There’s nothing I love more than adventuring in the backcountry, whether on a destination run like a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon , a circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier, or something closer to home. While I try to travel fast and light, there are some things I won’t leave home without to make sure I’m also being safe.
Our local North Shore Rescue has a great list of the 10 essentials, but do the same rules apply to trail runners? Let’s review these items first and then I’ll tell you a little story.
Planning an 8 hour run that’s sure to be over by early afternoon? Even a buffer of several hours might not be enough time if you get lost or find yourself having to limp out on a twisted ankle, and a small headlamp can make the difference between just a long day and a call to search and rescue.
Of course, if you’re actually planning on running in the dark then you should take it one step further and carry spare batteries or a spare headlamp. Your buddy’s headlamp doesn’t count as a spare!
2. Signaling Device
Many running packs have a built-in whistle that is so small and light, you probably didn’t even notice it. That whistle could come in handy as voices don’t always carry as well as you’d think.
3. Firemaking Kit
Waterproof matches and lighters are small and light enough that I just keep one in my First Aid kit so I don’t have to think about it.
4. Extra Clothes
You tend to heat up pretty quickly on the trails and I know at least a few runners who wear shorts all year-round, even when running in the snow. That’s fine, provided you can keep a steady pace and are no more than a couple of hours from your car, but not so great if you find yourself having to stop for a prolonged period of time or even just slow down to help someone else out to safety.
Even in the summer, I like to carry arm sleeves and a light jacket at a minimum. If there’s a chance of rain, I’ll bring a hardshell, and for overnight runs I’ll pack a light compressible down jacket to throw on when taking in the view from a summit.
Bringing a knife on a run might seem like overkill, but I’ve been in a few situations where it came in handy for making modifications to gear. This falls under the category of ‘you never know until you need it’.
6. Emergency Shelter
Most Salomon running packs come with a built-in space blanket as well that can be used in an emergency, especially if you forgot your extra clothes.
7. Extra Food & Water
I always take more calories than I think I’ll need, as I love being able to extend a trip at a moment’s notice or to help out someone who’s bonking. An extra Clif Bar and gel can go a long way!
Water is a little trickier, as it’s not usually practical to carry enough for an entire day’s outing. Carrying water purification tablets or a light-weight filter like a Lifestraw helps avoid having to carry more than a litre at a time, provided there are water source en route – something you should always research in advance.
8. First Aid Kit
This can be a very small kit but make sure you know how to use it. At a minimum, you should always carry some kind of blister care and bandages.
Nothing beats a traditional map and compass (and knowing how to use them properly), but I’ll admit that I don’t usually carry these on a run unless I’m in unfamiliar terrain. What I tend to rely on instead is the built-in navigation on the Delorme inReach Explorer, along with both the ‘Routes’ and ‘Track Back’ features on my Suunto GPS watch (this has helped me find my way back after clouds rolled in more than once).
Cell phones often won’t work in the backcountry, and their batteries are far from reliable. If you are going to bring your cell phone with you then be sure to keep it off until you need it, or at least on ‘airplane mode’ if you’re using it to take photos, as the battery will drain searching for a signal.
A much more reliable solution is a two-way satellite communication device like the Garmin inReach Mini. It can send and receive text messages over GPS from anywhere in the world, allowing you to let your friends and family know you’re okay or to alert rescue if something bad was to happen. Search & Rescue teams like the two-way feature as it allows them to write back to ask questions, reducing the risk of false alarms and making rescues more efficient.
Being Prepared to Help Others
I had volunteered to help ‘sweep’ the rear on an orientation run last year at a local mountain for an upcoming race. It was an evening run but the plan was to be done well before dark, so many were without headlamps. It unfortunately turned out to be one of the wettest days of the year, but most were dressed in minimal clothing, assuming that the run would be no more than a couple of hours.
Once everyone had finished, we realized we were still short one runner. I had definitely not passed anyone and the course was well marked, so someone must have taken a wrong turn and gone way off course.
That’s when we got a phone call from a girl who said she was lost and had no headlamp, but had seen a sign for ‘St. Mark’s Summit’. She must have taken a wrong turn onto the Howe Sound Crest Trail, a trail that leads 30 km into the backcountry through some very rugged terrain. There’s very little cell reception along the trail, but she’d somehow managed to get a signal – her phone was about to die since she’d been using it as a flashlight. She was told to hunker down and wait for rescue.
Fortunately, I was very familiar with the trail and knew exactly where she was and how to get to her. It was now pitch black though and very foggy, the rain having only gotten worse. We’d notified search and rescue who would still take some time to arrive so, after some debate, two of us prepared to begin a search of our own. We figured she must have been terrified by this point but were mainly worried that she’d be hyperthermic by the time search & rescue was able to mobilize.
We put on extra clothing under our rain jackets along with some spare clothing and nutrition for her, in addition to the other essentials. I setup my inReach to send out a tracking signal every 10 minutes so that our friends could track us online to watch our progress, receive updates, and send back messages, while relaying ours to North Shore Rescue.
Almost two hours later, we were getting close to where she should have been, but our yelling seemed to be absorbed by the thick rain and fog in the dense forest. Our whistle had a better effect and we finally heard a faint voice yelling back but managed to run right past her before doubling back. We found her shivering under a tree and immediately put an emergency blanket over her and forced her to eat something and put on an extra sweater. Our cell phones still couldn’t get a signal, but we were able to text with the inReach to let everyone know that we had found her and were on our way back.
Sometime after midnight, we emerged from the backcountry and met up with the search and rescue team who had just arrived at the top of the ski hill. We all got a ride back down to the parking lot so that she could be debriefed, a little shaken and embarrassed and still a little cold, but otherwise okay.
NSR was of course much better equipped for their search, but probably wouldn’t have reached her for another couple of hours. Having the inReach allowed us to communicate and coordinate our efforts with them, and to ensure that we weren’t complicating the situation by running off ourselves unprepared. I should reiterate though: I was very familiar with this route and confident in my level of fitness. When in doubt, leave it to the professionals.
The lesson for me was that you need to be prepared for the worst so that you can be prepared to help others. When in the backcountry with a group or crossing paths with someone who might be in need of assistance, you yourself may be in the best position to lend a helping hand. A few essentials can go a long way!
Have you had any close calls in the Backcountry? Tell me about it in the comments below!