Living off the land: practicing safety in the wilderness

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- A young couple just set up camp in a secluded spot at the base of a mountain. And where did they pitch their two-camper tent and equipment? Of course, in a nice, flat sandy spot in the middle of a dry wash, isolated from other campers where they could grill steaks on the open fire.

Perfect, right? Hardly! Exercising simple Operational Risk Management techniques would have led them to deduce that this was probably the worst place possible to set up camp. Hazards are everywhere. Bears frequently patrol campsites, lured by the promise of a free meal. Fires ignite easily and unexpectedly during the dry season. The weather shifts rapidly and without warning. Thunderstorms form quickly, often laced with lightning and hail. Campers and animals alike are often caught off-guard and unprepared. The runoff from any storm - even 10 miles away -- can rapidly snake down the mountainside, sending campers, pets, equipment, and wildlife on an unexpected midnight rafting excursion.

Remember the "chain of events" concept? History repeatedly indicates that no single event invites tragedy, but instead a chain of events transpire culminating into a mishap. Fundamental ORM concepts are typically not implemented. Well, break the chain and get back to basics. The Air Force is now at an unprecedented level of safety awareness, fostered by positive attitudes and reinforced at every level of leadership. The last thing anyone should do is invite tragedy, yet many of us still assess risk in seconds.

What about our campers? Here are some of the basics they should have thought about before setting up that campsite.

Identify the hazards: Survey the weather forecast for the location you are planning. What is the indigenous wildlife -- bugs, poisonous plants, snakes and bears? What is the fire danger level? Is there a fire ban in effect? Members should ask themselves: Is it worth it? 

Be prepared: Pack the essentials for dealing with the identified hazards. Prepare for severe conditions such as planning for cover during inclement weather and having a pre-determined exit strategy. Bring extra water and non-perishable food in case members become stranded. Keep food in sealed containers and out of the tent. Hang food and garbage from a tree, out of a bear's reach and away from the campsite if possible. Carry a compass or a GPS device for emergencies.

Stay in touch: Leave campsite information and an itinerary with someone. Carry cell phones or radios to communicate with emergency personnel if necessary.

Summer is a great time to have fun outdoors in the Rockies. But not all of us want to live off the land indefinitely because we were not prepared for common hazards. Make summer outings fun, memorable, and safe. Just remember to ask: Is it worth it?