If you need to call for help …

(This blog is not quite dead – still hoping for contributions from others. Meanwhile here is some information that I hope is useful.)

I’ve been reminded recently that if you need to call emergency services while out in the bush it can be difficult to define your location precisely. It’s not as if you can provide a nice simple street address. Latitude and longitude coordinates from a phone or GPS device are precise but prone to error. If the 000 operator mis-hears one digit they could note down a location tens or even hundreds of kilometres away.

The what3words service is an elegant solution. It divides the whole planet into a grid of 3 m squares and each square is labelled with three common words. If audio transmission is poor then words are much less prone to misunderstanding than numbers. There is a what3words app you can find here.

Not only is this useful, it’s well accepted by the emergency services. In fact what3words is even built into the national Emergency Plus app which was developed jointly by all the states and Commonwealth. You can get that here. The app also gives direct access to 000 as well as a number of not-quite-so-emergency services such as SES, poisons information, etc.

Worth getting both of these apps on your phone; they available for both iPhone and Android. Here’s a screenshot of Emergency Plus with the what3words reference at the bottom (but camouflaged to protect my privacy).

Emergency information

Not long ago I was on a non-Pandani activity when a member of our party had a medical incident and became unconscious for a long time. For ages no-one was able to contact his wife until eventually she was tracked down via a friend of a friend. That got us thinking about emergency contact details.

For official Pandani events the website shows all the attendees including their emergency contacts (you have provided your details haven’t you?) and organisers should take that information with them. So a Pandani trip should not have the same problem we encountered. But you don’t spend you whole life doing Pandani things (unfortunately!) so what if there is an emergency at some other time?

Smartphones these days can show emergency ID information even when locked. There are two parts to this:

  • You need to set up your phone so that it can show emergency ID information
  • You need to be aware of how to access that on someone else’s phone if the need arises

I’m going to give a brief outline of how to do that on an iPhone. I don’t have access to an Android device so won’t presume to tell you about one of those but there seems to be lots of how-to stuff online. (Maybe someone could let me know and I’ll update this post.)

To access someone’s emergency details on an iPhone:

  • Try to unlock it until it asks for the passcode and shows a keypad
  • Touch “Emergency” at the bottom of the screen and you get the phone keypad to dial whatever number you like (maybe 000)
  • Touch “* Medical ID” below the keypad to display whatever emergency information the phone’s owner has set up

To set up your iPhone so that others can find your emergency contacts and perhaps other relevant information about you:

  • Go to Settings > Health > Medical ID
  • Touch “Edit” and fill in whatever information you feel is necessary
  • Make sure that Emergency Access (last item on that screen) is switched to “Show When Locked”

You never know when you or someone else might need this.

Perfectly safe …

Not good weather

As a first year student I joined the university bushwalking and mountaineering club and found that one of the things Sydney bushwalkers did in summer was descend streams of all types, from paddling lazily on lilos down a river to abseiling down deep dark canyons. So one of the old experienced guys (aged about 22) taught a group of us to abseil. As he taught us to check and double-check everything that connected us to the rope and the rope to the belay point he said :

“It’s perfectly safe as long as you never forget that it’s extremely dangerous”.

That bon mot lodged firmly in my brain, partly because of its delicious paradox and partly because it was so apt. He claimed that it originated in naval gunnery but I have not been able to confirm that and it doesn’t matter. (Google can’t find it anywhere except in something I produced myself, so maybe my mate himself was the originator.) It applies to so many things – from our simple outdoor activities to modern technological society where high-energy activities and equipment have the potential to go wrong and dissipate their huge energy catastrophically. For example, hurtling across country in a wheeled box containing 50 L of explosive fuel at about the same speed you’d reach if you jumped from the 15th floor. Not to mention 240 volts, air travel, chainsaws, gas appliances, etc, etc. Perfectly safe, as long as you don’t forget … But I digress.

