Pre-planning and navigation skills key for safe excursions
by: Contributed photo A trip into Oregon’s backcountry, such as the forest surrounding Mount Hood, during the summer months can be rewarding. It also can be risky for those who are unprepared.

Rescued by antler hunters from her stranded van May 6, Rita Chrétien, 56, was found starving and dehydrated. The Canadian woman spent 47 days with little sustenance or shelter near the Nevada-Idaho border.

Chrétien and her husband, Albert, 59, had disappeared in eastern Oregon on March 19 while traveling from Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, to Las Vegas for a trade show.

Chrétien was discharged from Penticton Regional Hospital the weekend of May 15; however, search efforts for Albert by the Elko County Sheriff's Office have continued to be hindered by weather conditions.

As the official start of summer nears, and locals plan excursions to the mountain, survival training expert Brian Wheeler underscores the importance of preplanning routes and not relying solely on global positioning systems (GPS).

The Chrétiens had used a GPS in their 2000 Chevrolet Astro that took them on a route not included on most maps.

'You should plan where you're going, know your route to and from and tell a responsible person when and where you are going,' Wheeler said.

Wheeler founded Northwest School of Survival in 1983 and provides backcountry safety training. He offered general tips for the average person taking a mountain outing.

Wheeler said one of the biggest issues mountain travelers face is underestimating what could confront them, despite their experience and familiarity with the region.

He points to Murphy's Law and says something will inevitably go wrong on a camping trip or hike, whether it's getting lost, breaking a boot lace or dropping a GPS.

'You need to always be thinking and prepare for the worst possible weather, even in August,' Wheeler said.


All navigation tools are important, Wheeler said, and it's especially important to understand them through and through. GPS units are OK to use, but travelers should also carry maps of the area with a compass and the ability to use them.

He encourages travelers to use survey tape to mark their routes along tree limbs.

'Just remember to pull it down before you're out of woods,' he said.

He also recommends wearing something brightly colored. Inexpensive vests, like those worn on construction sites, can be spotted for miles by rescuers.

Whistles are useful, too, in case of emergencies.

Vehicle preparation

First and foremost, Wheeler said, make sure your car is in proper working order. This seems obvious, but is crucial for safe summer travels.

Wheeler said travelers should include spare tires, tire chains, carpet strips, a bumper jack and a tarp among the supplies stashed in their vehicle.

For each person, travelers should pack a gallon of water and an additional couple of gallons of spare water. They should pack enough food to last for two days, even if they are going on a two-hour hike.

Shelter preparation

Travelers should ensure they have fire building capacity. A fire will offer warmth, dry out gear and clothing and provide a signal for rescue. It's important to be able to light a fire in severe weather.

Travelers should be able to not only start a fire, but also extinguish one. According to Wheeler, leaving it smoldering is not enough.

A small shovel can help to dig up roots and anything else on fire. Fires can take up to several hours to fully extinguish.

First aid

Wheeler said to keep a level head and know how to use what you carry. Travelers should be able to transport their equipment with them properly.

For bug repellant, look for a formula that contains 30 percent DEET solution. In case of bites or allergic reactions, carry Benadryl in a first aid kit to treat swelling from a reaction to a bite or an allergy. It's also important to have an anti-inflammatory pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen along in case of injury.

Sunscreen is a must.

Camping preparation

Be sure to keep food in one area and sleep in another to avoid attracting animals.

Travelers should ensure the ground upon which they set up camp isn't too close to water in case of rising water levels.

If you're going to try wild foods, like berries, be able to identify them without question and eat in moderation.


Cotton doesn't insulate. Always prepare with rain gear for top and bottom. A parka and pants are ideal; a poncho is not.

Under that, layer lightweight long underwear and 'inflating layers,' which are often wool and fleece.

Shoes should have a decent sole to them with proper traction for slopes. Tennis shoes often don't provide enough traction off route.

'Because of snow pack and weather, everything is going to be wet,' Wheeler said. 'Plan to fall in advance so you don't get hurt. You will fall, but make it a safe one.'

Wheeler stressed the importance of good self-assessment -- 'to have enough energy to get out of what you get into and always remember you're only halfway through.'

Mental outlook, proper training and backcountry knowledge will help travelers respond effectively to emergencies on the mountain, Wheeler said.

For more information about The Northwest School of Survival and a listing of public training programs, visit or call 503-668-8264.

Survival books recommended by Wheeler: 'Be Expert with Map and Compass' by Bjorn Kjellstrom and the 'Woodsmoke: Collected Writings on Ancient Living Skills' series by Richard and Linda Jamison.

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