This page covers expedition safety and how to respond to some common hazards.
The vast majority of expeditions pass off safely. Of course, expeditions are not free from risk and encountering new hazards and experiences makes them worthwhile challenges. Training and planning means risks are controlled and groups learn to cope independently and avoid accidents but are able to cope with difficulties if they arise.
There are all sorts of hazards that can occur on expeditions. Some are listed here, in no particular order…
Our training programme raises awareness of hazards so that groups are prepared and act to reduce risks.
A kit check and “Traffic Light check” before departure ensures groups are ready for the challenge.
A good starting point to travel safely in the countryside is to follow these national outdoor codes: Countryside Code, Road Safety Code and Mountain Code.
- Enjoy the countryside.
- Guard against all risk of fire.
- Leave all gates as you find them.
- Keep to paths & rights of way across farmland.
- Use stiles & gates to cross fences, hedges and walls.
- Take all litter home.
- Help to keep water sources clean.
- Protect wildlife, plants, animals and trees.
- Make no unnecessary noise.
- Keep away from horses and cattle: walk slowly and quietly past.
- Take care on country roads.
- Keep together. Keep in.
- Walk on the side of the road & face oncoming traffic.
- Listen out for cars & lorries.
- Always assume that a motorist has not seen you.
- Never mess about on roads, even ones that appear quiet.
- Your route should avoid roads and stick to footpaths.
- Wear bright reflective clothing
This section outlines our Emergency Response procedures on expeditions.
The list below includes the most common injuries on expeditions, especially those to mountainous areas. Fortunately, accidents are rare but you need to be aware of what to do if “the worst happens”. All bronze students have a lesson on expedition first aid and several complete a full course.
- Road or mountain accident
- Severe asthma attack / fit
- Assault or threatening behaviour
- Anaphylactic shock
- Falls: broken bones
- Weather injury: hypothermia / heat stroke / frost bite
In the event of a serious accident follow the emergency procedure:
- Assess the situation: ensure everyone is SAFE (including you!).
- Locate exactly where you are on the MAP and note grid reference / describe & name location.
- Phone 999: give your name and a brief summary of the incident including injuries & the number of injured. Phone staff; do NOT phone home.
- Treat any casualties. Be aware of potential spinal injuries after falls – never move someone unless there is a more serious threat to life such as fire.
5. Whistle international distress signal: 6 rapid blasts followed by one minute intervals until you are located (the intervals are important for possible rescuers to stop and listen and locate you)9
6. Be prepared for a long wait if you are in the hills. Protect the whole group from hypothermia. Wear extra clothes, put up tents. Make yourselves visible, but secure loose objects if helicopter rescue is expected.
You will need to carry some kit to be prepared to respond to any emergency:
- Survival bag or a tent: you can put up your tent flysheet over an injured person to shelter them. Add your sleeping mat and sleeping bag and this will help keep them warm.
- Small First Aid Kit with a few basic items
- Torch / bulb / batteries
- Mobile phone. Keep dry and charged!
- RGS Emergency Card with pencil
- Extra high energy snack food.
- Personal medicines e.g. diabetic, allergies, epi-pens, inhalers etc.
Our emergency card is carried by students and supervisors and assessors. The notes remind them about what to do and what not to do in a serious emergency.
The photos below show a real incident on a Gold expedition which eventually involved a helicopter rescue. Fortunately, the injured person made a full recovery. Our students and staff were formally praised by Mountain Rescue for our outstanding emergency response which followed the emergency protocols outlined on this page.
Remind your team and teachers if you suffer from any condition that could affect your performance. This includes recent illness or injury and any chronic conditions or allergies.
Hazards you should know about
Here are details about some hazards that you might come across on expeditions and information on how to prepare and manage them. They are not in any particular order.
Of course, it would be impossible to include every hazard you might come across but an awareness of these more common outdoor hazards should improve your ability to spot emerging risks and to stay safe in most circumstances.
- Extreme weather
- Heat stroke
1. Extreme Weather
The weather is more extreme in exposed locations up hills and mountains and this is a hazard you should expect and be prepared for by packing the correct clothing e.g waterproofs, warm gear, sun hat etc.
Hot, sunny weather on expeditions is a mixed blessing as sun burn and dehydration and heat stroke are significant hazards.
Always pack clothing suitable for the full range of extreme weather regardless of the season.
