When someone refers to “backcountry,” he’s usually describing a certain chunk of earth that is wilder, rougher, and more remote. Although the definition of backcountry varies depending on the adventurousness of the individual, an inherent risk is usually implied. The reason the backcountry can be so dangerous is because any sort of help or rescue is a long way off—or in some cases, rescue may not come at all. Unfortunate souls perish in the backcountry every year, due to a litany of circumstances. Although many backcountry tragedies are caused by a combination of misfortunes, there are a few distinct scenarios that can kill you outright, or least put you in real danger. So plan accordingly. Preparation is a must. In this era of technology, you should absolutely have a reliable satellite communication device with you. Above all, carefully consider you actions in the backcountry. Every action should be purposeful and well thought out. Little problems can turn into big problems in the blink of an eye, and sometimes what seems like a small screwup will kick off a cascading series events that might end in your demise.
The most stereotypical wilderness demise (at least according to Hollywood) is going to be at the paws and jaws of a bear. All joking aside, it happens, and the results are terrible. While statistics prove that lethal bear attacks are unlikely, there are people who meet this fate every year. And, they probably don’t think it will happen to them. Know the difference between black bears and grizzly/brown bears, and how to react to both. Try to fight a grizzly that’s on top of you, and it will likely be the end of you, but try to play dead with a black bear, and he’s going to eat you. You absolutely should practice with and carry defensive weapons, whether that’s a firearm or bear spray, but also understand that if it comes to using it, things have already gone very wrong. Staying safe in bear country is all about conflict avoidance. Educate yourself on the country you are in, how to best handle your food, and avoid complacency.
You’ll note that I said “complications of dehydration.” Sure, there is plenty of backcountry in which water is scarce, and poor planning could get you killed directly from dehydration. But the more likely demise is less obvious. Dehydration can easily become the catalyst for more serious problems. In many backcountry haunts, it can be easy to become dehydrated, even where water is relatively abundant. While backpacking or hunting, you should be drinking more water than you normally would, and unfortunately, we often tend to drink less than we normally do. It can be easy to find yourself running low on potable water, and dehydration combined with fatigue can lead to poor decision making. Even “non-dangerous” levels of dehydration can make it harder to stay sharp and focused, and leave you more vulnerable to things like hypothermia. Many backcountry mishaps are the result of a single poor decision, so you need to always be on your game. Think about everything you do. As for water, remember this rule: Any time you leave a water source, make sure to have a plan for where you will find the next one.
There’s a reason that most of us have a natural fear of heights to some degree. Falling is a very real and dangerous risk to those of us poking around in the mountains. Many people have slipped and fallen to their death while hunting, hiking, or climbing. Of course, a cliffy hillside that would result in a 300-foot fall is deadly, but some of the less obvious falls are just as deadly. In any construction-oriented fall safety class, they teach that fatalities dramatically increase in falls over 10 feet. We may not find ourselves shuffling across the top of 800-foot cliffs often, but 10 feet? Definitely. Even if a fall doesn’t kill you outright, all it takes is landing the wrong way, a single rock giving loose under your feet, for you to sprain an ankle, break a bone, or hit your head. In the backcountry, a simple injury like that can kick off a series of events that turn fatal. Obviously, if you were scared of every little ridge, you’d be terrified to walk out the door. But a little caution goes a long way in steep country. Use proper footwear, and most of all, don’t take unnecessary risks. If crossing a rock slide, steep face, or even walking across a log over a fast-flowing creek gives you the willies, you may just want to find another way.
If you’re going to hunt the high country in the western states, you should know about altitude sickness. Most altitude sickness cases are relatively harmless and result in shortness of breath and sluggishness. If you’re going above 8,000-10,000 feet, you could feel some altitude sickness. In its most common manifestation, a rapid ascent to high elevation can leave you in the tent feeling like you have a bad hangover, but eventually, it goes away as your body starts adapting to the lack of oxygen. However, it can get deadly if you develop High Altitude Pulmonary or Cerebral Edema. This is essentially where fluid begins building up in your lungs or brain. If your initial symptoms become worse, with a more severe headache, you lose coordination, your chest tightens, or you cough up fluid. If this happens, you need help, or it could become fatal. And, it doesn’t matter how physically fit you are, altitude sickness can still affect you. I know one guy who is tougher than woodpecker lips, very fit, and lives at a relatively high altitude who got Pulmonary Edema. He was barely able to walk out. The takeaway: don’t be too proud to pull the plug and get to the doctor if you need to.
For those backcountry hunters who like to browse and supplement their diet with natural foods, getting poisoned could be a real threat. Things like mushrooms, berries, and even flowers can kill you if you don’t know exactly what you’re eating. One of the most famous cases was Chris McCandless, who perished in “the bus,” which was an old hunting camp here in Alaska. He ate the seeds of a particular type of plant with edible roots, but poisonous seeds and died not long after, as chronicled in the book Into the Wild. Sure we all know about plants like poison oak that will give you a rash. But there are other more obscure plants like cow parsnip—if you get oils from this plant on your skin, and it gets sunlight, you will get a painful blistery rash. In some cases, even handling the flowers, stems, or roots of the Monk’s Hood flower can kill you. On the upside, your risk of death by poisoning is basically zero if you stick to the practice of not eating anything that you don’t know is 100% safe.