The aims and objectives of Pandani, as expressed in the club constitution, include “To participate in, and promote, SAFE bushwalking and associated activities …”. Making sure that our activities are as safe as reasonably possible is the main reason that Pandani has a bunch of procedures and guidelines. In fact safety of members is pretty much the only reason that the club has any documentation at all other than the program. Most members don’t see much of that apart from the Information for Members document you would have received recently. However organisers see more, and the committee sees a whole lot more still.

So what are the dangers of bushwalking? They boil down to very few – physical injury, hypothermia, snakebite, or being caught out unprepared overnight (plus some others that are less likely in Tasmania). Of course many different things can lead to those outcomes, such as poor navigation, weather conditions, simple mishap (tripping), a party member whose ability is unsuitable for the trip, inadequate clothing or equipment, etc, etc.

Elementary risk management involves identifying the risks, taking actions to minimise the likelihood of the nasty event happening, and having a plan to minimise the consequences if it happens anyway. For example, to manage the risk of hypothermia you may choose to stay home if cold wet weather is forecast (minimises the risk to zero) and if you do proceed then pack enough waterproof and warm clothing for the worst reasonably foreseeable conditions (reduces the consequences from possible death to mere discomfort).**

The dangers of bushwalking are all manageable to some degree. You might not be able to eliminate the likelihood that a snake might strike at you but gaiters will pretty much eliminate the consequences of a strike. And most other dangers are much more manageable.

Have you thought through all the risks, minimisations and mitigations that you might encounter in your bushwalking activities? It’s perfectly safe as long as you never forget it’s extremely dangerous.

**As I write this I’m sitting in a ski lodge on the mainland having a day off from back-country XC skiing because it’s about 2ºC with 50 km/h winds, total whiteout and pouring rain. No-one here wants to go out and get hypothermia, or even just wet and miserable. But on a good day bushwalking on skis is pure magic.

Have you got what it takes to lead?

[Thanks to Belinda Jefferies for this post – well said!]

Pointing the way

When I’m walking with the club, the inevitable conversation arises about our need for more leaders to provide a well balanced and interesting program. Many members of the club are unsure about how much time and effort it requires and some simply do not have the confidence to give it a go.

Leading does require some skill, but more it requires common sense, patience and enthusiasm.

Why do I like to lead?

The first reason and the one you should consider first is, you get to walk where and when you want! I love this, as like many of you, I have a long list of walks I would like to do in my lifetime and it is more fun with the group than on my own. Why wait for another person to put the walk on the program when you can do it yourself at a time that suits you. Nothing worse than having a walk on your list that comes up in the program on a work day, or a weekend you already have plans.

The next most important thing to consider is do you have time to plan the walk. Leading a group is so much more than just throwing your backpack in the car on the morning and hope it all goes ok. I always do a trial run (a recce) prior to my walk. Not all leaders do this, but it does save embarrassment on the day if you drive to the wrong track, find a bridge washed out or a tree down over the access road. Sometimes you can’t avoid this, but it does help, particularly when you are new to leading to give you confidence that you know what to expect.

On the day… LEAD. You are the leader and others have given you permission by attending your walk to lead. Stick to your plans, amend if necessary, but don’t let other well meaning walkers lead you astray. It is often very hard in the face of a tough decision, to abort your walk, cancel an ascent or change tack for an easier option on the day, but this is what the club is expecting you to do for the safety of your group.

That said, do seek council, particularly if you are needing to make difficult decisions. Consult the group, test the morale and decide what the safest, and most enjoyable option is going to be. Remember, not all decisions are going to please everyone, but they must keep your group safe.

Finally – enjoy leading. It is the most satisfying day out when you look at your muddy, weary, smiling group and realise this all happened because you took the risk and put your hand up to lead.

Please consider being a leader and speak to one of the walk mentors about getting the necessary experience to put your very own walks list on the program. You will not regret it, even on the hard days.


