What to Do in an Outdoors Emergency


They say prevention is better than cure, and never is this truer than when you’re on an outdoors expedition. Using your best judgement and following standard precautionary practices is necessary to avoid accidents, injuries and emergency situations.

No one wants to find themselves in a situation in the great outdoors – an umbrella term for the ‘middle of nowhere’ in this case – where they need to call for emergency help. However, it’s vital that everyone is prepared for such a scenario, no matter the likelihood of it happening. Here’s what you should do if you require emergency services while taking part in outdoor activities, such as walking, climbing or kayaking.

First Things First

Let Others Know Your Rough Co-ordinates

Always tell someone where you plan on going before setting out to your destination. Notify family or friends of your expected whereabouts and leave a brief description of the route and your expected time of return. This is the most basic precaution to take, and also the first.

There are plenty of cases where hikers or hillwalkers fail to inform their kin where they intend to venture, and if trouble rears its head, no one will be able to raise the alarm in good time or have an immediate inkling as to where you could be situated. If you’re venturing into the wilderness alone, especially, make sure to leave details of your trajectory with someone whom you can trust to call on you if you’re gone for too long.

If moving in groups, the risks are lower but this precaution still very much applies.

Equip Yourself Well

Before you head off, make sure you’ve made a sensible decision based on the weather forecasts and awareness of your level of experience. Throughout the UK, there are many incidents each year of amateur hillwalkers attempting to climb mountains with inappropriate clothing, equipment and a lack of skills and experience to make it to the top successfully.

Arm yourself with the basics at the barest minimum: a solid waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, base layers and fleece or thermal layers, hat, gloves, thermal socks and sturdy waterproof boots, and an ice axe and crampons if ice and snow are expected. A good-quality, detailed map of the area you’ll be tackling should also be on your list of priority items to have, as well as a compass and torch. Maps should ideally be carried in map protectors as you never know what the weather might bring, and a wet map will spell disaster.

Mountain rescue teams can be overloaded at peak times of the year, especially the New Year period in winter. When conditions are extremely hostile, volunteers have to scale up hills and mountains to reach the ones in difficulty, so spare a thought for these souls and ascertain you’re professionally prepared for such an undertaking. You’ll be doing yourself and others a massive favour!

Know When to Say No

Be prepared to be flexible with your plans. It’s an absolute must to check the weather forecast thoroughly before departing. Don’t simply rely on generalised national forecasts from broadcasters such as the BBC; use the Mountain Weather Information Services to gauge an accurate picture of what conditions you’ll be facing.

Extremely cold weather, storms, icy winds and blizzards can all be major red flags to experienced hillwalkers, let alone novices.

If you’re not an expert and the weather looks like it’s going to be bad, look for an alternative adventure rather than plunging into the deep end with a naively hopeful attitude. Postponing doesn’t mean cancelling, so you’ll be able to enjoy your pursuit much more if you align your expectations with the conditions present.

Have an Action Plan

If after taking all these precautions you do still end up in an emergency situation, you should know what to do. Emergency situations instigate panic and anxiety even in the best of us, and it’s hard to think clearly and rationally when you’re chilled to the bone and exhausted. Have a plan of action in case something goes wrong, and familiarise yourself with the steps you should take and information you should possess to alert others in the event of an emergency situation.


What Number to Call

The two phone numbers you should know to use are 999 or 112. 112 will place an emergency call anywhere in the world, while 999 is specific to the UK. However, both work in the same way in the UK and are free to call, so when you dial any, the line will go straight through to the police. The police are responsible for organising mountain rescue, and they will decide whether you require police assistance, an ambulance, coastal rescue, the fire brigade or mountain rescue services.

An agreement between mobile operators means that you can dial 999 even if you have no network coverage from your provider, because another provider will get you connected. When placing your call however, remember that while you can call 999 out, emergency services will not be able to call you back.

The Power of Text

If you find yourself in an area where your phone does not have a signal, you can still use SMS texting technology to contact the emergency services. Because SMS uses a different technology to transmit messages, as opposed to voice and data technology, it doesn’t require the same quality of reception.

SMS texting transmission is very fast and even with just one second of poor reception, the SMS will be sent. To use this special service, you must first register with the emergency SMS service.

How to Register for Emergency SMS

To register for the emergency SMS service, follow these steps:

  • Send a SMS (text) message with the word ‘REGISTER’ to 112. Wait a few seconds for the reply.
  • Read the reply in full (it isn’t very long) and reply with another SMS message reading ‘YES’.
  • You’ll get a final response saying your number is now registered.
  • Do not reply to this one because you might find the emergency services swinging into action to try and save you.

What to Report

If you’re caught in a pickle and require emergency services, report your situation immediately and without delay. To ensure that the emergency services understand your situation, you should include a short but specific message. State the following:

  1. Your location (a grid reference if you have one or as much information as you can give about where you are and how you got there);
  2. The nature of the predicament or casualty;
  3. The number of people in the group;
  4. What clothing and equipment you (and your group) has;
  5. Any medical conditions you are aware of (for example, if the casualty is diabetic).

Note that some location information may be automatically generated by the mobile network, but you should always endeavour to keep track of your bearings and know your location well enough to be able to relate it to others.

How to Make an Emergency or Distress Signal

It’s essential to be completely aware of how to make an emergency or distress signal in case you’re trapped in a situation where you’re physically incapable of contacting emergency services, or your communication devices aren’t functional.

