The Five Rules

By Paul R. Huard

February 6, 2009 5 min read


Novices need the basic guidelines to exploring the wilderness

Paul R. Huard

Creators News Service

Do you want to lose your life outdoors?

Like most people, when you are participating in the dozens of wilderness sports millions enjoy, the only thing you want lost is the rat race you left behind.

Unfortunately, there are people who don't know, or just ignore, the basic rules of outdoor safety. Novices are particularly susceptible to trouble, and wonder why help isn't a cell phone call away.

There are five rules to follow while out in the wilderness. Two noted experts' tips could make the difference between your friends reading about your rescue in the paper or your obituary after a disaster.

Doug Ritter, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equipped To Survive Foundation (, serves as a consultant to search and rescue groups and the U.S. military.

Chris Van Tilburg is an emergency room physician and veteran of hundreds of search and rescue operations as a long-time member of Crag Rats Mountain Rescue in Hood River, Ore. -- the oldest mountain rescue unit in the nation.

1) Follow the Boy Scout's motto: "Be prepared."

"There is always somebody who goes for a short hike and doesn't think he is in serious wilderness, then gets in trouble," said Ritter. "They get in trouble, even get killed, because they don't take any water, a jacket or any basic equipment because it was just going to be 'a short trip.'"

That lack of preparation includes not checking readily available information about the area, weather or other hazards.

"I always love the headlines that say a victim was caught outside during an 'unexpected storm.' There is no such thing as an unexpected storm. There is just the decision not to check a weather report," said Van Tilburg.

During even the even briefest trip, carry at least extra water, a flashlight, a knife, a way to start a fire, extra food and clothing that will help you stay warm and dry overnight.

2) Tell someone where you are going.

You are small and hard to find. There is a reason why they call it "the great outdoors."

"Nobody can rescue you if they don't know where you are," said Ritter, who urged all outdoor travelers to leave written instruction of their route and return time with a responsible individual who will notify authorities if you are overdue. If you change your travel plans, notify your contact so they know where you are.

3) Carry the most basic safety gear in your pockets.

"I am a big fan of small and lightweight," said Van Tilburg. "You are more likely to carry it and use it rather than leave it behind."

If you prefer to purchase pre-made kits, Ritter recommends the Pocket Survival Pak and Heatsheets Survival Blanket, both from Adventure Medical Kits ( Both items are the size of a small wallet and weigh only ounces. They are cheap ($33 for the survival kit, $6 for the emergency blanket), but incredibly rugged and helpful: The kit contains items such as a signal mirror, fire starters, tiny compass, signal whistle, repair items, and survival instructions "so simple that even totally naïve people can understand what they need to do." The emergency blanket is very difficult to tear and reflects up to 90 percent of your body heat.

4) Don't rely on a cell phone to solve all your problems.

"In some cases a cell phone really helped the rescuers," said Van Tilburg. "Having the ability to talk to the victim can really make a difference."

However, Ritter said people have enough problems trying to get cell phones to work in the big city, let alone miles from civilization. "A lot of people have been saved by that technology, but a lot of people have also been let down," he said.

Our experts' consensus: Having a cell phone in an emergency won't hurt, but if you are in the deep wilderness, don't count on a 911 call getting a response like you would at home. Be ready to take care of yourself.

5) Let your kids learn about the outdoors.

The millennial generation adores the outdoors, but has been raised by parents who have gone overboard to protect their kids from harm.

"The military actually had to change their training to accommodate kids who have never carried a pocket knife or even lit a charcoal barbecue with matches during their lifetime," said Ritter. "Also, kids are constantly connected. They don't know what to do when they can't text someone."

Groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other outdoor organizations provide proven youth training in outdoor safety and living. If you participate with your kids in the programs, you might learn some skills that will save your life, too.

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