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Don't get caught unprepared.

August 01, 2017

Adventure travelers can find a thrill from spending time reconnecting with nature, regardless of their level of experience. Whether it's a day-long hike at a nearby forest or a week-long trek through the Andes, exploring the wilderness can be a fulfilling way to see a country in a new light.

All travelers, particularly those on their own, should take precautions to stay safe when hiking and be careful to avoid activities that are beyond their knowledge or experience level. Travel + Leisure talked with Megan Hine, a survival expert from whom Bear Grylls of "Man vs. Wild" takes advice. Hine gave us the low-down on finding water (Hint: Don't dig a hole in the desert), lighting a fire while backcountry skiing, and a few mistakes to avoid.

Know how to find clean water.

If stuck in a jam and forced to look for fresh water, Hine suggests searching for light green areas by surveying foliage from higher up, or searching where harder rock meets softer rock.

She criticized survival guides that suggest people in desert climes attempt to dig a hole to find water, as it can be energy-draining and might ultimately be futile.

“Survival in any form is all about energy expenditure,” Hine said. "You’re actually burning off more energy digging a bloody hole.”

She also warned against the idea of consuming water from a creek or fall that is “clear enough to drink," noting that most dangerous bacteria and viruses are so small they're impossible to see. Always treat your water with purifying tablets.

Pay attention to your surroundings.

It may seem like obvious advice, but when hikers are getting into the zen of their environment and having a Henry David Thoreau moment, it can be easy to make a costly mistake in terms of navigation or other such misstep.

Hine recommended looking both forward and back as you walk to keep aware of what's around you and to note any helpful landmarks.

Be prepared to get lost.

If hiking outside of a cut path, it can be easy to become disoriented as the brush grows higher. It's important to come prepared with tools just in case you do get lost, such as a map and a compass, according to Hine. GPS can be useful, but relying on anything with a limited amount of battery can be a mistake.

Hine suggest that if you get lost and you're in a safe environment, you should take a few moments and sit down, trying to relax as much as possible.

“That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make...Their first reaction is to panic and to run aimlessly,” she said.

If you're close to a summit, climbing up those extra few hundred feet to get a better view of your surroundings can also be a good idea, she says.

Don’t let your inner hunter/gatherer run wild.

After some experience as a boy or girl scout, or a binge-watching marathon of survival shows, it might be tempting to try to harvest edible berries and plants along the trail. 

Barring any true expertise, this can be a fatal error. “Unless you know for sure what it is that you’re ingesting, leave it alone," she said.

Be familiar with the basics of first aid.

Particularly for multiple-day treks, Hine recommends taking a first aid course to know how to treat minor injuries and identify symptoms of more serious health events, like how to tell if someone is having a heart attack.

“You never know when you’re going to need those skills,” she said.

Know how to call for help.

When a situation exceeds one's own first aid knowledge, it's important to know local emergency numbers.

While 9-1-1 is the emergency number for the U.S., that's not universal around the world. Even in parts of rural America, there are mountain rescue numbers that are more responsive and better prepared for those situations.

Carry two methods for fire.

Hine recommended always carrying both a lighter and strikers, as lighters can often break and it's necessary to have a back-up method.

As a frequent backcountry skier, she also recommended carrying blocks of chemical fire lighters in case you get stuck in a mountain overnight. Using these and finding tinder and kindling nearby can help keep you warm during a cold night.

"That potentially is going to save somebody’s life,” she said.

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