Safety in the mountains

Some essential tips to be able to enjoy the mountain safely

Author

The Mountain Intervention Unit of the Mossos d’Esquadra, experts in safety and investigation into mountain accidents.
Patrol car - Photo by the Mountain Intervention Unit of the Mossos d’Esquadra

Ascending mountain tops, going across a couloir, walking along ridges or enjoying the sights of a waterfall can all be some of the highlights that following a mountain trail can offer. Taking pleasure in these sites is possible, whether you are hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing or doing any other activity, but any sport in the mountain around the world must go hand in hand with safety. Preventing accidents is vital. That is why Wikiloc addressed the “Mossos d’Esquadra” (Catalan Police Force) from the MIU (Mountain Intervention Unit) which is also a member of the ICAR (International Commission for Alpine Rescue) made up of experts on safety and investigation into mountain accidents. Let’s go over the essential advice to be able to enjoy the mountain safely!

1) Learn about the area and adapt the activity accordingly

The preparation for a mountain outing is crucial. Paying careful attention to the distance, elevation gain, and orography of the land are three tasks that you must carry out to be informed about the area where you wish to do your activity. Moreover, it is important that you make sure the difficulty of the trail is appropriate for your level of fitness and know-how. If the outing is in a group, be sure it is suitable to the level and experience of all of the members. On the other hand, whenever possible, look for and plan out alternative trails that give you the option, at the halfway point of your trek, to head back to the starting point or to a safe location as fast as possible.

2) Check out the weather forecast

Some of the aspects to consider to have a reliable weather forecast are: the chance of storms, snowfall or even the chance of other weather phenomena, and the forecasted temperature, wind speed and the possible visibility. This forecast should be looked over again and again as the day and time you head off on the trail arrive, as well as during the outing due to the fact that the mountain weather conditions can change from one hour to the next. If the weather forecast is not favorable or it worsens, one must know when to cancel the outing altogether, even if you are mid-route.

3) Let someone know the route you plan to take and how long you will be there

Whether it is your family, friends or the people at the refuge where you plan on spending the night, it is vitally important that you inform someone about what trail you are going on and approximately how long you will be there. This way, if for whatever reason you do not reach your destination, there will always be someone that can send out the alarm to initiate a search and rescue. The time frame between the expected time of arrival and the alarm could be determined beforehand, but regardless of whether it had been set up previously, other factors must be considered such as the weather, the level of experience of the person, the activity type and the difficulty of the trail.

In order to be located at any moment, one good option is to activate the Live Tracking on Wikiloc. You can then send the link to whomever you like so they can see your location in real time on a map along with the trail completed up to that moment and what is left (in the event that you are following a trail).

4) Bring the right gear and materials

Use the most appropriate gear based on the activity you are doing, the specific demands of the trail and the time of year. It is advisable to wear bright colors as this will make it easier to carry out search and rescue in case it is needed, and bring enough clothing bearing in mind the distance, the time spent on the trail and the weather forecast. While at first they may seem unnecessary, a thermal shirt, a fleece sweater and a waterproof jacket could be what keeps you alive. One must be ready for abrupt changes in weather or a drop in temperature, especially up in the mountains. It is also highly recommendable to bring a printed map, a compass and a headlamp if nightfall comes suddenly. Lastly, a cap and sunglasses are a good idea to protect you from the sun.

Out of all the necessary materials, one of the fundamental elements is a whistle (most backpacks have one built-in to the adjustable straps at chest level). The whistle can be a useful tool especially when there is little visibility. Three short blows, three long blows followed by three more short blows is the international emergency signal: SOS. With a specific frequency, these blows of the whistle can ease the work of the search and rescue teams.

Built-in whistle on the adjustable straps of a backpack at chest-level
Whistle built-in to the straps of a backpack – Photo by Wikiloc

What should I do if I am in the mountains and I hear a whistle blowing? According to the MIU, it is recommended that you try to determine where the sound is coming from to find out what is happening. If the area is inaccessible, it is better to clarify any false alarms before notifying the rescue services, such as in the case of a group of children innocently blowing on their whistles. If you are convinced that there has occurred some kind of accident or loss, it is suggested that you alert the local emergency services about the sound pattern of the whistle and an approximate location of where it is coming from.

