When in Colorado, Prepare for the Wild

NPR recently published an article written by Brian Mann, titled “More Americans Head into the Wild Unprepared for…the Wild.”  Mann argues that with the increase in access to and popularity of being in the outdoors, there comes a growing strain on New York’s forest rangers—and several other local search and rescue teams—as inexperienced outdoor enthusiasts head into the unknown. Search and rescue missions  are increasing on a grand scale. According to statements from search and rescue teams based in Colorado, these increases are at least partially attributed to population growth and the influx of newcomers to the area who are unaware of the unpredictable weather patterns of the Rockies. In addition, increased cell service allows people to call more often for less severe circumstances. Oftentimes, people find themselves depending on technology for navigation, rather than more reliable outdoor navigation techniques.

Photo by Austin Halpern

As tourists and new residents explore Colorado, they must grow accustomed to factors specific to the region, such as dramatic weather changes within small spaces of time. Colorado 14ers are a popular destination for many outdoor enthusiasts, yet many are not aware of the lightning storms near the tops of peaks on summer afternoons, or the effects of high altitude. In previous decades, outdoor adventurers typically had to refer to guide books, locals, and park rangers to learn about where to go and what precautions to take. Now, people rely on nternet-based research. The influence of social media has the potential to put people in situations they are unprepared for, like difficult terrain or running out of daylight.

As cell service in remote areas gains traction, people frequently rely on their cell phones to serve as their ‘safety’ equipment, and sometimes make unnecessary phone calls to search and rescue teams. Backpacker Magazine’s editor-in-chief explained, “They’re just calling for help because they can.” The Colorado-based Alpine Rescue Team reports being called to simply guide lost hikers who took a wrong turn and could have easily prevented the situation by preparing beforehand and bringing a map.

In addition, as people rely more and more on technology for guidance, basic navigation skills become a second thought. Cell phones and GPS can tell you which direction to go, but they rarely factor in conditions like backcountry terrain or obstacles. Rescue missions that involve people who followed instructions from a GPS into unsafe conditions are on the rise. Using a map and making sure you’ve planned your route, as well as being observant and taking note of landmarks around you, can greatly mitigate the likelihood of such a situation.

As worrying as this trend may be, there are upsides to technology. Search times have been drastically reduced on some occasions where the lost person had a GPS device with them. The Colorado Search and Rescue Board (CSRB) still recommends caution, because even if they can pinpoint your location, they still have to physically get to you. In remote areas this can take quite a while, so knowing basic skills such as first aid, fire and shelter building, and how to keep yourself warm are key. Fire safety also needs to be stressed, especially since the Rockies are notorious for fires. The CSRB has released a list of what they see as essential supplies for those going on outdoor excursions: an emergency shelter, extra food and water, a first aid kit, a map and compass, a pocketknife, matches and fire starter, a flashlight, extra clothing, and sunglasses. With high altitude and volatile weather, these items are essential in Colorado.  The CSRB also emphasizes the need to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back, as well as bringing someone with you if possible.

The strain placed on search and rescue teams is increasing for a variety of these reasons.  However, with all this being said, if you are new to the outdoors, please still go and explore. The outdoors are a great place to be, but make sure you and the people with you are prepared and know how to handle yourselves if something goes wrong. Search and rescue folks are happy to help, but you will be happier if you meet them by chance at a ranger station, rather than in an emergency.

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