How to survive a forest fire while hiking or camping

Extensive studies and research have proven that wildfires are occurring five times more often in the recent decades; such forest fires also burn six times the land area when compared to past occurrences and also tend to last much longer. According to scientific research, climate change and global warming are the two main culprits to be blamed for the sudden increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires. Any responsible hiker must prioritize fire safety during hiking, no matter the season.

How to survive a forest fire while hiking

What Causes a Forest Wildfire?

Forest fires can erupt due to natural causes like friction due to the rubbing of trees or lightning that further causes combustion of debris. It can also happen due to human actions like smoking and cooking the forest. A larger percentage of forest fires happen due to human neglect

Forest fires are based upon something known as the fire triangle. A forest fire needs heat, oxygen, and fuel to spread. Destroying the supply of any one of these elements will help extinguish the forest fire.

Forest fires can be classified into three main categories based the part of the forest in which they occur.

  • Ground fires occur at the ground level, beneath the branches
  • Surface fires can be about 1.3 meters high
  • Crown fires generally spread through treetops. These are very dangerous. They might be fuelled by surface fire.

Controlling the Wildfire

  • Ground fires are usually controlled by digging trenches
  • Surface fires can be effectively managed via firebreaks
  • A crown fire is probably the hardest to extinguish. You might need fire retardant chemicals as well as the help of professional firefighters.

For convenience, fire safety while hiking can be divided into four main phases.

1.  Before You Hit the Trail

Tips to prepare for hiking
  • Always asses the wildfire threat level of a hiking destination as well as the fire restrictions in place at the site.
  • Campfires carry a high-risk factor and hence might be banned at several campsites. Always consult the official before setting up campfires in a vegetated area.
  • Stoves that use natural fuels like wood and twigs carry greater risk if causing fire eruptions in forests. Therefore it is better to opt for liquid, canister stoves.
  • If you are visiting a high-risk zone, make sure you prepare and keep a wildfire kit handy
  • Make sure you keep nonperishable food, bottled water, face masks and fire extinguishers in your emergency wildfire survival kit
  • Choose a backpack that is made from a nonsynthetic, fire resistant material while visiting high-risk zones.
  • Avoid taking pets or children to high-risk zones
  • Avoid smoking in campsites
  • Carry a detailed map of the campsite with accurate information of water sources; canyons cleared land, etc.
  • Make sure you carry the top 10 hiking essential with you, in case of emergency. These include navigation (map and compass),sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen), insulation (extra clothing), illumination (headlamp/flashlight), first aid supplies, waterproof matches or lighter, repair kit and tools, extra food, extra water, whistle, and mirror, camera
  • Make sure you camp next to a clearing or water source while camping in high-risk zones
  • Keep the camping group small in high-risk zones
  • Wear nonsynthetic clothes that will keep you safe in case a wildfire breaks out
  • When buying lanterns for your hiking trip, select electric lanterns over gas powered ones.

2. There’s a Wildfire, What Now?

Despite all precautions, you find yourself in the midst of a slowly yet surely growing wildfire. Here is a list of things you can do to save yourself, should something like this happen.

Tips to prepare for hiking
  • Do not take any chances. The fire outbreak might look small and manageable at first, but high winds can cause the embers to spread rapidly. So rather than trying to control the fire, call the emergency helpline numbers and evacuate the campsite as soon as possible.
  • Always be on the lookout for any visual signs of smoke, red glow or smell of smoke. (Use your binocular)
  • Inform your team with two way radios.
  • Always travel upwind, i.e., against the direction the wind and downhill in case of a wildfire outbreak.
  • Never move through canyons, passes or congested routes. These tend to direct heat towards you.
  • Never try to outrun a wildfire; it might just be the last race of your life
  • Avoid staying in areas with dry vegetation.
  • Try to find natural or man-made fire breakers like cleared land, road , stream or fire lines made by authorities

 3. Worst Case Scenario: What if get caught in a wildfire?

Should all the stars be aligned against you on that fateful day, you watch your nightmares turn real and find yourself surrounded by a wildfire; here are a few things that might save your life.

Tips to prepare for hiking
  • Try not to breath in the smoke. It will lead to suffocation
  • If possible, cover your mouth with a wet cloth
  • Make sure your clothes are at all times dry
  • If you have found a safe zone, stay there till the wildfire is over. Do not panic and try to exit the forest until the fire is extinguished
  • Make sure you protect your body with nonsynthetic clothing that does not catch fire easily. Stay away from synthetic materials
  • Lie face down with your feet towards the fire
  • Immediately call for help
  • Try to stay calm, panicking will not help you
  • The main cause of deaths during a wildfire is the inhalation of smoke and gases. Cover your body and make sure you do not inhale the hot gases
  • Dig a hole and plant your face inside it to avoid inhaling the gases.
  • Stay clear of overhead branches
  • Move towards an area that has already been burnt and abandoned by the fire
  • .

4. After you survive the Wildfire

Let’s say you have done the impossible and survived the wildfire, now what?

Tips to prepare for hiking
  • While planning an escape route, make sure only to include places that have already been burnt down.
  • Once the fire has moved past where you are standing, carefully assess the situation and find an escape route. If the place you are at is free of vegetation, then stay there until help comes.
  • Seek professional help immediately after reaching the nearby town
  • You might have unnoticed burns, or you could have inhaled the smoke, both of which needs to be adequately assessed by a doctor
  • Victims of traumatic experiences such as getting caught in a wildfire tent to suffer from anxiety disorders like PTSD
  • If you or anyone you know who has recently survived a wildfire is experiencing symptoms such as insomnia, depression, and anxiety, make sure to consult a psychiatrist.

Being a Responsible Hiker

If you are an ardent backpacker or hiker, you might be a seeker of adventure. Hiking is a sure shot way to better your health. But we must always keep in mind that it is also important to be responsible and restraint from acts that might put your life and others at risk.

A large percent of wildfires erupt entirely due to human neglect. Actions, like cooking carelessly or smoking at campsites, have all been identified as causes of wildfires in the past. All it takes is a spark to build a wildfire. We must also keep in mind the great losses of wildlife and vegetation we endure as a result of forest fires.