The first-aid kit, a vital piece of equipment for any activity. What we should never forget to have with us is: a thermal blanket, medical tape, compression bandages, a small pair of scissors, saline solution or hydrogen peroxide to clean wounds, gauze and bandages, analgesic and anti-inflammatory cream, a lighter, and sunblock.

Mossos d’Esquadra MIU patrolling the area
Police officer patrolling the area – Photo by the Mossos d’Esquadra MIU

5) Bring plenty of provisions

Food and water are vitally important for any route. Regardless of whether the outing is short or long, bringing food and drink can prevent bad experiences such as dizziness brought on by low blood sugar. The amount you bring may depend on the distance, elevation gain and other factors like temperature. Some foods that are highly recommendable are nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit as well as water or isotonic drinks with mineral salts.

6) Take a GPS device with you

Technological devices with built-in GPS localization allows for being well-oriented at any given moment. With the Wikiloc App, you can follow trails from your mobile phone with a heading indicator, a compass and audible alerts. Moreover, free off-line maps are available which can allow you to follow a trail without the Internet nor mobile coverage while saving your battery. If the outing is long, it is highly recommended that you bring a replacement battery. Keep in mind that the colder it is, the less the batteries last.

It is also possible to download the trail from the Wikiloc Web or App to import it to an external GPS device and follow it from there.

7) Avoid danger and respect the signs of it

Any activity in the mountain comes with its possible danger and risks, which is why it is important to always assess the situation and stay alert. Along the route, in addition to respecting any signs of danger, if you feel the area is unsafe, to avoid any unnecessary risks, the best advice is to not continue forward. If you are inexperienced, it is best to avoid steep places with a risk of falling.

8) Look for reference points

Mountains with a unique shape, valleys, ravines, ponds, towns or even the starting point of the route can serve as some of your reference points. While the excursion is in course, keep a look out for and set new points of reference so you don’t lose your sense of orientation as time goes on.

9) If you are in a group, do not lose contact

Staying within sight or keeping verbal contact with those accompanying us will greatly reduce the chances of getting lost or separated. If you must stop, always do it in safe places. If your outing is during winter and there’s snow, steer clear of areas prone to avalanches when you make a stop, as is the case where there are mountain couloirs or bald patches in a forest. In extreme climates and the chill factor is intensely cold, keep from making stops and stay active with the group instead.

In the event that you do lose contact with part of the group, it is important to stay calm. If there is no visibility, the whistle can help to reunite the group. Another recommendation is to agree on different rendez-vous points along the route beforehand, this way everyone can head to the same point. If you do not manage to meet up again after a certain reasonable point in time depending on the circumstances, then it will be necessary to alert the emergency services. In most countries, the emergency services can be reached at 112 (used in Europe and some parts of Asia) or by dialing 911 (used in some countries in North and South America).

10) Head back before it gets dark

If you are not very familiar with the area, the best advice to follow is go back before it gets dark. Even if you have a headlamp, you must always plan ahead so that you reach your destination with enough time just in case anything unexpected occurs along the way. Just in case it suddenly gets dark on you (or the visibility worsens), do not step off the marked paths.

If you stay to sleep in the mountain, remember to get informed about where you can do so, bring the right gear with you based on the anticipated weather conditions and tell someone where you plan on spending the night.

Mossos d’Esquadra offices from the MIU on a snowmobile in the line of duty
MIU officers in the line of duty – Photo by Mossos d’Esquadra MIU

What should I do in case of an accident or getting lost

In the mountains, if one gets lost or has an accident, it is crucial to stay calm and protect yourself. Once you have found shelter or a safe place to rest, first be as precise as possible to identify your exact location (if possible, with the use of a device with geopositioning), then send out an alert to the emergency services. Sending an alert immediately in the moment the accident or disorientation could be decisive. The most indispensable information to give during the phone call is: The name of each missing or injured person, their age, physical condition and pre-existing medical conditions, the current location with the greatest precision possible (like the exact coordinates), what happened, the current situation and the weather conditions in the area including visibility. Once the rescue agents arrive, it is requisite to follow their instructions at all times.

If you do not have a device with geopositioning or you cannot send out an alert to search and rescue teams, the sheer act of letting other people know what path you were going to follow will set off the alert to the emergency services as will the use of a whistle ease the job of the mountain intervention units.