What to know before you go.
Saftey in the high country begins with what are known as the "Ten Essentials."
- Sun protection
- Extra Food
- Extra Clothing
- Light source
- First-Aid Kit
- Matches or Lighter
These are not listed in order of necessity, as they are all essential. Several items (like a GPS) are not listed due to thier likelyhood to fail in extreme outdoor conditions. Batteries don't work when cold, cell phones and radios have limited ranges, stoves require fuel, etc. With these 10 items you can survive most difficulties you may encounter in the wilderness for several days. This is based on the assumption that you have not skimped on your 10 essentials. You should be very careful to ensure your first-aid kit is well supplied with items you may need. I have never seen a packaged personal first aid kit that comes with everything I need.
The wildlife in Colorado's high country poses little threat to people as long as they obey a few simple rules. First of all let me detail what wildlife I am talking about. I am discussing animals you can expect to see above 8,000 feet.
There are no poisonous snakes, no poisonous plants, and no poisonous insects. The only real threat from wildlife comes from the larger animals found here. There are the well know animals you must watch out for like Bear and Mountain Lion, but a few others you may not suspect like Elk, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goat.
When it comes to wildlife, the old addage that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" rings true. Learning to avoid an encounter is much easier than surviving one. (Note: Some people carry handguns in the woods for "protection," however statistics show you are by far more likely to shoot yourself or someone in your party than an attacking animal.)
Rule #1 - Do not harass the wildlife. Elk, Mountain Goat, and Bighorn Sheep are not agressive animals, but they are very defensive. If you appear to be threatening them or their young, the will defend themselves with force. Antlers and Horns are natures weapons, they're not just for looks.
Rule #2 - Do not feed the wildlife. (This includes leaving food laying around at your campsite or in your tent.) I can't possibly cover all the reasons for this so visit the Division of Wildlife's website for more information. I will say a couple of things though. First, teaching wildlife to rely on humans for food destroys their ability to survive as a wild animal. Second, when wildlife sees you as a food source they are not grateful for all you've done for them, the will demand and take more if given the opportunity. Third, a little effort on your part to stow your food properly when camping can save your trip and your life (tent walls don't stop even small animals from getting in).
Rule #3 - Do not surprise the wildlife. Make some noise while you are hiking. It doesn't take much noise, a conversation with your hiking partner (or with yourself) will let the animals know your coming. When startled, an animals "flight or fight" reponse is triggered. Odds are the animal will choose flight (to run away), but the alternative is not pretty.
Colorado is the second highest ranked state for lightning strikes, and first in lightning deaths. If you are above treeline odds are you are the most conductive and tallest object around. Lighting strikes tend to occur later in the day when the afternoon thunderstorms roll through. If you are new to Colorado you need to recognize that storms to do not move into Colorado, they are created here. Learn to identify the early signs of a storm forming. A clear sky can turn to a black cloud in under two hours.
Surprisingly most incidents of hypothermia in Colorado occur during the summer and fall months. During this time of the year the days are warm and people who are not accustomed to this climate do not bring along additional clothing for after sunset. Temperatures can drop significantly with minutes after sunset. A good rule is to always carry a little more than you think you'll need. See my Hiking Attire section for more information on good clothing to wear.
Colorado has a very dry climate. Combine that with the fact that the body needs more water at high altitudes and you may have problems. You may notice a lot of locals carrying around water bottles where ever they go, this is more then just a fashionable trend. Make a concious effort to keep water with you, and to drink it frequently. You will be making more trips to the restroom, but you will feel better and have more energy. If you are out during the winter months your desire to drink is naturally reduced by the cold weather, but it is still just as important to drink plenty of water. Also visit my page on how to deal with high altitude to learn how water can prevent altitude sickness.
This is not a problems specific to Colorado by any means, however there are large wilderness areas that a lost person could wander in for hundreds of miles and never find civilization.
Start by making sure to have the ten essentials listed above.
Rule #1 - Leave a detailed report of where you will be with someone who will be home and expecting you when you plan to return.
Rule #2 - Learn to read a topographical map, and how to locate yourself on one.
Rule #3 - Learn to use a compass (most people think this is simple, but few understand declination).
Rule #4 - Learn about the area you will be exploring ahead of time.
Rule #5 - Watch for, and remember, landmarks that you pass. Also look behind you as you hike, you'll have an easier time retracing your steps.
Rule #6 - If you get lost, stay put and make yourself easy to see from a distance and from the air.
First Aid Kit
Unfortunately there is no perfect list of what to include in a First Aid Kit. Each kit must be customized to the individual, party size, role in the group, and goals. I recommend starting with a pre-packaged kit larger than you think you need. Then begin adding and eliminating items using the following guidelines:
- Individual customization - Special needs based on allergies or medical conditions. ex: Diabetics should carry appropriate emergency medications. People with severe allergies to things like bee stings should carry an epi-pen.
- Party Size - If you are hiking with a group carry enough to take care of yourself and at least one other person in the group. If you are hiking with those you suspect may not have brought appropriate First Aid Kits, take enough for you and several others.
- Role in the Group - If you are a leader of a group, you need to carry items that others aren't likely to be carrying. Ex: SAM splints, resucitation masks, epi-pens, etc. Basically the more expensive and more extreme medical care supplies.
- Goals - Your goals of your First Aid Kit determine what you'll carry as well. If you are determined to be prepared for any possible situation you'll have a huge kit, most people strike a balance between likely hood of an accident and weight and size of items to be carried. You must also decide for whom you are carrying a first aid kit. If you simply want to have what you'll need for yourself your kit will remain simple, but if you want to be prepared to help others on the trail you will need to add items that are appropriate for a greater number of situations.
- Proximity to help - For those of you who don't venture far from the support of society a cell phone may be all you need in a first aid kit, however the further you venture out on your own the more prepared you must be to be self sustaining.
Colorado is the leading state for avalanche deaths in the United States. Your odds of surviving an avalanche are not good so it is best to avoid them altogether. The first line of defence is the CAIC forecast. They give up to date reports online about conditions and have hotlines around the state that you may call. Your second line of defense is education. At a minimum take an avalanche awareness class to learn how to identify some of the basic signs of avalanche risk. The last defense is proper travel. Wear the appropriate gear (beacon, shovel, and probe), stay on low risk routes, and cross risk areas only one at a time.
If you or someone in your party does get caught in an avalanche time is critical for a successful rescue. After 15 minutes of burial the survivial rate plummets. Members of the party must act quickly and competently. Training and practice are essential for this. Just because you own a beacon doesn't mean you know how to use it. Take a class and practice, practice, practice.
Visit the CAIC Class Calendar for information on where and when you can enroll in a class.