Staying Safe in the Wilderness
Being outside has always been a passion of mine. When I came to Plymouth State University, I decided to combine my passion of the outdoors with my love of photography in order to set a foundation to make a living out of what I enjoy. My Interdisciplinary Studies major is titled “Adventure Photography”, which involves classes from Adventure Education, Photography, and Biology. Ideally, after college, I will be spending the majority of my time in the wilderness hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, and more with my camera. I will be photographing wildlife and places that can’t be reached by car. Perhaps, someday in the far off future, you’ll see photographs in National Geographic with my name in the credits. To be able to do this, I will need to know how to be safe in the wilderness, minimize my impact on the environment and successfully make photographs.
As a start, I took a class called Wilderness First Responder (WFR), where I learned a lot of valuable skills. I can treat cuts and abrasions, sprains and strains, fractures, hypothermia and hyperthermia, and much more. I am certified as a WFR, which enables be to give medical attention to myself and those who are with me, but it doesn’t teach me how stay safe and prevent injuries and illness from happening.
Being on the water allows me to photograph aquatic life and scenery and it also provides me with a fairly quick form of transportation on a body of water. Kayaks and canoes are good choices as they are small and rely on man-power alone. As far as staying safe on the water goes, weather is usually the first thing that comes to mind. When you are in a populated area, it’s easy to just watch the weather channel or check your phone for updates, but in remote areas, it’s a little more difficult.
Reading the wind and the clouds is a great skill to have to predict weather. The faster that wispy clouds take a more definite shape, the greater the chance there is for rain. Winds shifting directions frequently is also a sign of rain. Gentle wind blowing from the West usually signals fair weather, while wind shifting from south east is usually a sign for bad weather (Dillon & Oyen, 2009, p. 81-82).
Reading the water is another important skill to have. Pillows are small, rounded waves formed downstream from a rock that is underwater. The deeper the rock, the further downstream the pillow will be. Holes, which are also called hydrolics, are formed when a rock or object is wide enough to prevent water from filling in the void downstream; a dip downstream from the object will be followed by a boil, which recirculates the water. Knowing how to read them is important to know because if the hole feeds downstream, it can be fun to kayak over, but if it feeds upstream, it is likely to trap you and your kayak. If you’re unsure of which way it feeds, it’s best to avoid it. Microcurrents are currents within currents. They can be complicated to read, but are important to know where to paddle your kayak and to avoid hidden obstacles. Obstacles to avoid are “strainers”. Strainers are formed by fallen trees or brush and debris caught between rocks. Water flows through, but larger objects, such as people and kayaks, get stuck, and escape is often difficult (Dillon & Oyen, 2009, p. 89-96).
Communication is the same for both kayaking and canoeing. The signal to stop is to hold the paddle horizontally, overhead. Help/emergency is signaled by waving the paddle from side to side and to give the all clear signal, hold the paddle vertical, but stationary. To signal for others in your group to go a certain direction, point with the paddle. To ask if someone is okay, tap your helmet three times and point to the person, if they are okay, they should respond by tapping their helmet three times.
Special caution should always be taken in cool water/weather. Hypothermia can begin in temperatures as low as 40 degrees when wet. Mild hypothermia be treated by replacing the wet clothing with dry, keeping them in a place of warmth, and giving them hot, sweet drinks, without caffeine or alcohol (Dillon & Oyen, 2009, p. 105). The hypothermic wrap can also be used. This is created by placing a sleeping pad on the center of a tarp and placing the victim, in dry clothing, in a sleeping bag, on the pad and wrapping the tarp around them (Hubbell, 2014).
When layering clothing, the three W’s should be used as a guideline: wicking, warmth, and weather. The wicking layer, which should be synthetic, is the base layer and wicks moisture away from your skin. The warmth layer adds insulation and should be wool, fleece, or pile. The weather layer is the outer layer and protects you from the elements. Rain and wind are a concern, but the weather layer helps with this (Dillon & Oyen, 2008, p. 60-61).
When travelling in a group, positions should be assigned. The lead boat sets the pace and makes sure that the group stays together. The sweep boat takes up the rear and makes sure that no one gets left behind. Those with proper experience can be assigned as rescue boats to handle rescue situations. Rescue boats should not take on the responsibility as lead or sweep (Dillon & Oyen, 2008, p. 83-84).
