By Grand Canyon National Park Search & Rescue
Prevention is the best strategy for backcountry emergencies…
Take precautions—avoid becoming a victim! It sounds like simple advice, because it is. Exposing yourself and members of your party to excess risk can lead to an accident. If a hiking route or action doesn’t “feel right”—stop and consider the consequences. Is there a conservative or less risky alternative. Many visitors have paid with their lives for simple errors in judgment.
Planning for a Safe Return
Give someone at home a written itinerary of your backcountry travel plans, including vehicle description and license plate. Don’t expect them to remember your route during a moment of panic. Stick to your agenda and be certain to phone home once you have completed your hike.
As a standard the “ten essentials” are must-haves for your pack:
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra Food
- Extra Clothing
- Headlamp or Flashlight with spare batteries
- First-aid Supplies
- Fire Starter
Although drinking water is not one of the “standard” ten essentials, no Grand Canyon hike should ever be attempted without it. Water is the foundation to any Grand Canyon hike.
Don’t forget to take your “backcountry life insurance” with you—a signal mirror. This lightweight emergency communication device has been used successfully in many Canyon emergencies. It is definitely worth bringing along.
The vast majority of inner canyon injuries involve lower leg injuries and dehydration. These injuries are frequently preventable.
- Physically condition yourself so that you are strong well in advance of a hike.
- Listen to your body—hiking downhill takes its toll.
- Maintain your mental acuity. Keep your energy level up by consuming high energy snack, to avoid stumbling along the trail.
- Plan for adverse weather conditions in advance with your equipment, which may include quality rainwear, gaiters, in-step crampons and shelter depending on the conditions. Be alert of weather changes during your visit.
- Carry an adequate first aid kit to stabilize injuries until help arrives.
The constant intensity of heat in the Canyon requires strong proactive measures to avoid it taking its toll on you.
Here is the best advice to avoid a heat-related illness:
- Plan to hike in the cooler hours of the day. Avoid the mid-day heat! “Hike when the trail is shaded and rest when the trail is in the sun”
- When you feel tired-rest, relax and put your feet up.
- Drink regularly and replace your loss of electrolytes with salty snacks or electrolyte supplements mixed in your drinking water. Mixing these at slightly less than full strength will lessen the chance of irritating your stomach.
- Remember to eat. Food is fuel—If you don’t eat you won’t go!
This is a truly life-threatening emergency! The body is unable to properly cool itself and dangerously overheats. As the body temperature rises, a subject exhibits an altered level of consciousness, acting confused and irrational. The skin may appear dry and flushed. This is a truly grave sign. As the body temperature reaches 106°, unconsciousness and cardiac arrest is almost certain to follow.
Immediate Cooling is Critical!
Take immediate cooling measures through whatever means you have at hand. Evaporative cooling in the dry heat works very well. As a subject is soaked down additional bystanders can fan the subject thereby aiding in the cooling process.
A less critical situation than heat stroke, where a person becomes dehydrated through the loss of body fluids. The arid canyon environment and altitude combine to accelerate the loss of water quicker than most people expect. Using thirst as a gauge as to when to drink is inaccurate. By the time you notice that you are thirsty you are already dehydrated. Heat exhaustion victims become tired, fatigued, have either pale or flushed skin and may be vomiting. Vomiting hastens the dehydration of the patient.
Treatment for heat exhaustion includes:
- Moving the patient to shade.
- If they are able to tolerate oral fluids have them take small sips of water rather than large gulps, the latter of which they will typically vomit back up.
- Provide them with prolonged rest and oral rehydration.
This heat-related illness is caused by an imbalance of electrolytes in the body. It typically manifests in someone who is physically active in the heat losing salt (sodium) and water. As the amount of sodium in the bloodstream decreases, patients suffer from feeling of “impending doom”, irrational behavior, decreased level of consciousness, seizures and coma.
Field treatment will not typically reverse this condition and the patient is in need of hospitalization. Assist the patient with maintaining their airway. If they vomit put them in a position of drainage so that they do not aspirate their vomitus. If the patient experiences a seizure, assist them so they do not cause injury to themselves from the hazards around them.
Have a map and study it. Study it before your trip and during. Sharpen your map reading skills in advance.
The wooded rim areas of Grand Canyon are the most disorienting and this is where a compass is essential. The inner canyon, with its obvious landmarks is less confusing for the traveler to obtain their bearings.
Common ways to get “lost” in Grand Canyon:
- Choosing the wrong drainage fork when traveling upstream.
- Losing a hiking route while traveling uphill.
What if you become hopelessly lost?
- Stay put. Wandering increases the area that must be searched in order to locate you.
- Make yourself “big” so that you can be seen or heard by rescuers.
- Use attraction devices- whistle, signal mirror, flashlight or strobe.
Whan an Accident Does Occur
Don’t suddenly lose your “situational awareness” when confronted by the urgency of a life-threatening predicament. Our natural tendency as human beings is to become overly excited by the incident. We then begin to make poor decisions. At this point don’t let other members of the group run wildly for help or start taking shortcuts with personal safety.
Here is some advice for organizing others during an emergency:
- Immediately consult openly with the group and develop a plan with feedback from others.
- Make certain everyone involved is informed of the plan.
- Advise others openly to remain calm, safe, in control and aware of changes in environmental conditions.
During an accident our judgment is easily clouded by adrenaline. There has already been one accident- don’t compound the situation by adding to the number of victims.
SEND WORD QUICKLY. Get out the critical information so a rescue can be initiated. Rescuers need to know the NATURE OF THE INJURY and the EXACT LOCATION. This is the most important information that you can possibly relay.
- Carry a first aid kit. Stabilize life-threatening injuries, then get help.
- Don’t move the victim unless their safety is in danger.
- All commercial river trips carry either a satellite telephone phone or ground-to-air radio. If you are near the river seek their assistance. Between May and September there are river trips daily going past any single point on the river.
- There is typically no reliable cellular coverage below the canyon rim. Cellular phone may work from trailheads.
When is Evacuation Necessary?
- Fatigue and mild dehydration can be corrected. Thorough “prolonged” rest and rehydration is the best field treatment.
- Lower limb fractures or chronic injuries that will be critically aggravated by hiking out will require evacuation.
- Severe traumatic injuries, loss of consciousness or other similar life-threatening emergencies will require immediate evacuation.
In the event of a helicopter medical evacuation, a patient will be charged for the costs. This is an expensive action that places rescuers at risk during a flight into the Canyon. Hopefully you will never need us.
Wilderness First Aid Basics: A Guide for Preparation, Basic First Aid and Survival – Wilderness first aid is the knowledge and ability to effectively address injury, illness, or emergency outside of modern facilities, out in the wild. Skills could include knowing how to dress a wound, treat a burn or bite, or set an injured limb. These are important skills that can save your life or the lives of other outdoor enthusiasts.
Learn more and be better prepared for your next hiking or backpacking adventure. The ACLS Training Center has compiled this comprehensive list of excellent resources for Preparation, Basic First Aid, Survival Skills and General Outdoor/Wilderness Safety. It is an excellent page of valuable information.
Featured photo credit: A search and rescue team assist in a litter carry up the Bright Angel Trail | NPS Photo by J. Baird