On every memorable outdoor adventure I’ve ever had, there’s been at least one what-if moment. You’ve probably had them, too: those moments when the questions start to creep in. What if the rapid looks really different at this water level? What if a lightning storm rolls in? What if we run into the bear who made the tracks we saw at our last campsite?
Most of the time, the what-ifs never come to fruition, and after the moment has passed, I don’t think much about those questions again. But they’re an essential part of the outdoor adventure experience: If you knew for certain exactly what would happen at every turn, why bother leaving the house? Asking them, I would argue, is one of the ways we can keep ourselves safe—particularly if we’re prepared to handle those situations with good answers.
I’ve spent so much time thinking about those questions that, eventually, I wrote a book to answer them. Like many people I know, I’ve found myself fascinated by tales of adventures gone awry, sometimes spending hours poring over the details and trying to understand what happened—and how I can keep it from happening again, to me.
After reading thousands of accident reports, interviewing experts and lucky survivors, and applying the knowledge I’d gained over a decade as an outdoor professional, I’ve picked out some patterns. There’s no way to guarantee your safety when you venture into the wilderness (that’s part of the appeal), but these five tips will go a long way towards increasing your confidence and competence in the backcountry.
1) Study the route ahead of time
The more you know about where you’re going, the sooner you’ll be able to tell if something isn’t right. This is true whether you’re out hiking and looking for a particular landmark to make a turn or heading downriver and preparing yourself for a technical rapid. Having a sense of how long things should take ensures that you’ll bring along the right gear and enough food and water. Reading up on the route before you take off also gives you a chance to learn about possible challenges you might encounter—weather conditions, commonly-spotted wildlife, mistakes others have frequently made—so you can better prepare to tackle them.
2) Ask a ton of questions
There’s no better way to learn how to do something than by asking experts. I’ve found that people are often genuinely excited to share their knowledge about an area or activity they know well and love (and it doesn’t hurt to buy them a beer). When I hear about a friend’s trip or meet someone who guides a river I’ve never been on, I try to learn as much as I can about what conditions are typically like, how they prepare(d), and any challenges they’ve encountered. This kind of first-hand knowledge is so useful because it’s detailed and timely in a way that most guidebooks and even online beta simply can’t keep up with.
3) Find backcountry partners you trust
If things go south in the wilderness, I want to know the people I’m with can manage the situation and help keep everyone safe. I have lots of wonderful friends I love to meet up for drinks or a hike in the foothills with, but a short list of people I’m eager to head into the backcountry for a boundary-pushing trip with. I always appreciate it when someone has wilderness medicine training or excellent map-reading skills, but the most important thing I look for is level-headedness—someone who can help me think through what to do if things go wrong.
4) Don’t skimp—pack those Ten Essentials
The Ten Essentials list was originally put together by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based hiking and mountaineering group, in the 1930s. Its specific components have changed a bit over the years as technology advances, but the list remains the gold standard for what to bring on any foray into the outdoors. It includes: navigation, a headlamp, sun protection, first aid supplies, a knife, a way to start a fire, a shelter, and extra food, water, and clothing. On a typical hike or float trip, I only end up needing a handful of these items, but I’m always glad to have them all. I can’t think of many backcountry situations that wouldn’t be made at least a little better by having all Ten Essentials, and a little extra weight is well worth that peace of mind.
5) Know your goals
Verbalizing your goals for a particular trip is a great way to keep yourself honest about the risks you’re taking. When I find myself feeling tempted to keep going for the summit even as poor weather closes in, I revisit my goals. Sure, standing on top of a mountain is usually among them. But so is getting back to the trailhead alive, along with training for another big trip later in the season and taking a break to unplug from work. Remembering those ancillary goals go a long way towards reframing every outing as a success, rather than a failure, even if it doesn’t quite go as planned.
Photos: Backcountry hiking – James Kaiser; Reading a map – Jean-Frederic Fortier/Unsplash; Scouting a rapid in Hells Canyon – Dylan Silver