How To Keep Safe And Avoid A Rescue

This is a scheduled post. I am currently walking the Wales Coast Path to raise money for the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team. (Update: I completed the Wales Coast Path on 7th February 2022 and raised £1,300)

Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team.
Credit: Llanberis MRT

In case you weren’t aware, though I’m sure by now most are; I’m currently over a month into walking the 870 miles of the Wales Coast Path. I mean, this is a scheduled post so currently I’m doing nothing of the sort; it’s the twenty somethingth of November and I leave in a week and, frankly am preoccupied in planning what to eat in that week that I might not get my hands on again for a while. Things that aren’t beige.

But, all things being well, my rough itinerary (which I expect will be moot within three days of starting) places me at the time of this publication as being about half a day west of Tenby on the Gower. Currently that feels optimistic but here’s hoping future me checks in (Hahahaha! Yeah still at least a week and a half from Tenby!)

It’s all to raise money for Llanberis Mountain Rescue. Of course I see the irony of heading out and hiking for two months at the most dangerous time of year for hiking and, in the process, creating a situation where I might need a Mountain Rescue Team myself, but I’m following all the rules so Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team (and the Western Beacons Mountain Rescue Team that oversees the Tenby area, as well as the Coastguard) are hopefully fairly reassured.

Wait. What rules? Well, rules is just the really strict sounding word I’m using in place of advice. And all the advice for how to hike safely and avoid a rescue is printed up on Llanberis Mountain Rescue’s website. Most of it is common sense for the seasoned hiker, but common sense sometimes abandons all of us, and not everyone is a seasoned hiker.

This post is just a mini refresher course as we examine the rules (ugh, ‘advice’ then) from the website that are there to keep us safe.

The yellow boxes contain the information from Llanberis Mountain Rescue’s online list and therefore is often specific to the Yr Wyddfa region. I have generalised the information underneath.

Plan Your Route

“By spending some time researching your chosen route, you’ll gain valuable knowledge and an understanding of the terrain. Consider the weather and in particular wind direction and visibility.”

  • If you have map skills, but lack confidence in route planning, use an app to find one. For example, if you want to head up Ingleborough, here are three different routes from Alltrails, Komoot, and Viewranger. All include total elevation and descent, the total distance, the amount of time it is expected to take according to Naismith’s Law and at least one of them includes the weather.
  • Remember to download the map for offline use. Draw the route in on your paper map as well, in case something happens to your phone.
  • Bring a power bank. Even if you do not use your phone to refer to your route, you might need it to call for help.
  • Examine the ascent and the exposure and bring appropriate clothing. Understand that going upwards gets cold very fast so bring spare layers of clothes. If you are heading into valleys, check the map for indications of a floodplain or marshes – you might need gaiters and spare socks as well as being prepared to divert your route.
  • Check weather. Many hikers use the DarkSky app as it is hyperlocal (though unfortunately it will cease to be a standalone service at the end of the year due to being bought by Apple). I have a premium version that pushes notifications of weather warnings as well.
  • If heading into the mountains, check the Mountain Weather Information Service. If heading up into the mountains of Scotland, check the Avalanche Forecast as well.
  • Do not just check temperature and the chance of rain, keep an eye on the wind strength and direction as well. Try to plan your route so you will not be walking into strong winds and, if you are camping, that you have enough daylight to set your pitch up somewhere sheltered. A fallen or ripped tent is not fun.
  • Expect your estimated time to be longer when there is reduced visibility. Take your time.

Plan The Day’s Logistics

“Work out where the carparks are and also the times for the Sherpa bus service. All the carparks have pay and display machines so make sure you have change.”

  • When you have researched your route, research the surrounding logistics to make sure it is viable.
  • This includes working out how long it will take you to travel there. If you are travelling by car, where is the nearest car park, what does it cost, and does it only take change?
  • If you are travelling by public transport; how frequently do the services run both to and from your destination and how will you get from your destination to your starting point?
  • Do you intend to bring food and eat en route, or find a pub or restaurant to eat at? How does the latter factor into your route planning and when will you prepare the former? If you intend to buy food at your destination, ensure that there is actually somewhere this can be done. And that you’ve taken Sunday trading laws and bank holidays and local opening hours into consideration.

Know How To Use A Map and Compass

“While walking keep your map and compass close and monitor features as you pass them. Gain an understanding of basic navigation skill by researching or via a mountain skills course.”