It’s important to know how to perform rescues for when a canoe or kayak capsizes. For canoes, a throw bags can be used from shore to help a swimmer who has fallen out of their boat. Hold the free end of the rope with one hand and call “rope!” before throwing the bag end of the rope. Be sure to prepare for the rope to become taught and to keep steady with the swimmer’s weight while they pendulum towards shore downstream from you. In deep water, the canoe-over-canoe rescue can be performed. The swamped canoe should meet the middle of the rescue canoe, forming a T. The capsized paddler at the end of the canoe should push down while the capsized paddler at the front of the canoe should lift the canoe up to help guide it over the rescue canoe to allow it to drain. Once it drains, the rescue paddlers flip the capsized canoe upright and slide it back into the water. The rescuers hold the formerly capsized canoe steady while the capsized paddlers carefully re-enter their canoe (Dillon & Oyen, 2008, p. 126-128). Kayaks have slightly different protocols. Learning how to “wet exit” is important in order to exit the kayak safely once it has capsized. Release the spray skirt from the kayak, place your hands adjacent to the cockpit on either sides of your hips, and push out of the boat. Continue to push out until your legs are free of the cockpit and your life jacket can float you to the surface. For visibility and safety, make sure to keep contact with both your kayak and your paddle (Dillon & Oyen, 2009, p. 120-121). A form of self-rescue is the paddle float method. First, attach the paddle float and attach it to your paddle, then flip your kayak over so that it is right-side-up again. Then, scissor kick your legs to help lunge your chest onto the stern of the kayak. Next, put one leg into the cockpit and then the other, while still chest-down, before flipping around into a sitting position (Dillon & Oyen, 2009, p. 142-143). In deep water situations, the kayak-over-kayak method can be used; it is very similar to the canoe-over-canoe rescue. Again, the boats form a T and the capsized paddler pushes down on the end of the kayak to help the rescuer lift the front of the kayak out of the water and slide it over the deck of their kayak to allow it to drain. Once it drains, the rescuer flips the kayak upright and slides it back into the water, while the capsized paddler holds the rescue kayak steady. Once the kayaks are parallel to each other, the rescuer holds onto the cockpit of the formerly capsized kayak and allows the paddler to re-enter their kayak (Dillon & Oyen, 2009, p. 147-148).
Hiking is a form of travel on foot. When dressing for hiking, the first thing you should think about are your feet. Sturdy, mid-weight boots are recommended for moderate to rough terrain, while carrying 20-40 pound loads. Heavy-weight boots are more rigid and designed for moderate or rough terrain, while carrying heavier loads (Goldenberg, 2009, p. 53-54). Tilton adds that when choosing between mid-weight and heavy-weight boots, think about the duration of your trip. If it’s a weekend backpacking trip, the mid-weight boots will suffice without adding the extra weight to your feet, while if your journey is longer, heavy-weight boots are suggested (2009, p. 24-25). Wool or synthetic socks are recommended, as they wick moisture away from your skin (Goldenberg, 2009, p. 55). Good boots and care are important to keeping your feet comfortable and to prevent injury.
Just like kayaking and canoeing, layers are your friend: wicking, warmth, and weather. “If your feet are cold, put on a hat” is a saying that Goldenberg reminds us of while dressing for hiking (2009, p. 61). We are reminded that wind is a huge factor when it comes to losing body heat while hiking. Wind shells can be helpful to prevent this. Rain shells are also useful for this purpose and add the benefit of keeping you dry as well (Tilton, 2009, p. 30).
Nutrition is another key to keeping your body healthy and able to cope with the amount of energy you are exerting. Around 60% of your diet should be carbohydrates to supply your body with short-term energy. Fat should make up 20-25% of your diet for long-term energy and protein should make up the other 15-20% to aid your body in building or repairing body tissue (Goldenberg, 2009, p. 65). Hikers should eat between one and a half to two and a half pounds of food per day, with a calorie range from 2,500-5,000. In cold weather or more strenuous conditions, those numbers should increase (Tilton, 2009, p. 49).
