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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.

“I wouldn’t want someone afraid to cross a river to pop a Xanax on the bank,” Auerbach adds. “It could slow their reflexes. And in the case of a bear encounter, you want the bear to take Xanax. Not you.”

According to Auerbach, there are only two field-proven ways to prevent or mitigate panic: 1) Understand the psychology and physiology of panic, along with its symptoms and treatment, so you can quickly recognize the symptoms and immediately implement stress-reduction methods. 2) Train yourself for specific, potential panic situations.

Most of us head into the hills with considerable gear and a sizable set of technical skills. We know how to use a map and compass—because we’ve practiced it. We know how to set up our tent and light our stove—because we’ve practiced it. We may even know how to splint a leg or identify the symptoms of altitude sickness—again, because we’ve practiced. But how many of us practice panic? Not enough. And that’s a problem NOLS instructor Schimelpfenig is trying to remedy.

“In our wilderness medicine classes, to practice self-rescue, we’ll actually chop a hole in the ice of [Wyoming’s] Popo Agie River and ask volunteers to jump in,” says Schimelpfenig. “It hurts right away. Their breathing and heart rate skyrocket.”

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