It feels a lot colder when windy. It also gets colder higher up. So expect hills and mountains to have a completely different weather to where you are, even in summer.
Temperatures fall on average by 0.65oC per 100m. It can therefore be at least 6oC colder up a 1000m mountain than in the valley. Add a breeze and temperatures can feel freezing. Some expeditions meet cold rain, sleet and snow which can make walking much harder.
High winds and poor visibility cause the most problems. Gale force winds often mean penetrating rain, a high wind chill and exhausting progress into the headwind. Camp sites must be chosen carefully or they may be flattened.
A wind of 40 mph and an air temperature of 5 °C, not at all an uncommon combination even in summer, will yield a wind-chill temperature of -10 °C.
Wind speeds can at least double between the valley floor and summits. Wind can be particularly hazardous for groups, sapping energy and making communication difficult. Your navigation skills will be tested. Be prepared to alter your plans.
Thunderstorms are more common in Summer and at the end of heat waves but can occur at any time of year so it is worth knowing what to do if storms threaten.
Thunderstorms can erupt quickly and may not always be forecast so keep an eye out for towering cumulonimbus clouds.
During a convective thunderstorm it can get extremely windy with heavy rain or damaging hail. Secure loose objects, such as loose clothing or tents, protect yourself and hang on!
Huge electrical charges build up in towering cumulonimbus clouds due to strong updrafts and downdrafts. These winds carry ice and water droplets thousands of feet through the cloud and as they collide at freezing level a charge builds up.
Lightning is the discharge of electricity like a giant spark between clouds (sheet) or from the cloud to the ground (forked). Thunder is the noise made by the expansion of air by the electrical discharge.
Lightning is powerful: it heats the air around it to about 10,000oC (hotter than the sun) and carries one billion volts. You have about 1 in 600,000 chance of being struck by lightning, but this chance increases if you get caught in a thunderstorm!
Summits, high ridges, bare slopes and cliffs are not good places to be in thunderstorms. Prominent features attract lightning strikes, so do metal objects.
If you get caught in a thunderstorm then do as many of these actions as you can…
- Head for lower ground in open valley
- Keep away from isolated trees, caves and cliffs
- Put on all your waterproof clothing
- Sit on your rucksack and tuck yourself up
- Continue your journey once the storm goes away.
- Contact your supervisor once the storm has gone.
Someone struck by lightning will require immediate medical help. Lightning strikes can cause brain injury, heart attack and respiratory failure. CPR may be required. Follow the emergency procedure and call for help.
You can tell how far away the storm is by counting the seconds between the lightning and thunder! Sound travels at 5 seconds per mile, so:
- Start timing at the lightning flash
- Stop timing when you hear thunder
- Divide the result by 5
- That’s your distance from the storm in miles
- Keep checking – the storm may be approaching!
A drop in core body temperature is called hypothermia. It is caused by being out in cold, wet and windy conditions without proper protection for a long time. A hypothermic person develops increasingly serious problems as his body continues to cool down. In its early stages it is fairly easy to reverse.
Hypothermia is caused by losing heat faster than your body can make it. Fatigue, lack of food, lack of water and inadequate clothing can cause and speed up this life-threatening condition. Without treatment your core body temperature way continue to fall until you become incapable, collapse and eventually die.
Avoiding hypothermia is far more effective than treating it. You can avoid hypothermia by:
- Eating and drinking sufficient energy giving food and drink. Do NOT skip breakfast!
- Wearing proper protective warm, wind and waterproof clothing. Do not delay in putting on waterproofs and warm gear!
- Not squandering energy by attempting too much. Stop and shelter if you are exhausted.
- Knowing when to stop and get off the mountains or take a bad weather route.
Hypothermia tends to occur if the weather is cold, wet and windy. The risk is increased if people in your party are unfit, ill, injured, have not eaten properly or are poorly dressed for the conditions. It might also occur when an accident causes the group to wait around in bad weather.
Remember … hypothermia will get worse until it is treated!
Early warning signs: several must be present for diagnosis
- Feeling cold and unhappy
- Complaining and grumbling
- Slowing down or lagging behind
- Difficulty crossing rough ground
- Slowing mentally and physically
- Slurring of speech
- Poor coordination (knots zips etc.)
