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This Study Predicts Who Is Most Likely to Get Hurt in the Wilderness

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A long trail is just that—long—and a lot can happen on it. Hikers can twist their ankles, slowing them down or stranding them. They can contract waterborne illnesses, leaving them shuttling between their tent and the privy (or a cathole if they’re unlucky). A run of bad luck might leave them limping; really bad luck could end their hike. Suffer a serious accident, and a person might end up on an express flight to the emergency room—or worse.

Backpackers come in all shapes and sizes, and with a variety of backgrounds and physical situations comes a variety of different risks. Thanks to a 2018 survey of more than 700 hikers on the John Muir Trail, we have an idea of how some of those factors play into who is most likely to get hurt or sick or needs to be evacuated on the trail, and how we can reduce—or at least prepare for—those risks. 

First off, the study didn’t find sex to be a determinant of getting hurt or sick on the trail. While other authors have pointed out that men are more prone to taking risks, all sexes, it seems, were equally susceptible to mishaps on the JMT.

So what characteristics do make a person more likely to suffer medical events on the trail? The study singles out three factors that were correlated with injury and illness. The first was age, and not in the way you might think: Older hikers reported fewer adverse events on the JMT. One explanation for this might be that they have more years of experience on the trail and are better equipped to identify and avoid risky situations. A study on search and rescue missions in the Polish Tatra mountains also revealed that younger tourists were more likely to need help due to inexperience and lack of equipment. 

When Dr. Sue Spano, the lead author of the JMT survey paper, associate professor of clinical emergency medicine, and program director of the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship at University of California, San Francisco, first saw the results showing that age was a protective factor against injury, she says she didn’t know what to make of them.

Given that the majority of reported injuries were to the feet and legs, Spano suggests that because older backpackers tend to use trekking poles—which are correlated with a reduced rate of lower extremity injuries—they might be more protected.

“Hiking pole use is good for preventing strain and reducing injury to lower extremities,” Spano says. “And I don’t know a lot of younger people out there hiking with poles; they just don’t feel they need them.”

Wrapping an ankle
Wrapping an ankle
(Photo: CasarsaGuru / E+ via Getty)

The second factor that the team found that correlated with risk of injury was body mass index. Often abbreviated as BMI, body mass index is a measure of the size of the human body, calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms dividing by the square of their height in meters. While it’s often used to categorize people as healthy, underweight, overweight, or obese, the measurement doesn’t directly address body fat, composition, or physical health. Spano and her fellow researchers found that hikers with higher BMI were, in general, more likely to suffer injuries or need evacuation from the trail. Perhaps surprisingly, Spano and her coauthors did not find that how much a hiker trained for the JMT in advance of their trip significantly affected their likelihood of injury or illness, though it did affect how hard they perceived their trip to be.

Finally, there’s pack weight. The study’s authors found that base pack weight correlated with an increased risk of illness and injury; the heavier the pack, the greater the likelihood of morbidity. The authors theorize that the increasing popularity of lightweight backpacking may be responsible for decreasing rates of injury in the backpacking community. Forty-five percent of the JMT respondents carried packs with a base weight of 20 pounds or less, but only 4.5 percent had an “ultralight” base weight of 10 pounds or less. (A single respondent reported a “superultralight” base weight of less than 5 pounds, though it’s worth mentioning that someone carrying that little gear likely exposes themselves to increased environmental risk.)

“I personally think [with the caveat that there are not] definitive data, having lighter-weight gear is going to lessen common types of accidents that you see, or the impact of those accidents,” Spano says. “If you have a fall on the trail and you have a 15-pound bag, it’s a lot different than if you have a 50-pound bag.”

So on the JMT, there appear to be three factors that correlate with increased risk of injury (younger age, higher BMI, and higher BPW), and one of the three that correlates with increased risk of evacuation (BMI). One of these factors is non-modifiable—you can’t change your age, at least not on command. BMI and base weight are both modifiable risk factors to some extent, though cutting base weight costs money and reducing your own weight can come with a different set of hazards and is best done in consultation with a medical professional. 

Still, hikers who are young, old, big, and small have successfully completed long trails, and hiking involves more risk that’s unrelated to those physical factors. Dr. Miles McDonough, who is an emergency medicine resident at UCSF Fresno, commented on education being another way to reduce risk in general. “I would direct readers to local educational resources (such as hiking and mountaineering clubs) as well as wilderness first aid courses,” he said. In the end, the more of your own safety you can take charge of, the better.

