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Hiker Lost in Zion Wilderness: What Would You do to Survive?

Hiker Lost in Zion Wilderness: What Would You do to Survive?

Posted by Austin Lester on Oct 22nd 2020

On the afternoon of October 6th, 38-year-old hiker Holly Courtier took a shuttle to Zion National Park expecting to spend the afternoon exploring the famed national park wilderness area. According to news networks, she was reported as a missing person two days later on October 8th. Thankfully, Holly was found alive Sunday, October 18th by Park Officials after spending 12 nights in the Zion wilderness. The details of her disappearance, survival, and overall condition still have not been released. Looking at this situation obviously brings up a lot of questions and I believe there are a lot of lessons to be learned from those who find themselves lost in wilderness and other rescue type circumstances that that dozens of people find themselves in every year. From plane crash to a hiker who took a wrong turn on an outdoor vacation, we all know that Holly is not the only lost person to end up on a news story.

For this article I'd like to discuss one of the least talked about topics in survival - PLANNING. All too often we downplay the importance of prior planning, thinking it's too time-consuming or think we can figure it out on the trail. In reality, the Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue teams will look for and use these plans as searchers in a survival situation. Keep in mind these principles are the same whether traveling by foot, ATV, or vehicle. Here are a few prior planning tips that can set you up for success:

Leave a Note

Something as simple as writing a note for a loved one could be your saving grace. If not for your spouse, write it and leave it on the dash of your vehicle. Other options are sending a text or email to a friend or family member. No matter where or to who you leave the note, the information you leave is of equal importance. The time you left, the amount of time you plan on being gone and the time and day you will return. Also include how you may flex your plan if something unforeseen happens. (i.e "If it takes me longer than expected to finish the trail, I will camp overnight along the trail and finish in the morning.") Be sure to include where you are going (i.e. Trailhead, trail name, hiking area, park name,etc.). The route you're taking to get there. Your vehicle make & model and license plate number. What you are wearing, (include coats, sweaters or other items you may add or take off depending on weather) and what items you're taking with you ( i.e red Osprey Pack with mountain house meals, Gerber knife and Fieldcraft Survival, Survival Kit inside.) These are all questions commonly asked by authorities when someone is reported missing and can quickly point them in the right direction for places to begin searching. It also helps a volunteer or even the general public in the area who may be keeping an eye out for you.

Look over maps and satellite imagery of the areas you plan to go

Prior to leaving on any trips it is always a good idea to have a firm understanding of the areas you plan to travel. Showing up at the trailhead without an understanding of what you are likely to encounter is not how you want to start out a camping trip. Reading and understanding a map is a necessary skillset for those of us who enjoy spending time in the great outdoors. At the very least we should view the trail and route we want to use, have a general idea where we want to set up your campsite if you are spending the night, understand and have a general sense of direction, terrain, altitude, distance, and the potential for bad weather. Oftentimes, you can identify a potential water source before you head out in case you can't carry enough water or if you find yourself in trouble and need more than you expected. If you are spending the night in the forest you will have additional considerations, if you take a kid or dog you will need to plan for resources and understand their abilities before you head out. Can your boy hike the distance and terrain you are planning? Will your dog have enough food and the ability to stay with you on the trail? This and other information may affect your decisions on equipment and travel, so planning ahead will help make sure you are better prepared.

Know your ability

I am as guilty as anyone at exaggerating my abilities to myself. It is easy to look at a trail on a map and think about all of the things you've done that are tougher than that, or how much better you are than the average hiker. However, these are the thoughts of many a lost hiker. Stay humble, know yourself, and your limitations. Take everything into consideration and be realistic. The terrain, elevation, your fitness level, they all play a roll in your true ability on the tail. Having some fishing line and hook is great, but do you know how to actually use it to catch a fish if you need to? It is easy to get in over your head very quickly, and find yourself in a dangerous situation. Short answer, don't base your abilities off what you think you can do, base them off of what you KNOW you can do.

Carry communication devices besides just your cell phone.

