How to Handle Emergencies on the Trail

How to Handle Emergencies on the Trail

Many people love hiking because it is a great way to escape the rat race for a while, unwind, and get in shape, amongst many other benefits. Being in the remote wilderness, though, events or accidents outside of your control can pop up suddenly, such as forest fires or breaking your ankle. It can be scary thinking about some of the bad things that can happen while out hiking, but it's always best to be prepared for anything. 

With that being said and in light of the recent California earthquake that caused massive rock slides down the popular hiking destination of Mt.Whitney, we want to talk about one of the more “uncomfortable” subjects surrounding backpacking and hiking: Trail emergencies. We'll cover several common ones, such as rock slides, avalanches, and serious injuries. We hope this article helps you to feel more prepared and confident to tackle any challenge you may face on your backcountry adventures!

Featured Photo: Forest Fire Thick Smoke (photo by Tony Webster)

Rock Slides/Land Slides

Small rock slides happen all the time in mountainous areas where there is a lot of build-up of “mountain remnants”, or scree, talus, etc. Most of these events, while momentarily frightening, are usually not life-threatening and you may slide down an incline some. What should you do when you see or hear a major rock or landslide coming your way, though? 

Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot you can do in extreme cases. You'll want to move as far as possible out of the path of the coming onslaught. The farther away the better. Even if it looks like you are out of the path, rocks can bounce unpredictably as they clamber down a mountain. Take, for instance, this story of two gentlemen who were both injured during a week-long trek in the Grand Canyon. 

More often than not, rock slides are inadvertently started by humans. That being said, there are some precautions you can take to avoid getting caught in/starting one to begin with. For starters, never walk in another hiker's “fall line”. In other words, don't want directly underneath them farther down on a trail (think switchback areas). If possible, walk crossways instead of straight up or down slopes filled with loose rocks. Take your time and find your footing. It may take a bit longer if you're inexperienced with “boulder hopping”, but it beats getting an avoidable injury any day!

In the case of both land and rock slides, if you are unable to outrun it, it's best to crouch down and cover your head for protection. It's also suggested to use a blanket or tarp to cover yourself, which might also increase your chances of not getting completely buried or making it easier for you to dig yourself out when it is over. Last, but not least, do not attempt to take shelter behind trees, especially during a land/mudslide. These forces shouldn't be underestimated and can take the tree out, along with you, on its path down. Check out this website for several more tips on landslide preparedness. 


Like rock slides, avalanches are typically caused by the outdoor adventurers who end up getting caught in them. Though snowmobilers and skiers are the most likely to start/encounter avalanches, it is worth noting some survival tips for those who do some high mountain hiking.

Since avalanches are usually started by people, try to jump over/above the crack line, if you can. Most avalanches are started by compromised shelves of snow breaking away from the surrounding area, so getting back onto stable snow is the best thing you can do. If one is coming at you from above, try to move as far away from it as possible. Unless it is a small one, chances are you will not be able to completely get out of its path as they move incredibly fast (60-80mph), but they are fastest and pack the most force in the center, so getting near the outside edge can still help your chances of survival.

So, what do you do if you do become caught up in the flow? For small avalanches, grabbing on to a tree or rock will help keep you from getting carried away. For major avalanches, flailing your arms as much as possible or using a swimming motion will help keep you above the surface of the flow. You should also keep one arm up because it can aid rescuers in finding you quicker. If possible, you should also cup your free hand around your mouth to create an air pocket. Once you have stopped moving, try your best to dig a bigger pocket. The bigger the better, but you also don't want to exert yourself too much or panic because this will increase the amount of carbon dioxide you are breathing out. The more of this that builds up in your air pocket, the shorter amount of time rescuers will have to find you. 

