The backcountry in San Juan County is wild. Beautiful, untamed, unusual. Those searching for authentic experiences in nature tend to end up here. But sometimes, they end up being the ones who are searched for.
Recent numbers show that more than 1,400 people are rescued by search and rescue teams in Utah each year. Sixty-three percent of victims are rescued in a county in which they don’t reside.
You never plan to get lost or need assistance, but it can happen. The Utah Search and Rescue Assistance website offers the following advice. It’s a good refresher if you’re going to be out in the backcountry.
Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. San Juan County Sheriff Jason Torgerson reports the number one call-out is for lost hikers. It often comes from relatives or friends who are concerned for the whereabouts of a loved one, but who can’t tell rescuers where that person is.
Torgerson said it is extremely helpful when people in the backcountry communicate with family about approximately where they’re going and when they expect to return.
Know before you go. Learn about the local weather conditions and conditions of the terrain. Know how to use your emergency gear. Torgerson advises people to be prepared for the season they’re in.
In the spring, runoff from melting snow can create hazardous conditions, especially in slot canyons.
Heat stroke is a problem in the summer. And in the winter, be prepared for the cold. Avalanche conditions in the mountains should be monitored as well.
Know your limitations and when to postpone your trip. Turn back if the weather is changing, the terrain is too strenuous, or the river is too high.
Stay together. Lone hikers are more likely to need rescuing.
While cell phones can be helpful, be aware that cell phone coverage can be sporadic at best in the backcountry. In San Juan County, there aren’t many places you can get coverage in the backcountry.
If you need rescue, don’t be a moving target. Shelter in place, whether that’s near a trail, a body of water, your disabled vehicle, etc. If you are lost, the most important thing to do is to not panic but to S.T.O.P. (Sit, Think, Observe and Plan). The first ten minutes of being lost are when most search fatalities make their deadly mistake.
If on the water, make sure you have enough Personal Floatation Devices for each person in the boat or raft. Adults and youth in your canoe or raft should know how to self-rescue in the event the watercraft capsizes. Unskilled swimmers should wear a PFD at all times.
Carry the appropriate gear and be prepared for emergencies. When choosing your gear, remember that the body’s ability to maintain its core temperature is essential to survival, and pack accordingly.
Know how to contact the local sheriff’s office in an emergency. In most cases, 911 will work.
Dustin Randall, owner of Roam Industry and expert adventure guide, offers some additional advice. He suggests becoming more physically prepared ahead of time.
“The tougher you are, the tougher you are to kill. Survival goes up if you’re physically prepared,” he says.
“It’s our body versus the elements. Even if you’re conditioned just a little bit with walks around town or whatever, your body will be able to manage the heat and the stress better.”
Another point he makes is to be consistently prepared. “You never know when crap’s going to happen.”
In case you do get lost or have an emergency, San Juan County Search and Rescue will always respond to your call.
Sheriff Torgerson also wanted to plug the Utah Search and Rescue Assistance (USARA) card subscription.
This subscription can protect you from being back billed for expensive extraction costs - courtesy of search and rescue - should you ever need it.
Another reason to buy the card is to simply support search and rescue efforts across the state.
Rescue cards can be purchased at https://secure.utah.gov/rescue/. (Or just Google Utah Search and Rescue to find the assistance card.)
The program provides a one-year individual subscription for $25 and a family subscription for $35. Five-year subscriptions can be purchased for $100 and $140.