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Backcountry travel in pandemic times

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The rivers are up, the wildflowers are blooming, and the hummingbirds are zipping by, which can only mean one thing: backcountry season is finally here!

Before trekking off into the great unknown, perhaps now would be the time to brush up on those backcountry skills to keep you, your party, and our first responders safe.

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If you do decide to head out into the backcountry, staying found should be your top priority — even on a relatively simple day hike. 

To stay found, you are constantly thinking ahead. What is your route? What is the weather like? Are you drinking enough? Are you eating enough? By taking action before it becomes a problem, you are setting yourself up for success.

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Take a few minutes to plan your trip. This includes knowing your route, what items to bring (see The 10 Essentials) and how to use your gear, and who, if anyone, you are going with.

“Don’t forget to look at your route conditions before you head out,” Garfield County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) President Tom Ice said. “Today with social media it is so easy to post on Facebook and ask about trail conditions. You’ll get all the information you need rather than going into somewhere blind.”

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When you have your plan, Ice said, it is best to tell a few people where you are going and how long you will be gone. More often than not, SAR  teams take longer to find someone if the hiker failed to let others know.

As you head out check in with yourself and your party. Know your limits, and the limits of everyone else. According to Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) knowing your limits, such as climbing experience, will greatly reduce your risks. 

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Sometimes the unpredictable happens. Try not to deviate from your original plan, but if you absolutely have to, take a moment to let your contact person know what happened and leave an identifying clue (e.g., rock sculpture, footprints) for rescuers to use in an emergency.

And sometimes the unthinkable happens: you get lost.

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The moment you find yourself lost, the first action you should take is to STOP: sit, think, observe, and plan. Panicking at first is very normal, according to MRA. However, if you take a moment to relax and breathe deeply, your chances of survival increase by 50 percent.

When you are ready, blow your whistle three times in different directions. If you do not have a whistle yell, “HELP”.

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MRA said that lost persons should try to stay put, however if significant time passes, it is wise to slowly start retracing your steps using your map and compass, and leave as many clues as possible (e.g., foot prints). Before night build a fire and set up shelter.

In the event of a rescue, GCSAR has implemented a series of safety initiatives to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.

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“We are requiring masks, using gloves, and we have standard questions we ask the patients before we approach them pertaining to COVID-19,” Ice said. “We are taking heavier precautions.”

Rescuers are also using rain gear as a form of PPE since they cannot easily carry scrubs into the backcountry. Ice said that for now, they are still operating and training as best as they can, although training has lessened in recent weeks due to the inability to gather. Fortunately, in Garfield County rescue missions are rarer than they were this time last year.

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“Our mission load has been very, very low throughout the pandemic,” Ice said. “I think because it is still spring, and a lot of people are just staying home and they are not traveling or recreating like they usually would.” 

However, nearby Mesa County first responders are dealing with a 60 percent increase in rescues most likely associated with the influx of hikers looking to escape to the mountains, according to the Daily Sentinel.

Ice said that if you are feeling unwell, it is best to just stay home and get better before putting yourself and others at risk.

Visit tinyurl.com/MRAbackcountrysafety to learn more about staying found.

Who to call

If you are in a backcountry emergency, call 911 immediately. However, the dispatcher might not be familiar with the area or your situation. In Colorado, the County Sheriff is responsible for search and rescue efforts outside of city limits. Keep these numbers plugged into your phone, and always know who to call when traveling outside of the state.

Mountain Rescue Aspen: 970-920-5310 
Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Glenwood Springs: 970-945-0453
Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Rifle: 970-665-0200
Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office: 970-920-5300

The 10 Essentials

  1. Navigation tools: map, compass, and GPS. If you have a smartphone, turn Location Services “on”.
  2. Sun protection
  3. Whistle
  4. Extra food and water
  5. Extra warm clothing
  6. First-aid kit
  7. Emergency shelter
  8. Knife or multi-tool
  9. Headlamp
  10. Fire starters
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