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Summer 2006 Issue
    Cover Article
    Message from the Editors
    NOLS Expedition Behavior: From Conception to Mantra
    Wild Side of Medicine: Blisters
    Advocates or Educators--and What's the Difference?
    A Noble Cause
    Q&A with John Gans, NOLS Executive Director
    Backcountry Safety Tips
    Mexico's Big Drops: A NOLS Tradition
    Uncommon Trails
    Recipe Box: App-Saroka Crisp
    This Job's a Trip
    Day 82 of 77: Lessons Learned from a NOLS Course
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Backcountry Safety Tips: How NOLS' Experience Can Help You
By Rich Brame, NOLS Alumni Relations Manager
Illustrations by Mike Clelland, NOLS Instructor and Author/Illustrator


It’s summer in North America. From the forests of Maine, to the Pacific Northwest’s peaks, to West Virginia’s rivers, and all the campgrounds in between—NOLS alumni, friends and families are hitting the great outdoors.

NOLS takes thousands of students into the wilderness every year and has been doing so for over four decades. Since 1978, we’ve diligently gathered information on the illnesses and injuries —collectively called “incidents”—that inevitably befall our students and staff on our multi-week, remote expeditions. Gathering incident information fosters a culture of open analysis that lets NOLS understand our backcountry programs’ level of risk and corresponding ways of keeping our staff and students healthy in the field.

All this analysis and data can be helpful to NOLS alumni too. Although most grads don’t necessarily strike out on the kind of lengthy and remote expeditions their NOLS course followed, many alumni do hike, paddle, climb and camp with their families and friends—activities that expose your outdoor partners to potential harm, or at least discomfort.

Here are some simple tips, backed up with what the numbers say about backcountry “incidents” at NOLS from 1998-2002:

  • Watch Your Footing- About 50% of all injuries at NOLS are strains and sprains—most often with falls, slips and overuse as contributing factors. Move slowly when you’re adjusting to the weight and handling of your pack—no matter the weight.
  • Start Training- About 46% of all injuries occur while folks are hiking with a pack (not surprising given our backpacking emphasis), and roughly 17% occur in camp. Pay close attention to hiking speed, difficulty progression and pace.
  • Wash Your Hands- 26% of all illnesses at NOLS are gastrointestinal—nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and another 17% are flu-like or respiratory in nature. Don’t go camping if you’re unwell and make sure everyone washes hands frequently.

And finally, Drew Leemon, NOLS Risk Management Director, has this additional suggestion that’ll be helpful to you on your picnic with grandma, or fishing day with the kids, or night out camping with your spouse:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare- Research your adventure. Match your group’s ability with the goal. Is there any set of circumstances that might force you to spend the night out?—prepare accordingly. It’s a thinking person’s game out there.

Interested in outdoor and backcountry safety? Consider NOLS’ Wilderness Risk Management Conference on October 27-29, 2006 in Killington, Vermont. This conference brings outdoor programs and professionals together to discuss and teach about safety issues, prevention strategies, and the differences between real and imagined risks. Click here for details.

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