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Backcountry Safety

Backcountry Safety
Tips for Staying Safe in the Great Outdoors
Written by: Chris Broughton-Bossong

There is an endless list of reasons that people feel motivated to get back to nature. Whatever it is that brings us to venture off the beaten path, it is generally to find some kind of reprieve from our daily grind and escape the worries of the week.  The best way to enjoy our outings as much as possible is to stay as safe as possible.  Whether we are veteran backpackers or getting ready for our first day hike, we all need to keep safety in mind and remind ourselves that we are out of our element.

Even though it is bears and broken bones that seem to get the most attention with regards to backcountry emergencies, they comprise a small minority of the backcountry emergencies responded to each year in the US.  In general it is injuries related to exposure that pose statistically greater risk to us when we are in the outdoors.  Dehydration, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), hyper and hypothermia (elevated and diminished body temperatures), superficial burns, sprains, and blisters are not only some of the most common conditions we can face but are also some of the easiest to avoid.

Dehydration is an easy pitfall to avoid but we often don’t realize how effortlessly our bodies consume water.  Of course, everyone realizes there is fluid loss through perspiration. But think about exhaling on a mirror; the fog that it leaves behind is our exhaled water vapor.  So the more we breathe, the faster we can dehydrate.  Coupled with our body’s consumption of fluids, is our management of critical nutrients and electrolytes. Our body does not store natural spring water, but rather stores and uses water mixed with sodium (salt) and other electrolytes and nutrients.  So, the activity that is causing us to breath heavier is also causing us to burn more fuel and thus use up more sugars, which will eventually cause us to “crash” or become hypoglycemic. It is not only important to make sure that we are well hydrated before and during our excursion but that the fluids we drink are actually helping to replace some of the nutrients we are using up (salts, sugars, vitamins, etc.).  In short, if you’re not drinking regularly, you’re not drinking enough.

As most of us already know, sweating is our body’s primary method of cooling down or thermoregulation.  As effortless as this function may be, it is still something we need to pay attention to during our treks.  As we discussed above, if the fluids and nutrients we sweat and breathe are not replenished, this will eventually cause us to “crash”. This also increases our chances of facing an inability to cool down (heat exhaustion and heat stroke, respectively).  On the opposite end of this spectrum is hypothermia or a decreased body temperature.  Although adequate heed to the weather and proper layering are the best ways to avoid this, one slippery slope is when we begin to exert ourselves on a chilly day. We are bundled up, start hiking, start warming up, feel ourselves start to sweat, peel off some layers and are now damp and more exposed.  Remember, it is much easier to retain body heat than it is to regain it.  If it’s hot, stay hydrated.  If it’s cold, stay insulated.

While we are thinking about thermoregulation, consider the most common first-degree burn suffered outdoors: the sunburn. As with any burn, sunburn means it is more likely that our body’s surface temperature is increased as well.  Thankfully this is perhaps one of the most easily avoided injuries. The simple solution: keep covered with clothing or protective lotion.

Lastly we come to the sprains, strains, and blisters. We are most commonly predisposed to sprains and strains when we are traversing rough or uneven terrain and push ourselves too far (too fast or while fatigued), especially if we are not in properly designed footwear.  Remember, you are there to have fun.  Slow your pace a bit and pay close attention to both footing and handholds. Blisters can be avoided with footwear designed for the task at hand.  The great thing about blisters is that they don’t sneak up on you.  We will almost always feel a rubbing or chafing that leads to the blister forming.  When you feel that you are getting a “hotspot,” take a second and loosen your boots if need be. Increased pressure (shoe tied too tight) + motion (hiking/walking, etc.) = more friction (blisters). Apply moleskin, duct tape, or nail polish, prior to the blister forming, to reduce friction on the skin.  Treat the blister before it’s even there.

So in conclusion, when we take the time to listen to our bodies when we feel thirsty or worn down, chilly or starting to heat up, soreness or aching setting in, we are able to prevent or inadvertently treat many of the most common back country calamities that we are faced with.   Although there some schools of thought that toughing through it is what it’s all about, I believe preventing incidents and injury so that we can make the most of our valuable time spent with nature is what will keep us coming back.  The safer we can stay, the happier we will be and the longer we can enjoy our outdoor adventures, whatever they may be.

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