Leave your ego at home: How To Stay Safe In The Mountains

Following my original piece on The Day I Almost Got Lost: How To Stay Safe In The Mountains, I received a number of comments and input from friends and fellow hikers, which I’ve incorporated in this updated post.

I thought really hard about whether or not to share the original post. Reason being, I was reprimanded by my husband when I recounted the incident to him last weekend upon my safe return.

He asked me how the trip went. I hadn’t intended to tell him what happened, as I didn’t want to worry him. Since he asked, I shrugged and gave him the lowdown.

Before I had a chance to finish my story, he looked up, frowned his eyebrows, and responded: "I notice a similar pattern…”

Knowing my husband full well, I sensed a tinge of accusation through both his body language (furrowed eyebrows) and choice of words (“I notice a similar pattern...”).

“Are you saying it’s my fault I almost got lost?” I asked, letting my anger rise.

“No”, he reasoned, “I mean, there is a similar pattern as to how you almost got in trouble last year in Joshua Tree with W and this time peak bagging with Steve, no?”

He went on: “You go hiking with your friends, they’re ahead of you, you tell them to go on and you'd catch up later, and then you guys got separated. That happened with W last year, and with Steve this year. You shouldn't do that. You go as a group, you stick as a group, regardless of differences in fitness level.”

I stared at him, and then softened. He has a point.

He continued: “Especially when one party is reliant on the other for navigation and direction. In both cases, you were reliant on the other party for navigation and transportation. You should not separate from the group."

I felt silly, naive, unprepared and to blame for my “almost” getting lost/stranded in the mountains.

Following my conversation with my husband and input from other hikers, I now establish these hiking safety rules:

1. Establish fitness levels.

Before you go outdoor adventuring with someone else, establish the group’s and your fitness level. As much as possible, make sure you’re on similar fitness levels. If one party is fitter than the other, the fitter party has to agree to slow down and wait for the slower party.

2. Leave your ego at home, stay in a group and stay connected.

Don't feel bad or be a martyr - safety first, ego second. If you’re the slower party, understand that your safety is more important than feeling bad about slowing the group down. Never underestimate group separation. Never think, oh, it’s just a short gap between us, I’ll catch up in no time. Or, you can go ahead first, I can still see you and try to catch up. Rocks, shrubs, tall trees, fallen tree trunks and the lack of established footpaths in the woods create a maze that could easily throw you off course. If the differences in fitness levels is a problem, it's up to the group to decide if they would not invite you on future trips; it's not up to you to play martyr and risk possible stranded or risky situations.

After Steve and my hike up Highland Peak last week, I studied our hiking route and noticed that when we were calling out for each other on the mountain and could hear but not locate each other, we were actually on separate trails, moving farther away from each other. Steve’s trail is in orange, mine’s in black. Notice that at one point, Steve was to the left and I was to the right. You see, sounds bounce off mountains in confusing directions, misleading us on each other's whereabouts and location.

Strava Flyby is a cool feature from Strava. Here, you could study the route you and someone else on the same trail took, and where you "passed" each other. Typically this feature is used to compare speed (how quickly someone went and "passed" you), but in my case, I was analyzing at which point Steve and I got separated on the mountain.

Strava Flyby is a cool feature from Strava. Here, you could study the route you and someone else on the same trail took, and where you "passed" each other. Typically this feature is used to compare speed (how quickly someone went and "passed" you), but in my case, I was analyzing at which point Steve and I got separated on the mountain.

As a safety measure, I just bought GoTenna (it arrived this week), which I hope will give us connectivity in the absence of cell phone signals when we hike up several 14,000-feet mountains this coming weekend.

How GoTenna works is: We each have a GoTenna (when you buy it, it comes in a pair. You have the option of buying it in packs of four or eight, for larger groups). You pair GoTenna with the GoTenna app on your phone (via bluetooth) and voila! you’re both on a similar “network”. You can then text each other and send GPS coordinates to each other. No cell phone network or charges required. Simply pull out your GoTenna, pair it with your phone and you could communicate with each other. Sounds rather simple in theory - I’ll try it out this weekend and post a review on the range and use after.

GoTenna - stay communicated, even without cell phone service

GoTenna - stay communicated, even without cell phone service

3. Be over prepared

Always carry enough gears with you to spend the night in the mountain. You never know if an accident might happen, an avalanche might hit, a tree trunk might snap, you might fall or break an ankle. These are incidences beyond your control. Be prepared to spend a night in the mountain before rescue comes. Carry these gears with you even if you’re out for a day hike:

  1. Warm clothing - long sleeve top, jacket, pants, beanie

  2. More food than necessary - carry a variety of food because you might get tired of eating the same time over extended hours - have a mix of hard and soft, sweet and salty food. For example, I usually carry peanut butter sandwiches (“real” food), Clif bars (trail food), nuts and crackers (snacks), dried fruits (mango, dates), fresh fruits (apples, plums). And of course, water. If you know you drink more, carry lots. 

  3. Headlamp - to hike in the dark or during nightfall

  4. Paper map - carry one, if possible, and please, learn to read topographic maps. That reminds me - I have to learn before my next peak bagging trip this week!

  5. Compass - a physical one, yes. Because your phone might run of out battery.

  6. Power pack - to power your drained phone battery.

  7. Whistle - to signal for help because your voice can only travel so far and you’d get tired of continued shouting and screaming. I certainly got tired of calling Steve! Steve! last week.

  8. Pocket or utility knife - to disentangle or release yourself from a trapped branch, for instance. Or if you need to dissect an insect to grill over the fire for food.

  9. First aid kit - a small, basic kit will do. Include painkillers like Ibuprofen or Advil.

  10. Bear spray - as added protection against beasts of the field.

I hope you find this post useful. As always, go on out and explore. You are guaranteed to return a better person for it. ;)