunscreen may not be necessary in the winter, but snow blindness can be debilitating to a serious extent. Especially in winter, when the sun comes up much later, it can be easy to forget sunglasses or goggles so throw them in your pack before leaving the house.
The weather this fall has been unseasonably warm, and that may lead to some pacification in terms of bringing extra clothing with you, but even when the sun is shining and the days are warm, night time temperatures can plummet. And if you sweat a lot or get wet in any way, then an extra set of clothes can save your life. A fleece sweater weighs basically nothing, but can keep you warm and provide some much-needed comfort if you get lost, and with the impending onset of winter, a wool hat and extra socks are also recommended.
Some experts recommend bringing tools and a repair kit with you, but for a day hike a knife or multi-tool is likely all you’ll need. Combined with duct tape, a multi-tool can fix a blown-out boot or backpack strap and keep you moving along. For longer trips, consider bringing a tent patch kit or something similar. It’s also important to bring some sort of shelter with you. Whether it’s a space blanket, tarp, bivy sack or tent, be sure to put something into your pack that will keep you out of the wind and weather. Just remember that a space blanket, while cheap and light, won’t really do a whole lot for you unless you have other forms of insulation, such as a blanket or sleeping bag.
The last two items that are necessary for any backcountry excursion deal with light and heat. A headlamp is always needed, even in summer when the days are long. I once had to hike down Noonmark Mountain in the dark, using just a Bic lighter to show the way. It was not fun.
Headlamps and flashlights don’t need to be expensive, but they do need working batteries. An old trick is to make sure all of your electronics (headlamp, GPS) use the same battery type so you don’t have to make that distinction. And with the expansion of LED lights, even a small, single battery headlamp can provide plenty of illumination.
Last but not least, is to be sure and include a fire starting kit in your pack. Fires are not allowed in the Eastern High Peaks, but if it’s going to save your life, then risk the ticket.
A fire starting kit shouldn’t just be a lighter thrown into your bag, nor should it be two sticks that you plan to rub together.
Your kit should include a couple of ways to create a spark, including a butane lighter, storm matches and/or a flint and steel. There should also be some tinder such as dryer lint, birch bark or roofing tar paper. The latter two are water-resistant, and dryer lint can be mixed with some petrolium jelly to make it easier to start.
The key to being prepared is not to just wing it. Plan ahead and stick to your plan. If you plan for the worst, then anything less will be a treat.
Justin Levine is the coordinator of Search and Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks, a volunteer SAR team based in Saranac Lake.