When venturing out on the trail, most of us take at least basic precautions to deal with some common trail mishaps. We carry tools, emergency supplies, and a first aid kit. But those things only work if you use the most important piece of equipment—your brain. The ability to pay attention, recognize problems as they develop, and calmly utilize available assets are the best tools you can have.
Many calamities we hear about are often created by a series of bad decisions, not just one unfortunate moment. Recently, I was involved with the recovery of some people from a mountain pass. They were stuck in a snowy ditch with a flat tire and broken jack. It wasn’t just one mistake that created this circumstance. They didn’t heed the worsening weather or anticipate that the slushy rain would most definitely turn to snow as they ascended the mountain. Nor, at anytime recently, did they check that the jack was functioning. Lastly, they did not turn around after sliding off the road several times. When I asked why they so stubbornly pressed on they replied, “It would have taken six hours to turn around and go the other way.” Instead, they spent 15 cold hours waiting for rescue.
Recognize that you must constantly make go-no-go decisions, both before and throughout the trip. Don’t let ego dictate your course of action. Consider a few critical factors before you leave the house, and then again as circumstances unfold on the trail.
How much of it do you have left? Even if you are prepared with off-road lights and great night vision, lack of sunlight means reduced visibility and mental alertness.
Do you know what the forecast is for your destination and everywhere in between? Are you prepared for conditions that can result in an unplanned overnight stay?
Does someone know where you are and when you plan to return? More importantly, does that person have the inclination and resources to do something about it if you don’t return as planned?
What is the level of terrain you expect? At what point do you recognize that it is beyond the capabilities of your rig or driving skill? Too many times we have recovered people who were on a trail where the vehicle they were driving did not belong, but they thought if they just continued a little farther, surely it would get better.
A huge part of mitigating mishaps is recognizing when there is a problem and addressing it before it becomes more serious. This can be referred to as situational awareness. Most of us exercise some level of denial that anything is going wrong. Situational awareness (SA) is “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their significance, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, distance, or some other variable.”
This means that you should be constantly and objectively analyzing the circumstances around you. For example, our friends on the mountain pass might have saved themselves a lot of time by recognizing that the rain had changed to snow, and with over 3,000 feet in elevation still to climb, they should have expected that conditions would only get worse and turned around sooner rather than later.
When things do go wrong, many times people fixate on one thing they forgot, instead of looking at what they do have and figuring out a way to use it to solve their current predicament. Be resourceful. Use what you have with you and around you. Stop, breathe, look, think. I have changed a tire by backing the vehicle up on a rock to get the flat tire off of the ground. I have used floor mats to get unstuck from a snow bank. The road to Rome is nothing compared to the number of rocks I have moved over the years to get unstuck.
Most importantly, keep things in perspective. Take care of yourself first, don’t be too proud to call for help, and learn from your mistakes.