“I think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
- George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
When facing one of nature’s emergencies, a hiker’s best defence is a combination of level headedness and the knowledge and skill with which to act decisively.
In places such as Australia and the southwest of the United States, bush (or forest) fires are a regular occurrence between late spring and early Fall on an almost annual basis. If you are hiking in fire-prone regions, you need to be aware of the necessary precautions and evacuation strategies.
BEFORE LEAVING HOME
- Check the weather forecast before setting out. Avoid any high fire danger areas when soaring temperatures and strong winds are prevalent.
- Leave details of your proposed route and schedule with someone you trust. Be sure to contact them upon your return.
WHAT TO DO IF CAUGHT IN A BUSHFIRE
- Be Aware: If a bush fire starts in your vicinity, chances are you will smell and hear it before you see any flames.
- Stay Calm: Take a moment to weigh up your options.
- Assess the Situation: Note the direction of the wind, which indicates the direction in which the fire will be most rapidly moving. Take note of your surrounding terrain, correlating your position on the ground with that on your map. Identify the best possible evacuation route and move swiftly.
- Firebreaks: If the fire is upon you, head immediately for any natural firebreaks such as lakes, rivers, large clearings or gullies.
- Defensive Measures: If you make it to a dry firebreak, wet a shirt and bandana and put them over your head and mouth respectively. Lie face down on the ground. This will help reduce any potential damage to your respiratory system due to smoke inhalation.
Prevention is definitely better than getting zapped. Three points to remember:
- Plan ahead.
- Be cognizant of any changes in weather conditions.
- Know what to do if you are caught in a storm.
- Forecast: Check the weather forecast before setting out.
- Research: Review notes and/or maps of your proposed route, identifying areas such as exposed ridges and hilltops which are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes. Plan to avoid such areas during the time of day when electrical storms are most likely to occur. Check for possible descent routes in case of an emergency.
- Awareness: Whilst hiking, be cognizant of any changes in the weather. Forecasts are sometimes wrong.
- Preemptive Action: Don’t wait until you hear thunder before taking action. If storm clouds are heading in your direction, begin descending ASAP. Even a small distance can make a difference. Lightning generally strikes the tallest object or point in the vicinity.
CAUGHT IN THE STORM
If descent is not option and the storm is upon you:
- Location, Location: Keep away from lone trees or rocks.
- Avoid Metal Items: Set aside any metal items such as hiking poles, ice axe or pack frames which can act as conductors in case you are struck.
- Avoid Water Soaked Ground: See Metal Items.
- Assume the Position: Crouch on an insulating material such as your sleeping mat or frameless backpack. Tuck your chin down on your chest. Your hands and bum should be off the ground.
- In the Forest: If you are in a forest or bush area during an electrical storm, don’t take shelter directly under tall trees. Better to position yourself amongst low-lying bushes.
- In a Group: If you are hiking in a group, spread out to minimize the chance of multiple victims from the same strike.
- CPR: If a member of your group is struck and knocked unconscious, CPR should be administered immediately. Note that victims do not carry any electrical charge after being struck.
- Check for Injuries and Evacuate: Once consciousness has been regained check for any injuries such as burns or broken bones. Evacuate the victim and seek professional medical attention immediately. If you are solo and still able to walk, proceed slowly to the nearest evacuation point.
When hiking in snowbound, mountainous terrain hikers need to be aware of the dangers posed by avalanches. Three main points to consider:
- Education: Before embarking on a trip, educate yourself in regards to the different types of avalanches, warning signs, necessary precautions and what to do in case of a worst-case scenario.
- Up-to-date Information: Before setting out, check the latest weather forecast and consult with local authorities as to the current snow conditions and potentially hazardous areas.
- Recognition: Theory is all well and good, but unless you can translate what you have learned out in the field, all your acquired knowledge will be for nothing. Keep your wits about you at all times and be cognizant of any changes in your surroundings.
Any snow slope, no matter what its gradient, has the potential to slide. The steeper the angle, the greater the probability. Avalanches most commonly occur on slopes ranging from 30 to 45 degrees. For a general overview of avalanche basics, click on the following link from Princeton University’s Outdoor Action website.
The sudden nature of flash floods is what constitutes their greatest threat.
- Reasearch: Check the weather forecast before setting out. Review notes and maps, identifying areas (eg. gorges, canyons, valley bottoms, stream beds, lake beds, river washes and basins) that are prone to flash flooding during sudden heavy rainfall.
- Awareness: Whilst hiking always be cognizant of any sudden changes in weather patterns. Forecasts are not always accurate. Never take the weather for granted.
- Choosing a Campsite: If heavy rain is a possibility, avoid making camp in the above-mentioned places. Identify high water marks and/or flood debris level and search out a campsite above these points.
- Patience: During flash flooding, find higher ground and stay put. Water levels will go down. Be patient. Flash floods usually last less than six hours.