  • These days there are apps, good apps, that really help make hiking a more accessible sport. I’ve already mentioned a few. But in many areas we can’t get complacent about navigation; technology is unfortunately proven much more fickle and breakable out there than paper.
  • You do not have to fork out for a mountain skills course off the bat to start understanding navigation. The Ordnance Survey have a whole bunch of free YouTube videos to guide you into understanding how to use a map.
  • If you would like to go on a navigation course, somewhere like NavTrek provides a far broader course. If you are looking at just mountains, or you’re good with everything but mountains, Mountain Skills Training runs courses in the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Cairngorms. Winter specific courses cover the peculiarities and differences when it comes to winter navigation (as well as how to wrangle an ice axe).
  • A compass really is an essential, even if you are deciding, against advice, to forego paper maps completely. It is strangely easy to find out you’ve been walking in the wrong direction for two hours, and being able to take a bearing is important for guiding yourself either through relatively featureless terrain, or in instances of reduced visibility.
  • Multiple navigational aids will always be a bonus. Even if you’re very confident in reading paper maps, a downloaded map from an app can provide GPS confirmation in times of doubt.
  • Never rely purely on waymarks. They are not designed to be your only guide, and even the best waymarked trail will have instances where you are at a decision point but there is no waymark to direct you.

I will confess right now that I am not carrying OS paper maps with me. Mainly because I’d need 22 of them and it would cost £160. I did research Post Restante services and send off the required formal letter to a few Post Offices, but since it is the Christmas season many expressed reluctance to store extra parcels. Instead, I am using the (simpler) paper map included in my guidebook (which also has route directions), downloaded maps from Hiiker and Viewranger, and have the route downloaded onto my Garmin GPS device. The fact that it is a coastal path means navigation is far simpler than a mountain path (keep the sea to your right) and exit points are more obvious; which is much of the reason I feel comfortable not being able to bring OS maps with me.

Check The Weather Forecast

“The mountain weather is very hard to forecast. Use the forecast in your planning and check the updated forecast on the day you plan to walk and adjust or change plans to fit in with the weather.”

  • A reminder of the DarkSky app, and the Mountain Weather Information Service. If you’re heading into Scotland, especially this snowy time of year, check the Avalanche Forecasts as well. Mountain weather might be the most changeable, but weather every where is prone to being contrary.
  • Do not get complacent if your route is lowland; coasts are vulnerable to storms and valleys vulnerable to flooding. Even meadows and moors can be extremely exposed if bad weather comes in.

Carry The Right Gear

“The mountain weather is very hard to forecast. Use the forecast in your planning and check the updated forecast on the day you plan to walk and adjust or change plans to fit in with the weather.”

  • For the mountains, ‘right gear’ refers to layers of clothing, regardless of the time of year. In winter, you might require crampons. Safety wise, carrying a lightweight emergency bivvy or shelter in your bag is wise.
  • For lowland areas, you might be needing gaiters and a spare pair of socks.
  • Winter and a forecast of wet weather requires good weatherproofing outer layers. Including, I’m sorry to say, those super glamourous overtrousers.
  • Your shoes must be up to the task at hand. Even if its August; wearing flip flops to tackle Crib Goch isn’t the cleverest, but wearing hardcore leather boots on a sandy coastal path could give you more problems than stability.

Allow Plenty Of Time

“Many avoidable call-outs could be prevented by starting early in the day and allowing plenty of time for the walk. It gets dark every day of the year in Wales, so a head torch for each person is required. The carparks on weekends and holidays will be full by 8am, so consider using the Sherpa bus or starting early.”

  • Wherever you are walking, keep in mind the amount of time needed to get back. Heading out on a twelve mile circular at 2PM in July is one thing, in January it’s quite another. The former could see you having dinner an hour after returning when the sky is still bright and the weather still warm. The latter could see you walking for the last hour in the dark with rapidly decreasing temperatures.
  • Starting early is also a bonus when it comes to the busy seasons. By now a lot of us have seen pictures of the ‘queues’ up the summit of Snowdon from the summer. But a person starting out at five or six (still light) on those days in August would have had the summit to themselves and perhaps just a small group of others.
  • Heading out, especially to the mountains, in winter gives you far more solitude and peace, but a lot less light to do it in. Rather plan to start out using a headtorch than risk having to fumble or rush the end wearing one.

Be Flexible In Your Planning

“Once on the mountain, observe the weather and conditions. Make decisions based on how you feel and consider alternate options if difficulties are encountered.”

  • This obviously does not only apply to the mountains; coasts have tides, windy moors can turn into a chore, there might be bulls in fields along a pasture route.
  • When researching your route, know the exit points and alternative routes and pencil them in. When you reach those exit or diversion points evaluate how things are going and how they seem to be holding up.
  • This also means that if difficulty does strike, you have a good idea how long it might be before you are able to change course.
  • For instance, in high summer, I had to divert a route off the ridge in the Howgills because of thunderstorm warnings. It was a clear and warm morning, but I didn’t want to be the highest thing in the vicinity when those growing tall clouds suddenly started shooting lightning.

Have Plenty Of Food And Drink

“Walking up Snowdon is hard work! High energy snacks along with slow releasing food should be carried and plenty of fluids. See our Kit list for ideas.”

