Basic Survival & What to Do in a Hiking Emergency

One of the most amazing things about hiking is getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life; the groundhog feeling of work, the noises of civilisation, the responsibilities of life and that complete disconnect from technology. 

Out on the trail shoulders relax, peace seeps in, time almost stands still and the only sounds you hear are made by nature itself. Bliss!

It’s the whole reason we hit the trails right?

The only down side of the peaceful isolation of hiking is there’s nobody around to help you, if you end up in an emergency situation!

This is why we always talk about essential prepping for your hike, even if it’s a morning hike on a trail you’ve done a dozen times before. 

The essentials you pack are for emergency situations. Being prepared on every single hike is not overkill – it’s just plain common sense.

Naturally you might think an emergency situation is something like a snake bite or a broken bone – but honestly the weirdest things can go wrong on the trail, things you’d just never expect!

And the point of being prepared is to “be prepared for the unexpected.”



Check In 

Some people like to plan their hikes well in advance and others might make an impulsive decision the night before. Either way, you should be checking the weather conditions the day before, as well as checking in with your body and a friend.

If the weather for your planned hike is inclement in any way that’s not within your physical ability – then reschedule. 

Considering your body is your most important piece of hiking equipment then it makes sense to put off your hike if you’re feeling under the weather. Hitting a trail when you’re feeling even a bit off is only going to make you feel worse, which could impair your ability to make good decisions and possibly put you in danger.

There’s nothing wrong with rescheduling your hike for another day. 

Remember you want that peaceful zen feeling when you get out there! 

Not a headache in slippery mud with a dodgy knee!

You should also have a friend or relative to check-in with. Let them know where you’re going, what trail you’ll be on and what time to expect you back.

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Pack It

In our Beginners Guide to Hiking we talk about the essential items you should have in your pack. Your emergency essentials should include:

  • First aid kit
  • Emergency whistle
  • Help/emergency blanket
  • Warm clothes
  • Water
  • Extra food

This is SURVIVAL gear, the basic things you need to keep you alive and to help get yourself rescued!

Extra survival gear could include a torch, a map, a GPS tracking device (or free apps like Map My Walk or All Trails) and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) -you can hire these from OTBT.

A hot tip from Team OTBT, is to know how to use your gear BEFORE hitting the trails! In an emergency situation you won’t necessarily be thinking straight to read instructions and may find it difficult to absorb the information you need. Knowing how to use that GPS, PLB or snake bite kit could mean the difference between life and death.

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You can buy a Bob Cooper Emergency Help Blanket from the OTBT Shop

What To Actually Do In An Emergency Situation

With all these precautions in place, you are always prepared for an emergency.

But what do you actually do in an emergency situation?

First off, remember it’s impossible to not get feelings of panic or anxiety when things go wrong! Our fight/flight hormones automatically kick in and with all that adrenaline pumping, even the best of us will find it hard to think clearly and rationally.

Having a plan of action, step-by-step,  will help give you some feeling of control over your situation and most importantly, help get you rescued!

Stay Positive

In fight or flight mode, you’ll be looking at every single thing that can go (more) wrong! 

Telling you to stay calm would be ridiculous because your primal instincts would be overriding everything thanks to the adrenaline. Having said that, staying calm is essential in emergencies so you can assess your situation and make decisions without making any costly mistakes.

One simple step is to take 10 deep breaths before acting or making any decisions.

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Action Steps

Now focus on what you can do, no matter how small. Know that each small thing you do is one step closer to getting you home.

Deal With Immediate Dangers

If you come across an immediate danger, use your common sense and get yourself out of the firing line. Here are some examples of unexpected situations:

  1. If you see smoke from a bushfire, get some distance between yourself and the fire as fast (and safely) as you can, heading into the wind and downhill if possible.
  2. While very few Aussie animals will attack you outright, some will feel threatened if you inadvertently get too close to their young. Defend yourself from injuries, find cover or get some distance between you.
  3. If it’s a human threat — defend yourself, then work on getting away from the source of the threat. (While the law in WA is a bit ambiguous regarding pepper spray for self-defence, consider a basic self-defence course. Confidence is a big deterrent to a would-be attacker.)

In situations like these it’s easy to get disorientated or lost. It would make sense to get to higher ground to figure out where you are. A better idea would be to use the GPS/apps mentioned earlier; you should be able to either retrace your steps or find another way back to your trail. 

Reaching safety is important but panicked rushing can also lead to more problems. 

Take deep breaths, assess before making decisions and follow through carefully.

Medical Attention

If your emergency situation is medical then those of you who have done a first aid course will know to follow DRSABCD. 

You can read up on snake bites and things like heat stroke in our Summer Hiking for Perth.

Otherwise provide first aid to the best of your ability with what you have. Your main priorities will be to reduce blood loss and keep broken skin clean.

Seek Help

Depending on what gear you’ve packed here are a couple of options if you can’t make it back to your car without help.

While your phone shouldn’t be relied on for emergencies due to spotty reception, call 000 if you can get through.

Using an App like Emergency Plus can provide you with the coordinates for your location to provide to emergency services. 

If you’ve brought a PLB with you and it is a life and death situation, activate it. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are personal safety devices which when activated, send out a distress signal via satellite, as well as an identification code. More advanced units have a GPS receiver and also track your location in terms of latitude and longitude.

Don’t second guess this step! If it feels like an emergency situation, it is one. 

Set Up and Stay Put

Decide on your waiting point and stay put. This may depend on weather conditions; get in the shade if it’s a stinking hot day, into your raincoat against rain or wrap up in your emergency blanket if it’s cold or you’re in shock.

Lay out your HELP blanket if you have one. If you don’t have one, use a piece of bright coloured clothing or bandana to make some kind of visual marker of your position.

Use your emergency whistle and/or torch/mirror to signal your location. 

The international distress signal is made by six blasts on your whistle (six flashes of your torch), with an interval of one minute after every six blows/flashes. If your signal is picked up by someone, you should hear three whistles back. If you don’t, then keep repeating the procedure to keep drawing attention to your location.

It can take rescue teams some time to reach you, so don’t stop using the whistle until you’re certain that help is coming, i.e. you can see rescuers making their way towards you and that they’re trying to contact you. 

Now you “just” need to wait. The waiting game can be awful if you or a friend is in distress. Just keep breathing and know that you set out on your hike prepared, you have food, water and warm clothing, you’ve done everything you can and help is on its way. 

Keep yourself (or injured person) as comfortable as possible in the circumstances and try to stay calm.

Wrapping Up

Luckily here in Perth there are very few threats on our trails. Often emergencies are from accidents like twisting an ankle; sometimes they’re more life threatening like snake bites.

Between prepping properly for your hike and being sensible on the trail, your hike will almost always be enjoyable (well maybe the odd blisters!).

Getting out on the trails is such a rewarding experience and with a little bit of prep, a safe and happy one too!

Find your next adventure