The Colorado rocky mountains are a beautiful and amazing place to explore, but it’s also a dangerous setting with plenty of risk. Even with the best planning and preparation, accidents and injuries can happen, especially on one of Colorado’s fifty-eight fourteeners. If you fall and are injured, lose the trail and get lost, or otherwise end up stuck in the mountains, survival is not a given. Temperatures drop below freezing year-round, and it can be difficult for search and rescuers to find you immediately, depending on your situation. The right skills, gear and knowledge will help you survive and get help if this ever happens to you.
11 Wilderness Survival Tips for 14ers
There are many good sources for in-depth wilderness survival advice and skills, including complex plans to get water, guides to edible wild plans, shelter-building instructions and more. However, the most important tips on wilderness survival for 14ers can be summed up in these eleven pieces of advice.
1) Plan ahead and bring the 10 essentials
These first two tips concern your preparation before something happens. The ten essentials include the critical pieces of gear and equipment you need to stay safe on a 14er. They help you respond positively to emergencies instead of passively waiting for aid, and allow you to survive an unplanned night on the mountain. If you aren’t sure what they are, take some time to review my article on the subject here. Without the right gear, surviving in the mountains is a great deal harder to do.
2) Tell someone where you're going & when you'll return
The second critical bit of preparation is sharing your plans with someone back home. Pick someone dependable that you can count on to act if they haven’t heard from you by a pre-determined time. The more details you leave about your trip, including the destination, intended route, timing, gear packed, and vehicle information, the faster SAR will be able to find and assist you. However, at the very least, make sure someone knows where you are, and when you plan to be back. If no one knows where you are, rescues become much more difficult.
3) Recognize when you are lost
There may come a day on a 14er that you descend below tree line later than planned, and in the dim light of dusk, accidentally wander off the trail along a social path. Before long, you’re wandering through the forest with no idea which direction you should go. You are lost. The most important, immediate thing to do when lost is realize it, and stop moving. Many people end up wandering even deeper into the mountains in an attempt to find their way back. If you are not positive that you know the way, stop moving and stay put.
5) Call for help if you can.
If you have your cell phone with you, you may wish to move a short distance (no more than a few hundred feet) to find a better signal. Try gaps in the tree cover, or ridges and points if you are above tree line. If you have a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger, go ahead and use it to call for help. These devices also sometimes need to be used with a clear view of the sky for the best signal possible. Keep the PLB dry and near you as long as it is active. If you don’t have signals, it may be worth shouting for help for a time, in case anyone is nearby, especially if you think the trail is still close by.
5) Conserve your water and food carefully.
In the first 48-72 hours of being lost, water is your bigger concern. You can live for weeks without food, but you won’t make it more than 3 days without water – and that’s not considering the fact that you need more water at altitude. Conserve what water you have, and if you have a filter or purification tablets, find a nearby stream or creek to get more if necessary. You should continue to eat, even if your food is limited, to keep up your strength. It’s a good idea to have 1-2 days worth of food, in case you do get lost. It can be stretched to last you many days if need be. Don’t try to eat plants, which could be poisonous.
6) Build a fire if possible for warmth.
A fire is a significant boon when lost in the wilderness. Besides the obvious benefits of light and warmth on cold, dark mountain nights, a fire provides comfort and emotional stability at a time you’ll probably be needing it. Get below tree line if you can, and try to build a small fire. Collect wood beforehand, and use tinder (tiny sticks smaller than a pencil) as your base, adding kindling (sticks smaller than a finger) as it grows. Avoid wet pine needles and sticks, which smolder but are hard to burn. Keep the fire under control, and try not to let it go out – the smoke will help attract attention if there are drones, helicopters, or planes searching.
7) Build a shelter if necessary.
Sometimes the warmth of a fire and your extra layers are more than enough to keep you warm during the night. However if it’s too wet for a fire, you lack enough layers, or it’s simply frigid, you might need a shelter for the night. In summer months, you can create something simple using a lean to structure, with a large log leaning against a tree, and small branches and pine needles leaning up against that log to form the sides and ceiling. In winter, you can potentially build a snow cave or quinzhee, however this takes significant time and energy along with the skill and knowledge to avoid a collapse, which can be deadly.
8) Make yourself seen and heard as much as you can.
Throughout your rescue, do what you can to be loud and visible to those searching for you. Wear or hang brightly colored clothing, periodically shout or blow a whistle, and keep a fire going for its smoke. If you have a signal mirror, you can attempt to use it to signal planes or helicopters passing overhead. Avoid doing anything that might obscure you from view or hide your noise – you don’t want to blend in here.
9) Only move if you're unlikely to be rescued, or injured.
There are only a few situations where you should start moving again before you are found and rescued. First, if you failed to leave your plans with someone, or changed your plans significantly and are unlikely to be found. Second, if you or someone in your party is seriously injured and needs emergency medical attention. Third, if you can see a nearby town, road or home from your current location and are able to easily and confidently reach it. Fourth, the current location is unsafe for some reason and you need to move to stay safe. Unless one of these three things is true, stay put until rescuers come for you.
10) Follow streams downriver, they lead to people.
If you do need to move, the general rule is to find a creek or stream and follow it downriver. Eventually it will lead to a road, town, trail, or people. This also ensures you have a source of water as you travel, the biggest necessity for you in the long run. Keep moving during the day as much as possible, but stop to build a fire if needed at night and regain your strength. Continue to make yourself seen and heard in case you come close to any potential rescuers as you go. No need to be stealthy here.
11) Try to maintain a positive attitude.
This last tip is one of the toughest, but it’s so important for wilderness survival situations. A positive mental attitude will help you keep fighting and overcoming the barriers you’ll face while lost. Especially if you are alone, you will need to be your own motivation and hope. Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself and encourage yourself, as a pep talk can go a long way at raising your spirits. If you give up hope, your chances of a safe recovery drops significantly.
Wilderness Survival for 14ers: Remember STOP!
These tips are simple, but they can go a long way at helping you survive what could be a horrendous experience. Remember to pack the right gear and leave your plans with someone back home in case something goes wrong, in addition to the other nine tips. Without the right preparation, surviving gets a lot more difficult and a lot less comfortable. Do your future self a favor and be prepared for anything.