The popularity of outdoor physical challenges is on the rise. Occupational safety and health pros can participate in these trends while enhancing their safety and health skills. If OSH pros don’t mind putting some weight on their back and racing against their own clock, you can join in and get smarter at the same time.

Go bag – backpack

Every OSH pro should have a standby “go-bag” equipped with essential multi-day supplies in the event some calamity, such as severe weather, hits their neighborhood. Essential supplies will vary by whoever packs the bag but should minimally include a shelter; protective clothing from the elements e.g. change of dry socks and rain jacket, or cold weather gear as needed; water purifier; food; matches/fuel and first-aid kit. 

Your go-bag should contain supplies to last three to five nights outdoors with no access to modern conveniences such as community electricity, clean water from a faucet or motor vehicle transportation. Since your go-bag may need to be carried for upwards of 30 miles or more over a few days to escape danger areas, a target weight of approximately 35 pounds is reasonable. The most reasonable go-bag is a substantial, ergonomically-fitted backpack sized between 50-80 liters.

Essential supplies

On a recent backpack trip far outside of cell phone range, my wife demanded that I carry a satellite communicator with a “safety” subscription plan. The device weighed 200 grams. To add this weight, I had to remove four energy bars.

An initial thought often is to pack a fully supplied first-aid kit. Better safe than sorry.  But when weight is considered, some first-aid supplies must be left out while others may have added stock. For example, I must take a daily pill that limits blood clots because of my heart stent.  A large cut to me may be deadly. So my first-aid kit includes additional supplies of QuikClot gauze and sponges.

A shelter can consist of a tarp, hammock, or tent. A one or two-person backpack tent, particularly with a rain cover, offers the most protection and comfort but will weigh several times more than the tarp or hammock. Is a sleeping bag essential? The answer will depend upon night temperatures.

Ounces make pounds

The challenge to pack a go-bag/backpack is escalating weight. Ounces readily grow into pounds. The first impression when you hoist a 50-pound backpack onto your back is, “that’s not too heavy.”  But when the pack must be carried over extended miles and times, often over uneven terrain, the weight may become exhausting, uncomfortable, and possibly, injurious. Again, shoot for a backpack weight under 35 pounds.

To better understand weight, each proposed item to be added to a backpack should be weighed. Higher quality, often more expensive items such as a down-filled sleeping bag, often weigh substantially less. But down will lose insulating properties if wet; synthetic filler does not. Choices of what goes into the backpack include weight and expected performance.

Choices of trails

Depending upon one’s chosen hiking trail, danger can be a reality. On average, 2.6 people die annually in Glacier National Park, where I recently completed a six-day, 55.5-mile backpack trip with a 35-pound pack. Prior to my hike, one person was killed by a grizzly bear and another died by a fall. I called upon my safety training to help ensure I wouldn’t die – and my son was kept safe. There are no handrails along narrow mountain cliff trails with 1,000+ foot drop-offs below.

Experience is the best teacher. There are a large and growing number of marked hiking trails in the US. Many people have heard of, or traveled, parts of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia or the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from the U.S border with Canada to the Mexico border. The Great Lakes Trail will stretch 10,900 miles – longest continuous marked trail in the world – and travel along the shoreline of all the Great Lakes.

Reinforce safety knowledge

When an OHS pro prepares for a three to five overnight backpack trip, they will find they must reinforce their awareness and ability to apply ergonomics e.g. proper fit of backpack, heat/cold stress, first-aid, water purification, sanitation, self-rescue, emergency communication, PPE and much more.

There are no first-aid teams or 911 in the event of an injury when you are in the backwoods. First-aid knowledge must be top-notch. The pressure of getting it right all the time helps to force learning and application to handle anything from a blister or small cut, to bee stings, snake bite, compound fractures or worse.

Hiking partners

Common advice is “never hike alone.” In reality, however, that often happens. People often hike at their own pace and it is not unusual to be 10-20 minutes or more behind the lead hiker. If something happens, you may be alone on the trail for some time. A signal whistle or other source of emergency communication can bring help back, or if you don’t show up at a destination. But there is always a time element where you must help yourself as much as possible.

Know the capabilities and limitations of your hiking partners. Do they have medical conditions you should know about?  I had a widow-maker heart attack in February this year. My hiking partner knows this. Sometimes backwoods hiking has high risk/reward.

Join the trend - test your physical limits

While you practice safety knowledge on overnight backpack trips, you should also test your physical limits. Chose a hiking trail that offers a physical challenge.

People now seek greater outdoor physical challenges such as the Ironman. The full Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.22-mile run that is raced in that 140.6-mile order without a break and must be completed within a strict time limit of 17 hours. Roger Parker, CSP, safety manager, from Ohio, completed a full Ironman in 2015. The global popularity of Ironman is soaring. The Chinese conglomerate, Wanda Group, purchased the Ironman brand last year for $650 million. In addition to Ironman, obstacle races such as Urban Athlon, Rugged Maniac, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Spartan Death Race have exploded in popularity with more than a million participants since 2006.

Need more incentives to get physical outdoors? See Dave Johnson’s editorial comments “Go ahead, take a hike” ISHN June 2016.