Surviving outdoors when things go wrong


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A few weeks ago I wrote about how to prepare for winter recreation. But even when properly prepared, things can go wrong. You might get lost or injured and unable to continue on the trail. Your bike may suffer a flat or other malfunction, or the storm you didn’t think was coming until tomorrow is overhead, leaving you out there.

What are you going to do?

The most common mistakes people make are being too reliant on cell phones — it likely won’t work when you most need it — underestimating how long the hike/climb/ride will take, and not telling anyone where you’re going or when you’ll be back. Some don’t hike in groups or dress appropriately for the season. And then there’s the lack of “situational awareness,” including the current and forecast weather.

Skee Hipszky, of the El Paso County Search and Rescue team (SAR), says the best way to survive is to be prepared. If you’re stranded and unprepared in winter weather, your chances of survival are not good. While most search and rescue missions are completed in 24 hours — assuming you told someone where you were going — Hipszky says bad weather, distance from roads and other factors could push rescue times up to 72 hours.

Hipkzy offers the following advice to avoid having your winter recreation outing turn into a disaster:

Tell someone where you’re going, when you expect to be back and give them your vehicle information, including your license plate number.

Don’t go alone. Groups of five should be the minimum, because if one person is unable to continue, two can stay with them while the other two can go for help. Don’t get in over your head. Know when to quit.

Wear the proper clothing, dress in layers. And stay warm and dry. Something as simple as a large trash bag — 30 gallon size or larger — can help preserve body heat and keep you dry.

Bring food and water. Of the two, water is more important, since you can survive longer without food than without water. And don’t eat snow; it’s cold and will lower your core temperature. Let it melt before consuming it.

If you’re lost, STAY PUT. A moving target is harder to find. Not too long ago it took several days for SAR to find a missing person because they kept moving. At times, they arrived at a spot where the missing person had been only hours before.

Beware that pre-existing medical conditions can be exacerbated by exertion at altitude. Diabetics will need to take into consideration calorie intake adjustments. Bring essential medications in case you’re stranded for an extended period.

If you’re going cross-country skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing, check the avalanche forecast at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website. Checking not just for the day you’re going out, but also for a few days prior to your trip.

Bring an avalanche beacon, and learn how to use it, too. If you’re carrying a Personal Locator Beacon, make sure it’s appropriately registered and activated. Some PLB’s, such as Spot and Garmin communicator devices, are subscription-based. Make sure you’ve paid your subscription fees, otherwise it’s possible no one will respond when you activate it in an emergency. Other PLBs such as those by ACR don’t have subscription fees, but do have to be registered with the government, and re-registered every three years.

The Washington Trails Association has a "10 Essentials for Winter Hiking" list on their website, or you can find a slightly different take on what to carry:

I’ve only scratched the surface in this blog, but hopefully it’ll get you thinking about being ready in case the worst happens.

Happy Trails!

Bob Falcone is a firefighter, arson investigator, non-profit board president, college instructor, photographer, hiker and small business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for 23 years. You can follow him on Twitter @hikingbob, Facebook, or visit his website E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to


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