Safety concerns for trail walkers

Avoiding problems

Perhaps the most important factor that will affect the outcome of any expedition is the frame of mind of the walkers themselves.

An over-ambitious walk can lead to poor decisions, and no walker should ever regard turning back as failure. Modifying the objectives in the face of adverse weather conditions, the indisposition of members of the party or equipment deficiencies and failures is only sensible. There is an expression, ‘the first domino’, and once the first domino of a standing line has fallen, we become more aware of the imminence of further setbacks. A tummy ache, a broken anorak zip or hood draw-string, a lost map or spectacles, a warning of a westerly gale or freezing level down to 300m (1000ft) may not seem to be major problems, but any one of them might be the metaphorical first domino, which causes the whole line to collapse. Even when an expedition has been carefully planned and a detailed route card left, the arrangements must be sufficiently flexible to cope with illnesses, changes in the weather and even changes in the motivation of the individuals. The route card has columns for alternatives and escape routes. The very task of filling in the form will ensure that these things have been considered, but the plan has not been written in tablets of stone, and no blame should result from changing it if unforeseen problems arise.

Changing a plan to something more ambitious if the weather improves, or if the group is more highly motivated than originally thought or if difficulties have been over-assessed should be undertaken less readily. The original plan should have been designed for the benefit of the least fit and experienced in the group, not for the gratification of the ambition of the leaders or tutors.

Steep grass slopes

Steep grass slopes are slippery when wet, and surprisingly slippery when very dry. You must have good purchase with a pair of good stiff boots and your boots must either bite into the slope or rest on secure ledges. If your boots have chamfered heels, throw them away unless you are well insured. You may have to go down grassy slopes when it is raining, but avoid anything that is other than gently sloping. Wet waterproofs on wet grass have a practically negligible coefficient of friction, so you might slide faster than you would think possible. If you do slip, trip or stumble try immediately to get your hands and feet, or anything else, rammed into the slope, before you slide or your speed accelerates. Avoid carrying anything in your hands, such as cameras, hats, gloves or maps, if there is the remotest danger of falling. Not only may these objects cause you to slip if you drop and try to grab them, but also your carrying hand will not be available to stop you if you slip for some other reason. Your rucksack must be securely and compactly packed for similar reasons, without any trailing or dangling objects.


Separation incidents are commonplace. Typically, a walker will descend on one side of a hill range to report a missing companion, and wonder why rescuers do not immediately pull out all the stops to start a major search. They will, of course, do so if the person reported lost is ill-equipped in foul weather, completely inexperienced or with learning difficulties, suffering from a medical condition that may cause collapse, or very young or old, but what usually happens is that the overdue person turns up after an hour or two in another valley, sometimes even not telephoning, being unaware of the alarm caused.

If the separation is deliberate, each party must be capable and self-sufficient. Walking up Meall nan Tarmachan in Scotland with my wife, our two children and a friend, I carried on alone to the top, having left the others with strict instructions to stay put. The weather was excellent, and higher up, great yellow globe flowers were emerging from retreating snow beds. I returned to our parting spot and found that the others had descended a hazardous face towards Lochan na Lairig, the scene of a tragedy only a month previously. They had not recognized the easy ridge by which we had ascended, and I had put them in danger by my selfishness.

It is surprisingly easy to lose companions on a walk. Afterwards the explanations always take the same form: ‘I thought he would carry on and meet me on top’ or ‘I was sure she would wait for me.’ It is usually too late to guess the other party’s intentions and reactions after separation. They will probably think the opposite of what you expect them to think. Good communication, both ways, before the accidental separation is the key. If it has been discussed it will probably not happen. Great care should be taken to avoid splitting up unless a contingency plan has been agreed. With groups, frequent head counts are needed. Often the missing person is the least experienced, poorest equipped and weakest. Three people walking up an easy winter ridge on a Highland peak separated several times. The two fittest, chatting in front, had to wait for increasingly long periods for their companion to catch up. High on the ridge they got worried when there was no sign after 5, 10 or IS minutes. Descending to search, they failed to find anything because footprints had been quickly covered by gently drifting snow. With rescue teams I searched for days; then a week afterwards, a month, even a year later. The remains were found by a shepherd, high in a remote hanging valley, during the third summer.


Weather is one of the most important factors to be considered before any walk is undertaken, and the task of checking the weather forecast should always be undertaken by the group leader.

Wind direction

Generally routes are planned for fair winds, and it is easier to walk with the wind on your back. Consider the weather forecast carefully, planning the route with that consideration in mind, allowing for later veering or backing winds. (The wind veers when its direction changes clockwise – from southeast to south, for example – and it backs anticlockwise – from northwest to southwest, say.) If your route is circular, plan not to face a headwind late in the day when you may be tired.

The prevailing winds in Britain are from the southwest. For longer walks it is best to plan to have prevailing winds behind you if your overnight stops are inflexible – you may have to book youth hostels well ahead in the holiday seasons, for instance. If you are camping or using hotels or bed-and-breakfast stops, get a five-day forecast at the start of the walk and be flexible enough to change the overall direction of the route.

