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Backpacker Magazine – December 2007

Backcountry Survival: How to Survive in the Backcountry

There's a backcountry killer on the loose, and it's not hypothermia, grizzly bears, or rockfall. The thing mostly likely to maim you on your next hiking trip is living inside your head.

by: Mark Jenkins

Panic Mode
In a crisis, these symptoms will develop faster than you can read this page.

The Brain Command central during a panic attack, your gray matter responds to danger the same way Cro-Magnon's did. It starts with the visual system, which communicates messages (there's a grizzly bear on the trail) to the interpretive cognitive system (that grizzly is big and scary). This signals the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ near the brain's center that responds by igniting a flurry of neural fireworks. The amygdala talks to the hypothalamus, which relays messages to the pea-sized pituitary gland, which tells the adrenal gland to shoot the body up with adrenaline so it can defend itself. Simultaneously, the locus coeruleus gets tipped off, and starts secreting norepinephrine, which in high doses actually restricts the problem-solving areas of the brain.

Lungs and Diaphram Thoracic breathing (short, shallow breaths) amps you up when you should be calming down. Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths (a.k.a. belly breaths) to balance the CO2/O2 levels in your blood.

Heart Adrenaline and a jolt of sugar cause your heart to start pounding and blood pressure to rise. Repeat your mantra ("Relax, breathe. Relax, breathe."), and it should start decreasing soon.

Adrenal Glands These organs, located on top of the kidneys, are responsible for the fight-or-flight feeling. They release a shot of stored up adrenaline (think super-charged Gu) that shocks your system into action.

Stomach and Digestive Tract Don't expect to get the munchies. Your digestive system goes into survival mode, redirecting blood to your big muscles so you can outrun a cougar (theoretically, of course).

Lightheadedness Hyperventilation is the culprit here, making your blood more alkaline. You're still getting plenty of oxygen, but this central-nervous-system response causes you to blow off too much CO2.

Dilated Pupils That grizzly may give you bug eyes, but having them doesn't mean you're taking in more information. Panicking people misread common cues like trail markers, footprints, or roads. Wait for that wild-eyed feeling to pass, and then survey your surroundings carefully.

Sweaty Forehead and Palms Perspiration is the body's way of staying cool while your engines rev up. You'll feel clammy before you start moving again, because your heart rate and metabolism are already increasing.

Hand Tremors No one knows why some people shake and others don't, but if you get the quakes, an adrenaline surge is the cause. Don't worry: These tremors, barely discernible by onlookers, shouldn't interfere with your ability to act.

Tingling Fingers and Toes The pins-and-needles feeling doesn't mean your extremities are dozing off. Rapid breathing changes the pH balance in your blood, which causes your peripheral nerves to misfire. That creates tingling, numbness, and even cramping.

Muscles Pumped with adrenaline and an increased blood flow, big muscle groups (hamstrings/quads/glutes) are primed for action.

Mark Jenkins lives in Laramie, WY, where he climbs at midnight with his 13-year-old daughter, Teal.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Dec 05, 2013

Well written. It's amazing how much of life and the decisions we make simply comes down to how we choose to breathe.

Dinah Beres
Apr 20, 2011

I think every backcountry hiker and backpacker should read this.

Steve B
Apr 15, 2009

To Chris P-Zwit - What exactly does a college education have to do with someones judgement in an outdoor survival situation? It seems kind of odd that you question someone elses judgement with such a bizarre and off the wall judgement yourself...

Chris P-Zwit
Jan 03, 2009

See the movie Gerry by Gus Van Sant. It uses this story. Fear and ignorance turned into panic and despair which spiraled into confusion and over reaction. Having hitched and hiked America, you have to stay oriented and not wander too far out. These guys barely left the car and freaked out. College educated, but no street or outdoor smarts. What a sad note on "higher education."

Dec 16, 2008

good article, very informative, lots of good examples used to illustrate panic and solutions to it

Sep 11, 2008

It would be nice to kn ow how many pages are in the article before starting


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