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National Park Backcountry Hiking and Camping Survival

“One mistake people make is thinking nothing can go wrong.” These words were spoken by George Brown after spending two lost days in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. When a solo riding adventure went wrong during what would have been an eight-day excursion through the Bob, he was left with a broken leg, limited mobility, freezing temperatures, bad weather and no shelter to hide.

Fortunately, George Brown’s story ended after 48 hours of pure survival in the Montana backcountry. However, many hikers in the wilder national parks are not lucky enough to come back with that much. And many of these stories begin with the words George Brown said in hindsight – that no hiker or camper believes this could happen to them.

National Park Survival Basics: What You Need to Know

We had the chance to speak with SmokyMountains.com about an in-depth study into survival not just in the Smoky Mountains, but in National Parks across the United States. Taking into account data from all corners of the country, as well as more than 100 stories from hikers and campers, the results – and the statistics – were staggering. As a result, the takeaways were a complete guide to what to do, what not to do, what problems one might face, and what to do in those life scenarios or of death – even when you’re solo.

Related: Planning an AT Thru-Hike? Here are the essentials hikers swear by

First: be prepared, don’t get caught without a plan

Being unprepared is one of the most obvious reasons for hikers or those planning multi-day treks through a national park that require rescue. Andrew Harrington, survival instructor for BigPig Outdoors, told SmokyMountains.com that the “number one mistake” he sees is a “lack of preparation”. This, combined with the naivety of not anticipating trouble, is what puts hikers in a bad spot.

Mount Leconte National Park Hike via Trillium

So, the easiest way to do it? Here are SmokyMountains.com’s top suggestions:

  • Become familiar with the Ten Essentials according to the NPS
  • Leave a travel itinerary, complete with estimated times, with at least two people
  • Be aware of a “bailout” direction and mark it on a map before heading out
  • Check the weather (more than once), including nighttime conditions
  • Wear merino or synthetic layers and consider puffer jackets or Gore-Tex shells
  • Practice making a basic survival shelter at home or consider a survival course
  • Find free topographic maps on SARTOPO
  • Use hiking apps
  • Learn tricks to create campfires in no time, like oil-soaked cotton balls)
  • Invest in a personal locator beacon for long journeys

Second: know what to do when you are lost or disoriented

There are a surprising number of reasons why one might find oneself lost or disoriented in a national park. Of these, the most common is to simply stray off a marked trail. So, in the event that this happens, what is the next step? SmokyMountains.com says there are four things to consider: warmth, shelter, food, and water.

a Smoky Mountains infographic explaining why hikers get lost
via SmokyMountains.

Find or create heat

In the case of Annette Poitras, hiking with her dogs turned out to be a miracle. Her survival on Eagle Mountain in British Columbia was in part due to her three dogs and their ability to maintain her body heat, guard her, and even find food while she was stranded. They also helped rescuers find his location!

a smoky mountains infographic on how to create warmth for lost hikers
via SmokyMountains.com

However, not all hikers have furry companions to follow them on the trails. In this case, the main source of heat comes from clothing, as well as knowing when to layer or lay down.

Avoid sweating in cold weather and cover up when stopping to prevent loss of body heat.

Find or create shelter

A blizzard is something no one wants to be left alone in, but it is something that hikers have had to deal with in the territory of the national park. In the case of Alan Austin, who was stranded in the backcountry of Squaw Valley, that’s exactly what happened. Digging into the snow and dirt and creating a barrier between himself and the snow with packed snow and pine boughs was his method of survival.

a smoky mountains infograph about finding shelter
via SmokyMountains.com

If “digging” isn’t an option, SmokyMountains.com suggests carrying a tarp or using a heavy-duty jacket to create some sort of barrier. Also, a lean-to might be an option for those lost in the woods with plenty of downed branches at their disposal.

A bed of branches is sufficient to protect a person from ground moisture, provided it is at least eight inches thick.

Find water sources

Finding water isn’t always easy, especially if a hiker is in one of the many desert or dry landscapes in a national park. In this case, it is important to be warned and to pay attention to your surroundings to find water, as was the case of Gilbert Dewey Gaedcke, who got lost in a lava field on the Kilauea volcano. He managed to extract the water from the moss he found – risking potential infection from dehydration – and survived.

an infograph of smoky mountains on the search for water
via SmokyMountains.com

SmokyMountains.com suggests using a lightweight filter and chlorine dioxide tablets to create fresh, clean water from a potentially contaminated water source. They also recommend taking the risk if there is absolutely no other option and one is on the verge of dehydration – statistically, chances of rescue usually occur within 24 hours of a hiker going missing. .

Finding or rationing food

In Kings Canyon, a hiker named Greg Hein survived by eating bugs and other critters that could be found on the ground following a serious injury. However, trekkers may also ration food in order to stretch their provisions over a 24-hour period while waiting for help. After 24 hours, it’s best to start looking for potential food sources…even if it’s the kind that crawls on the ground.

a smoky mountains infograph about foraging
via SmokyMountains.com

The suggested course of action is to prioritize building a camp and shelter. Following this, it is proven that an average person can survive more than 30 days with the calories stored in their body. If all else fails, avoid hunting, trapping, and foraging if you’re inexperienced – it can waste energy and time.

Third: do you have to move or do you have to stay exactly where you are?

One of the most important and life changing choices a hiker can make when lost is whether to move or stay in one place. While this could drastically change the outcome of the rescue, 65% of hikers chose to keep moving, according to data collected by SmokyMountains.com.

a Smoky Mountains poll on staying put during a lost hike vs. moving
via SmokyMountains.com

In the case of Austin Bohanan, who was lost in Smoky Mountains National Park, his decision to keep moving while following a downhill stream is what got him to safety. However, this is not always the case with every lost hiker scenario. As far as the choice to be made, there are two main options:

  • Staying put is the best option if someone knows where a hiker has been and where they might be. Also, if you get stuck on an actual trail or with a vehicle, this is the best rescue option.
  • “Self-rescue” is something to consider if no one knows where a hiker is or if they have gone into the backcountry. In this case, finding high ground for a cell phone signal, going in the previously mentioned “rescue” direction, or heading to an open field to signal rescue are the best options.

a smoky mountains infograph about whether to move or stay put during a lost hike
via SmokyMountains.com

Don’t forget to mark the trail and leave clues, whether it’s tree carvings or some sort of mark on the ground.

In conclusion: the ultimate goal is to be rescued

When cutting back is the only option on the trail, there are some things to keep in mind, according to SmokyMountains.com. The first is to pack something that is brightly colored, like a tarp, so it can be seen easily through dense forest, in bad weather, and from the air. The second is to try calling 9-1-1 first, as hotline operators can send a rescue team to any national park to provide assistance.

Little Brier Gap Trail Shelter
via SmokyMountains.com

Third, having a loud whistle or a signal mirror is a big help when it comes to signaling your presence to another person or a rescue team. And, finally, add green plants to any traffic lights to create smoke – then move towards a helicopter or search party.


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