Why walk with a club? It’s not just to go bushwalking – you can do that by yourself. We join a club mainly for social reasons, which means sharing the experience with others. Part of the spirit of being in a club is that a group walks together as much as reasonably possible. It’s unsociable to either race off at the front or to leave a struggling member lagging far behind.

There are also obvious safety reasons for staying together. Even on very easy walks if a group separates and one part takes the wrong route they could be seriously inconvenienced (where are the cars??). And in more remote locations staying together as a group is fundamental to safety should anything go wrong.

There is a third reason for togetherness – the sanity of the trip organiser. Leading a group of more than a handful of people is a constant exercise in counting heads. Herding cats is stressful enough without people disappearing off the front or dropping far behind to take photos. Please be considerate of the organiser who has gone out of their way to put the trip on for your enjoyment. (There’s another post here about a split group.)

The organiser has a duty to look after the whole group but only insofar as the group cooperates. Party members who wander far ahead, without notice, have essentially removed themselves from the walk and may not be covered by the club’s insurance.

Of course there can be exceptions, as long as you make your intentions known. By all means ask the leader if a few of you want to go ahead for a while before regrouping at an agreed rendezvous point.

Having said all that, the great majority of club trips don’t have a problem with group cohesion. But those rare occasions when a group splits can be most stressful for the organiser. If you can’t cope with these social niceties then you are of course free to walk by yourself.

Would you enjoy a night out?

On day trips, other than easy walks close to Hobart, we usually carry a lot of stuff that is never used but taken just in case. But few of us have actually tested our beliefs about what you really need to cope with an unexpected night out.

However Helen Stones has done the test – not once but three times. I’ve been intrigued by her descriptions of these experiences. Once was a deliberate trial of how well people could cope overnight with only their day trip equipment, the others were genuine misadventures.

We had the gear but it wasn’t up to the extreme conditions
(Bechervaise Plateau, 1974; not quite an example of being caught out unprepared but a similar misadventure)

Obviously the main issue is keeping dry and warm. Turns out that’s not easy (are you surprised?). The deliberate trial took place when the weather was cool but not mid-winter cold. They were in a valley and wind was not an issue. Shelter came from space blankets and a lightweight tarp (standard day trip kit for one of the more cautious members of the group) and it seems that everyone stayed dry despite some light rain overnight.

However Helen’s dominant impression of the experience was being cold, to the point where it was hard to sleep. The party all had rain jackets and layers of clothing but not puffer jackets. They were able to light a fire but it was not kept going all night. Someone in the party heated rocks in the fire then buried them in the soil under their sleeping spot which was apparently warm for a little while but didn’t last.

On another occasion things were much wetter with constant heavy rain. Multiple attempts at lighting a fire failed despite using all the standard tricks (“dry” kindling from under logs, commercial fire-starters, rubber strips, etc). A final attempt used the last match to light some alcohol-based hand sanitiser gel, and it worked amazing well. They kept that fire going all night. Helen made sure to keep her body off the ground by lying on her pack and her seat pad. The combination of that and the fire meant that she was not uncomfortably cold.

The other important reminder from this incident is that you can’t expect prompt rescue. The group set off a PLB but the weather and flooding were such that external help was not possible until conditions improved.

On the third occasion the group had full overnight gear but due to earlier miscalculation were caught by night in the extremely rugged and dangerous terrain of the Beggary Bumps, about the roughest part of the Western Arthurs. Continuing in darkness was unsafe so they had to pitch tents as best they could despite the lack of suitable sites; Helen had a half-pitched tent on a steep slope above a big drop. But at least they had sort-of shelter and warm sleeping bags. What they didn’t have was water. Everyone was thirsty, some to the point where it seemed to be affecting their judgement. Although they had food most chose not to eat because of their thirst.

