A Captain assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, died in an off-duty hiking mishap 4 September 2020 in Big Heart Lake, Washington, at 1230 local. The Soldier was hiking with a group of other Soldiers when he slipped on loose rocks and tumbled down a slope, striking several other rocks on the way toward a lake below. He did not resurface. A nearby hiker used a handheld satellite communicator device that allows GPS messaging to emergency services to report the incident. King County search and rescue personnel received the message and launched a team of hikers to investigate the site. Rescue and recovery efforts were hampered by fog, delaying their response until the following day, when they recovered the Soldier's body and made positive identification.
Since FY16, the Army has lost an average of 12 Soldiers a year to off-duty sports, recreation and physical training mishaps. This tragedy was the second fatal off-duty sports, recreation and physical training mishap of FY20 and below the number of fatalities from this time last year.
1. Consult a park ranger.
When deciding where to hike, your best bet is typically going to be a national or state park. They’re staffed by rangers with a wealth of information about what you need to stay safe in that particular location. Give the park office a call before your hike, visit the official National Park Service (NPS) site, or stop by the office before you leave the trailhead.
“By reaching out to the park department, you’ll get a lot of key information about what you might encounter,” Hoyer says, such as “big and little critters,” toxic flora and fauna, and recent changes to the terrain, like fallen trees or rockslides. The park department can tell you how to stay safe in the environment and how to protect it from human damage too.
2. Bring at least one friend.
You and your companions should discuss a few things before you set out, like how strenuous a hike you're all OK with, the general itinerary, and an emergency plan. Those last two deserve a bit more detail, so let's get to it.
3. Create an itinerary and share it with someone outside of the group.
Draw up a rough plan that all members of your party agree upon well before you leave the trailhead. Include your starting point and time, destination, route, and anticipated finish time. When calculating timing, keep in mind that it can be really tough to predict how long a hike will take when on unfamiliar terrain.
Share this plan with at least one person not hiking with you. You can also leave this info with the park office. If you don’t return on time, someone will be able to relay this key information to a search party if necessary.
4. Agree on an emergency plan.
Part of your plan for any hike should be what you’re going to do in an emergency situation. Before heading out, know how you will call or send for help in the unlikely event something bad happens. (Again, the park service is a prime resource here).
These are the key questions your plan needs to answer:
•Will there be reliable cell service? Is someone bringing a fully charged phone and a portable charger?
•If not: Is someone bringing a personal locator beacon, satellite messaging device that can get emergency messages out by pinging satellites with your GPS data, or satellite phone?
•If there’s an emergency, does the park have its own emergency number, or should you call 9-1-1?
•If you can’t transmit a message, which one of you will volunteer to go get help?
5. Prepare for the weather.
This goes beyond just checking the weather before your hike. Talk to the rangers or consult the park site to find out what inclement weather events are most likely at this time of year and how to stay safe in them. Thunder and lightning are common dangers. If you get caught in them, the NPS advises making your way towards shelter and spreading out in case one person is struck (unlikely, but still). Also, avoid high and open areas (like boulders or fields), tall objects like trees, bodies of water, and metal.
Even small changes in weather can make your whole hike much riskier because of how they affect the terrain.
6. Pack the 10 Essentials.
The 10 Essentials is a list of emergency provisions originally created by Pacific Northwest hiking and conservation non-profit the Mountaineers. According to the Mountaineers, the objective of the 10 Essentials is to ensure that you can respond to an emergency and spend at least one night outdoors. It’s a classic reference point in the hiking community for beginners and experts alike.
Here’s NPS’s expanded version of the 10 Essentials:
1.First aid kit
2.Navigation: map, compass, and GPS
3.Sun protection: sunscreen, sunglasses, hat
4.Insulation: jacket/raincoat, extra layers
5.Illumination: flashlight, lantern, or headlamp
6.Fire: matches, lighter, fire starters
7.Repair kit: duct tape and multifunctional tool
8.Nutrition: at least an extra day’s supply of no-cook, nutritious food
9.Hydration: water and/or means of water purification
10.Emergency shelter: tent, space blanket, tarp, bivy (as in, emergency shelter for a sleeping bag)
The list is non-exhaustive and adaptable, so keep the circumstances of your hike in mind when assembling your pack.