There are several great options on the market for satellite communications that will allow you to communicate in locations where there is low or no cellphone coverage. Many of these communication devices allow for two-way text to cell phones and email addresses as well as using them for basic handheld GPS navigation. In an emergency, these devices will communicate directly to Search and Rescue monitoring centers and send out an interactive SOS. They also allow you to share your real-time location with family and friends. Below are two very reliable options for you to check out.

SPOT Emergency Communications

Garmin InReach

Don't solely rely on GPS

In the age of technology it is easy to get wrapped around the idea of the newest gadget or gear available. A GPS is an absolute god send for anyone who plans to spend time on the trails. However, all too often people have become reliant on technology for it to fail when you need it most. That being said, you can buy maps of whatever area you're heading to. Most often they can be found at your local convenience store. If not, there are several great online resources for printing maps to whatever scale you would like. is one resource that offers custom map printing for wherever you might be going. You can also include property lines, custom colors, and other marginal information. Carrying a signal mirror to alert a plane or helicopter above or another rescuer of your position can be helpful if you know how to use it. A whistle is another easy and small item to take that could help you send a signal in the right situation. Take the time to learn the skill and refresh your skills often, map work is like many skills...perishable.

Contingencies & Layering

"For every item you carry, you should also plan to go without it." Meaning, have backups. Carry water but also carry water treatment tablets and identify any potential water source.

Being able to stay warm is top priority so have an emergency shelter and the ability to create a fire. Even if you are not planning on spending the night you should have the ability to make an emergency shelter using something like an emergency blanket/survival wrap. Don't just carry one method of making a fire, but carry a lighter and also carry a ferro rod. Carry a GPS, but also have a map and compass, and so on and so forth for all essential equipment. Remember, we are planning for the worst case, and having the basic items to facilitate your survival should the time come is a necessity.

The Fieldcraft Survival Kit has all of these items inside.

  • Ferro rod
  • Signal mirror
  • Compass
  • Headlamp
  • Iodine tablets
  • water bladder
  • Whistle
  • Survival blanket
  • Length of paracord
  • Jute twine
  • Pencil and notepad.

Additionally, you will want to layer your equipment. This means not having all of your essential equipment in one location. This will prevent you from having a single point of failure should you lose your backpack. An example of this is your lighter. Don't carry just one lighter in the bottom of your pack, put one in your pack, one in your survival kit, one in your pocket, and toss a few in your vehicle. However, while preparing for the worst-case scenario I would recommend carrying at least the essential items on your person. There is a higher likelihood of not having your vehicle and backpack than losing what's in your pockets. Long story short, have redundancies in your essential equipment, and stage them in multiple locations to best set you up for success.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

Now I'll spare you all of the boring science behind the why and cue you in to the facts you need to know about hydration. The average adult male should be consuming about 3.7 liters of water per day and about 2.7 liters per day for women. That is the amount of water we should be consuming when we are sitting on our couches not doing anything. When we are participating in any kind of vigorous activity a higher intake of water and electrolytes are required. Proper hydration will begin the days prior to going on any adventures and continue throughout the day of. Focus on consuming about 1 liter per hour of activity and try to include some electrolytes throughout the day. Also remember, the amount of food you consume will require more water to help the body digest it. If you're eating make sure you are drinking!

Plan for the elements

There are about 1300 deaths per year from heat and cold related injuries like heat stroke or hypothermia. So, how can you prevent yourself from becoming part of that statistic? When packing out your gear for either a 5 day through hike or a day hike with the family, be prepared for the elements. Check the weather and know what the highs and lows will be and pack accordingly. Be prepared for inclement weather and for it to change quickly. Much of this will change due to the season, educate yourself on the weather patterns of the area of which you will be traveling. There are dozens of very reliable, free resources available on the internet and even some apps for your iPhone or android. Learning from others can help us be better prepared, so read any story you come across of someone who finds themselves in a survival situation.

These are a few very simple and very easy practices to follow before heading off to the trails. Take the time and have the talk with your family and friends about the importance of prior planning. This will become the start for you and those you care about leading a more prepared lifestyle and becoming a survivor. Don't leave it to chance and don't just hope that authorities will come and find you. Make the plans and preparations that not only can but WILL increase your survivability should you find yourself in the worst-case scenario.