It seemed innocent enough for a pair of twenty-something year old guys, an 8-mile loop hike in the Shining Rock Wilderness. Snacks in their bag, a couple of layers of clothing and a light blanket in case they got chilly. It was winter after all, albeit a relatively mild day for the season. And of course, the ever present invincibility of youth in tow. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward two days: Several inches of snow cover the ground and the temperature hasn’t even come close to cresting the freezing point in over 24 hours. Worse yet, it’s projected to dip into single digits that night with continuing strong winds. They have absolutely no idea where they are, huddled and shivering in front of a small fire, by the grace of God they were able to start with the lighter they brought. But Hell is supposed to be blazing hot, they must have thought.
If you are reading this and live in western North Carolina, I imagine you’re familiar with the story. It’s simply amazing they survived as long as they did, but just as incredible is the rescue effort that ultimately brought them out of the woods. Here’s a great article that recaps how the events unfolded.
And here’s the video of their extraction.
Recently, I reached out to one of the two survivors of this incident, David Crockett, to ask him if he’d answer a few questions for me. I told him I had been part of the effort to find them and that I wanted to share what he learned from the experience, in hopes of inspiring others to make sound choices before heading into the woods.
Thankfully, he was more than willing to help. With every search our team does, I picture the person or people we’re helping as someone in my own life I love dearly, and I treat the effort with that kind of attention. David and his hiking companion were no exception and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to create this connection with him.
With his input and my own knowledge, I’ve created a series of posts covering the following topics:
- Part I: What you should always do and put in your backpacking before going on a hike
- Part II: What you should do if you find yourself lost on a hike
- Part III: What your kids should always have with them on a hike to stay safe
- Part IV: What steps you should take to keep your dog safe on a hike and how to treat them for common injuries/illnesses until you get them out of the woods (I’m embarrassed that I haven’t covered this topic already since I’m a veterinarian!)
So let’s get to it!
Your “Must Do” List Before Heading Out
Most hikers put some degree of thought about the contents in their backpacks, which is certainly worthy of brain power. What actions to take before heading out, however, are equally as vital to a safe return. Undoubtedly, David learned the importance of this from his experience. When I asked him what he would do differently if he could have a “do over” before heading into the woods that fateful winter’s day, he told me the following:
“Set a start time much earlier than 12:30pm. Check the weather forecast for the next few days. Understood the nature of a ‘wilderness’ trail (meaning trail is unmarked and extremely difficult without previous experience and knowledge). Keep a close watch on the time to give yourself ample time for the descent of your journey before sun down. Know your surroundings or hike with others who are familiar with the trails. Plan for the absolute worst.”
I could not agree more with everything he mentioned. Here’s the breakdown of what you should remember before heading out and why it’s important:
1. Leave an itinerary with someone and the estimated time you think you’ll emerge from the woods. This is a biggie. If no one knows where you went and you’re injured or lost with no cell reception (or worse, a dead battery), think about how much extra time it will take a search and rescue team to even begin to look for you. A classic example of this scenario is Aron Ralston’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, or the movie that followed it, 127 Hours.
Your itinerary should include the trails you plan to hike and when you expect to emerge from the woods. If you are hiking a loop trail, it’s beneficial to tell someone which direction you’ll hike it, clockwise or counter-clockwise. What does not count as an itinerary is telling someone you’re simply going to hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Make sure you give a reasonable amount of detail.
2. Check the weather forecast for the day of your hike and a day or two further out. Pack clothing and gear according to the forecast now and for the future forecast. Even if you only plan on being out for a day hike, if you’re lost or injured and are in the backcountry longer than anticipated, you’ll be glad you checked and packed accordingly.
3. Research the area you’ll be hiking in. If I’m hiking somewhere new, I typically do some research on the area via blogs/trail reports and various hiking websites. At the risk of ruining the surprise of what I’ll see, I’m occasionally alerted to sketchy areas of the trail, ambiguous trail junctions, obstacles, etc.
Also, as David mentions, designated wilderness areas are not well marked, by design. It’s not uncommon for these areas to have multiple “user or social trails” which are simply trails people have created over time that aren’t official trails you’ll find on a map.
4. Put your phone in “airplane mode” or turn it off completely before you start hiking. Most trails won’t have a reliable signal. If your phone continually searches for one, your battery will run itself dry faster than you can eat a Snickers bar.
Also, if it’s cold outside, keep your phone as warm as possible. Cold temperatures can drain the battery more quickly.
