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.
I 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
Safety 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.
Don’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.