How to handle an emergency in a state park or forest

Guest post by Aaron Smith

Nature can be unforgiving. Before embarking on a wilderness adventure, some preliminary planning is a must. The great outdoors should be respected and approached with a healthy amount of caution, but as long as you pack smart, most emergencies can be abated (at least temporarily) until you’re able to get back to civilization.

Follow these simple steps to make your next outdoor excursion safer for everyone involved. With any luck, you won’t have to think twice about these tips once you’re out in the wild, but it’ll be comforting to know you’re prepared for the unforeseen.

  1. Research the Terrain

Before heading out, make sure you know exactly what to expect, especially if you’re with other people. If you’re looking for trip ideas for your family, for example, spelunking through a series of caves may not be suitable for younger hikers. Learn the difficulty of the terrain and how it corresponds to everyone’s skill levels, and never push anyone beyond their comfort level.

It’s also important that you’re aware of any seasonal changes. For example, if you’re doing some fall hikes, it’s important that you know when hunting season is and where people could be hunting. Or, if you’re camping in a dry area, make sure you take steps to prevent wildfires. Poor planning and a lack of situational awareness are the major causes of avoidable emergency situations.

  1. Prepare Your Gear

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. While it’s tempting to leave your phone at home and fully embrace a more natural, technology-free experience, a mobile phone is far-and-away the most useful item if an emergency happens. Make sure you know how long your cell battery lasts, and be sure to charge it up fully before heading out.

In addition to a fully charged phone, it’s wise to bring a portable solar charger. You may even want to consider bringing a spare prepaid phone as a backup. Depending on how far out you’re going, there’s a good chance you won’t have access to a charger until you get back.

Other useful items to add to your emergency kit include: a standalone GPS unit, compass, map, first-aid kit, flashlight, whistle, multitool/pocket knife, fire-starting gear, and binoculars. Don’t forget to load your backpack up with plenty of extra food and water and any clothing that may be required if the weather takes a turn for the worse (a roll-up poncho weighs very little and occupies minimal bag space). 

  1. Bring a Buddy

While traveling alone can be rewarding, solo adventures in the wilderness can also be risky. Consider bringing a friend or inviting a group. While you’re out camping this fall, be sure to check in with each other. For example, if one of you is gathering firewood, say where you’re going and how long you’ll be. If you do decide to go alone, make sure you leave an itinerary with a trusted friend or family member. 

  1. Stay Calm and Collected

If an emergency happens, try not to let your emotions get the best of you. Panicking often leads to poor decisions that worsen the situation. Your goal is to find a solution as quickly as possible, but don’t act impulsively unless you’re in immediate danger. Weigh your options carefully, considering the pros and cons of every choice. Sometimes it’s best to stay put and wait for rescue.

  1. Call for Emergency Services

Never let your ego stand in the way of your safety. All too often, a situation starts as a mild problem and turns into an emergency due to a snowball of poor decisions. There’s no shame in calling for emergency assistance if you’re in a potentially dangerous situation. The faster you act, the better off you’ll be. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t ignore it.

  1. Stay On the Trail

Walking the road less traveled can be alluring, but if you’re not an expert with significant experience, getting lost in the wilderness is simply not worth the risk. If an emergency occurs and you’re in an area designated for visitors, you’re significantly more likely to be found and rescued.

Pay attention to landmarks and check your map regularly so you’re always confident in your position. As long as you’re vigilant, aware, and cautious, you should be able to prevent most common emergency situations.

Aaron Smith is a writer, copy strategist, and consultant who works with several companies and non-profits. In his free time, Aaron enjoys swimming, swing dancing, sci-fi novels, and hiking with his dogs.