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Outdoor safety is one of the most important topics that we could talk about. When it comes to your safety outdoors on hikes and camping trips, there are a few key things that are crucial to know and prepare for.
In order to bring you the best possible information from experts in the field, I invited Austin from Fieldcraft Survival to come on my YouTube channel and talk about this topic.
Austin was a paramedic in North Carolina, then joined the military and spent time at the survival school for the Air Force.
He’s currently a teacher for Fieldcraft Survival and an active member of our local search and rescue team.
Needless to say, he has a ton of real-world experience dealing with emergency situations in the outdoors and has seen so many examples of what not to do in the wilderness.
There’s a lot we can learn from his experience.
In the video below, he shares tons of outdoor safety tips for camping, hiking, and overlanding.
I recommend that you watch the video once through, and then go back and watch it again to take notes.
Let’s get started!
Disclaimer: This post cannot alert you to every single hazard. It is intended to provide general information. When you follow any of the procedures described here, you assume responsibility for your own safety.
Outdoor Safety Tips (video)
Safety while camping or hiking should be a top priority and I hope this video answers your questions and gives you a solid overview of the things to consider.
Whether you’re solo camping, hiking, or going out with a group, these tips will be useful as you plan and prepare for your next trip.
One of the biggest mistakes that people make is failing to plan appropriately prior to leaving for a trip.
I would always suggest traveling with a friend or in a group, but the reality is, sometimes you want to go and your friends don’t.
You can hike and camp alone responsibly, but whether you’re with a group or not, you must set up a good plan prior to leaving.
That’s something that many people fail to do appropriately. They go out on a whim with most of the stuff they need, and unfortunately, that doesn’t usually pan out very well when there’s an emergency or even when something just goes slightly wrong, it can compound upon itself.
Prior planning is key and it really is probably the most important thing in your outdoor safety protocol.
The Four W’s
Your plan should consist of the four w’s: the who, what, when, and where.
That information should be sent off to three or four responsible friends or family members.
- Who – Who is going? Is it just me or am I going with friends?
- What – What activity am I taking off to do? For example, a trailhead might have access to a river for fishing, hiking trails, and/or ATV trails. If someone came to the area you said you would be in, they need to know exactly what activity you’re actually doing for each day of the trip.
- When – When do you plan on leaving? When do you plan to be back?
- Where – Where are you going? Be very specific. Give trail names and information of planned camping spots. You can even leave coordinates. A trailhead parking lot might have access to multiple trails. You need to leave information about which trail or road you will be on for each day of the trip.
In addition to the four W’s, you also want to think about appropriate gear, your abilities, and a communication plan prior to leaving on a trip.
Communication is an important part of your safety and security, and it’s something that is frequently overlooked.
It’s one of the most underutilized things that you can do to set yourself up for success.
Of course, you want everything to go great on a camping trip or on a hike, but you also want to have a contingency plan for when things go wrong.
So how will you communicate if something goes wrong and you have an emergency?
Do you have cell service in the area that you’re going to? Most of the time, the answer to that question is no.
You can buy satellite communicators that allow you to communicate in an emergency. One option is a Garmin InReach Mini. It’s a small lightweight option for emergency communications.
Some of the Garmin GPS units have the InReach technology built into them. With the InReach, you can go off-grid but stay in contact with two-way messaging and the SOS feature in the event of an emergency.
Based on Austin’s experience in search and rescue (SAR), from the time there’s an InReach activation to when SAR is getting the phone call and deploying on that call is usually 7-10 minutes. It’s happening quickly and it’s very accurate.
Bottom line, if things do go wrong, you want to have a way to communicate and get help. A satellite communicator is going to be the easiest and quickest option.
Other signaling options are a signaling mirror or a bright-colored signaling panel which can be used to help SAR find you. A lot of backpacks even have whistles built into the strap clips that can be used in an emergency.
Know Your Ability
Knowing your ability and what your deficiencies are is important when planning a trip.
I’m an advocate for starting small.
For example, if you’ve never gone on a hike, then going on a strenuous multi-day backpacking trip is not a good idea. It would be better to start with a short local day hike.
If you’ve never been car camping, choose a campground close to home and try it out instead of going somewhere far away deep in the national forest.
Start small, get experience with your gear, and then build up your confidence and abilities.
Along with starting small is knowing where your deficiencies are and what you’re comfortable with.
For example, if you’re really uncomfortable with heights, don’t go on a hike that requires you to scramble up a steep slope over boulders with drop-offs.
Use common sense and assess the risk along with your abilities so you don’t get yourself into situations where you’re uncomfortable.
