What to do in an Emergency while Walking

by Nicky Jacquiery


The start of a new year is a good time to remind ourselves of the basic procedures involved in dealing with an emergency when we’re out walking, even more so as it’s the middle of winter and we’re increasingly likely to experience adverse weather conditions. Bad weather in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but heavy rain, cold temperatures or strong winds can very quickly turn a minor injury into something more serious and create a potentially dangerous situation.

It’s important that you know what to do to prevent an injury occurring in the first place, but if you need to treat an injury, or worse, you have an emergency on your hands, you need to feel competent to be able to deal with it. In this article I’m going to go through some of the basic precautions that you should take before embarking on a walk, and explain what to do should an emergency arise when you’re out on a walk.


Before you go

Good planning is essential to an enjoyable and successful walk, whether your aim is to climb a particular mountain, complete a certain distance or visit points of interest. Planning means making sure that you, and others in your group, fully understand what will be encountered during the walk and are comfortable with this. Everyone should be confident that a walk is within his or her capabilities, since accidents and injuries are more likely to happen if someone is stretched beyond their fitness level.

Before you set off on a walk it’s always a good idea to tell someone where you’re going and the time you expect to be back, or when you plan to reach your destination. If you can, leave a description of your route, even if it’s only a rough outline of where you intend to go. It’s particularly important to do this if you’re walking on your own and you’re going to a remote area. Having said this, I’m sure we can all remember times when we’ve set off on a walk and not left any information about our walk, or only given someone a vague idea of our intentions. It’s easily done, but it’s not a good habit to develop and I’m as guilty of it as anyone! Also, remember to ‘check in’ when you reach your destination and let your contact person know you’ve arrived safely.

Untitled-1 Photo by Direct Line

Another sensible precaution is to take a well-equipped first aid kit; however it’s no good just carrying one, you need to know how to use it! Having some basic first aid knowledge and skills will give you increased confidence when out walking to be able to respond to a minor situation or something more serious. If you’re walking as part of a group, don’t rely on other individuals to be first aid trained. Take the initiative yourself and if you don’t already possess a first aid qualification, sign up for a course. Organisations such as the St John Ambulance and the Red Cross provide first aid courses, but there are many others. Regardless of how often you walk, it’s important to learn some basic first aid techniques; you never know when you might need to use them!

Dealing with an emergency

If you find yourself in a situation where an accident or injury occurs, the first priority must be to make sure everyone in the group is safe and then attend to the casualty, administering first aid as appropriate. The seriousness of the injury and your location will determine your next course of action. If the casualty cannot move – for example if they have a broken ankle and you’re in a remote location – you’ll need to summon help, usually the emergency services. You need to decide how you’re going to do this.

In most situations it is inadvisable to try and move the casualty, since few people are sufficiently knowledgeable about how to do this properly and you risk making the injury worse. In some areas it may be quicker to send a member or a few members of the group to the nearest house or farm to get help. Careful consideration needs to be given to whom to allocate this responsibility, depending on their experience in the hills and ability to map read etc. Whoever does go for help should always take a written note with the following information:

  1. The location of the accident with a 6-figure grid reference and a description of the location. It’s useful to mention any notable landmarks;
  2. The time the accident occurred and what happened;
  3. The name and age of the casualty;
  4. A description of the injuries;
  5. The number and names of the rest of the group.

Those going to get help should look around the location of the accident and take a note of the terrain on their way to summon help, since they may have to lead a rescue party back to the casualty. The police should also be contacted as soon as possible and they will alert the appropriate rescue services.

Another option is to summon help from your location. Most people carry a mobile phone, but it’s inadvisable to rely on your phone as reception and battery life can be a problem, especially in the remote upland areas where you’re likely to be walking. Having said this, if you’re in an area where there is a weak mobile phone signal and you cannot make a voice call, it may still be possible to send a text. If so, you can use emergency SMS to alert the emergency services. Use the following link to familiarise yourself with how it works and what you need to do; it’s advisable to do this before you set off on your walk! www.emergencysms.org.uk.

If you have no mobile phone signal, the best alternative way to summon help is to try and attract the attention of other walkers by using the internationally recognised distress signal, which is:

  1. 6 blasts on a whistle in quick succession, repeated after a 1 minute interval or
  2. 6 flashes of a torch in quick succession, repeated after a 1 minute interval.

The answering signal is:

  1. 3 blasts on a whistle in quick succession, repeated after a 1 minute interval or
  2. 3 flashes of a torch in quick succession, repeated after a 1 minute interval.

Once you hear the answering signal, continue to send your distress signal as this will help anyone to ‘home in’ on your position, which is particularly important in poor visibility. It’s a good idea to keep a small laminated card with these emergency instructions in your first aid kit to remind yourself and others what to do, and of course you need to remember to carry a whistle and a torch with you!

Whilst you’re waiting for help to arrive, you need to look after and reassure the casualty. Continue to give first aid treatment as necessary and keep the casualty as warm and comfortable as possible. When I’m out walking, especially in winter, I carry an emergency group shelter, which provides protection against the wind and rain and also a warm environment to reduce the risk of hypothermia. Emergency shelters are lightweight, easy to use and can be erected over the casualty without the need to move them. Bear in mind that a casualty will become colder more quickly than usual, so it’s really important to give them additional layers of clothing and put them in the shelter as soon as possible. I would recommend the Terra Nova Bothy 2 or Terra Nova Bothy 4 emergency shelters (depending on the number of people it's for), which can be found on millets.co.uk, blacks.co.uk, cotswoldoutdoor.com or even on eBay.

Even if you don’t need to use the shelter in an emergency they come in handy when you want to stop for lunch! Also, you’ll need to consider whether or not to give the casualty food and drink; this is not recommended with some injuries and especially if the casualty is likely to need surgery. However, food and a warm drink are good for morale, not just for the casualty, but for you and the other members of the group!

If you keep these few tips in mind, you can enjoy your walk with peace of mind, secure in the knowledge that you are fully prepared just in case something happens!

Originally published 01/02/16

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