Plan to survive your hike: Essential planning tips

Prioritise and Plan to Survive Your Hike

On a sunny afternoon you head off on a day walk to check out a waterfall. It is only a couple of hours so you don’t take any water. You are thinking you can always have a drink at the end from the waterfall itself. Along the way you see a cool looking peak just across a small valley so decide to check it. It’s steep and overgrown in the gully and before long you’ve lost your sense of direction. Crap, you have no water. Realising you are a bit lost you start to frantically look around for a high point to get your bearings.

This is how many survival stories start. While things like falling down a cliff or being bitten by a snake can and do happen, even to the most experienced hikers, these are rare and unlikely events. In most instances people get lost or find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation in the bush due to being under-prepared for their trip or by making poor decisions.

Time management – a life skill

Time management and developing priorities of effort to achieve success is important in many areas of life including bush survival. Whilst highly regarded in most walks of life and sometimes thought to be ubiquitous among high achievers, having good time management skills and being able to identify and prioritise your efforts doesn’t often have an immediate impact on your chances of physical survival. In a bush survival situation, lost, maybe injured, every decision and every action can radically alter your chances of getting home safely.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are lost, injured or even just separated from your gear, then being able to rapidly assess your situation and make a plan of action can mean the difference between life and death.

There are some generic rules for survival that are mostly agreed upon and there is also essential equipment to carry when you venture into the wilderness, having this equipment and understanding the rules for survival can dramatically enhance your safety if you are lost or injured in the bush. There are also commonsense things to do before leaving home, before setting off from the carpark or trail-head that can have improve odds of survival if something goes wrong.

In this article I will go over all of them, it is up to you to carry the equipment and take the necessary steps before leaving for a hike and to decide if you need/want more information on some of the skills and knowledge mentioned here.

Plan your hike, before setting foot on the trail

Without carrying any special equipment or having any survival skills doing these four things dramatically increase your chances of survival if you get lost or injured in a wilderness area.

  1. Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back. If something goes wrong, then having somebody to raise the alarm if you don’t return in time and where to look for you are both vitally important.
  2. Check the weather forecast. Even if nothing else goes wrong then unexpected bad weather can make time in the outdoors far less enjoyable.
  3. Do your research. It is surprisingly common for people to set off on a hike or other adventure with little knowledge of the area they are going into, the weather, the terrain, how long the walk is and so forth. Do the basic research to at least know what clothing is appropriate, how long you will be out there, and how much water to carry.
  4. Make a note of where the trail-head or carpark is. This last one requires a little explanation. Wherever it is that you park your car or where the road ends and the trail begins it is worth taking note of which direction you go when you leave your car/the road. This does not need to be a specific bearing from a compass or exact coordinate from a GPS or map, more an understanding of the general direction you are travelling and therefore which direction the road is behind you. As an example, if I drive north along the highway and turn left (west) down a side road to get to the trail-head and the trail I go for a walk on leaves the carpark going north-west then I know that my car is south east of me and the highway is to my east. This knowledge can pay dividends should you leave the trail and become lost.

Essential survival gear

You might not need everything on this list of ten essentials every time you step outside. It is more of a systems-based approach than a list of individual items but you would be well advised to consider this on any outing longer than a couple of hours.

  1. Navigation topographic map and compass, GPS. It is worth noting that smartphones nearly all have GPS chips in them now so will give you a location even without phone service. While I don’t endorse the use of smartphones as your sole navigation tool, there are some great GPS apps out there with excellent mapping. Just be aware you won’t be able to download maps in the field without phone service so download maps of your area for offline use before leaving home.
  2. Sun protection – sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, and appropriate clothing
  3. Insulation – extra clothing such as a warm jacket, and rain gear. Exposure kills.
  4. Illumination – headlamp or torch. This can be a literal lifesaver if you find yourself out after dark.
  5. First aid equipment – snake bandages, haemorrhage control, any medications you might need and insect repellent.
  6. Fire – the ability to make fire has been a central tenet to human survival for millennia, thankfully there is no need to rub sticks together if you carry some matches or a lighter.
  7. Hydration – always carry water, even on short trips. As a rule I like to carry 3 litres for a whole day in the field (as a minimum starting point) this may be overkill for some people but I can’t overstate the importance of carrying at least some water.
  8. Repair kits and tools – for more gear intensive outings it is worth having a multi-tool as well other items that you can use to repair damaged gear. Pro tip– duct tape and cable ties can fix just about everything in a pinch. Also, a good knife is always a handy thing to carry when in the bush.
  9. Emergency shelter – tarp, space blanket, large garbage bag, or if you know that you will be out overnight then a tent or bivvy bag. Once again exposure kills so the ability to maintain your body temperature is paramount.
  10. Nutrition- for longer trips always carry an extra day’s food for layover days or in case of bad weather.