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Family

Teaching Kids About Wilderness Safety and Survival

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Exploring the great outdoors offers numerous benefits for children, from fostering a love of nature to promoting physical activity and learning valuable life skills. However, venturing into the wilderness also comes with inherent risks. Teaching kids about wilderness safety and survival not only empowers them to enjoy outdoor adventures responsibly but also prepares them to handle unexpected situations effectively.

Understanding the Environment

The first step in teaching kids about wilderness safety is helping them understand the environment they’ll be exploring. Discuss potential hazards such as uneven terrain, wildlife encounters, and changes in weather conditions. Encourage curiosity about nature while emphasizing the importance of respecting its power and unpredictability.

Hiking Essentials

Before setting out on a hike, ensure that your children are equipped with the essential gear and knowledge to stay safe. Teach them to dress appropriately for the weather, wear sturdy footwear, and carry essentials such as water, snacks, a map, and a whistle. Emphasize the importance of staying on marked trails and never wandering off alone.

Navigation Skills

Teach children basic navigation skills to help them stay oriented in the wilderness. Show them how to read a map and use a compass, pointing out landmarks and trail markers along the way. Encourage them to pay attention to their surroundings and make mental notes of key features to aid in navigation.

Emergency Procedures

Prepare children for emergencies by teaching them essential survival skills and emergency procedures. Demonstrate how to signal for help using a whistle or mirror, build a shelter using natural materials, and start a fire safely. Discuss what to do in case they become lost or separated from the group, emphasizing the importance of staying calm and staying put to make rescue easier.

Wildlife Safety

Educate children about the wildlife they may encounter in the wilderness and how to coexist safely. Teach them to observe animals from a distance and never approach or attempt to feed them. Discuss how to react in the event of a wildlife encounter, such as backing away slowly from bears or standing tall and making noise to deter smaller animals.

Water Safety

If your outdoor adventures include activities near water, such as swimming or boating, it’s crucial to teach children about water safety. Emphasize the importance of wearing a life jacket, swimming with a buddy, and avoiding strong currents or dangerous water conditions. Teach them how to recognize signs of drowning and how to perform basic water rescue techniques if necessary.

Leave No Trace Principles

Instill in children the importance of practicing Leave No Trace principles to minimize their impact on the environment. Teach them to pack out their trash, stay on designated trails, and avoid disturbing wildlife or natural habitats. Encourage them to appreciate the beauty of nature while also being responsible stewards of the land.

Teaching kids about wilderness safety and survival empowers them to enjoy outdoor adventures responsibly while equipping them with valuable life skills. By helping children understand the environment, providing essential gear and knowledge, and emphasizing the importance of safety and respect for nature, parents can foster a love of the outdoors that lasts a lifetime. Encourage curiosity, exploration, and a sense of adventure, while always prioritizing safety above all else.

How do you teach children about wilderness safety? Leave your tips for other parents in the comments below.

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Family

Family-Friendly Wilderness Survival Skills: Navigating Nature Together

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When it comes to venturing into the wilderness as a family, being equipped with essential survival skills can turn what might seem like a daunting prospect into a thrilling adventure. From navigating rugged terrain to building shelters and finding sustenance, knowing how to handle various wilderness scenarios not only ensures safety but also fosters a deeper connection with nature. Here, we’ll delve into some family-friendly wilderness survival skills that are both practical and empowering for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages.

Navigating Nature’s Maze: The Art of Orientation

Wilderness navigation skills are absolutely necessary for survival. Teach your family members how to read a map and use a compass. Turn it into a game, plotting imaginary routes or exploring nearby trails. Understanding how to interpret natural landmarks, such as mountains or rivers, can serve as invaluable guideposts when technology fails or trails grow faint.

Shelter from the Storm: Building Safe Havens

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Constructing a shelter in the wilderness isn’t just about protection from the elements; it’s also an opportunity to foster teamwork and resourcefulness. Encourage your family to work together to build a shelter using readily available materials like branches, leaves, and logs. Even practicing with a simple tarp or emergency blanket in the backyard can instill confidence and prepare everyone for unexpected situations.

Quenching Thirst: Finding and Purifying Water Sources

woman taking water from forest spring

Water is essential for survival, but finding safe sources in the wilderness can be challenging. Teach your family how to locate water sources such as streams or springs, and emphasize the importance of purifying water before drinking. Show them how to boil water over a campfire or use portable water filtration systems. It’s not just about quenching thirst; it’s about ensuring hydration without compromising health.

