Your watch reads 4:30 p.m. when you get the unsettling feeling that you’re not where you should be. A few hours ago, you struck out solo to explore a route in your favorite wilderness–but now the terrain doesn’t match the map, and the trail has vanished. How did you get here? How can you get out? Staying found starts at home.
WRONG: Stash some water and an energy bar in your pack, then hit the trail. You’re only going to be gone for a few hours.
RIGHT: “When you’re packing, ask yourself, ‘Do I have enough gear that I could spend the night out if I had to?'” advises Christopher Van Tilburg, author of Mountain Rescue Doctor and a veteran SAR physician. Know and carry the 10 Essentials: map (make it waterproof), compass and/or GPS, headlamp, food, water, extra clothes, first-aid kit, matches, firestarter, and raingear. Also pack a basic survival kit containing an emergency blanket or a large plastic garbage bag for shelter, an extra firestarter (flint and waterproof matches and/or butane lighter), a signal mirror, and an 8-by-8-inch square of heavy-duty aluminum foil for making a cup or cookpot.
WRONG: Test your brand-new navigation skills on a tricky route–alone. Many hikers who find themselves in trouble got there by overestimating their abilities.
RIGHT: Know your limits and plan trips that feature mileage, elevation gain, and terrain that you can handle. Set out with a map and compass or GPS and a good description of your route. Before you go, determine a safety bearing: a direction guaranteed to lead you back to civilization should you lose your way.
3. Leaving the trailhead
WRONG: Head out for an impromptu dayhike without informing anyone of your plans. It’s just a five-miler–what could go wrong?
RIGHT: Always leave your itinerary with friends, family, or rangers when you go into the backcountry. Include your intended route, expected return, and what time they should initiate a rescue if they haven’t heard from you. Even on a routine dayhike, at least tell someone where you’re going.