I’ve taken my NOLS Wilderness First Responder course, but to be honest it didn’t prepare me for things that happen on typical weekends. And while sometimes I invite a friend along on my adventures, they aren’t always better equipped with the knowledge it takes to outsmart the outdoors.
A couple summers ago, I fell victim to my first set of stitches from an entirely mundane mountain bike crash. I had to bike miles back to my car with an open elbow — completely unequipped to take care of myself on the way to the ER. Minor, sure, but the incident left me wondering about how prepared I actually am.
To find out and answer some burning outdoor-safety questions, I caught up with Adventure Out survival expert Jack Harrison.
What should we always have on us, even for a day hike? I’m thinking snacks, safety kit, extra water, etc.
And our best tool we have is our brain and our ability to learn about the place we are going, including the hazards that come with that particular place. When it comes down to the gear itself, I always have water, food, knife, compass and a first-aid kit. We should always have water and an understanding of basic first aid. It blows my mind that people go backpacking without this.
Is there anything you’d recommend specifically for women adventuring alone?
Male or female, you should always be prepared for whatever nature could throw at you. I look at men and woman as equally capable survivalists, so this question is geared more towards physical harm from another human rather than an animal encounter.
[For] a female, I might say carry some additional self defense. If a gun makes you more comfortable and present, then carry a gun; if it’s mace, then carry mace. Take whatever will put your mind at ease so that you can better enjoy your time outside.
Say I’m tubing a river in a cotton T-shirt at 10,000 feet (it’s happened). When I fall in the icy water and manage to drag myself out, do I take it off or keep it on for warmth?
I personally wear wool. There are many people out there who argue that wool retains 70 percent of its insulating value when wet, and others who disagree. In my survival experience — my first survival trip was at age 12, and I’m [in my late 20s] now — cotton has little or no value as an insulator, dry or wet. Wool is amazing in wet weather, and if you’re in dry weather, then down is king.
Say I’ve fallen off my mountain bike into a cactus (it’s also happened). Do I leave the spikes in or take them out myself?
The answer to that is completely situational. This question is hard because every cactus is different; some have hair-like spines that would require tweezers, and others have large spines that can cause serious damage.
If the spike is in your eye or your jugular, then I would say leave it in for the doctors to remove (and get there as fast as you can). If it’s just a flesh wound, then pull them out and dress anything that could become infected.
Please tell us we don’t have to pee on ourselves when a snake bites us.
If it makes you feel better to pee on yourself after a snake bites you, then do it! But I think you are confused with stepping on urchin spines, a tropical hazard for surfers who are walking on reef, in which urine actually does relieve pain and prevents infection — to an extent.
What phone numbers should we actually have in our phones in case we need help?
Never depend on a cell phone, and always have backup plans if things go wrong. 911 is the universal number to call in an emergency, regardless of where you are in the country.
What do you do if you’ve hiked too far or become lost and night is coming?
Take a deep breath, stay put, build a shelter and/or a fire and signal for rescue. Panic is often our first instinctual response, but if we let panic take over, there is a good chance we will get more lost, injure ourselves or somehow worsen our situation.
Our biggest tool as humans is our mind, so think positive and take care of your biological survival needs.
If you are lost, do you stay where you are and wait for help or try to get out on your own?
Stay put and signal for rescue. Survival entertainment shows teach you otherwise, but that’s why it’s entertainment! Never do anything you see on TV. Some shows are more informative and valid than others, but please stay put.
I know personal-locator devices are pricey and come with subscriptions. Do you recommend one anyway?
To be honest, I don’t use them and know very little about them. My school of thought is tell at least three people where you are going and when you will check in or return. Tell them if they don’t hear from you by such-and-such date to call search and rescue.
It also seems very logical to carry a map and compass when you’re headed way deep into the mountains, right? And if you’re going to carry a map and compass, it’s good to learn how to use them. I like to break mine out while I am taking a break from hiking and orient myself, so that my chances of getting lost go down. It’s an amazingly cool skill to have once you learn it.
I carry when I camp alone in the woods, but in all honesty, what is the best deterrent for wild animals? Guns, bear spray, mace?
Simple tips on reducing your chances of a bear encounter while camping:
- Don’t go to the bathroom within 50 yards of where you’re camped. Store toothpaste, deodorant and food up in a tree, away from your tent.
- If you’re hiking in bear country, make noise while you walk, wear a bell, carry an air horn and use it every once in a while. Make sure the bear knows you’re coming.
- Respect them: Know when they have their cubs, when they are most active and what types of habitat they like to hang out in. The more you know about the animal, the more likely [it is that] you won’t run into one.
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