- Spells of shivering when resting
- Cramps in legs
What to do:
- STOP & SHELTER
- Protect them from further heat loss by insulating from the ground
- Put them in a tent and then in a sleeping bag
- Replace wet with dry clothing & / or add extra layers
- Give them hot drink and food
- Check everyone in the group for similar conditions: they may not realize they are getting it
- Later, try to descend from the mountain to safety … but only when everyone is fully recovered.
If nothing is done in the early stages then the casualty will get a lot worse and develop the following “critical signs”. If a person reaches this stage your group is in a very serious emergency situation.
- Shivering stops (body unable to produce heat)
- Slow jerky puppet like movements
- Falling down
- Lapsing in and out of consciousness
- Strange behavior, hallucinations, can be aggressive: like drunk
- Slow breathing and pulse
- Shivering ceases
If one person has severe hypothermia it is extremely likely that others are also suffering as well; so check everyone and treat the whole party.
People with severe hypothermia become incapable; sometimes they remove clothing because they feel hot. They may resist treatment, sometimes violently. It is extremely serious and can lead to death rapidly.
What to do:
- Put up tents and get them into shelter
- Insulate the casualty, put on dry clothes; put in sleeping bag & survival bag
- Do not give hot drinks or food
- On no account attempt to move the casualty: cold blood at extremities will be moved to the core with a high possibility of heart attack.
- Conduct emergency procedures below: send for help but only send people who are clearly OK and NOT hypothermic!
Remember, carrying on in the hope of things improving can only make hypothermia worse. You MUST stop if you suspect someone (including you) has hypothermia.
In the late stages it is also vital that the casualty is handled very gently and moved as little as possible.
4. Heat Stroke
Heat exhaustion occurs in people who lose large amounts of sweat while exercising, usually in warm or hot weather. If adequate water has not been consumed then this may lead to heat exhaustion.
Avoiding heat stroke is the best approach: SLIP, SLOP, SLAP: slip on a T shirt, slop on sun cream and slap on a hat! Rest in the shade.
Recognition of heat stroke
- Clammy skin
- Pulse and temperature high
- Weakness, dizziness
- Get to shaded / cooler area
- Small sips of water
- Salty foods or drinks
- Stay put until recovered or pitch your tent and stay overnight. Contact staff.
Heat Stroke occurs when people over-exert themselves in hot weather. It is a life threatening condition. The body’s temperature rises above 41oC. Sweating is absent.
- Irrational behavior
- Red, hot dry skin
- Nausea and weakness
- Move to cooler area / shade
- Loosen clothing
- Cool with water or wet clothes
- Sips of water to conscious casualty
- Stay with casualty & monitor vital signs
- Get help: Call 999. this is a medical emergency and requires evacuation
On expeditions, burns and scalds are most likely to happen when cooking. Any serious burns to the face or mouth or serious burns elsewhere require immediate medical attention and hospital treatment.
Burns covering more than 10% of the body area (the casualty’s hand equates to 1%) will require hospital treatment so call 999.
Treating minor burns in a camping situation is fairly straightforward:
- Cool with running water for a minimum of 10 minutes
- Remove constricting items (watches, rings)
- Carefully remove burned clothing unless stuck
- Cover burn with sterile dressing
- Do not apply creams or ice
- Monitor for shock
- Replace fluids with drinks (water)
Cling film is an excellent sterile dressing for bad burns.
Nearly everyone gets blisters at sometime or other. They can be extremely painful, treat them early!
- Wear well fitting walking boots (avoid army boots and Doc Martens)
- Keep feet cool and dry (can be tricky!).
- Wear good quality socks.
As soon as hot sore spot occurs: STOP, remove socks, clear out any grit or gravel, air socks and feet and apply moleskin, padding, plaster or compeed.
- Sore spot: Clean & dry the wound. Apply ordinary sticking plaster (but check regularly).
- Developed blister: Clean & dry the wound. Apply padding (eg chiropody felt) around blister and fix in place with bandage, plaster or surgical tape. You can burst a big blister with a sterile needle, nothing else should be used or infection may occur.
- Lacerated (torn) blister:
- Clean the area with antiseptic spray. Wipe clean & dry.
- Apply padding (melolin) and pad around if necessary.
- Bandage with plaster or surgical tape.
Ticks are an increasing problem for people outdoors. Take precautions like wearing long trousers tucked in socks and keeping boots on at camp.
Inspect yourself regularly for ticks.
If you find one then you should remove it with a tick remover which staff will have.
Follow the instructions below.