Many people who embark on wilderness jaunts don't consider the fact that just a few seconds of inattention or recklessness can lead to disaster. Yet, most of the tragedies that occur could probably be prevented with basic safety equipment or increased vigilance.
Young people are particularly at risk. Drowning is a frequent cause of death, followed by closed head injury, according to Douglas S. Diekema, M.D., emergency medicine physician and pediatrician in Seattle. In many incidents, victims are not alone, and are often accompanied by adults.
Among children younger than 5, drowning can occur because of very brief lapses of attention by their parents. A child doesn't have to be swimming to be at risk. Just being close to water can prove fatal if an adult is not watching.
One of the best ways to prevent drowning is to have children wear personal flotation devices (PFDs), says Dr. Diekema. "It takes only seconds to lose track of kids, and PFDs are a cheap and easy way to prevent disaster," he says. "Even children who can swim should wear them."
Keep in mind that a PFD will not protect a child who has fallen into an ice-cold swollen stream or river. Another strategy is to use a leash on any small child near a rushing stream.
Many adolescents who die or are paralyzed from head or neck injuries in wilderness accidents are thrill-seekers, or they flirt with danger while mountain biking or climbing. Wearing a helmet while mountain biking can help prevent paralysis, severe head injuries, or death after falls.
Small children are at increased risk for both hypothermia and heat injury. Keep in mind that if children are being carried in cool weather, they will need more clothes than adults and might not be able to tell you of their discomfort. Bring hats and sunscreen for them, as well as for yourself.
Young children can easily wander off, so it's a good idea to put bells on the shoes of toddlers and give older children a whistle to blow in case they get lost. They should be taught to stay put if they get lost, and to respond to calls and voices if they have been trained to be wary of strangers.
Crystal-clear mountain streams may appear to be the perfect cooler, but they're often polluted with giardia, a parasite from animal fecal matter that can cause serious diarrhea and vomiting. Water filters or chemical treatment (tablets that are sold at most outdoor stores) will make the water potable.
Exposure is another easily preventable risk. Hikers who go out wearing only T-shirts and shorts and not carrying enough water could fall, get injured, and be stranded for a long time.
"Adults assume they won't get into trouble, but anyone can sprain an ankle or get lost," says Dr. Diekema. "Even if you're only going out for an hour, bring a kit that includes extra food, water, and clothing, so that you're prepared in the event of an unexpected injury or night in the wilderness."