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Backcountry Safety

The backcountry is beautiful, but also rugged. Before you hit the trail, it is important to properly prepare. REMSA would like to share the following tips to keep individuals safe when they venture into the backcountry.

Drinking Water Safety

An intestinal disorder called giardiasis may be contracted from drinking untreated “natural” water. This disorder is caused by a microscopic organism called Giardia Lamblia, the cystic form of which is in mountain streams and lakes. Such waters may look and taste good, but you should be aware of possible danger. Although giardiasis can be incapacitating, it is usually not life threatening. Symptoms usually include diarrhea, increased gas, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps and bloating. These discomforts may appear a few days to a few weeks after ingestion of Giardia and may last up to six weeks.

Purify Your Water

Three ways to properly purify your water is to boil it, treat it with iodine, or use a filter. All are effective methods to purify your water, but the choice of which one to use is up to you.

  • Boiling: Bringing the water to a momentary full boil even at high altitudes is enough to kill Giardia. The drawback to this method is that it is time consuming and you will probably need to bring along extra fuel.
  • Iodine: Iodine tablets or drops are lightweight and simple to use. Iodine tablets do kill Giardia, but they leave a slight iodine taste in the water, and it takes approximately thirty minutes or longer, before the water is fit to drink. Iodine tablets also lose their potency once they are exposed to air and water.
  • Filter: A 2-micron filter will filter Giardia. Other filters can filter even smaller particles. Filters do not leave any odd taste in the water, but they can be expensive and add weight to your pack. They also will eventually clog and need to be cleaned or replaced.


Hypothermia is subnormal body temperature. It is brought about by cold, wet, weather and increases as the body becomes exhausted. It is the number one cause of death of outdoor enthusiasts because it can strike even when temperatures are well above freezing. Know how to defend against hypothermia.

Avoid Exposure

  • Stay dry. When clothes get wet they lose most of their insulating value. Wool and synthetics are much better insulators than cotton, even when wet.
  • Sheild yourself from the wind. Wind drives cold air through and under clothing, which can deplete your bodyheat.
  • Understand cold. Most hypothermia cases develop in temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees. Many people underestimate the danger of being wet in these temperatures.

Terminate Exposure

  • If you cannot avoid exposure and stay dry and warm, then terminate exposure.
  • Know when to stop. It’s not worth continuing your trip if you are at risk.
  • Get out of the wind and rain, make your camp as secure, warm and dry as possible.
  • Be aware of shivering. Constant or violent shivering is a sign that you are on the verge of hypothermia.
  • Don’t wait until you are exhausted. Make camp while you still have energy. If you stop because of exhaustion, your body heat production will drop dramatically.

Detect Hypothermia

Know the symptoms of hypothermia:

  1. Uncontrollable shivering;
  2. Slow, slurred speech;
  3. Incoherence;
  4. Loss of dexterity in the hands;
  5. Stumbling;
  6. Drowsiness-sleep equals death;
  7. Extreme exhaustion, such as an inability to go on after a rest.

Treating Hypothermia

  1. Get out of the wind and rain.
  2. Remove all wet clothes.
  3. Mild hypothermia:
    1. give the person warm drinks (if fully conscious);
    2. get them into dry clothes and a warm sleeping bag.
  4. Severe hypothermia:
    1. Keep person awake;
    2. Put stripped person in a sleeping bag with another stripped person;
    3. Skin to skin contact is the best treatment;
    4. Build a fire to warm the camp area.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness occurs because of a lack of oxygen. Victims of altitude sickness should stop and rest, breathe deeply and slowly return to lower elevations. Altitude sickness can be minimized if you take a day or two to acclimatize yourself to the increase in altitude before you do any strenuous activities.


If you become lost, stay calm and don’t panic. Try and use your map to find a familiar geologic feature to orient yourself. If you cannot do that, it’s best to stay where you are. Carry a whistle, a pin light and small mirror for emergency use. Three of anything (shouts, whistles, flashes of light from a mirror) is a sign of distress.

First Aid Kit

Always carry a kit with you. They are fairly inexpensive to put together and should contain:

  • aspirin
  • laxative
  • disinfecting ointment for cuts/burns
  • moleskin (for blisters)
  • triangular bandages (2)
  • scissors
  • gauze pads
  • adhesive tape
  • needle (for splinters)
  • tweezers
  • water purification tablets
  • sunscreen
  • ACE bandage

Make sure that you always have this equipment with you, especially on day hikes.

  • waterproof matches, a lighter and flint
  • paraffin sticks
  • light weight thermal blanket
  • map of the area
  • compass
  • extra food
  • rain gear (weather changes quickly in the Sierra)
  • extra warm clothes
  • whistle
  • knife
  • first-aid kit


Weather conditions can make or break your backcountry experience. Weather in the Sierra can change rapidly, backcountry users should be prepared for all types of weather. Winter weather can be extremely unpredictable. Strong winds and snow can appear suddenly.

Inform others

Before entering the backcountry, always let others know your planned route and when you plan to return in case there is an emergency and you are unable to return. Also leave a written note on your automobile with your whereabouts. This will increase the speed of the rescue and increase the chance for survival.

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