If you frequently travel in areas with snowy slopes, it might be wise to invest in an avalanche or other type of rescue beacon

Wild Fires

Due to changing global conditions, wildfires are expected to become more numerous and more dangerous in the coming years. Judging by some of the terrible wildfires we have experienced here in the U.S. and Australia over the past several years, we seem to already be heading toward that trend. It is important to know what to do in the event of a forest fire no matter where you're hiking, but especially so in the western United States where these fires can quickly become out of control under dry, windy conditions. 

There are many factors that go into what the appropriate action is in the event of a wildfire. Try to assess the situation as quickly as possible. Which way is the smoke coming from? Which way is it headed? Having a good map, whether paper, GPS, or otherwise, can be vitally important for knowing which way your trail is headed in relation to where the fire is coming from. It's also important to remember where you've come from. How far back was the closest body of water? Is there a town nearby you can get to, even if it means wandering off-trail? What is the nearest mile marker for the trail? This is also an instance where a satellite phone can become very handy by both making local authorities aware of the blaze and that you need assistance.

In general, you will want to avoid ridgelines, chutes, and saddles at all costs. Fire travels uphill, so your best bet is heading downhill in the opposite direction the fire is headed. If possible, head for areas with less fuel (trees, pine needles, undergrowth, etc) for the fire, such as ponds, streams, rocky areas, and grassy fields/meadows (as long as it is still green and not dried out). 

If you can't get away from the fire and/or the smoke is getting thick, get low to the ground, just as you would in a house fire, to avoid breathing as much smoke as possible since it rises. Get into a low spot, depression, ditch, stream bed, etc and lie down with your feet towards the direction the blaze is coming from. As with avalanches, try digging an air pocket in the ground below your face. If you have something you can put over your mouth, such as a shirt or handkerchief, even better. After waiting it out, try to make your way to safety by following the already burned areas. 

This article from the Pacific Crest Trail Association has additional valuable information concerning forest fires. 

Getting Lost

This is quite possibly every hiker's worst nightmare, especially if you often go hiking by yourself. The U.S. Forest Service uses a convenient acronym for remembering what to do if you find yourself lost in the woods: STOP. Stop as soon as you realize you're lost. Think about how you got to where you are. Do you see any familiar landmarks? Observe your surroundings. Get your bearings by using a compass. If you are on a trail, stay on the trail until you find a sign or marker. Plan your route. If you do not feel confident about your decision, it's best to stay put. You can find more information on their website.

In general, it's best to stay where you are instead of inadvertently getting yourself even farther away from help by continuing on foot. This is especially true if you are off-trail. If you have a personal locator device, activate it. If you have a satellite phone, calling 911/the state police is the fastest way to get help. Calling the local ranger station or forestry service office may seem like the most logical thing to do, but they can be hit or miss. You will for sure get a response from the state police and they will be able to contact local authorities in a timely manner to start your search and rescue mission. 

Additionally, if you believe a friend or family member may be missing, here is information on how to go about reporting a missing hiker

Serious Injury

Obtaining a serious injury on the trail can be treated similarly to getting lost. (Obviously, if it is life-threatening you won't want to waste too much time analyzing courses of action before acting as quickly as possible.) Whether you're alone and injure yourself, it's a hiking partner, or you happen to come across another injured hiker on the trail, this is why you should seriously consider investing in a rescue beacon of some sort or a quality satellite phone at the very least, especially if you will be hiking in very remote areas, going on thru-hikes, etc. It could make the difference between life and death. If you have a satellite phone, it's best to call 911 for the same reason as above: They will be able to notify the appropriate local authorities asap. It's also important to know where you are. The more information you have, such as trail name/number, closest mile-marker, landmarks, etc, the easier it will be for search and rescue teams to find you. 

If you are unable to contact anyone, you may be able to wait for another hiker to come along and help if the area is relatively busy and the injury is not life-threatening. If you aren't too far from “civilization” and you are with other hikers, it may be best to have the non-injured person backtrack for help. Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution to backcountry injuries and the appropriate actions vary on a case-by-case basis. Just remember to stay calm, treat any injuries that you are able to, and use common sense. 

Have you ever encountered a trail emergency? What tips would you share?

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