  • Outside of Llanberis Mountain Rescue’s jurisdiction, you’re still going to need snacks. Do not underestimate how much energy is burned and how much is needed.
  • An average man backpacking with a full pack can easily burn between 5000-6000 a day with even just moderate undulation. I have a BMR of 1100, but burn closer to 3000-3500 on trail.
  • Even taking the full backpacks away; a day hike can still be a strenuous activity. Mountains and their ascent go without further explanations; but loose sand, shingle, snow and bogs all at least doubles (and often triples) the energy output.
  • You don’t need to pack a full meal for a day hike if that isn’t your style and you don’t really like long breaks; but bring snacks that are high in protein and fats. Nut based snacks are great (you can make these at home rather than pay the exorbitant £3.00 a bar or whatever it is in the supermarket) as is dried biltong or jerky. Even pepperami is a good call.
  • Do not try and skimp on weight by skimping on water if you’re not absolutely sure of your resupply points (i.e. unless you’ve done the hike before). A 16 mile traverse of the Trotternish Ridge in midsummer easily sees hikers drinking up to six litres of water. Even in winter, four litres for those 16 miles is not uncommon.
  • Even on a less exposed day hike do not bring less than two litres. On a short hike, no less than one litre.
  • In winter, you might need to remind yourself to drink. Without feeling heat from the sun in the day you often somehow lose awareness of how much water you have already lost through sweating. If you have a water bladder/camelback with a hose, this is often a benefit as you do not have to keep stopping or fumbling to extract a bottle from your bag. It can be suitably mindless.

Don’t Be Afraid To Turn Back

“Don’t base your decision to push on if things get bad, based on how far you have travelled to visit Snowdon. Turning back could be the best decision you’ll ever make and Snowdon will still be there next time.”

  • Knowing when to quit is one of the most important traits a hiker can have. A hiker that has known when to quit and turned back has a better chance of going on to have more successful and safe hikes, whilst a hiker that pushes on regardless jeopardises not only themselves, but the lives of the Team that will one day have to rescue him.
  • Do not let your pride make your decisions for you. Like Llanberis Mountain Rescue says – the wilderness you wish to explore will still be there when you return. That mountain or that trail or that bothy you wanted to reach aren’t going anywhere. And when you return, prepared after realising your limits and regrouping, the hike will be so much better and the completion much more rewarding.
  • I quit a trail in October because I was having to divert so much due to bulls in fields that it was no longer enjoyable. In July, I cut out a mountain on the Raad ny Foillan because I was too fatigued. I left the Trotternish Ridge on the Skye Trail in September at the Quiraing (heading north) because of poor weather and ongoing bad visibility. Any solo traveller like myself needs to be more aware of their limits and more speedy to abide by them than if they go in a group.

Plan For The Worst, Hope For The Best!

“Life has its risks and being in the mountains has its fair share too. Despite all precautions, there is still the chance that something can go wrong. Some basic first aid training and carrying additional equipment will help you to deal with these incidents if they occur..”

  • St John’s Ambulance does essential First Aid Courses. These are far more general, but a lot of their information does overlap with outdoor needs.
  • If you are confident in your essential first aid, consider a Wilderness First Aid Course.
  • If you have bought a standard first aid kit online, but haven’t really had to use it yet or had a rummage, I break it down for you here.
  • First Aid is not a skill to skimp on if you’re planning to hike to remote and wild places. Neither is a first aid kit a place to start cutting grams from your pack.
  • Consider the terrain and the weather and possibly even bring additional items. Even on a day hike in the mountains, a lightweight bivvy or emergency shelter can be an absolute lifesaver if a person has broken their leg, is unable to move, and you’re stuck on cold and exposed ground until the Rescue Team arrives. Even in the absence of such an accident…if it’s really windy it can provide a place of shelter and relief to eat your lunch!
  • Anticipate what first aid skills you might need on any particular hike. A hike in midsummer might bring about a need to understand how to deal with heatstroke, whilst in midwinter hypothermia can be a quick killer. Understand how to address drowning if your group is heading out for a wildswim, and how to bind a fracture pretty much wherever you may be.

If You Experience an Emergency

Finding yourself completely lost or injured in the middle of nowhere is utterly terrifying, and your health and your safety should always be an absolute priority regardless of time of year.

  • Do not try and be stubborn or be concerned about ‘causing a fuss’ and attempt to keep going when chances are you will make the situation worse.
  • If the incident occurs in the day, do not wait until light is fading to call for help. Especially now we have shorter daylight hours. The more hours of light Mountain Rescue has to work with, the quicker they can aid you.
  • Do not wait until your phone battery is down to 20% after trying to navigate your way out of a misdirection. Even if you have a power bank on you.
  • An InReach device has a long (many days) battery life and instantly contacts the local emergency services and rescue teams regardless of signal. These are expensive, but if you are heading out regularly they are worth your consideration.

Where there isn’t a Mountain Rescue, there will be a Lowland Search and Rescue; these teams are all wilderness search and rescue teams and operate in all open country areas across the country where it is difficult for the traditional emergency services to reach.

To contact Mountain Rescue, call 999, ask for the police, then ask to speak to Mountain Rescue and you will be connected immediately to your local Mountain or Lowland Rescue. If you have an InReach device, you only need to push the SOS button.

Check out Llanberis Mountain Rescue’s Planning Resources.

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