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 Natural Disasters


Open water, mountaintops, the crests of ridges, the bases of tall or solitary trees, and large meadows can be hazardous places during lightning storms. Plan to be off peaks and other exposed locations before afternoon when thunderstorms are more prevalent. If you are caught in a dangerous area, quickly move to shore or descend to a lower elevation, ideally away from the direction of the approaching storm. A dense forest located in a depression offers the greatest protection. Stay clear of shallow caves and overhanging cliffs—ground currents might arc across them. Avoid bodies of water and metal fences, too, and anything else that might conduct electricity. In a tent, stay as far as you can from metal tent poles.

If a lightning storm catches your group in the open, spread out so that people are at least 30 feet from one another. Further minimize your risk by crouching low with only the soles of your shoes touching the ground. You can use your sleeping pad for insulation by folding it and crouching upon it.

Incident Response for Lightning Strikes

Persons struck by lightning might suffer varying degrees of burns. Of more immediate concern is the likelihood that their hearts have stopped beating and they are no longer breathing. Treat by checking their circulation and respiration; if necessary, perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Once they are stabilized, attend to burns or other injuries, treat for shock, and closely monitor their vital signs until they are under a physician's care.

For more on lightning and its causes, see the chapter titled "Monitoring Weather."

Flash Floods

In arid regions of the country, dry streambeds and small creeks can become raging rivers in just a few minutes. The rains causing the flood might be falling right where you are, or they could be coming down miles upstream of your location. When traveling in areas where flash floods are possible, make it a point to always know how to reach the safety of higher ground. Pitch your tents above the high-water marks of past floods. In flowing streams, watch for an increase in the speed or volume of current and for other indicators of imminent flooding. Moving water can be extremely powerful; stay clear of areas that have become flooded.

Incident Response for Flash Floods

If you are caught in a flood, assume a position with your feet aimed downstream, then use them to absorb impact against objects. Should you manage to get to an island or into the branches of a tree, stay calm and wait for assistance.

For more on surviving a fall into moving water, see the chapter titled "Watercraft Adventure Safety." For more on safely crossing streams, see the chapter titled "Mountain Travel."

Falling rocks pose a danger to unwary backcountry travelers. Loose stones at the base of a cliff might indicate a likelihood of rockfall. If you hear a rock clattering down, or if you accidentally kick one loose, shout "Rock!" to warn those below to take cover.

Travel in areas with significant risk of avalanche is beyond the scope of this book and calls for more specialized training.

As with any trek adventure risks, don't be reluctant to change your plans or postpone a trip when avalanche danger is high. The mountains will still be there for you after conditions have improved.


Avalanches are a serious concern for all travelers whose outings take them into snowy, mountainous regions. An avalanche occurs when snow breaks loose on a slope, or when a cornice of snow collapses and tumbles down. Large avalanches can carry away trees and tents, and even a small snowslide can bury a person caught in its path.

Your greatest protection against avalanches is knowing where, how, and when they are likely to happen and then planning routes that take you elsewhere. Indicators of danger include the following:

  • Signs of previous avalanches—conditions that were right for past avalanches might well come together again to cause future snowslides.
  • Steep terrain—avalanches usually happen on slopes of 40 to 60 degrees.
  • Accumulations of new snow—it takes a while for fresh snowfall to consolidate enough to stabilize.
  • Variations in the quality of snow layers, especially if one or more layers are airy, granular, or in slabs—a weak layer in the snowpack can allow layers above to break loose and slide.
  • Air temperature rising to near or above freezing, causing changes in snowpack stability.
  • Sounds that suggest cracking or settling of the snowpack.

In addition to understanding the basics of avoiding avalanche zones, the following steps will help you prepare for travel in steep, snowy terrain:

  • Complete an avalanche-safety training course taught by qualified experts.
  • Check local avalanche-forecasting networks (operated by weather bureaus and land management agencies) before setting out. The most useful networks are updated at least once a day.
  • Choose travel companions who understand the danger of avalanches and will do their part to manage the risk.
  • Carry avalanche safety equipment and know how to use it. Battery-powered beacons worn by each group member emit a radio signal that can be picked up by the beacons of others.

Incident Response for Avalanches

If, despite your preparations and judgment, you see an avalanche roaring toward you and you can't get out of its path, jettison your pack. Get rid of skis, too, if you are wearing them. When the snow hits, move your arms and legs in a swimming motion to keep yourself upright, and try to keep your head above the surface. As the avalanche slows and begins to settle, push away any accumulation of snow from your face to form an air pocket that will allow you to breathe.

Should others in your party be caught in an avalanche, keep your eye on them as long as you can, and note the exact place you saw them last. Hopefully, they'll be wearing avalanche beacons so that you can recover them quickly. If not, listen for their voices, probe the area with ski poles from which you've removed the baskets, and don't give up hope. Sturdy short-handled shovels made of plastic or metal can prove invaluable for freeing avalanche victims. People have survived under the snow for 30 minutes before being rescued. Treat avalanche victims for shock and hypothermia. For more on snow shovels, see the chapter titled "Cold-Weather Travel and Camping."

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