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Gearing Up: SERE Instructor Gives Tips for Hitting the Trail This Fall

Image of Marines in civilian clothes hiking in mountains. Marines with The Basic School, Headquarters and Service Battalion, in Quantico, Virginia, hike Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah National Park extends along Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Quinn Hurt, Marine Corps Base Quantico).

As summer winds down and the weather begins to cool off across most of the country, people will inevitably begin to head out into the woods and mountains for some much-needed relief from the sweltering days of summer.

From the snowcapped Rocky Mountains in Colorado to fall colors along the Appalachian Trail, trails and campgrounds across the country offer a diverse array of wildlife, scenery, climates, and amenities.

There are several key things to keep in mind, as well as precautions you should take if you're heading out into the wilderness, said Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Apolo Silva, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor at the Center for Security Forces, Detachment Kittery, Maine, colloquially known as "SERE school."

While the casual camper or day hiker likely isn't packing on several pounds of gear and planning to survive for a week on Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs), there are some important parallels between what they do at SERE school and the recreational hiker's venture out into the wild.

Be Prepared

"I think one of the more important concepts, when it comes to injury prevention, is understanding the environment that you're going to be camping or hiking in – the weather, the terrain, the climate, and what you're going to expect during the duration of your trip," said Silva. "That will dictate the equipment that you'll need to have in order to be preventative."

It basically all comes down to knowing where you're going to be, what you can expect and what you can carry. Pulling into a campsite with a car full of gear is obviously much different than venturing out on a primitive, multiple-day hike. The weather and your ability to carry or access certain things will have a bearing on the type of tent or sleeping bag you use, the food you take, and the clothes you wear.

Weather

Silva said weather is one of the most important factors to consider, especially in the fall.

"Depending on where you're going to be traveling to, it might be in transition, where it may be really warm during the day and then plummeting temperatures into the evening and overnight," said Silva. "It can sometimes be a little bit difficult to pack appropriate clothing."

In preparation, it's important to remember that the forecasted daytime temperature may be much different than the overnight low, Silva said.

"During the day, in Acadia National Park in Maine for instance, it could be up in the mid-60s and fairly comfortable, whereas in the evening it could plunge all the way down to the high 30s," said Silva. "If you don't have an appropriate sleeping bag or enough warming layers, that could put you at risk for things like hypothermia."

Although he used the fall season as an example, Silva said the same is true of any environment that a person may not be acclimated to, including traveling south to hotter, more humid climates in the summer or to drier climates of places like southern California.

Fire Safety

A top concern is being able to start a fire and making sure it's out when you're ready to leave your campsite.

For starting fires, "There's a lot of equipment out there that someone can procure at any camping store, but I'd say some of the more important things are a lighter, matches or a fire striker, and a small saw to take down deadfall while you're hiking," Silva said. "Those are all pretty common, lightweight, compact items that you can throw into a bag or pocket that will assist you in starting a fire."

He also said cotton balls soaked in Vaseline are an option, due to the fact that they stay lit for significantly longer when attempting to start a fire.

As far as precautions, Silva said that one of the most important things to remember is designating a "fire zone."

"Depending on what area you're traveling in and how dry it is, you might want to move dry leaves, debris and dead tree branches from the ground and provide a boundary such as rocks or dig a ditch around where you're going to have your fire. That helps contain it and makes it harder for the fire to spread," he said.

Wind conditions also need to be taken into consideration.

"Once you're done with the fire, it's a good idea to have someone watching it. If you're ready to put it out for the night, put it out with water and make sure the ground is cool to the touch," said Silva. "You should be able to touch the coals with your bare hand. If you can't, the fire is still active and there's still a potential for a wildfire."

Know Your Nature

Be prepared for natural hazards or unforeseen encounters with animals and obstacles. Be aware of your surroundings, be ready, and know how to react in the event of an encounter with a bear, snake, or washed-out trail along your route.

"Knowing what animals are indigenous to each area and could be harmful to you is important. For example, out west you need to be aware of rattlesnakes whereas in the mountains on the east coast you might encounter bears," Silva said.

Hikers and campers should also be aware of poisonous plants and elements of the terrain like inclines, he said.

"Also avoid zones that are prone to flash flooding," said Silva.

Phones

"Electronics are always a good aid. They're meant to assist someone in making a task a little bit more convenient. There are actually several hiking apps out there," Silva said.

However, there's something to be said for the "old school" way of navigating in the wilderness.

"Maps on phones are not always the most reliable. Trails may be washed out if you're starting a hike at the beginning of the season. Having some other backup equipment is always going to be useful – a solar charger for your phone, a map of the area in case your phone dies, a compass," said Silva.

Silva cautioned against using your phone as your primary source for navigation. "You should know what you're going to be doing and what to expect rather than relying on your phone as a form of direction."

Let Someone Know Your Plans

It's important to let someone know where you're going, what you're doing, where you plan to go and when you plan to be there, whether that be a checkpoint or when you're planning to be back home.

This could be anyone – family, friends or coworkers, as long as someone knows where you are and when to expect to hear from you.

"The more people you can communicate your plans with, the better it's going to be in case the trip takes a nasty turn," Silva said.

For those planning to head out, check with your local Army, Navy or Coast Guard MWR, Air Force Outdoor Recreation or Marine Corps Community Services office for activities, tips, and potential equipment rental options prior to your trip.

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Last Updated: July 11, 2023
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