An expert's tips for avoiding accidents in the wilderness

I’VE GUIDED CANOE TRIPS for 35 years on some of the toughest rivers in North America. And I’ve never needed more than Band-Aids and Tylenol.

Ground Rules Safety WeatherI believe I owe those safe journeys to more than good luck. I’ve always worked out a plan that emphasizes avoiding accidents. You should too. Here are some tips for getting out and getting back with a minimum of injuries.

Wait on the Weather
The book Into Thin Air reveals the price you could pay if you continue on when you should stay put. Better to hunker down until the weather improves, even if the wait wreaks havoc with your schedule. Plan one “down day” in five for the unexpected.

Wear What’s Right
Everyone gets a detailed equipment list they must follow. There’s a full field inspection—those who don’t have the right stuff should not be allowed to go. Prohibited items include plastic rain suits, cotton socks, and blue jeans. Wool, fleece, polyester, and nylon are the respected fabrics.

Sneakers won’t substitute for boots. And don’t wear shorts while hiking or canoeing. (Why? Think sunburn.) Every Scout should carry a knife, matches, compass, and a whistle. Parents may squawk about buying special gear, but be firm. If the weather turns sour, you, the responsible leader, will have to treat the resulting chills and hypothermia.

Double up on essentials—stoves, first-aid supplies, maps. Tents should have interior plastic groundcloths, extra cord, and stakes for storm rigging. Bring at least one rain tarp. Where cell phones don’t work, rent a satellite phone (the Charles L. Sommers High Adventure Base in Minnesota supplies compact radios), so that you can call for help.

6 Little Rules
Ground Rules Safety Pants CanoeingSafety rules reduce accidents. Here, along with rationales, are some of mine:

1. Wear shoes when swimming in wilderness waters. This eliminates stone-bruised feet.

2. Don’t dive. Head impacts often prove fatal.

3. Never carry a second pack on your chest. Falls happen if you can’t see your feet.

4. No whittling. It’s the cause of most cuts.

5. Stow all personal gear inside your tent at night, so long as bear or animal precautions are not required. Wind carries things away, and clothes get wet from dew and rain.

6. Don’t sit on your life jacket. It causes compression damage.

Take It Slow
Most accidents occur late in the day when people are tired or when the pace is too fast for slow hikers. Solution? Slow down and camp early if you can, or fuel up on high-energy snacks and take frequent breaks if you can’t.

I once canoed 16 hours to make up lost time, but that was before there were satellite phones. Today, communication is a button push away.

Review Status Daily
Begin each day by reviewing skills and safety procedures. Is everyone dressed appropriately? Does someone have blisters or small cuts that might become infected? Are water bottles topped off? Do you have rain gear and warm clothes handy?

Sensitivity Never Hurts
Victims of an accident may appear confidant, initially, but inwardly they are embarrassed and gun-shy. A sensitive response is important. For example, victims of a canoe capsize should immediately change clothes, even if there is no danger of hypothermia. At the least, dry clothes will soften the sting of humiliation. Later, in camp when everyone has rested, you can analyze the event. Afterward, the incident is best not mentioned again.

Ground Rules Safety ChecklistDon’t Get Cocky
Underestimating your skills—and those of your crew—keeps you humble and out of trouble. For example, many people consider me an expert canoeist. I say I’m “intermediate.”

Ask Yourself …

  • Is everyone dressed for the weather? Is gear packed so that it will stay dry?
  • Can everyone pinpoint their position on the map?
  • Are warm clothes, water, toilet paper, sunscreen, Band-Aids, and bug-repellant handy?
  • Do you have some colored plastic flagging (available at hardware stores) to mark confusing trails?

Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle Scout and the author of more than a dozen popular books on the outdoors.