This list is not exhaustive nor is it specific but is a good starting point for considering the gear you might want to carry to ensure your safety in the wilderness. Some experts recommend having duplicates of the Essentials in different sized kits: in pockets, on key rings, in pocket kits, belt pouches, belt packs, day packs, and backpacks. Check out the recommended gear list for your day and overnight hikes.

The rules of survival

The ‘rules’ of survival are well established as a generic set of priorities for surviving in the bush. While every situation is different, these priorities are a good starting point for any survival situation.

  1. Shelter – This can be surprising to a lot of people but shelter from the elements and in some cases shelter from insects or dangerous animals – snakes, spiders, is often the highest priority. In most environments you can survive for several days without water and you can go weeks without food but in a lot of instances exposure to the elements can debilitate or kill you within hours. In a hot environment it is imperative to seek shelter from the sun and wind as it will dehydrate you and cause heat exhaustion leading to heat stroke in a frighteningly short amount of time. Even the smallest amount of shade under a tree, rock overhang or using a shelter of some sort is valuable. In colder climates the wind and temperature will suck the heat out of your body causing you to become hypothermic. Once again even the smallest amount of shelter, particularly from the wind, is vital to maintain your body’s temperature. A rock shelf or clump of bushes can act as a wind break and piling leaves on the ground and on top of you can provide valuable insulation. Even in temperate climates the midday sun can be taxing and the nights bitterly cold.
  2. Water – Without clean drinking water you will become dehydrated, effecting your ability to move around and think clearly. 3 days without water is often cited as the maximum time you can survive without water. It can be far shorter if you are active or exposed to the elements.
  3. Food – Having energy from food is important to maintain not only your physical strength but also your mental state and many people with experience in survival situations state that the will to survive is as important as anything else. However on a purely physiological level you can survive without food for extended periods of time and the effort spent on hunting and gathering food should always be considered as secondary to building and maintaining shelter from the elements and finding water.

Putting it all together

Accidents and injuries can happen but usually it is a series of small things that lead to people getting in trouble in the bush. Often it is the small things that will enhance management of the situation too.

Should you ever find yourself in a survival situation then hopefully you have let someone know of your plans before leaving home, noted the location of your car at the trail-head and are carrying some basic gear to help you survive. If you have done this then you have given yourself the best chance of getting home safely up to this point.

Regardless of prior preparation or the gear you have with you, it is now time to prioritise your survival needs and determine an action plan to survive. Most situations can be survived if the risk is recognised early and you make the right decision in that moment.

So, you have lost the track. You have wandered off track and lost your sense of direction. It is getting late and you are not sure how much further you need to go. Whatever it is that makes you think you might be in trouble, first thing to do is stop. Just stop, even if only for a few minutes and consider your situation.

Find a spot in the shade and get out of the elements to assess the situation. Do you know where you are? What are your options? What gear do you have with you? Take a moment to calm yourself (if needed) and then try to come up with a good plan of action remembering the ‘rules’ of survival and weighing them against your present situation.

Once you have a plan, its time to act on it. Don’t get so focused on your plan that you lose awareness of your situation or environment. Your circumstances can change so you may need to regularly assess and alter your course of action. Your plan might be to head uphill to a vantage point to identify landmarks. When you reach your vantage point you can see a storm rolling in, so you need to alter your plans to seek shelter instead. You come across a cliff line or river on your way, don’t take any unnecessary risk by trying to scale a cliff or swim across a river.

Making calm and considered decisions is key to surviving the wilderness.

There are many specialist skills that set outdoor professionals apart from the rest of us. We don’t all have to be experts to be safe in the bush. Make sure you prepare before stepping foot on the trail and carry the gear you need for what you are doing.

Thank you to Way-finder Field Skills for writing this article. If you are looking to improve your navigation skills and are based in NSW, check them out.

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