Another thing that falls into prior planning is your gear and equipment for the activity that you’re doing.
We’ll talk more about gear below.
Mental modeling is when you actually think about some of the emergencies or accidents that could happen while you’re out and then think about what you would do to handle those situations.
This is probably not the most fun activity, but it’s something that you want to be doing before your trip.
When you start mental modeling, you want to focus on the things that are most probable. Anything is really possible, but what is most probably to happen to me or those I’m with on a camping trip or hike?
Based on the time of year and the activity, what are some of the “bad” things that could happen? For example, on a hike, one of the most probable things to happen to you or someone in your group is a sprained ankle.
Okay, now what?
What are the literal action steps that you would take to handle that situation? Think through it.
Imagine yourself doing the things to take care of that situation. Make sure you pack the gear that you need to get through these probabilities.
Someone getting injured or sick should definitely be part of your mental modeling.
This video with Austin on first aid and wilderness medical is a good place to start for medical emergencies. It goes over the most common injuries that Austin sees on search and rescue and what to do about them.
You don’t need to get attached to the exact idea of how handling a probability has to happen, but mental modeling will better prepare you to take action quickly and adapt in the event of an emergency because you’ve already thought it through.
When you’re under stress, such as in an emergency, it’s more difficult to think clearly and make good decisions.
Mental modeling before a trip is key to making good decisions and taking action under pressure.
Situational awareness is crucial when you’re actually at the location doing what you’re doing.
This ties into your security.
Situational awareness it’s knowing what’s going on around you and using that information to determine what might happen in the near future.
Or more simply, it’s just being aware of your surroundings and paying attention.
It’s an important life skill, whether you’re out camping, or walking through the grocery store parking lot.
One of the easiest examples of having situational awareness is paying attention to where you’re setting up your campsite. For example, you don’t want to pitch a tent in a sandy desert wash or under a hanging dead tree.
Having the situational awareness to pay attention to those things is key to your safety and to enjoying yourself.
If you pay attention to how you set up camp, how you pack the things in your bag, how you dress appropriately for the weather, and the people around you, you’re going to be much safer and more successful on your trip.
When it comes to being off-grid and enjoying yourself outdoors, you have to pay attention.
If you’re hiking with headphones (which I strongly suggest you never do) how will you hear the things around you? You can’t have the awareness that you need if you’re not looking and listening.
A few years ago, I was camping by myself in the national forest. I was in a spot that I camped often and was very familiar with the area.
The sun was setting, and I was sitting by my car when I see a man nearby on the road. He looked very disheveled and he was riding a bike that was way too small for him.
Something about the situation immediately felt off to me. This is not an area that people usually ride bikes, and if they did, it would be a road bike and they would have the helmet and outfit for that activity.
I had that intuitive feeling that something was not right. I watched him bike by and as we made eye contact, he gave me a very creepy smile. After that, I moved my campsite to a new location for the night.
A lot of people will underplay their intuition. Don’t ignore your intuition. Fear, adrenaline, and those gut feelings are there to keep us alive.
Austin recommends reading the book Deep Survival. It’s a book about how accidents have happened because people didn’t listen to that intuition.
I want to have some way of protecting myself, whether that’s from four-legged creatures or two-legged creatures.
A firearm can be an option for personal protection, but you must take the time to become trained and proficient in how to use it. It is by no means a requirement to carry a firearm, but it can be a viable option for those who choose it.
Bear spray is another item for personal protection when hiking and camping in bear country.
Camp security is one of the biggest concerns and questions I get asked on YouTube. There are a few things that you can do to give yourself that sense of security while you’re camping.
How do you park and set up your camp?
When you arrive at an area, take a look around before setting up camp. Where are the roads? How many roads are there? Is there just one way in and one way out?
At designated campgrounds, this is usually pretty easy to assess. I always like to position my vehicle so I can drive away quickly if needed.
For example, at campgrounds, there’s usually a little parking spot at the campsite. I always back into these parking spots so I can move out fast if needed.
I also don’t store gear or bags up in the driver’s seat while I’m hanging around camp. Again, quick getaway.
Unfortunately, a lot of the crime that does happen in campsites is because the campsite is right in the open, and it’s crime of opportunity. Someone that has poor intention sees an opportunity and they take that opportunity.
When dispersed camping in the national forest or on BLM land, bedding down a little bit off the road where you’re not as easily visible, is a huge part of security.
Again, whether you’re camping at a campground or doing dispersed camping in the forest, positioning your vehicle for a quick getaway is a simple but important consideration.