Probably most of us have not had a night out, yet. So we can benefit from Helen’s misfortunes by taking lessons from them. I would like to think that most of the following reminders should be obvious but her experiences really put them in perspective:

  1. Don’t assume that a helicopter will magically appear a short time after setting off a PLB. How long might it take for the weather to clear enough to allow flight?
  2. Carry warm stuff, even on day trips. Pack clothing not for the daytime forecast but for the possible conditions overnight. Multiple layers. A puffer jacket. Long johns. A beanie. Gloves. Full waterproofs (windproof even if you don’t need to keep the rain out).
  3. Carry shelter. At the very least a space blanket. Consider a tarp or bivvy bag. But don’t expect them to provide warmth. That has to come from your clothing.
  4. Carry enough water so you still have some left at the end of the day.
  5. Carry some emergency rations. Energy bars. Trail mix. Chocolate. Or just a surplus of whatever nibbles you carry anyway.
  6. Carry something that will light a fire in very wet conditions, and make sure it works in practice as well as theory. (I’m going to do my own tests with hand sanitiser gel.)
  7. Insulate yourself from the ground. Maybe even soft vegetation would help if you don’t have enough of your own stuff.

Having said all that, your choice of gear is a matter of risk management and your own risk tolerance. My risk tolerance is getting lower over time – the invulnerability of youth is too long ago. So on any trip other than easy walks close to Hobart I carry more than I used to and put up with the heavier pack on the basis that I’m now a little more likely to have a disabling injury and less keen on an utterly miserable if not life-threatening cold night. You may find a different point of balance between a heavier pack and the unlikely but possibly serious consequences of a night out. But at least think about it.

(Many thanks to Helen for sharing her experiences with me so I could share them with the rest of you.)

Losing people, lessons learned

(written after interesting long chats with Susan Gardner and Urszula Stanny)

A while ago Susan Gardner organised a walk to Marriotts Falls on which a comedy of errors accumulated to the point of considerable tension and embarrassment. No blame attached to anyone here but there is a useful lesson. Two sides to the story:

Susan reports that all went well until the return when five people were lagging a bit and did not appear when those in front paused at a track junction. Susan headed back up the track calling and whistling, without success. She returned to the rest of the group at the track junction and waited another 40 minutes, still with no sign of the missing walkers. This was starting to get serious.

There was no phone reception at the track junction so they left a note and returned to the cars. From the carpark Susan was able to call the club Search & Rescue contact and asked what to do next. He in turn contacted Simon Kendrick who recommended that most people should go home but two should wait at the carpark while Susan and Robert walked back up the track for an hour. There was only about two hours of daylight left so a longer search would have been unwise. However just as they were setting off back up the track the missing five arrived – all good.

Urszula Stanny was part of the group that became separated, all of whom were experienced walkers. Somehow the party had spread out and a gap opened up – the walker in front of the rear group could not see those ahead. And then where the track turned sharply to cross the creek there was also what looked like a well-trodden track straight ahead. (Haven’t we all fallen into that trap at some time?) So the rear group took what seemed to be the obvious route, until (after quite a few minutes) it became equally obvious that it was not the route. A fair bit more time was then spent in reassessing where they were and where to go.

On backtracking they found that the change in direction at the creek crossing was quite clear when seen from the different angle so they resumed the correct route. Susan’s note left at the track junction further down had mentioned the lower falls so the tail-end group took a detour to those as well, adding further to their delay in returning to the cars.

So a series of minor events added up to a big time gap between the two groups and a great deal of uncertainty for Susan as organiser.

On one view this is a mildly interesting anecdote and we can all move on and forget about it. On the other hand there is a useful lesson here for both participants and organisers:

EVERYONE has a responsibility to keep the group together

The organiser can’t do that from the front, although they certainly should pause to re-group now and then (as Susan did).

  • Every walker should make sure that they can see both the person in front AND the person behind
  • If you can’t keep up with the person in front, call out (don’t be shy).
  • Look back every now and then and if you can’t see the person behind pause until you can AND pass the word forwards that the whole group should wait.

Perhaps all that is obvious, until it gets overlooked and things turn to custard. Stay together, stay safe.