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Illustration by Harry Campbell

A Rookie’s Guide to Surviving Colorado’s Backcountry

Avoid these seven mistakes to stay safe in the wilderness.

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The ability to explore Rocky Mountain terrain is one of the reasons many of us choose to live here. But an increasing number of Coloradans underestimate the skills needed to navigate the state’s wild topography and variable weather. We consulted the experts to find out what we’re doing wrong, so you can learn to do it right before your next adventure.

Compelled to Act

Eight people died recreating in Colorado’s Elk Mountains in 2017. No one was OK with that.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe Disalvo had absolutely had it. He picked up the phone, dialed the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, and asked for district ranger Karen Schroyer. He wanted to talk about 14,130-foot Capitol Peak; more specifically, he needed to discuss the five lives the mountain had claimed during summer 2017.

“Joe was concerned about what he was seeing,” Schroyer says today. “He said, ‘Look, if this were a highway, I’d close the highway.’ He wanted to know how we fix this.” By “this,” DiSalvo meant inexperienced peak baggers being underprepared for the rigors associated with climbing Elk Mountains fourteeners—and losing their lives as a consequence. DiSalvo and Schroyer knew there was no easy solution, but their initial conversations set in motion a local movement that ultimately became the Elk Range Mountain Safety Coalition.

Rescues—and deaths—on the Maroon Bells are all too common. Photo courtesy of Mountain Rescue Aspen

The group, one of the few—if not the only—of its kind in the state, quickly grew to include Mountain Rescue Aspen, Aspen Alpine Guides, and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide in addition to the White River National Forest and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Its goal: to provide recreationists with the skills necessary for safe backcountry experiences. In practice, that meant offering classroom seminars and fieldwork clinics—both in Aspen and along the Front Range in summer 2018—to a lay public they figured would be rabid for outdoors know-how.

They were wrong. It turns out that people are fanatical about the outdoors but pretty lukewarm when it comes to learning about it. In a room that could’ve held 120 at REI’s flagship store in Denver, fewer than 15 chairs were taken for a free presentation on basic planning, gear guidance, and rescue procedures. A $50 route-planning and ropework course on Independence Pass this past summer was at half capacity—and those in attendance were already experienced outdoorspeople. A gratis seminar at a Boulder brewery was among the best-attended events—but it still did not garner an overwhelming turnout.

It was disappointing, considering not only the death tolls on Capitol Peak and the Maroon Bells in 2017, but also the fact that across the Centennial State, search and rescue (SAR) missions have been creeping up over the past several years. “We don’t really know why there’s been an increase,” says Alison Sheets, a Boulder ER doctor and the chair of the Rocky Mountain Region of the Mountain Rescue Association, a national organization that provides educational resources to SAR teams. “Maybe it’s an increase in Colorado’s population. Maybe climate change is extending peak hiking and climbing season. Maybe people are quicker to call 911 than they once were.”

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Although Sheets acknowledges it would be interesting to mine available data to learn more, she also says having that insight likely wouldn’t stop the uptick. Instead, she says, people need to take advantage of educational opportunities like those with the Elk Range Mountain Safety Coalition. “Coloradans and visitors to Colorado,” she says, “are overestimating their skills and underestimating the tasks in the wilderness. That leads to a lot of what we call, ‘fall down, go boom.’ ”

To help Centennial Staters avoid these booms and bonks as well as other life-threatening scenarios, we asked wilderness experts and SAR members what errors they often see adventurers make. Then we had them explain why these seemingly minor missteps matter—and what you need to do to stay safe.


Simple Mistake 1: You got off-route.

Here’s Why That Matters: Although this can happen, with distressing consequences, on any wilderness path, ending up off-route on one of Colorado’s 13,000- or 14,000-foot mountains can lead to a particularly dire situation. On many of those peaks, there aren’t easy-to-follow trails to the summits; instead, there are what mountaineers call routes, or previously climbed lines, which can vary dramatically in difficulty. Most everyday peak baggers opt for the so-called standard routes. Standard, however, doesn’t mean safe. “Much of the time, these are not hikes,” says Stephen Szoradi, owner of Aspen Alpine Guides, which leads guests on guided expeditions on some of the Elk Mountains’ most technical peaks. “These are climbs.” On a hike, Szoradi says, the route is clear; there are no decisions to make to get from point A to point B. “In mountaineering, you have A and you have B and you have a lot of options. You must have skill and ability and a good spidey sense.” Translation: Experience is a prerequisite that can help if you inadvertently take a wayward trajectory or find yourself considering that “shortcut” on your descent.

