Safety Advice for Adventure Travel

Shangri La Expedition, HimalayasJust recently five kayakers went missing in the remote Badakhshan National Park of Tajikstan. I was amazed to see how quickly word and updates spread across social media channels and relieved to find out that all five were rescued after a three-day search. As it turns out, one of the kayakers (Ben Luck) came down with high-altitude sickness at 14,000 feet on their way to descend the Muksu River.

This was not a case of careless travelers becoming victims of their own poor planning. The group, which included 2011 Outside Magazine Adventurers of the Year Matt and Nate Klema, were experienced expedition kayakers who followed some solid safety precautions, including packing the SPOT beacon which they used to trigger the emergency signal when Luck got sick.

The group’s trial and ultimate happy ending warrant this short guide to expedition safety. Some lessons are best learned the easy way.

1) Share your itinerary. I know in past posts I’ve encouraged being flexible with your adventure travel schedule, but for serious expeditions like the one Luck and the Klema brothers were on, sharing your itinerary with family and/or friends and sticking to it can mean the difference between life or death. Naturally weather can impact start times and distances covered, but so long as the general route isn’t deviated from (e.g. we’ll be kayaking the Muksu River from point X to point Y), help will be much more likely to find you in the case of an emergency.

2) Pack proper emergency gear. This is not a place to skimp or drop ounces. One can make a solid argument that these five were saved because they packed a SPOT beacon. When they activated the emergency signal, it connected them to the GEOS Alliance, which offers SAR (search and rescue) and Medivac services to members. Think of it like an insurance policy for travelers. (It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: familiarize yourself ahead of time with the emergency gear. No one wants to hear “how do I turn this on?” from the guy who was supposed to have this covered.) Side note: I always travel with the Delorme InReach SE, which is small, relatively cheap and allows you to communicate through it. If Ben and Co had this device or a sat phone, they would have gotten help a bit faster, or at least saved their families a bit of grief wondering whether or no they were alive.

3) Align your abilities and fitness with the adventure. I’ve touched on this before, but this bears repeating - it’s good to push your limits with each outing, but you don’t go from the T-bar to double black diamond on your first day on skis. And even the most accomplished of mountaineers know that you can’t pack your bags after months of inactivity and think that a Meru ascent is going to be like a jog through the park. None of this is to say that Ben Luck was neither fit enough nor experienced for Muksu, mind you. Altitude sickness is a whole other ball game, and even those who take proper acclimatization steps can be afflicted.

4) Get Travel and Evacuation Insurance. I use Global Rescue insurance. All of the North Face athletes and expeditions going out right now are covered by Global Rescue policies. They have a ton of experience in remote location evacuation and they pride themselves in executing missions swiftly. They also proudly proclaim to be the only emergency response service that will rescue you anywhere in the world and bring you the hospital of your choice. That’s pretty serious peace of mind.

Other safety measures to consider:

  • Pack a first aid kit
  • Only use a reputable, established guide or outfitter (3+ years of continuous business history)
  • Check the CDC website for travel notices
  • Research required vaccinations for your destination and schedule a doctor’s appointment to get them
  • I’m thankful that Ben made it out okay. His survival story is a reminder that proper preparation will save lives.

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    2 Responses to “Safety Advice for Adventure Travel”

    1. Linda Ballou Says:

      Thanks for these tips. I have a piece called Not all outfitters are created equal
      and I give talks about how to prepare for an outdoor adventure.


    2. Dave Katz Says:

      Jimmy - Thanks for this quality post. Some good stuff in here for sure, already have shared it with a few buddies. Cheers!

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