Water is a safety concern for multiple reasons: hydration is very important and water should be safe to consume. Bacteria and viruses, although they cannot be seen, can ruin a trip and cause you to become ill. Always treat your water before you drink it. There are many ways to treat your water, including: boiling, filtering, chemical, and new technology (Goldenberg, 2009, p. 67-68). Tilton adds that Cryptosporidium, a protozoa, is often found in water and can live in your gut. It can make you sick and cause explosive diarrhea. Iodine and chlorine chemical treatments do not kill it, but chlorine dioxide will (2009, p. 43).
In a world full of cars and cities, a lot people seem to take our planet Earth for granted. Human beings tend to do a lot of damage to the environment, through pollution and more. Both on and off of the beaten path, it’s important to minimize our impact on the environment while in the wilderness. We need to share the environment with its plant and animal inhabitants as well.
Many hikers, campers, and paddlers practice the “leave no trace” policy. This system of outdoor ethics helps to minimize the impact of humans on the environment. Travelling and camping on durable surfaces, such as trails and tent platforms, helps to keep our impact on the environment contained to smaller sections. Camping should be at least 200 feet away from trails, lakes, streams, and other water sources. This helps to protect wildlife and plant life. Disposing of waste properly is important as well. This involves packing out trash, and doing your business at least 200 feet from the trail and water sources and being sure to dig a cathole, at least six inches deep, and burying it. Dishes and washing yourself should also be done 200 feet from the trail and water sources and to use only small amounts of biodegradable soap to do so. Waste water should be scattered over a large area, instead of poured into a small area, to reduce the impact on the environment as well (Leave No Trace).
Spring is a sensitive time of year for the trails. This brings rain and melting snow, both of which tend to form mud on the trails. Traffic from feet, wheels, hooves, and paws erode the muddy trails and impact nearby streams as well. During this time of year, it’s best find the driest trails to travel on to help prevent erosion and enjoy the trail more sustainably (Sustainable Recreation).
Campfires can disturb the environment, so care should always be taken when deciding on whether or not you should light a fire. Using a camp stove for cooking has the least impact on the environment and is usually the best choice. If you must have a campfire, the United States Forest Service (USFS) deems it unethical to have a fire “in places without abundant dead and downed wood and without proper measures to keep them from spreading through organic soil/peat moss/root systems.” When there aren’t any fire grates or fire rings already in place, build a low impact fire. Fires should only be built on inorganic soil, like gravel or sand. Fire pans/blankets should be used when possible and in cases where neither are accessible, build a mound, six to eight inches deep of sand or gravel, away from vegetation, to have your fire on. If you use a cloth underneath the mound, you can return the sand or gravel to where you got it from, after the fire is out. Wood for fires should be collected from a widespread area and already dead. Once the fire is out and everything has turned to ash, be sure to return the fire pit to its natural appearance and scatter the ashes over a widespread area (United States Forest Service).
Making photographs is a large piece of what I want to do with my life outdoors. In the words of John Muir “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures, and kill nothing but time.” That is my goal. Making photographs and enjoying nature what makes my soul happy and I’d like to continue to do these things while having the least impact possible on the environment.
Carrying a my camera, tripod, lenses, and other photography equipment sometimes adds an extra risk, due to the extra weight in my backpack and occupying my hands and concentration. However with caution and thinking ahead, I can minimize that risk and continue to make photographs in the wilderness.
Life is short and I want to live it. I’d rather spend my days following my passions instead of pursuing a safe, boring desk job, even if that means that there are many risks involved. However, I can try to lower the risks in the wilderness by planning ahead of time, having the knowledge to safely go about my activities, and the skills from my Wilderness First Responder course to manage injuries and medical emergencies. I can also practice the leave no trace policies to minimize my impact on the environment around me and help to preserve plant and wildlife to generations to come. I look forward to spending the rest of my life going on adventure with my camera and living life to the fullest.
Dillon, P. & Oyen, J. (2008). Canoeing. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Dillon, P. & Oyen, J. (2009). Kayaking. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.
Goldenberg, M. & Martin, B. (2008). Hiking and backpacking. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Leave No Trace. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016 from http://wilderness.org/article/leave- no-trace
Sustainable Recreation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016 from http://wilderness.org/article/sustainable-recreation
Tilton, B. (2009). Hiking & backpacking. Guilford, CT: Knack.
United States, United States Forest Service, Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Minimize Campfire Impact.