Beware of wind traps. Going downwind may be all very well if you are able to continue the full planned distance and there are no mishaps. However, say you were walking to the top of a hill with the wind on your back, which is easier, when one member of the party gets exhausted or slighdy sprains an ankle, making it imperative to descend to the starting point. This would mean a fight all the way back into a headwind, perhaps with face-flaying hail or sleet in it.

Remote, deep valleys are even less escapable: you cannot simply sidle round the other side into the lee of the hill. A case in point happened some years ago. A group of 10 walking east up the Uisge Labhar from Loch Ossian in the Central Highlands of Scotland had a strong breeze behind them. There was some rain at times and the cloud base was not all that far above them. After a few miles, one person started to wilt and complain, but the group continued beyond the point of no return. The path became less evident, the slope got steeper, the tailwind got stronger. Stopping to camp in those conditions was not a pleasant prospect, and the group felt compelled to press on over the top of the pass to reach Culra Bothy on the east side. The further they got, the more daunting would have been the task of returning by their outward route. Fortunately, the apparendy exhausted member, the weak link, rallied when the seriousness of the group’s predicament became evident. They struggled on through the gap, the Bealach Dubh (Black Pass), and coasted downhill to the bothy, sheltered from the main force of the wind, which was still on their backs.

A word of caution. British winds can be among the world’s worst, and strengths of over 250kph (156mph) have been recorded. Walking is impossibly dangerous at less than half this velocity, with gusty winds being more upsetting than steady airflows. It is not always possible to gain shelter by going down behind a ridge. Imagine a ridge running from southwest to northeast with a steady, storm force, southeast wind (96kph/60mph) blowing across the ridge at right angles, making walking very difficult on the windward slopes. Eddy currents and down-draughts on the lee side of the ridge, and even down in the valley, coming in violent, dangerous, gusts, can be of greater velocity than the steady storm. A party of 10 walkers, all roped together and trying to descend gentle snow slopes, could all be blown back uphill.

Persistent heavy rain

Most modern walkers are well equipped with good boots, breathable rainwear and emergency gear. They may have travelled a long way by train or car to achieve a long cherished route, and they are unlikely to be deterred by rainy weather on waymarked paths, which have been well maintained with good bridges across all the streams. Walking in heavy rain can be interesting, especially on safe paths beside spate rivers and waterfalls.

Dangers and delays are more likely in remoter areas with less clearly marked paths and fewer bridges. Tiny streams can become unfordable in an hour or two. The biggest spates occur in Britain with warm south westerlies and persistent heavy rain, which rapidly washes the big spring accumulations of snow off the mountains.

You have chosen to have the wind on your back and you have reached the 471m (1445ft) bealach between Glen Finnan and Gleann a’Chaorainn. It is a public right of way, but there is no discernible path down to Strathan at the head of Loch Arkaig. It looks easier to go down the true left bank (true left is the left bank of a river or glacier when you are looking down the direction of flow), and indeed there is no big tributary on that side for miles. However if you do so, you will be eventually trapped in the arrowhead where the Chaorainn flows into the River Pean. The Chaorainn will be flowing full and fast after all that distance, and the Pean is uncrossable at most times, let alone in spate. If you choose the more difficult descent on the true right of the glen; you will get rather wet after a mile or two, crossing the tributary coming off the Streap Ridge, but at least you will reach the River Pean at the bridge, which is just east of its confluence with the Allt a’Chaorainn.

Accidents and first aid

The first aid training of regular walkers in the countryside is, one hopes, more extensive than that of the average city dweller; not because accidents are more likely to happen, but because a longer time is likely to elapse before professional help can arrive. If there is an incident, the most important helper is the one most immediately available, which may well be you. By the time ambulance personnel, rescuers, paramedics and doctors arrive, the patient’s condition will have stabilized, and it will be you that will have coped, if required, with the priorities of removal from danger, maintenance of an open airway, resuscitation, the stemming of excessive external bleeding and with treatment of shock. You may also have done something about immobilization of fractures, prevention of heat loss and administration of non-prescribed pain killers.

It is beyond the scope of this website to attempt to train you as a mountain first-aider, but I strongly recommend you take a course in the subject if you walk a lot in remote places. What I will try to do, however, is to mention some of the more common injuries and conditions, and I have included a rule-of-thumb patient observation form , which may be helpful to first aiders trying to think of everything that they need to do in a moment of stress.

I have mentioned ‘removal from danger’ as the first in the list of priorities. This may go against your previous training, which no doubt stated: ‘Do not move the patient as you may cause further injury.’ I am, however, referring to special emergencies only: a patient may be still inside a burning tent or bothy, or washed down a river and unconscious under water, or unconscious with airway obstructed by turf, heather or mud. In all these cases, and others, transport to safety is the first priority.

Excellent descriptions of detailed physical examinations are given in the First Aid Manual of St John and St Andrew’s Ambulance Association and the British Red Cross and in Outward Bound First Aid Handbook.