Capitol Peak is known for its Knife Edge. Photo courtesy of Aspen Alpine Guides

The Cautionary Tale: Since 2000, more than 30 people have lost their lives on the Elk Mountains’ seven fourteeners, making them among the deadliest peaks in the state. Even by those tragic standards, 2017 was a disastrous year in Pitkin County, especially on Capitol Peak (pictured). Known for its Knife Edge, a narrow section of jagged Class 4 rock with dizzying exposure, Capitol Peak isn’t a prime contender for anyone’s first or even 20th fourteener. But that’s not necessarily because of its signature feature: Four of the five fatal incidents on Capitol in 2017 have been attributed to mountaineers being off-route. This suggests that despite ubiquitous resources like The Colorado 14ers series from the Colorado Mountain Club and 14ers.com—that illustrate the safest ways to navigate the state’s monoliths, inexperienced climbers often steer themselves into precarious situations. Hiring a guide is one way to not only avoid scary scenarios, but also to gain mountain know-how. “Americans are bad about hiring guides,” Szoradi says. “We think we can figure it out. It’s a great part of the American spirit; it just sucks for mountaineering.”


Simple Mistake 2: You didn’t tell a reliable human where you were going and what time you expected to be back.

Here’s Why That Matters: This slipup often puts the “search” in “search and rescue.” Although this is one of the easiest tenets of backcountry travel to execute, far too many people forget to do it. And it can be a serious oversight: If something goes wrong and you haven’t left a trailhead name or an expected return time, it could be days before anyone misses you (and even then, they won’t know where to look). Jessie Krebs, head instructor for Colorado’s SERE Training School for outdoor survival, doubles down on the rule, saying those venturing into the wild should not only tell someone where they’re going and when they’ll be back but that they should also text a picture of their gear, explain their signaling capabilities (“I have a whistle”), and even send a snapshot of the bottoms of their hiking boots. “The more search and rescue knows about you and what you’re carrying,” Krebs says, “the better they will be at tracking you.”

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Photo courtesy of Alpine Rescue Team

The Cautionary Tale: Damian McManus, 51, and his 18-year-old son, Evan, had traveled from Minnesota to Colorado for spring break. On April 2, 2014, Evan texted a friend to say they were headed to climb a peak. It wasn’t until four days later, when the pair didn’t return home, that their family reported them missing. SAR efforts were stymied from the outset, however, because no one knew which peak Evan had been referencing. Equally frustrating was the fact that once authorities gleaned from cell phone data that the pair had been near Mt. Evans, searchers realized evidence of their movements had been obliterated by a snowstorm on the night of April 2. After four days, the search (pictured) was suspended. Their bodies weren’t found until July. “We were too far behind,” says Dawn Wilson of Evergreen’s Alpine Rescue Team. “They were probably gone before we knew they were missing.”


Simple Mistake 3: You started your climb too late in the day.

Here’s Why That Matters: There are several reasons why outdoor experts plead with recreationists to begin their exploits early in the day. The first is summer monsoonal rain showers that, almost every afternoon, can lead to slick rock, slippery trails, and damp socks (hello, blisters!). The second is lightning thunderstorms often begin around lunchtime—which can be a serious threat when you’re on an exposed ridgeline. (This is not hyperbole: Colorado ranks third in the country for lightning-related deaths.) Perhaps the most critical argument, though, for having your après drink in hand by 2 p.m. is not getting caught by darkness.

“Human beings are basically tropical animals. The survivors on Gilligan’s Island were lucky,” says John Lindner, who runs the wilderness survival school at Colorado Mountain Club. “Colorado is not a tropical island.” Lindner mentions this because if you get lost or injured, doing so during daylight hours increases the chances for a good outcome. But if you’re still out there—wandering or in pain when the sun goes down and the temps drop, hypothermia can set in rapidly, especially if you weren’t expecting to be outside for more than a few hours and didn’t bring supplies. “You can die from cold,” Lindner says, “even in the summer.”

