For me, few things are more rewarding than the combination of adventure, wild scenery, and the physical and mental challenges of recreating in the outdoors. Living in Portland, Oregon, I cycle, hike, and ski in the Cascades and along the Oregon Coast. Often, my adventures take me far from accessible medical assistance.
Staying safe in rugged and remote areas requires you to be mentally and physically equipped to prevent and address injuries on your own. When you’ve climbed thousands of feet in challenging terrain, something as simple as a torqued knee can be the difference between leaving the trailhead on your own power or in a helicopter.
There is a lot of technology available that can help keep you safer, but you should never depend on it. Your cell phone, satellite communicator, or personal locator beacon should be used as a last resort. In some circumstances, you could put rescuers in danger, and in others, help might not be possible at all if conditions don’t permit. You need to be prepared for any scenario you may encounter.
Ideally, your journey will start and end safely. As a longtime backcountry skier, sea kayaker, and distance cyclist, I’ve found that following a few common-sense practices dramatically reduces your chances of getting injured:
- Make sure the activity you’ve planned is appropriate for your ability level. Explore the limits of your skills, but avoid taking unnecessary risks.
- Listen to your gut. Even if you’ve done something many times, don’t be afraid to reconsider if you’re not “feeling it.”
- Do your homework on the area, and know the current weather forecast.
- Don’t wait for small problems to become big ones. If you feel an injury arising, take some time off and get it checked out if necessary.
- Make a travel plan and be sure to leave a copy with someone you trust.
- Be appropriately equipped with gear for any condition.
If You Get Injured
It’s important to recognize the role clothing plays in personal safety. Conditions often change dramatically in a very short time, and the right clothing can keep you safe in unforeseen circumstances. Keeping your body at an optimal temperature helps you conserve energy and water resources. Being safe and comfortable can facilitate a more enjoyable experience, prevent fatigue or hypothermia, and help keep morale high if you’re out longer than expected.
For ski mountaineering, I find there's no substitute for GORE-TEX Pro. My Arcteryx bibs and Beta AR shell are my go-to combo. These versatile bibs have zips that run the full length of the legs, giving me the flexibility to wear them in the dead of winter through summer adventures at high elevations. The jacket is also has a wide range of utility; light enough for long climbs in mild weather while providing enough protection for backcountry endeavors in cold, wet conditions.
No matter how well you’ve prepared and how careful you are, you can always get unlucky. Here are a few tips if you find yourself in this dangerous scenario:
- Stabilize the injury. You should have some kind of first aid kit. You can build a kit that’s cheaper and better tailored for what you do than any pre-assembled kit you can buy. Specific things in my own kit include:
- Electrical tape. It’s so simple but extremely utilitarian. I use it for anything from repairs to bandages. It sticks when wet, resists abrasion, and is stronger than your average bandage. A good rule for anything in your gear list is that it should have multiple uses to justify the weight and space.
- Petroleum jelly, packaged in small foil pouches for medical use, is great for preventing blisters and mitigating scrapes. It can also be used as a firestarter.
- Zip ties. They are lightweight, take up next-to-no space, can be used to secure or repair, and to make splints.
- Ibuprofen. It is useful for reducing inflammation, pain, soreness, and treating headaches.
- Decide if you’re going to stay put or try to make it out. What to do depends on your situation. If you’re staying in place, hopefully, you can reach someone with a phone, satellite communicator, or locator beacon. If you have to wait it out, your emergency layers and hardshell may be your last line of defense against the elements.
Keeping Your Mind Healthy
Getting injured in the backcountry is a worst-case-scenario, but it can just as easily happen in day-to-day life. This past year I fell down the stairs in my home in Portland, Oregon, breaking several ribs and collapsing a lung. This kind of injury would be extremely dangerous in the backcountry without the proper gear to call for safety and wait out its arrival. After a bout of embarrassment and a painful car ride, I was at the ER and in the right hands.
If you love the outdoors, recovering from injuries of any kind can be a difficult process. I went from cycling, hiking, skiing, or getting into the mountains almost every day, to two months of no physical activity. Just breathing was painful and difficult. It made me appreciative of the lifestyle I live and more conservative when assessing risk in the backcountry.
There were times during my recovery when I felt depressed and down on my situation. One thing I took from the experience is that it is essential to maintain a positive attitude and to focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t. As I recovered, I began setting goals that were appropriate for my strength level. I had to adjust my expectations, which is easier said than done. This change in perspective helped me stay motivated to work hard on my physical therapy as I regained the fitness I had before the accident.
Sometimes injuries stay in your head even after you’ve physically recovered. If this happens, you may have to scale back your activity level for a long time. When you first return to your sport, don’t rush to perform at any particular level. Rather, ease back in gently so you’re well within your comfort zones -- you’ll know when you’re ready for more.
I am grateful to have made a full recovery and can now enjoy a winter season of backcountry skiing. If you’re properly prepared to mitigate risk and deal with injuries, you can enjoy year after year of incredible experiences.
Author: Kyle Banerjee
Kyle has been a GORE-TEX Mountain Technician since 2008. He developed his passion for the outdoors while growing up in Southwestern Illinois, but he feels most at home in the PNW where he can ski year-round. Kyle loves the adventure, physical challenges, and rugged coastline of his home, and can almost always be found cycling, paddling off the coast, or ski mountaineering.