Hypothermia is one of the most famous backcountry killers, and plenty of time is spent covering it in any good hunter’s safety class or survival class. Hypothermia is one of the easiest ailments to acquire in the field, and it’s one of the most deadly. The kicker is that once you are falling under its effects, it can be extremely difficult to recover on your own. You lose your ability to make good decisions and motor functions go, too. Recognizing the symptoms early is the key. Most of the time hypothermia is completely preventable, and it often occurs in relatively warm ambient temperatures. These hypothermia cases are the result of poor planning or unpreparedness. Think of a hiker getting soaking wet in cold river with no way to dry off or start a fire. If you are venturing into the backcountry, you should always have enough clothing to rewarm yourself if you say, twist your ankle and have to spend the night on what was supposed to be a day hike. Also, wool or synthetic clothing that will insulate when wet is literally a life saver. I also recommend ALWAYS having a waterproof means for starting a fire on your person. When I’m hunting, I’ll have a kit in my pocket, in my bino pouch, and more in my backpack. When boating, I keep a sealed road flare on my life jacket, so that even with minimal motor function, I can easily get a raging fire going quickly.
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Sometimes the mountains are an absolutely serene environment. However, trees and rocks come crashing down on in that serene environment—and more often than most people would expect. Falling trees and rocks can kill or badly injure you in the blink of an eye. Recently, a sheep hunter here in Alaska was killed when he was hit by a falling rock. You can usually avoid this risk if you pick your campsite carefully. If you’re camping in the timber, make sure there are no dead or unhealthy looking trees that could fall on your tent, especially if you expect storms or high winds. Usually trees will give some warning before they snap off or tip over. You will hear them pop and crack with the wind (not just the typical groaning). Also be careful to never set your tent at the bottom of rock slides or other areas where you can tell rocks have frequently fallen. You always assume some risk when crossing hillsides or walking below steep faces, but take extra caution during very rainy weather or after a blizzard when the snow is melting. It is very common for rocks to fall at those times as the soil erodes.
This category is a prime example of how important it is to act purposefully in the backcountry. When we are out hunting, we carry tools that are made for inflicting damage. When these tools are handled carelessly, even for a second, the consequences can be dire. Much like other items on this list, an accident with a gun, sharp broadhead, or knife can kill you very quickly, but even more superficial injuries can turn deadly in the backcountry due to infection. For example, I know guys that have been poked by a slimy fish hook or just barely nicked with a knife that were nearly killed within a couple days because of infection. Every year, hunters are injured by their own arrows, knives, or careless gun handling. Accidents happen, but most of them are absolutely preventable. You should always have some sort of first-aid kit in your backpack. You won’t be able to treat everything, but a small trauma kit and a tourniquet (if you know how to use it) can save your life.
Drowning is a very real possibility in remote places where you may be on a raft, canoe, or boat trip. On backpack hunts, drowning is a possibility when crossing swollen streams. Even a knee-deep stream can quickly kill you if you lose your footing with a heavy backpack, especially if you are injured in the fall. Always exercise extreme caution, and don’t be too proud to wait it out or find a different spot to cross. While boating or rafting, no one plans on going overboard, but it does happen for a litany of reasons. Even if you’re a good swimmer, you might be weighed down by clothing or incapacitated, so a flotation device is a no-brainer. I never used to wear a PFD while running my river boat. But then a family friend, who was a veteran river-runner, hit a submerged log, and was thrown out of the boat, never to be seen again. He wasn’t wearing a PFD. Now, I always do. In addition to wearing a PFD, prepare to fight off hypothermia, because if you go in the water and don’t drown, you will likely still have figure out a way to get warm and dry.
This is one that most people will not have to worry about, but it is a very real danger, especially if you are hunting here in Alaska, where much of the country is only accessible by bush plane. Although these airplanes are usually very safe, and your risk of perishing in a crash is much lower if you aren’t a pilot, people still die every year in small-plane crashes. Often, the results are instantaneous. However, there are cases like a particular wrecked plane I know of that still sits on a mountain today, where the pilot and passenger survived the crash, only to perish to exposure. Any responsible pilot will have a survival gear kit in his or her airplane to help combat exposure and injury. The average outdoorsman will never have to worry about these items, because it’s outside their scope of usefulness. But, there is one thing you can do to avoid a plane crash if you are waiting for your flight out of camp: Be honest with your pilot when he or she asks about weather conditions. At the end of a hunting trip, you will likely be ready for your ride out of the backcountry, and people will sometimes put the pilot and themselves into dangerous situations because they are impatient and want to fly in bad weather. Don’t risk it. Let the weather blow over.