3 thoughts on “An expert's tips for avoiding accidents in the wilderness

  1. I read Cliff Jacobson’s article and totally agree with almost everything in his article. I might suggest he do some further talking with Sommers Canoe Base to insure they are follow Little Rule # 6.
    I am an Eagle Scout, a former scoutmaster and current assistant SM. For 20 years I was an Instructor Trainer Educator for the American Canoe Association in whitewater kayaking. I am a WFR (wilderness first responder) and was a member of the US Whitewater Team for 12 years. For the past 25 years I have gone into Quetico Park on a week long canoe camping, fishing trip with friends. This past year I led my scout troop into the park. I chose not to use Sommers, but a private outfitter. I had used Sommers once before for my former troop and was disappointed with the product I received.
    As we waited for a towing company to pick us up at Prairie Portage, I was amazed to watch one group after another arrive from the scout base. They were in overloaded canoes, in some cases showing less than six inches of freeboard. This was due in part from too much bulky equipment (plastic tubs for the food), having a third member riding “trash”, and scoutmasters who in some cases did not appear to meet the BMI requirements. I watched one undersized young scout after another double load (pack in front and back) as they portaged. Little Rule # 6 says don’t so it. The poor kids portaging the 85 lb aluminum canoes had to carry a pack as well. To get the canoe on their shoulders by themselves with a pack on their backs while standing in the lake, they had to roll the heavy canoe onto their knees and then clean and jerk it into position. None of the kids looked happy. I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and went to the aid of one young scout who was struggling to get the canoe pressed into position. I wanted to show him that if his buddy held the front of the canoe up with the stern on the ground he could easily walk under it and position the canoe without the threat of throwing his back out. I was chastized by his leader who told me that he could do it without my help. Obviously, this attitude comes from the Sommers staff and is totally unacceptable instruction in my opinion.
    I can’t tell you how much of a negative impression this display of Northern Tier preparation made on my scouts. They thanked me multiple times for using a private outfitter.

    I tell you this, because the way the program is taught at Northern Tier needs to be analyzed. Most scouts will say they had fun in Canada and Boundary Waters, but it is because they have nothing to compare it with.

    • As somebody with experience at Northern Tier, I disagree with several points you made. The “overloaded” canoe problem and the extra person riding “trash” is due to the limitations on group size and number of canoes. There can only be 9 people and 4 boats maximum. If the group is less than 9 people, it is possible that people will have to ‘double pack’ over a portage. Northern Tier crews tries to avoid making multiple trips on a portage trail whenever possible. On short portages, it may be fine. But when you reach portages that are half a mile or more, it just costs a lot of time.
      As for the BMI issues you mentioned, there is little that can be done about it. It is explicitly mentioned in the BSA High Adventure medical form that participants must meet certain height/weight requirements. But far too many people tend to ignore those requirements, giving rise to many ‘micro Scouts’ or very overweight advisers or youth going on these trips. Participants who show up under or over weight are met with before departing on their trip and told of the dangers inherent in this. Most elect to go on anyways and many have a poor experience because of that.
      There are other ways to lift a canoe aside from the way that you mentioned, but that is the most common. If done properly, that can also be the easiest. Interpreters know the correct and easy method and teach it to their crew, but sometimes participants are not clear on it or continually execute poor form. Being that you were at Prairie Portage, there is a good chance that that was one of the first portages that crew had ever done. With regards to being chastised by their “leader”, are you referring to the Northern Tier interpreter or the crew’s adult adviser?
      While I am sorry that you feel you had a negative impression of Northern Tier, I also feel like you may have looked at what you saw the wrong way. Almost all crews leave Northern Tier having had an excellent and possibly life changing experience. The few that don’t are ones that came not knowing how challenging the Boundary Waters or Quetico really can be or came looking for a bad experience.

  2. As someone who has 3 fifty milers afloat (canoeing in LaDomaine, Quebec, Canada; Sea Scout cruise in the Gulf of Mexico; canoeing the Suwanee in FL), with the exception of the satellite phone, I have followed these rules and agree 110%.

    As to the satellite phone, I wish I had one of those on my last 50 miler. We had to paddle like crazy to get to place where we could call in a helicopter evacuation. Sat phone would have been a very big help in that one.

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