Photo credit: Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

The Cautionary Tale: The good news was that neither Walt Schaatt nor Henry Allen were injured. The bad news was that the climbers had lost their bearings somewhere near the top of the Third Flatiron in September 2014—and it was getting dark. After multiple tries to self-rescue, the men realized they would not be able to find their way down safely as the sunlight faded and the thermometer dipped to 50, chilly enough to spur hypothermia. Fortunately, they had cell service. The 911 call came in around 7:40 p.m., and Rocky Mountain Rescue Group reached the duo, who had neglected to bring headlamps or supplies for an unexpected overnight, by 10:30 p.m. “When you get one of these cat-in-a-tree-type calls in the Flatirons,” says Mountain Rescue Association’s Alison Sheets, who’s also a member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, “they’re usually fun calls for us. People often aren’t hurt, just scared and stuck. We get them unstuck and back to safety.”


Digital SOS

Rescue tech won’t fix ignorance, but it might help in an emergency.

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If you would happen to encounter a crisis on your next backcountry adventure, being able to alert the cavalry is a handy capability. Fortunately, a relatively new roster of devices aims to assure you that you’re never truly alone out there. These gadgets, gizmos, and apps won’t make up for insufficient planning or poor preparation—and they won’t necessarily lead to a speedy rescue—but being able to notify someone of your, or someone else’s, plight can be a literal lifesaver. Experts caution that these tools should only be used during real life-and-limb emergencies. And, no, a stubbed toe doesn’t qualify. —Joe Lindsey

The Tech: Software-Based Trackers

Why You Might Want One: Social fitness sites aren’t just for comparing your personal bests anymore. Strava’s Beacon function ($2 per month in the Summit Safety pack) and Garmin’s LiveTrack (free) let you share your location in real time with anyone you choose. Much like Apple’s Find My Friends (which could, in theory, be helpful too), geolocators run off smartphone apps, but Garmin requires a Garmin-compatible device.

The Downside: Both Strava’s Beacon and Garmin’s LiveTrack require cell service to function, which means they’re perfectly fine for outdoor activities close to civilization, but they’re not super-reliable backcountry tools.

The Tech: Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Why You Might Want One: These compact satellite transceivers have long been used by sailors, but updates like GPS capability mean your SOS signal also carries your location. One of the most widely available is ACR’s ResQLink ($300). Press the button and the device transmits an SOS via a radio frequency monitored by Rescue Coordination Centers (generally operated by the military). On the plus side, PLBs have long battery lives, don’t require subscriptions, and work anywhere in the world.

The Downside: PLBs aren’t communicators; you can’t receive messages or share any specific details about your situation.

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The Tech: Satellite Communicators

Why You Might Want One: The newest class of find-me-anywhere instruments allows two-way satellite communication that works off the grid—useful when, for instance, you want to tell a loved one you’re safe but delayed. The Garmin inReach Mini ($350) supports mapping and navigation, weather forecasts, two-way texting, location tracking, and an SOS function, but some features rely on a smartphone app or another Garmin device. Spot X’s Two-way Satellite Messenger ($250) has fewer features but works entirely on its own. Two other tools, the Bivystick ($350) and Somewear’s Global Hotspot ($350) turn your phone into a global satellite phone with texting and distress signal features.

The Downside: Satellite communicators are pricey pieces of hardware, and most of them also require a data plan and/or a subscription plan, with varying rates from around $12 per month.


Don’t Leave Home Without (Buying) It
Courtesy of Colorado Department of Local Affairs

The CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue) card won’t send distress signals, and it isn’t an insurance card, but buying one might be the most effective measure you can take to encourage timely help in the backcountry. The 61 search and rescue organizations that execute missions in Colorado don’t charge to extricate you from the backcountry (nor do county sheriffs). So how do they fund their efforts? In part, with fees from the CORSAR card, a vital source of cash that helps ensure these teams have the resources to pluck your shivering body off a rocky ledge. If you visit the backcountry, this donation is a smart investment. $3/one year, $12/five years


Simple Mistake 4: Your party inadvertently—or intentionally—separates.

Here’s Why That Matters: The explanations for why someone got left behind are myriad, but search and rescue volunteers say there are recurring themes. She said she needed to rest for a minute and we should keep going. He just popped off-trail for a second to pee. He was having symptoms of altitude sickness, so he was going to head back to the car. “In our team’s experience,” says Nancy Anderson, a recently retired member of Chaffee County Search and Rescue–North, “the primary reason we are out there on missions is because groups split up.”