7. Customize your first aid kit.
Having a premade first aid kit containing items like adhesive and elastic wrap bandages and antiseptic. This will help you deal with the most common hiking injuries, like scrapes, ankle rolls, and bug bites. You can find a first aid kit at a drugstore or online. Bring any medications you take on a regular or emergency basis, like insulin if you use it to manage diabetes or an EpiPen if you’re allergic to bees.
8. Buy proper hiking boots and socks.
Properly fitting footwear with good cushioning and grip is essential for avoiding issues like rolling an ankle due to improper support. It will also help you prevent one of the most painful hiking hindrances: blisters. Avoid cotton socks. They retain moisture from sweaty feet, causing skin to blister more easily. Instead, opt for hiking socks made from materials like wool or synthetics made to wick away moisture and ease friction. To help keep your feet dry during your hike take off your boots and socks when you sit to rest.
Always bring blister dressings in your first aid kit, too. As soon as you feel discomfort stop and inspect your feet for signs of a nascent blister, like redness and irritation. And if you’re breaking in new boots or have a problem area that tends to blister easily, consider applying blister dressings before you start hiking.
9. Protect yourself from the sun.
Your first line of defense here is good timing. To avoid the peak hours of sun and heat, most experienced hikers set out in the early morning or late afternoon. Also, heed the weather report. If it’s going to be 100 degrees and clear skies, it’s not the best day for a four-hour trek through shade-free terrain.
Cover exposed skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has at least SPF 30, and don’t forget to reapply based on the product’s instructions. Wear sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat to shade your face and neck. And to protect yourself from heat illness, which can range from miserable (heat rash, heat exhaustion) to life-threatening (heat stroke), the NPS recommends staying hydrated and taking frequent breaks, preferably in the shade.
Finally, pay attention to how you’re feeling and take action at the first sign of a problem. “You can pick up on the signs that you're getting too hot or dehydrated before they become a real big issue. If you or someone in your party experiences symptoms of heat illness like headache, dizziness, nausea, and confusion, the NPS recommends stopping. Then you should move the affected person into a cool and shady area if possible, call or send for help, give them water to drink, and douse them with water as well. (By the way, if you’re hiking at high elevation, be on the lookout for altitude sickness, too.)
10. Bring extra water or a purification system.
The NPS recommends drinking about one-half liter to one liter per hour while active outdoors. The exact amount you need will depend on the circumstances of your hike as well as your usual water intake. While you can bring all your water with you (especially on a short hike), if you want to save weight, find out if there will be places to refill your bottle with potable water and if there are any natural water sources along the trail. (If you’re visiting a national or state park, the rangers or site should have this info.)
If there are natural sources of water, you can take advantage (and lighten your pack!) by bringing purification and disinfection materials. You can use a heat-safe container and heat source to boil water, according to the NPS. You can also use a physical filter to remove larger contaminants plus a disinfecting tablet or liquid to kill microscopic pathogens.
Never drink unpurified water while on a hike (or otherwise). Even if it’s the most crystalline spring water you’ve ever seen, it could contain potentially harmful pathogens, according to the NPS.
11. Stay on the trail.
For the sake of your own safety, the natural resources, other hikers, and a potential search party, “it is paramount that you stay on that trail. Your odds of encountering a risky obstacle go up when you step off the path. It’s also easy to get turned around.
Veering off the trail also leads to what rangers call “social trails,” or unofficial routes carved into the wilderness by wayward hikers, Hoyer explains. Social trails can trample vegetation, disturb animals, cause erosion, and endanger hikers after you who might think it’s the right way.
12. Go for a small trial hike before taking on a major one.
Some things are hard to figure out until you’re actually out there. Go for a modest hike before a major one, especially if you’re new to hiking. A modest hike allows you to shake out your gear, feel out the weight of your pack, break in your boots, and figure out how much food and water you consume as an individual.
13. Be extra careful on the second half of the hike.
The second half of a trip or the end of the day is usually when accidents like falls, slips, and trips happen. Your energy levels are lower, your leg muscles are fatigued, and your mind might be more focused on getting to the finish than the next step. Take your time and be extra careful with your footing.
14. Be ready to turn back.
You can look at a map and talk to folks all day. But when the rubber meets the road and you have to make decisions, you’ve got to be willing to turn around.