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In mid-October a hiker died at Channel Islands National Park, possibly of heat exhaustion. Late in the month another went missing on Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. These were just two of the many cases that arise each year when national park visitors are either injured or killed while enjoying the parks.

Let's face it. We're not all as competent as Bear Grylls when it comes to staying alive in the great outdoors. Still, with some simple precautions we can greatly enhance our safety in the backcountry and increase the odds of successfully confronting dire situations.

Christopher Van Tilburg (www.docwild.net), an Oregon doctor who spends time as a wilderness physician and search-and-rescue volunteer, says it's really quite easy to be prepared for a trek into the backcountry of a national park, be it for an afternoon or a week. In fact, he boils down the necessities to five categories:

"Food, water, clothing, communications, navigations," he says. "So, water bottle, couple energy bars if you're going out for a day hike. A rain jacket, a communication device -- so cellphone, radio -- and then navigation. That used to be map and compass and nowadays it means GPS, but you have to know how to use your GPS."

Somewhat surprisingly, but not entirely in light of the degree of difficulty some of these units employ, not every who owns a GPS unit knows exactly how to use it, says Dr. Van Tilburg.

Perhaps more surprising is that the doctor doesn't list matches or a lighter among his five essentials, and says that while it's nice to have food, you'll probably be able to survive going without it for a day or so.

"To be honest, I'm not a big proponent of telling people they need to build a fire to survive in the wilderness. There are survival instructors who say matches and fire starter are key, but the fact is clothing is so good nowadays that anybody who's got a fleece sweater and a Gore-Tex jacket, that is going to be more valuable than matches," said Dr. Van Tilburg. "Matches definitely are not in my top five. What does fire get you? It gets you warmth, so if you're in the mountains and hypothermia is an issue it gets you warmth. It gets you some psychological benefits from having a fire, but most people can survive just fine in the temperate world without a fire for one night in the wilderness."

As for stocking your pack with food, the doctor says that "99% of Americans can live without food for a day."

"We're a culture who can stop eating for one day and we'll all be just fine. But you do actually need food to generate warmth, so in the mountains that's a big thing," Dr. Van Tilburg said. "You need food to prevent hypothermia more than for nutrition."

Essential items the doctor recommends you take with you, even for a day hike, include:

  • Rain gear.
  • A hat of some sort, since you lose a good deal of body heat through your scalp.
  • Chlorine water purification tablets, which the EPA says are better than iodine tablets at "controlling" Giardia.
  • One of those small inexpensive survival tarps with a little nylon cord or something similar. "You can use it to protect yourself from the rain, you can use it as sort of a sleeping bag to cover yourself up, you can use it to drag an injured partner down out of the mountains, you can use it for all kinds of things. So a tarp is a good thing to use."
  • Some basic survival skills, such as being able to build a shelter no matter the season. "Finding shelter is pretty important, so if you're in snow you need to know how to dig a snow cave, if you're in the woods and it's raining you need to know how to build a shelter out of a tree well. Those aren't hard, but you need to have a little know-how." That shelter in a tree well can be made either by resorting to that tarp you packed, or leaning branches or logs up against the tree trunk to form a teepee of sorts.
  • If possible, a small foam pad you can sit on. "You need to insulate yourself from the ground, so sitting on your backpack, or sometimes I'll take a little foam pad, like a 1-foot by 1-foot square foam pad and you can sit on that. And that's really key. You lose a lot of heat by contact with cold ground."

All that said, it also probably wouldn't hurt to watch a few of Bear Grylls' Man vs. Wild episodes...

Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com, which tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at www.twitter.com/parkstraveler.