Drew Hildner, a member of Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, agrees that party separation is a serious no-no. “When search and rescue goes looking for someone who went missing from a party,” he says, “we often find it’s the person who needed a break or who turned back.” This makes sense, Hildner says, because that person typically isn’t the group leader, meaning it’s not the person who studied the map, who knows what avalanche danger looks like, who was paying close attention to the forks in the trail, or who knew her fitness level was commensurate with the journey. There is, of course, an easy remedy for this problem. “If you decided to hike together,” Anderson says, “hike together. If one person needs to rest, you all rest.”

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Photo credit: Dougal Waters/Getty Images

The Cautionary Tale: Patricia Wallace felt at home on the trail, so an early July 2012 day spent hiking with friends on the Buchanan Pass Trail near Allenspark wasn’t out of the ordinary for the 73-year-old Lafayette resident. The busy trail is an out-and-back path, but on the party’s descent Wallace chose to take what looked like an easier route back to the trailhead. It was a fatal decision. Wallace was never seen again. Although Boulder County Sheriff’s Office deputies and multiple search and rescue organizations looked for her for nearly two weeks, she had simply vanished. Officials ultimately called off the efforts, saying Wallace had likely died from exposure and lack of water. It wasn’t until more than two years later when a family from New Mexico was looking to camp near Thunderbolt Creek—well outside of the original search area—that Wallace’s remains were found.


Here to Save the Day

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to search and rescue.

You might think…Search and rescue teams are comprised of paid professionals.
But the truth is…With the exception of units within the National Park Service, Colorado’s 60-or-so groups are staffed by volunteers, many with day jobs.

You might think…That once you’ve called 911, you’ll be back in time for happy hour beers.
But the truth is…Mobilizing SAR takes time. After the 911 call, a sheriff’s office must relay the info to SAR; volunteers must be alerted; gear has to be gathered; and then volunteers must drive to whatever trailhead you used. Then they must hike to you. Short story: You’ll be late to the bar.

You might think…If you call search and rescue, they’ll just send in the Black Hawk.
But the truth is…Colorado’s terrain and weather patterns often render helicopters useless; the majority of SAR missions are completed by volunteers on foot carrying heavy equipment.

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You might think…Search and rescue volunteers are all hardcore badasses with adrenaline addictions who are ready to run toward danger.
But the truth is…OK, they are total bad-asses; however, these volunteers don’t have death wishes, which is why more units are using camera-outfitted drones to scout situations before sending human beings into treacherous terrain.

You might think…Being carried down a mountain with a broken ankle by a team of 20 people would come with a hefty price tag.
But the truth is…Search and rescue teams do not charge for their services. However, you will be charged by the ambulance service to take you from the trailhead to a medical center.


Upskill: Putting On Clinics

Golden’s Colorado Mountain Club gives you a game plan for prudent outdoor recreation.

Photo courtesy of Seth Foldy

For 107 years, Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) has served as a nexus for outdoor-oriented people along the Front Range. For the past 80 years, the club has made it its mission to ensure that local mountaineers have the knowledge they need to recreate safely. And for the past several years, CMC has widened its programming to accommodate the growing number of people who are new to Colorado.

“With increased tourism and our population boom,” says Brittany Smith, marketing director for CMC, “we think it’s necessary to help people understand being outdoors in Colorado is different.” Different, of course, doesn’t mean bad; it just means that what might have been perfectly acceptable in Wisconsin or Vermont or Texas isn’t necessarily appropriate for Colorado. “For example, climbing a fourteener in jeans and a cotton T-shirt with one 12-ounce bottle of water,” Smith says, “isn’t a great idea.”

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The folks at CMC understand, however, that the only way to know how to be prepared is to learn from those with more experience. That’s why Art Hogling, who has been teaching at CMC for 20 years, was the ideal person to spearhead one of the club’s newest classes: Intro To Hiking Safety. Of course, Hogling’s hiking seminar isn’t the only offering budding Centennial State recreationists should consider. CMC has a roster that includes courses in wilderness survival, backpacking, winter camping, wilderness trekking, avalanche safety, backcountry first-aid, and more. “We make these courses informational but fun,” Hogling says. “I mean, where else can you learn that Fritos are great fire starters?” Intro To Hiking Safety, $10 for members, $15 for nonmembers


Simple Mistake 5: You packed the 10 essentials but couldn’t employ them.