Mastering the Flames: The Art of Fire Building

Building a fire in the wilderness is not only a practical skill but also a primal experience that connects us to our ancestors. Teach your family the basics of fire building: selecting dry tinder, arranging kindling, and patiently nurturing the flames. Show them how to practice fire safety, such as keeping a safe distance from combustible materials and extinguishing fires completely before leaving a campsite.

Harmonizing with Wildlife: Respectful Coexistence

Encounters with wildlife are part of the allure of wilderness exploration, but they also require caution and respect. Educate your family about local wildlife, teaching them to recognize signs of activity and respond appropriately. Instill in them a sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world while emphasizing the importance of maintaining a safe distance and avoiding confrontations.

Equipping your family with wilderness survival skills is not just about preparing for the worst-case scenario; it’s about empowering them to explore and thrive in the great outdoors. By teaching navigation techniques, shelter-building skills, water purification methods, fire-building basics, and wildlife awareness, you’re not only ensuring their safety but also nurturing a lifelong love for nature and adventure. So, gather your loved ones, pack your gear, and embark on unforgettable journeys into the heart of the wilderness, where every challenge becomes an opportunity to learn and grow together.

Do you practice wilderness survival with your family? What do you do? Leave your pointers in the comments below.

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Outdoor Survival Skills

Banding Together In Times Of Crisis: The Important of Survival Communities

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In times of crisis, whether natural disasters, economic downturns, or other emergencies, fostering community resilience is paramount for families to navigate challenges successfully. Building strong bonds and collaborating with neighbors can provide essential support networks and resources. In this article, we’ll explore strategies for families to work together and contribute to community resilience during times of crisis.

Establish Communication Channels

Clear and reliable communication channels are essential for coordinating efforts and sharing critical information within the community. Establish methods such as neighborhood watch groups, social media networks, or communication apps to stay connected with neighbors. Create contact lists with essential contact information for each household and designate emergency communication protocols.

Collaborate on Emergency Preparedness

Encourage collaboration among families in preparing for potential emergencies. Organize community-wide preparedness events or workshops to share knowledge, resources, and skills. Pooling resources such as emergency supplies, tools, and equipment can enhance the collective readiness of the community. Develop evacuation plans and designate meeting points in case of evacuation orders.

Share Skills and Resources

Identify the skills, expertise, and resources available within the community and leverage them to support one another. Encourage neighbors to share their knowledge of gardening, first aid, construction, or other relevant skills. Create a network for exchanging goods and services, such as food, water, tools, and shelter materials. By collaborating and supporting each other, families can address challenges more effectively.

Establish Mutual Aid Networks

Establish mutual aid networks to provide assistance and support to vulnerable members of the community during times of crisis. Identify individuals or families who may need extra help, such as elderly residents, people with disabilities, or single parents. Coordinate efforts to check on their well-being, provide assistance with essential tasks, or evacuate them safely if necessary.

Organize Community Resilience Projects

Prepper Community

Engage in community resilience projects that enhance the overall preparedness and resilience of the neighborhood. Examples include community gardens, rainwater harvesting systems, emergency shelters, and neighborhood watch programs. Work together on initiatives that promote self-sufficiency, sustainability, and disaster resilience.

Foster Social Connections

Building strong social connections within the community fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity, which is crucial during times of crisis. Organize regular neighborhood gatherings, potlucks, or block parties to strengthen relationships and build trust among neighbors. Encourage open communication, empathy, and mutual support to create a resilient community fabric.

Participate in Training and Exercises

Participate in training sessions and emergency preparedness exercises as a community to enhance readiness and coordination. Practice scenarios such as earthquake drills, fire evacuation drills, or first aid training exercises. Evaluate and refine emergency plans based on lessons learned from simulations and real-life experiences.

Engage with Local Authorities and Organizations

Collaborate with local authorities, emergency responders, and community organizations to enhance resilience efforts. Stay informed about emergency protocols, evacuation routes, and available resources in your area. Advocate for community resilience initiatives and participate in local planning committees or advisory boards.

By working together and building strong community connections, families can significantly enhance their resilience and ability to withstand crises. By establishing communication channels, collaborating on preparedness efforts, sharing skills and resources, and fostering social connections, families can contribute to building a resilient community that supports its members in times of need. Remember, resilience is built through collective action and mutual support.

Are you a part of a bigger survival community? If not, do you plan on changing that? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

 

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