Simple preparations save lives in rugged backcountry

Russ von Koch has some simple words about outdoor safety.

“You don’t get lost if you always know where you are,” said the Bureau of Land Management recreation branch chief.

While that might sound extremely obvious, he knows from 27 years on the job about its importance. Even global positioning systems aren’t enough, he said. People need to have maps, not to mention a basic understanding of where they are. Better yet, he recommended having some sort of a guide.

“A lot of issues come back to people going into an area that they’re not familiar with,” he said.

Thanks to the invention of GPS and efforts to create better trail markings, he’s seen the instance of lost hikers going down in recent years, a statistic that the local search and rescue group noted as well. Still, it never hurts to plan, especially in terrain as dry, unpredictable and unforgiving as the landscape in southeastern Utah.

People should have a firm plan and try to stick with it, he said. They should let friends know where they’re going and when they’ll be back. If they’re in a big group, they should stick together and never assume someone is coming right up or has gone ahead. All the while, of course, people should take note of where they are, orienting themselves with their map.

Von Koch knows that people make mistakes in this desert every year. Even so, he doesn’t think they have to have grave consequences.

“If you do get lost, usually stay put, not just wander around,” he said. “If you stay with your equipment and make yourself visible, you’re going to be found.”

Anyone who becomes lost should conserve energy and fluids, von Koch said. If need be, they should make a low-impact fire. And whenever possible, he suggested all visitors to the backcountry should carry the “Ten Essentials,” a list of items agreed upon by hiking authorities. The list has changed a bit since it was drafted in the 1930s.

The items are:

1. Map

2. Compass/GPS

3. Flashlight/Headlamp

4. Extra food and water (at least one gallon per person per day)

5. Extra clothes

6. Sunglasses

7. First aid kit

8. Pocket knife

9. Waterproof matches

10. Firestarter

While this might look like overkill to the casual hiker, von Koch doesn’t think so ­– and with good reason. With around 100 calls every year, the Grand County Search and Rescue team is one of the busiest in the state of Utah.

ByBy Stina Sieg

contributing writer