Carry a torch and whistle with you at all times – these basic gadgets have the ability to pull you out of a difficult scenario.

The international distress signal is made by blowing six times into a whistle, with an interval of one minute between each blast. If your blasts are picked up by someone, you should expect to hear three whistles back. If there is no response, keep repeating this six-whistle-blast procedure to further draw attention to your location.

Mountain rescue teams and helicopters may take some time to reach you, so don’t stop using the whistle until you’re certain that help is directly on its way to you. This should be as obvious as spotting a group of rescuers making their way towards you and trying to make contact, or a helicopter attempting to land close to your position.

If a whistle isn’t available and you’ve got a torch instead, follow the same rule of thumb: six flashes of the torch every minute, and continuous torch flashes at intervals of one minute if there is no immediate response.

Take good care with shining the torch for help. Torches should never be flashed directly in someone’s eyes, and neither should they be flashed directly at helicopters. Point the torch towards the ground so that the pilot’s vision is not disturbed, and his night vision equipment is not affected by the bright light.

GPS Locator

These days, most smartphones have an integrated GPS, so it should be possible to find out your exact location as an OS grid reference. You could purchase a navigation app such as OS Maps or ViewRanger. There are also free GPS apps you could use, such as the Android app, GPS Test.

In this way, you’ll be able to give your exact co-ordinates to the emergency services to help them locate you quickly and easily.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

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.

There are also Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) and SPOT Messengers that will alert emergency services using satellite technology, so they work beyond the range of mobile phone stations.

RECCO® Rescue System

When it comes to snowsports on mountains where avalanches are a consistent threat, the RECCO® rescue system is by far the most widely used and trusted today. Skiers’ and snowboarders’ jackets are fitted with a reflector that sophisticated radar technology can detect by means of detectors from ski resorts and mountain rescue teams, increasing the chances of you being located and surviving in the event of an avalanche.

So if you’re going skiing or snowboarding – especially if you’re venturing into the backcountry – invest in a RECCO® jacket so you have an additional layer of security if conditions turn sour on the mountainside. The reflector will alert the emergency services so that if you get lost or buried under snow, there’s a better chance of you being brought back to safety.

Backcountry skiers and snowboarders would do well to carry a shovel too, as this might come in handy for an emergency.

Avalanche Transceivers, Probes, Shovels and How to Use Them

Backcountry skiers and snowboarders would do well to carry transceivers, probes and shovels too, as these can spell the difference between life and death in an emergency.

Keep in mind that all these tools and devices will be useless if you have little to no skills or experience with using them properly. You should train yourself in using avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes before you set out for the backcountry, so that if an emergency arises, you know what to do and can work with a swift focus.

Avalanche Transceivers

An avalanche transceiver is a vital device for backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and must be carried at all times when venturing out into the open mountainside. The way it should be worn varies according to the product, so manufacturer instructions must be followed carefully. In general, the transceiver is strapped around the waist or over the shoulder underneath the outer layer of clothing, and should never be stuffed into a backpack.

The way the transceiver works is by emitting a pulsed radio signal if the wearer is buried underneath snow, while the transceivers of other people in the group will pick up the signal and direct them towards the victim’s position. The receiving transceivers interpret the signal into a visual and audible display that guides the search.

Avalanche Probes

Once the receiving transceivers detect the strongest signal, the rescuers should stop at that point over the surface and deploy the avalanche probe, probing down in a spiral motion. Hold the probe at 90˚ to the surface of the slope and push the probe down as far as it will go, keeping the probing parallel and precise so as to confirm if the victim’s buried there. If the probe reaches the victim, rescuers should cease the probe operation and move on to the next step.

Avalanche Shovels

The probe should roughly determine the snow depth the victim is buried underneath. Never use the shovel directly above the victim’s position, as you risk injuring them with it. It’s imperative that you begin digging at least one metre away from the victim’s estimated position.

Use the shovel to dig deeper into the snow, piling the flakes as far away as possible from the estimated position of the victim. Make sure that the distance between where you believe the victim is in relation to the surface and the point where you start digging is at least 1.5 times the estimated depth of the victim’s position under the snow.

It’s usually recommended to initiate the excavation on your knees. Avoid bending over more than 90˚ at the waist. If there’s more than one pair of hands available, work in pairs. This is the most effective way of shovelling snow to locate a victim. Remember to keep a sturdy pair of gloves on to handle the snow, such as ski gloves.

Crisis Management

In the event of a casualty, it’s important to put your crisis management skills to use and take control of the situation.

Administering First Aid

If possible, always carry at least a miniature version of the classic first aid box with you. This will be of inestimable value if someone gets hurt or needs medical assistance. Being well-versed in giving first aid is a great skill to have, especially if the victim happens to be you.

The most common emergency situations you can find yourself in outdoors are when someone experiences an injury from the activity they’re pursuing, whether it’s a fall from climbing, a broken ankle from scrambling, or even hypothermia from wearing unsuitable clothing to reach the summit of a mountain.

In case of injury, always try to attend to any wounds until proper medical care arrives. You can find a general list of first aid instructions according to emergency type on the NHS website.

Waiting for Help

Whether it’s you or someone else who’s injured or experiencing an emergency, stay calm as much as possible, and try to think rationally of the next steps to take. The waiting game can be a difficult one if you or others are in distress, but managing your emotions can prove beneficial in situations like these.

Reassure the victim that help is on its way and attend to their needs, making sure they are as comfortable and warm as possible in the circumstances.

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