Camping, backpacking, and hiking in America’s vast network of national, state, and local parks is for many an incredible and indispensable part of summer. But since the wildfire season in the U.S. has lengthened (by 2.5 months during the last 30 years), planning for and around fire season has become a necessary part of the camping experience. While hikers and campers should make a habit of checking local fire danger risks with land management agencies before heading out, there still remains the chance of being caught off guard by a wildfire while in the backcountry. Here are some steps campers can take to survive a wildfire.
1. Use your senses
Be aware of your surroundings at all times, looking out for early signs of wildfire: smoke, a red or orange horizon line, the sounds of air traffic from helicopters, or fleeing birds and animals. At the first hint of something being amiss, do your best to safely evacuate the area.
2. Travel against the wind
Staying upwind (also known as moving against the wind or into the wind) is the best way to travel when trying to escape a wildfire.
3. Travel downhill
Fire moves faster uphill, so whenever possible, choose downhill escape routes. Be careful to avoid traveling into canyons, however, which can act like chimneys during a wildfire, funneling deadly heat up the surrounding hillsides.
4. Look for natural firebreaks
Head for roads, rocks, stream beds, sand bars, bodies of water, or other clearings where fuel is low. If you can’t find a firebreak, areas with large trees are preferable to clear-cut fields of brush, which can be extremely dangerous.
5. Don’t try to outrun a fire
Fires move faster than you do (sometimes up to 20 mph!). If you can’t find a safe escape route from an approaching fire, dig a ditch or locate a depression or hole in the ground. Lay down on your stomach, with your feet pointed toward the direction of the flames. Cover your body with nonsynthetic fibers or dirt and wait for the fire to pass over you.
6. Cover your nose and mouth with a wet cloth
If you don’t have a respirator, use a bandana or other piece of cloth doused with water to breathe through. Get low and breathe the air closest to the ground.
7. Use emergency fire shelters, if you have them
If you’re lucky enough to have an emergency fire shelter on hand, now’s the time to use it. These lightweight and compact foil domes claim to reflect up to 95 percent of radiant heat.
So before you head out on the trail, take precautions, use common sense, and always follow the rules and regulations of the campsites and parks you frequent.