5. Plan for the absolute worst. I love that David included this in his comments to me, because it summarizes everything in this post. If you plan for the worst you might encounter, you’re prepared if it happens. That’s worth all the weight in your pack and then some.
Your “Must Take” List
After joining our local search and rescue team, my day pack is filled with significantly more gear than I used to carry, since I am constantly exposed to how quickly things can go wrong in the woods and what items would be beneficial to me in various situations. This infographic is a comical but appropriate illustration of the varying degrees of “readiness,” but Level 4 is definitely the way I pack now!
So what’s in my pack? The “10 Essential Systems” that every hiker should have as well as a few extras that I deem just as important and worthy. Let’s start with the standard list first.
The 10 essential “systems” for your backpack
1. Navigation: Map and Compass
A good map and knowing how to read it is crucial when you’re in the backcountry. And no, a GPS or navigational app on your phone does not replace the need for a map, so always bring one!
Maps such as this one from National Geographic are very useful.
A compass doesn’t do you much good if you don’t know how to use it. There are many useful tutorials, YouTube videos, etc., online that provide extensive lessons on how to use them. Books are also a great way to learn. I have downloaded the Kindle version of this book, Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter, and GPS, onto my phone. I love having a resource to refer to when I’m in the backcountry, if I forget something I’ve learned. Plus, navigation is a skill best learned by “doing” and having the digital version of this book with me on hikes has provided many a refresher lesson on the trail, when I simply want to practice my skills.
There’s no need to purchase a fancy compass with a mirror. Something simple like this one will do just fine:
2. Illumination: Headlamp or Flashlight
The reasons for taking a light source are probably pretty obvious, and some people like to bring two, to have a backup. Personally, I consider my phone’s flashlight feature a backup and only bring my headlamp with extra batteries. This is the headlamp I own. I love that its waterproof and has a red light feature (which is useful when you don’t need a bright light source and don’t want to blind your fellow campmates as you’re wandering around at night!).
3. Nutrition: Extra Food
If you’re smart, your extra food will include Peanut M&Ms. :-). Seriously though, if you’re out in the woods longer than expected, whether you’re lost or just taking longer than you expected to finish your hike, extra munchies are something you’ll be glad you have. Food high in fat, protein, and calories is the ideal combination for your extra stash.
4. Hydration: Extra water and water purification system
If you’ve done your research and know you’ll be in an area with abundant water sources, consider what you’ll need to get started but make sure you have a way to purify more when you need it or if you’re out longer than expected. The Sawyer Mini Filter is always in my pack and is a lightweight and very inexpensive way to insure I don’t return home with any nasty “souvenirs” such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium!
5. First Aid Kit
If you’re just getting started with hiking, there are many pre-made kits you can purchase, like this one from Adventure Medical Kit. Over the years, I’ve tweaked my first aid kit to my own needs and the needs of who I might be hiking with, but at a minimum you should have what these kits have in them and you should know what each item is for and when you should use it.
6. Fire System: Waterproof Matches and Fire Starters
This is a biggie, especially in cold weather. A lighter literally saved the lives of David and his friend.
For something practical and functional but also cool and creative, the Bellows Fire Starting Kit won me some major cool points when I bought it for Aidan, my 14-year-old son, to use when he’s building fires.
7. Repair Kit and Tools: Knife, multi-purpose tool, extras for repairs
I personally carry this small Swiss Army pocket knife on most of my hikes and it serves me well. Some folks are knife aficionados and have a knife for every occasion, but I’m just not that kinda gal and I keep it simple. If you carry a small knife like I do, I recommend getting a bright color so it’s easy to see if you drop it.
Repair items include things like needle and thread, duct tape (no need for an entire roll, just wrap some around a hiking pole), repair tape (Tenacious Tape is the bomb), cable ties, and cordage are things I carry in my pack.
8. Insulation: Extra Clothes and Rain Gear
Another self-explanatory item, but make sure you also include some type of rain gear in your pack at all times. Even in summer months, getting caught in a rain storm can induce hypothermia in certain conditions. For a great, relatively inexpensive rain jacket, the Marmot Precip is one I use frequently. Other extra clothes should include an insulating layer, like long underwear, extra socks, and a jacket/coat made of either synthetic material or down (but make sure to take extra care keeping it dry if it’s filled with down feathers). I also purchase my outer layers in bright colors, especially for my kids, since they are more visible to searchers.
Also, make sure you keep these clothes protected in your pack. You can purchase a waterproof stuff sack, but a thick garbage or compacter bag will do just fine (and it also doubles as an emergency bivy).