Emergency procedure

If the casualty cannot walk, you will need to send off a rescue message form with a well-equipped and adequately briefed messenger or messengers. You will need to carry out a full body check of the casualty to make sure no details have been left out. In other words think hard before the messengers are allowed to dash off, because they cannot be called back. For instance, the most obvious injury may be an open fracture of the lower leg, with both the tibia and fibia protruding. This, the most common of all open or compound fractures in walking incidents, is very painful, but it may not be the most urgent and shocking injury sustained. Let us say the messengers (or worse, a solo messenger) have charged off in a panic, and dialled 999 to get the police, who pass on the message to the rescue leader, ‘Willie Smith has fallen near the top of the fell at map reference 123456 and has a compound fracture of the lower left leg.’ The rescue leader reasons, ‘It’s a fine day in the early afternoon. Most of the lads are free this weekend, and it’s some time since we did a stretcher carry. We’ll go up and bring him down.’ On the information he has, this is a logical decision.

Meantime Willie is in deep shock suffering heavy internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen. If you, the first responder and thus the most important person in the whole story, had felt all over Willie’s belly, palpating with the flats of your fingers, you would have felt an abnormal rigidity. You would have deduced that the signs of shock were more severe than would be expected from the broken leg, painful as it was, and the rescue message would have been very different: ‘The casualty is in deep shock from a closed abdominal injury. He also has a broken leg.’ The police or the rescue leader would have telephoned the Rescue Coordination Centre to say that it was a job for a helicopter, and Willie would have been in hospital hours earlier, just for the sake of a few minutes at the start.

On the theme of rescue messages, there is another story, this time true, which could not happen in these days of improved communication links and telephone tracing – or could it? A walker, breathless and sweating, descended to an isolated red kiosk in Snowdonia. Dialling 100 and getting an operator, the message was short, ‘Me mate’s fallen. I daren’t go close, but I think it’s fatal.’ The handset was slammed down before the operator could answer, and the distraught walker returned to guard the casualty, confidently expecting that rescuers would arrive shortly. Police were informed, but not even the valley was known, let alone the name of the mountain. The sex of the casualty was not known, nor even that of the mate with any certainty. No one had been reported overdue. All that could be done was to wait until the sad walker descended with a fuller message.

The importance of the rescue message cannot be overstressed. It is probably better to name and describe the location, rather than to rely just on a map reference, which may be the wrong way round if written under stress (or interpreted incorrectly). It is a good idea to send down a map marked with a cross if one can be spared. As team leader, you may be faced with making the difficult decision of how many people to send with the message, and how many to keep with the casualty. The patient is important, but not nearly as important as the people who first find the casualty. What ever you do, do not make two casualties when there was only one originally. Remember that the likeliest time for an accident is immediately after another accident, and this goes for the home, the office and the motorway, not just for the remote outdoors.

Whoever goes or whoever stays, the decision will have been correct if it has been well thought through and discussed. Each decision will depend on the circumstances of weather, the differing abilities of the group, the distance to a telephone, the equipment available and whether assistance is available nearby. If you are in doubt whether or not it is a real emergency, allow a few minutes for the situation to stabilize, and then you may decide that the group can cope with it without outside help. An epileptic fit will stop, although you may have been frightened if it was the first time you had seen one. An hysterical, hyperventilating patient can be calmed with reassurance and rebreathing; although watch that the problem does not spread and you get some mass-hysteria among the group. Somebody you have diagnosed as hypothermic may not be as bad as you think, and you just need to get out of the wind, with everyone getting into all their spare clothing. In other words do not panic; it may be embarrassing if a helicopter arrives and the casualty has managed to walk out and the broken leg turns out to be just a slight sprain.

Mountain distress signal

Internationally the recognized distress signal is six long whistle blasts, torch flashes, shouts or waves, followed by one minute’s silence. Then six more long blasts, flashes, shouts or waves, followed by another minute’s silence.

It is important to carry on making noises or signs until someone reaches you, because the rescuer will be using your signals as a direction finder. There is an answering signal, which I will not describe because its use should be discouraged. It does no good, apart from affording a bit of temporary reassurance, and it may do a lot of harm, because the people in distress may stop signalling and relax if they consider, possibly mistakenly, that they have been accurately located. In addition, the answer may be heard by another party and be mistaken for another distress signal, causing total confusion. The whistling or torch flashing should convey one clear message only: ‘I am in distress and need help urgently.’

These items should be regarded as essential in a first aid kit:

1. Waterproof container

2. Plastic gloves for the first aider (AIDS, hepatitis)

3. Plastic airway (medium)

4. Dressings

5. Antiseptic wipes and ointment

6. Sterile needle

7. Sanitary dressing for large bleeding wounds

8. Medicated plaster strip for blisters

9. Zinc oxide plaster roll

10. Elasticated plaster strip for ankle and chest injuries Crepe bandage

11. Several unused plastic bags for dressings, especially for burns Safety pins

12. Thermometer

13. Diocalm (diarrhoea causes dehydration)

14. Painkillers

15. Salt tablets (if not carried as food)

16. Antacid

17. Antihistamine pills and ointment for insect bites

18. Rescue message form and pencil

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