Next, we’re going to talk about proper equipment. Again, this really does come back to prior planning.
You want to take the time before your trip to lay out all your gear, know what you’re taking, and make sure things are charged and working properly.
Furthermore, you need to make sure that the gear you pack is also appropriate to where you’re going, the time of year, the weather, the duration of your trip, and the activity you’re doing.
Having the proper equipment is important, but so is knowing how to use it.
Austin has been on search and rescue calls for vehicles way in the backcountry that are stuck. What’s surprising, is that a lot of the people have all the equipment they need to get themselves out of the situation, they just don’t know how to use it.
You need to take the time to learn about your equipment and get training when necessary.
A lot of people use vehicles as a false sense of security. What if your vehicle breaks down miles in on a dirt road in the national forest where you don’t have cell service?
Now what? Well, if you have proper emergency communications set up as we talked about above, then you would have a way to communicate and get some assistance.
But better yet, having a basic understanding of gear or vehicle maintenance and being able to fix something will facilitate a much better experience outdoors.
Can you change a tire? That’s one of those probable scenarios you might encounter while camping in the forest. Do you know how to jumpstart your car if you leave the light on all night while camping?
Another example is your sleeping pad. Sleeping pads aren’t just for comfort. They also help insulate you from the ground and keep you warmer at night.
A hole in your sleeping pad is something that can easily be fixed, and knowing how to do that will provide a more comfortable and safer experience.
Little things that are very easily overlooked pay dividends in the backcountry when you’re trying to enjoy yourself off-grid because the supplies you have are much more limited.
Paying attention to having the proper equipment and knowing how to use it will always facilitate a much better and safer experience outdoors.
If I’m in an emergency and I can handle it with proper equipment and planning, then it might not actually turn into a survival situation.
Two is One, One is None
There’s an old adage “two is one, one is none”. If I go into the backcountry with one item, one piece of life-saving equipment, then I’m accepting not having that at all.
I’m always going to carry one and then carry a backup.
For example, if I carry a GPS unit, I’m going to carry extra batteries for the GPS and I’m also going to bring a map of the area I’m in and a compass that I know how to use.
If my GPS unit falls off my lanyard and gets lost or it gets dropped on a rock and breaks, I’ll still be able to find my way using the map and compass I brought as a backup.
Another example is with water. Water is crucial to survival. I love my Sawyer Squeeze water filter and I carry it on every single hike and camping trip. I’ve been using it for years and love it, but what if it fails? What if I lose it or drop it in a river?
Remember, “two is one, one is none”. So I also carry water purification tablets as my backup method of getting safe drinking water.
Layering Your Equipment
Having duplicates and backups for life-saving essential equipment is important, but so is how you pack it.
I’m not going to put all of my life-saving equipment in the same spot. What if it’s all in my backpacking and I fall in the river and lose my backpack? Then everything is gone.
So instead, I’m going to strategically place my redundancies in different places.
Always Know Where You Are
Always know where you are. This is actually something that people mess up a lot.
A lot of people will grab a GPS and they think: “I have this GPS, I’ll just turn it on and it’s going to show me right where I am”.
Okay, but now what? A lot of people don’t know what to do after that. This ties back into knowing how to use your gear before you head out.
On a GPS, you’re supposed to set waypoints, you should have a sense of direction, you should have an emergency azimuth, know where you’re trying to go, know where you came from, and then know where resources are that you can tap into should you need them.
Take the time to learn how to use your equipment and set it up properly before every trip.
Also, remember what we talked about above – “two is one, one is none”.
I’m not going to just carry a GPS. I also want to pack a map and compass for backup in case something happens to my GPS so that I can always know where I am!
General Landscape Awareness
One of the things I like to do at home as I’m planning a trip is look at satellite maps to get a general sense of the landscape as a whole.
Which way is the ridgeline running? What general direction are the streams or rivers flowing? Are there any prominent landmarks or features? Where are they relative to where I’ll be hiking?
Getting this high-level birds-eye view of the landscape will help me better orient myself when I’m on the hike.
It’s also a good habit to take note of landmarks and points of interest as you’re hiking. Don’t forget to look behind you every once in a while too, because things look different from that direction.
Enjoy Your Time Outdoors Safely
Safety is an important topic for us to think about and plan for.
I hope this post has been helpful and has answered some of your questions and concerns when it comes to safety while camping and hiking.
Make sure to comment below with the things that you’re going to do first.
It’s one thing to read or watch this, but it’s a whole other thing to actually implement it. And implementation is everything.
Taking action to become more self-reliant, confident, and prepared in the outdoors is one of the best things you can do for yourself.