There’s no need to bring your car camping tent with you, but you do need some form of shelter in your pack at all times. I carry this emergency bivy with me and it’s an incredibly lightweight option for the coverage it would provide me in an emergency. A trash compactor bag works well also.
10. Sun Protection: Sunglasses and Sunscreen
If you’re lost or stuck in an exposed area, the last thing you want to set yourself up for is a blistering sunburn. Sunglasses are especially important in snowy conditions, to prevent snow blindness.
The “Extras” I Recommend
So those are the biggies, but I have a few extras I carry and I highly recommend them, depending on the conditions you’ll be hiking in and how remote of a location you’re heading to. They are as follows:
Satellite Messenger/Locator Beacon
Basically, these are devices that will alert emergency services that you need help and provide them with your location. There are several devices on the market, each with pros and cons. Here’s a great website that reviews the most common ones and outlines their individual strengths and weaknesses.
As a frequent solo hiker who has a husband and three kids expecting her to make dinner in perpetuity, I deem this a non negotiable in my own pack. Every solo hiker should carry one, in my opinion, as it’s the closest thing you have to another human alerting emergency services that you need help. Even if you always hike with someone else, it’s good insurance to have in your pack.
I carry the ACR ResQLink because it sends the strongest signal (and just FYI, it received the highest rating in the study linked above). When you hike in areas with a thick canopy of leaves, a strong signal outweighs other features, in my opinion.
Many backpacks have whistles on the sternum strap, but if yours doesn’t, make sure you carry one with you. The sound from them doesn’t carry nearly as far as they claim, at least in thick woods, but for the negligible weight they add to your pack it’s definitely worth keeping one with you. They’re useful if you’re lost or injured search and rescue is trying to locate you, or if you’re trying to scare off wildlife, such as a bear. The whistle pattern for signaling help is 3 short bursts.
Portable Battery Charger for Cell Phone
If you keep your cell phone in airplane mode or turn it off completely, and you’re just heading out for a short day hike, this isn’t something you necessarily need; however, if you like to take pictures with your phone, use a navigational app, or are going to be out for several days on a backpacking trip, an external battery charger is worthy of the few ounces it adds to your pack. I carry this one and it charges my phone about 6 times.
My umbrella from Gossamer Gear is one of the most useful pieces of gear in my pack. It’s both instant shade in sunny, hot conditions and instant cover in rainy conditions (assuming it’s not windy, in which case it is too fragile to use and doesn’t do much to block the rain, anyway). My umbrella is specifically made for backpacking, since it’s lightweight and has a reflective canopy, but there’s no need to splurge if you want to carry something you already have at home. Not a necessity by any means, but I consider it a “must take” on every trip!
These bracelets gained their popularity with runners, but they can serve as an added layer of security in many situations, especially hiking. Road ID is the most well known brand and they provide an instant identification system for yourself or whomever you choose to have wear one (I think kids would be the perfect candidate for them, and they even make a kid-sized version of them). They also alert others to any allergies the person wearing them might have.
Hand and Foot Warmers
Depending on the weather I’m hiking in, hand and foot warmers will often go in my pack. My hands and feet are incredibly sensitive to cold, and if I were ever injured and sedentary in cold weather, I’d pat myself on the back with my toasty warm hands for remembering to pack these with me!
In addition to the tangible things that should always, always, always be present in your pack (no really, ALWAYS!), there are some non-tangibles that David, from our survival story, recommends. I asked him what he thought saved his life besides the lighter he had with them. He wisely told me:
Incredible will to live
This should be taken just as seriously as the list above. You can have all the survival gear you need to live for days, but if your head isn’t in a frame of mind to deal the mental and emotional challenges that inevitably come with being lost or injured in the woods, you lessen your chances for survival.
While David and his friend may not have had nearly enough in their packs to realistically survive the conditions they were dealt (except for the lighter, which I think I may have gilded in gold upon my safe return), what they packed in their hearts and heads was ultimately just as important.
The next post in this series covers something I hope you never face–what to do if you do become lost or injured in the woods. David will chime in again with some tips and inspiration as well, based on his own harrowing experience.
Feel free to reach out to me with any specific questions or comments or share this post with others who might find it useful (there’s even a handy dandy Pinterest button at the bottom of the post too, if you’re into “pinning!”). Also, if you’ve ever been in a situation you learned from that you’d like to share, I’d love for you to add it to the comment section below for others to learn from too.
Have tons of fun out there, folks, but be safe and smart. You have one precious life, and it’s too valuable to risk losing it to negligence!
The future depends on what we do in the present. ~Mahatma Gandhi