I spend a great deal of time in the wilderness and I have come to realize that most people have no idea what safety in the wilderness implies. I’m not talking here about not having a well-equipped survival bag or the proper gear. I’m referring to the fact that people are unaware of how to safely travel through the wilderness and they only use their eyes, even though sometimes they have a restricted range of sight.
Traveling through the wilderness requires for you to learn how to use all your senses and understanding that hearing and smell should also be exploited when exploring the great outdoors. The more you learn to merge these three senses the more you will be able to enjoy the environment, but also make it safer when navigating through.
Strategies to stay safe in the wilderness:
Look through the vegetation
Although this may seem like a no-brainer, people often get distracted and they aren’t always observant of their surroundings. You should learn how to look through the vegetation, rather than just a few feet ahead. This is a good practice and it will save you from potentially dangerous situations. A few years back, on one particular hiking trip in Canada, I was busy contemplating the scenery around me and I almost run into a moose. It may be hard to believe, but I just didn’t see it. It’s surprising how a big animal can appear invisible in the right environment and how we often miss the obvious things in front of our eyes. Spooking a wild animal can have dire consequences and you should focus on even the subtlest of movements when traveling through the wilderness. Learn to interpret what you see as a way of keeping you safe. If a tree has a lump, there is a big chance that something is hiding behind it and you should adjust your course, to avoid stumbling across something dangerous.
Suggested article: How to develop night vision for survival
Use your ears
After years of exploring the wildland, my hearing has become much more in tune with my surroundings. When I’m walking through thick vegetation, where my visibility is limited I’m relaying a lot of my hearing to figure out what lays ahead. You will be able to hear water long before you hear it and you will be able to hear people making noise on the trail if you get lost. You should listen out for anything that provides you with the information you need for deciding if you should go towards the source of the sound or turn around. Listening for animals can determine your route through the wilderness and you will be able to plan the deviations you can make.
It smells nice out there
Smell can play an important role in helping us keep safe and although most hikers will only smell the fragrance flowers around them, in time we can learn to develop a wilderness nose. Hunters learn how to smell animal dung since some animals have characteristic smells and it can help them track their prey. If you spend a good amount of time in the wild, you should learn to identify other smells, besides the ones you are accustomed with.
Pay attention to game trails
You should pay attention to the game trails and keep your distance, unless you’re out there hunting and you know what you’re doing. A game trail could lead you to water or game, but they can also lead you to a merry-go-round and you will spend days following a criss-cross of trails. People tend to forget that the game trails they are following are perfect ambush sites for predators, just waiting for a meal to pass by. If you follow a gam trail, make sure you have a good visibility and in case something doesn’t look right, avoid it at all costs.
Easy with the grabbing
People are careless when traveling through the wilderness and they aren’t paying attention where they put their hands. Most of them instinctively grab hold of branches to steady their balance when traveling through rough terrain, but they don’t look at the branch first. Besides the fact that some branches may appear solid and firm, but can be dead and brittle and you could stumble when they brake, they can also house snakes and other biting insects.
Watch out for snakes and spiders
When the tress have plenty of foliage, animals and dangers become much harder to see. You could brush past a branch on which a snake is resting and that’s all it takes to get bitten. You should avoid stepping over logs and rocks where you cannot see what lays on the other side. Try to go around it or if you don’t have any other choice, step on the rock or log and take a big step forward. When you chose a spot to make camp, inspect the site properly before setting camp as you never know when a spider nest could ruin your rest. They say that you are never more than 12 feet away from one, so make sure you know how to identify the dangerous species and what to do in case you get bitten.
Related reading: Spider bite guide – Know your spiders!
Singe file traveling
This is the advice most field guides will give you before a walk in the wilderness and there are some good reasons behind this practice. First of all, this approach can help prevent members of the party getting lost. In a single file order, even if you lose visual contact, you should still be able to see the route others have taken by identifying their footprints or noticing disturbed vegetation. Second, it also gives you the best opportunity to spot game for viewing or avoidance reasons.
Making a lot of noise does help
In the wilderness, regardless if you’re in the bush, forest or jungle, making noise can work to your advantage as it can scare off bears and other animals. This works especially well when approaching water as it will scare off the predators which hangout there. Making noise helps not only you, but others as well. If someone gets lost, they will be able to follow the source of the noise, or signal for help and get rescued.
The deal with navigation nowadays
In the wilderness, navigation is a fundamental skills and anyone who ventures into a remote region or an environment where visibility could be restricted, should master the basics. The problem with navigation is that more and more people put all their trust in smartphones or GPS devices. I do agree that such devices have their place in these modern times, but they should never replace a map and compass. What if the battery runs out? What if it gets broken or you get separated from your gear? Not to mention that if you get off the beaten track, some devices become completely useless.
More than once, I’ve followed a dirt road as indicated by the GPS and at some point there were tracks going in different direction, but the GPS didn’t show where they go. Since a map will never run out of batteries you should learn how to read it and navigate by following it. Some people have a natural talent to determine direction while traveling through the wilderness, while others require a lot of practice to get the hang of it.
As I’ve learned over the years, any wilderness area can be a harsh and unforgiving place, regardless of how well you think you know the place. Any mistake you make out there can turn into a deadly situation and most people get injured or end up even worse because they overestimate their abilities. If you are being ignorant of your surroundings and ill prepared, you have no place adventuring into the wilderness.
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