Here’s Why That Matters: As the director of Colorado Mountain Club’s wilderness survival school, John Lindner believes it’s his job to prepare his students for what he calls “the what-ifs.” And in Colorado’s backcountry, the what-ifs are practically infinite. “What if you sprain an ankle? What if you fall in a creek?” Lindner says. “What if you get altitude sickness? What if a snowstorm rolls in? What if you get lost?” In each of these scenarios, the 66-year-old Colorado native explains, survival is 80 percent about a positive attitude and 20 percent about gear—both knowing how to use it and keeping it with you at all times.

Lindner knows his classes are controlled environments, so he tries to reiterate that an emergency is not the time you want to be learning how to set up a bivouac shelter for the first time. Same goes with reading a topo map and using a compass. “You need to practice with the gear you plan to bring with you,” Lindner says. “You need this stuff to work the first time and every time so it’s second nature during a crisis.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

The Cautionary Tale: The weather was warm, even if the April skies were overcast. From their parking spot, Robert Earl, 37, and Michael Geary, 30, could see the summit of 14,293-foot Mt. Lincoln. Both experienced mountaineers, the men figured they would be on the trail by 7:30 a.m., could bag the peak in short order, and be back down by lunch. As they ascended, the pair passed by a cabin, where they decided to stash their packs to lessen their loads for the summit push. It was only after they’d reached the top that the storm blew in. Blinding snow and 60 mph winds lashed at the men, soaking their clothing and disorienting their descent. Instead of heading back the way they’d come—toward the cabin and their packs full of food, matches, and water—the duo inadvertently hiked off the back of the fourteener and got lost. They spent the first night in a snow cave and the second night in an abandoned cabin, but the hypothermia was too much for Earl; he stayed behind while Geary struck out for help on the third day. He found it, but by the time SAR located Earl, he had succumbed to the cold.

Upskill: Pack It In

Wilderness experts swear by this list of 10 essentials to bring into the backcountry, whether you’re camping overnight or doing a dayhike.

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Photo credit: Getty Images
1. Water

Water intake varies per person, but a rough estimate is that you’ll need one liter of water for every two hours of exertion. Also: Bring a water treatment method (iodine, a filter), and make sure you know where the closest water source might be.

2. Food

The human body can sustain itself for many days without food; however,
packing several energy bars can’t hurt.

3. Navigation Tools

Bring a topo map of the area you’ll be in and a compass (which you need to actually know how to use). GPS is great, but it’s unreliable because of battery power and the need for cell service.

4. Shelter

A Mylar blanket, a bivy sack, or even a sheet of nylon will provide a way to stay out of the elements. If you get a bright color, your shelter can be a great way to signal search and rescue teams.

5. Extra Clothing

Bring multiple layers, no matter how pleasant the forecast looks.

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6. Sun Protection

Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen should all go into your daypack.

7. First-Aid Kit

Provisions should include gauze pads, Band-Aids, first-aid tape, ibuprofen, Benadryl, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, moleskin, and safety pins.

8. Illumination

A headlamp or small flashlight is not only a lifesaver if your dayhike morphs into a night hike, but it also serves as a signaling device should you need to flag help.

9. Fire Source

You’ll want waterproof matches and a lighter in addition to tinder (petroleum-jelly-dipped cotton balls work great).

10. Repair Kit

Pack a small knife or multi-tool, some rope, and several yards of duct tape (wrapped around your water bottle for easy storage).

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Lost

Rocky Mountain National Park’s 358 square miles of epic terrain can be a siren song for the underprepared.

Photo credit: Steve Glass/Getty Images

Micah Tice’s sweatshirt, sweatpants, and sneakers weren’t going to protect him from the rapidly deteriorating conditions. At least, that’s what others along the Longs Peak Trail (pictured) say they told the 20-year-old Air Force cadet candidate when they saw him on the morning of November 24, 2018. They also say they discouraged him from continuing his hike. He didn’t listen, and the decision likely cost him his life. Despite an extensive search and rescue effort through savage winter weather, Tice hasn’t been seen since and is presumed dead inside Rocky Mountain National Park.

Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson wishes Tice’s case were an anomaly. In the past 12 months, however, five recreationists have died (two, including Tice, were still missing at press time) within Rocky’s boundaries; more generally, the park is a hot bed for search and rescue missions. “We are normally in the top five national parks for the number of search and rescue incidents,” Patterson says. “In 2017, we were the third busiest park for search and rescue operations with 165 incidents.” In 2018, the park executed 155 such efforts. Patterson is quick to explain, though, that with more than 4.5 million annual visitors, the percentage of those who require emergency assistance is miniscule.

Still, park officials stress that even minor blunders or seemingly innocuous decisions can have dramatic consequences in a place like Rocky, where the terrain is unforgiving and the weather patterns are fierce. “People come to a national park and make assumptions about safety,” says Mark Pita, the park’s chief ranger. “They feel comfortable in a park, and they have easy access to what can be an unfriendly landscape. Many of our trailheads start at 9,000 feet, our trail networks are extensive, and our peaks can be challenging. Because of that, we respond to a lot of trauma here.”

If there is one takeaway, Patterson says, from the narratives surrounding the recent wilderness deaths of Tice, 70-year-old James Pruitt, and 30-year-old Ryan Albert, it is this: Adventuring alone, as all of those men were, increases the risk whether you’re inside a national park or not. “We realize a lot of people like to recreate solo,” she says. “They want the solitude. To balance that out, though, your preparedness needs to be that much more solid. And that preparedness must include checking the weather beforehand and letting someone know where you plan to go so we can find you if you don’t return.”

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Editor’s Note 7/8/19: Remains found in Rocky Mountain National Park on July 5, 2019, are thought to be those of missing Air Force Academy cadet candidate Micah Tice.


Three Important Questions for Jessie Krebs, head instructor for Colorado’s SERE Training School for outdoor survival.

Photo courtesy of Jessie Krebs

5280: As a former SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) instructor for the U.S. Air Force, you know what it means to be prepared. Which group of recreationists worry you most in that regard?
Jessie Krebs: Dayhikers, no question. They’re in the most dangerous spot because they don’t have the equipment with them. They’re “just going out for a few hours”—until they aren’t.

What do most of us get wrong about dressing for Colorado adventuring?
We don’t wear big enough clothing to allow for dead air space. You want room between your layers; it keeps you warm. Plus, you can stuff leaves in there for insulation if you have to. Women are particularly guilty of this. We want form fitting clothing so we can look cutesy. Trust me: Being an alive shapeless lump is better than being a cute corpse.

Can you dispel any other survival misconceptions for us?
Fire-making is a sexy skill, and you should absolutely bring the tools to make a fire. But doing so for warmth should be last on your to-do list in a crisis. Find and drink water. Determine how you’re going to signal search and rescue. Figure out your clothing and your shelter. And then, if it won’t deplete your energy unnecessarily, make a fire. Remember, most creatures on the planet survive with what they have on them (like fur!) or they build or find shelter.

Visit seretraining.us to sign up for a host of survival workshops and critical skills trainings.

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Upskill: Rock the Wagon Wheel

When you’ve lost your way, knowing this basic scouting technique can help you find it.

We all get off-trail now and again. And we all know that feeling—the oh-my-God-I’m-lost-and-I’m-going-to-die-out-here frenzy. “Not knowing where you are creates panic, a chemical change in the brain,” Colorado Mountain Club’s Art Hogling says, “and people get crazy.” Instead of descending into madness, Hogling suggests stopping and marking the spot where you are. That could mean wrapping your highlighter green shirt around a tree. Then, using a hub-and-spoke concept, scout for the trail in multiple directions and count your steps, always returning to your hub before moving to the next line. “If you just popped off the trail for a look at something or to use the facilities and got turned around,” Hogling says, “this is a great way to find your way back.”

Illustration by Harry Campbell

Upskill: Watch and Learn

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s new video series addresses mountain safety for the YouTube generation.

