Wilderness travel is relatively dangerous. Backpacking, floating a river in a canoe, or four-wheeling down isolated two-tracks - they all mean leaving the safety and predictability of civilization behind. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make it much safer, without taking away from the adventure. Here are six tips for doing just that.
1. Prepare. I've seen hikers eight miles from the nearest road, at nightfall, with no water, and facing a sub-freezing night with short sleeves. They had underestimated the time needed for the trip, and probably didn't make it back to their car before some suffering. More importantly, they hadn't prepared for the possibility of their hike taking longer than expected, or for possible changes in the weather. Try to think of all the possibilities, and have some preparation and planning for each before you leave.
2. Carry a map and compass. Know how to read your map. Any map is better than nothing. Many people lost in the wilderness have hiked farther into empty country because they had no idea which direction to travel to the nearest road. A compass is a good idea too, but be sure you know how to use it. Practice near home, and start using it before you need it, just to keep in practice (and to keep from getting lost).
3. Learn other navigation skills. Can you use a watch and the sun to determine direction? How about a stick and shadow? Because compasses break, and maps get lost, you should know at least one or two ways to determine direction. Also note the direction most likely to take you out of the wilderness before you start. If you remember that a highway runs along the entire south side of the area you are in, you know which way to go in an emergency.
4. Learn survival skills. Know a few basic survival skills and wilderness travel becomes safer as well as more interesting. Knowing that sleeping under a pile of dry grass or leaves can keep you warm could save your life someday. Learning to identify a few wild edible plants can feed you when you lose your food, and make a trip more interesting in any case.
5. Practice fire making. Make a fire and light it with one match. Do it in some woods near home when it is raining, and try it in the snow too. A fire can save your life. Rarely does anyone die from starvation in the wilderness. They commonly die from exposure. Know how to keep yourself warm and dry. Always carry matches and a lighter, and know how to start a fire.
6. Get help from others. Nobody can come to the rescue if nobody knows where you are. Leave an itinerary behind with someone. You may also want to carry a cell phone. I don't care for them myself, but they save lives all the time, so take it and just leave the ringer off until you need it. Be sure to charge the battery before you go.
Do more than read these tips. Take them and apply them. Not only people new to the wildeness, but experienced outdoorsmen too have paid the ultimate price when they forgot or refused to follow the basic rules of wilderness travel.