Photo courtesy of Lloyd Athearn

It’s an odd dichotomy that people who want to spend between five and 15 hours climbing a potentially treacherous 14,000-foot peak don’t have the attention span to read a guidebook about exactly how to do so. But such is life in our 280-character reality, so Lloyd Athearn has wisely decided to cater to it. As the executive director of the land stewardship nonprofit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), Athearn and his team spent an inordinate amount of time in 2018 filming interviews with outdoor experts and editing them down into videos abbreviated enough even for avid Snapchatters. CFI released its first 10 shorts focusing on acute mountain sickness and required gear—on its site in late 2018. Athearn expects to debut 10 more films this summer. We suggest you take a look at them. But because we know you have the concentration capability of a gnat, we’ve Twitterized some of the most critical nuggets of information from CFI’s 2018 video series.

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Simple Mistake 6: You continued to move once you were lost.

Here’s Why That Matters: It’s axiomatic that out-of-control emotions often lead to bad decision-making. Unfortunately, that universal truth can ratchet up the risk in survival situations. “When we get freaked out,” says SERE Training School’s Jessie Krebs, “we do that fight-or-flight thing. We want to do something, anything. That gets you in trouble.” Krebs says the savviest thing you can do during a crisis is to use deep breathing to calm yourself and use the STOP-A acronym. If something seems wrong, Stop. Do not keep moving unless you are in imminent danger. Then Think about what immediate needs you have. Next, Observe the situation. What time is it? Is it getting cold? Could rescuers see me from this position? Once you’ve taken in that information, Plan what you need to do first and second and third but be prepared to pivot if necessary. Lastly, Act. “The biggest mistake people make,” Krebs says, “is they keep moving. Traveling burns calories and could lead to injury. If you are in a survival situation, be still and be big—the latter of which means giving SAR some way to spot you.”

Photo credit: Brian A. Jackson/Getty Images

The Cautionary Tale: On a bluebird day in October 2017, Shuei Kato enjoyed the view from the summit of Missouri Mountain. It was roughly 11 a.m., and the 36-year-old had just bagged his 15th fourteener. When he started to descend, though, he realized he had no idea from which direction he’d come. There was no discernible trail. Based on a screenshot he’d taken of the route, Kato took a guess and began moving. At sunset, he was still trekking—in the wrong direction. Using a flashlight, he kept moving, hiking faster as panic set in. The temperature dropped below freezing that night, but the sounds of a helicopter the next morning buoyed Kato’s spirit—until he realized the chopper was too far away to see him. He tried his phone, but the battery had died. He kept hiking and spent another cold night in the Collegiate Peaks. The father of two tried to light a fire with his cooking stove the next morning, but the wood was too wet. He continued hiking—and spent another night outside. As the sun rose on day three, Kato again tried to light a fire; this time, his tinder took. SAR spotted the smoke and rescued him.


Simple Mistake 7: You failed to turn back when circumstances dictated it.

Here’s Why That Matters: Everyone gets greedy from time to time. It’s a normal human emotion. In the wilderness, though, rapacity can quickly turn into remorse. Wanting to make it to the lake before dark, ignoring the looming thunderheads to reach the summit, deciding to make backcountry turns even though that cornice looks unstable—these are all SAR missions in the making. “Too often we find that people are here in Colorado on vacation,” says Mountain Rescue Aspen’s Justin Hood, “or a resident took a day off from work and they felt like they must do whatever adventure it was that they had planned.” To outdoor veterans like Hood, this avarice obscures what should be the joy of being in nature. “If you don’t reach the summit, is the day a failure?” Hood says. “Of course not. Don’t have expectations. Just show up and enjoy the part of the trip you do get to experience. Then go home when it’s time to go home.”

Image credit: Getty Images

The Cautionary Tale: Winter hiking isn’t for everyone, but Lewis Walker, 27, and Byron Sortor, 28, thought a dayhike up 13,294-foot James Peak in December 2018 sounded like fun. So unconcerned were they with the journey that they didn’t set off until roughly 11 a.m., and neither man brought a fully loaded pack. The first part of the jaunt went well; then thick, angry clouds rolled in. It was at this point the roommates should have turned around. Instead, they pressed on. Atop the mountain, they were above the clouds, a position that was beautiful—and terrifying. They couldn’t see their way down. Then it began to get dark and cold roughly minus 16. The duo hunkered down. Thanks to their other roommate, who called police when the men failed to return, they didn’t have to huddle long. Alpine Rescue Team found them before frostbite caused permanent damage to their feet.

Summer Guide

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