with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Personal Safety in the Outdoors

“Enjoying nature, physical exercise, or getting away from urban stress – whatever your interest and ability, the mountains offer something for everyone. As with anything you do, there is a certain amount of risk involved…”
Hiking Safety and the 10 Essentials, The Mountaineers

Brent hikes a lot carrying very heavy camera gear. It is important to stay in shape to keep from hurting yourself as you explore nature.Nature photographers are not immune to the risks found in nature. If anything, at times they are more at risk. Just as you plan your travels, you need to plan for and understand the risks involved. When you reduce the risks, you will enjoy your outdoor experience more and still get great pictures.

Risks Levels

There are a variety of risks inherent in the outdoor experience. Some are obvious and some not. You choose what degree of risk you take in your outdoor experience. Obvious risks include slipping and falling, getting wet and cold, lightning strikes, and being caught out after dark. Less obvious risks to a photographer are limited vision when looking through the camera, the weight of the equipment, encountering wild animals or tough terrain, and more.

What can you do to reduce the possibility of injury or even death? The Mountaineers stress common sense. This means having knowledge of the dangers and a base of experience to use as a starting point. Learning about the dangers and risks permits you the opportunity to explore various options for avoidance, as well as prepares you for what to do when something does happen.

Your Risk Plan

Plan your personal safety like you would your trip.Every situation you get into is different, but they have much in common. The following tips work in a wide variety of situations, from photographing from the road to climbing a mountain peak. It’s safer and smarter to be prepared for any situation and to plan in advance how you might handle something, rather than to wait until the emergency is upon you.

Don’t Photograph Alone
Birders and photographers line up at Ding Darling NWR in Florida, photo by Brent VanFossenMany photographers prefer to be alone. That’s up to you, but you are safer when you go with a group or a buddy. Look out for each other. When behind the viewfinder, peripheral vision is limited and a second set of eyes can save your life.
Pay Attention
When you are caught up in catching that moment through the camera, personal safety is often neglected. Look before you move. How close are you to the cliff’s edge? When you are concentrating on a wildflower, tunnel vision through the camera prevents noticing the bear behind you. Look and listen every few minutes! There is much in nature to absorb our attention and distract us. These distractions can also create a tunnel vision effect. Be aware of what is around you and behind you. Where are the other people? Are they near enough to provide help, or near enough to be a risk? How close are you to the edge of the cliff? In your excitement to get the photograph, did you leave your camera bag about a hundred yards back down the trail, risking theft? The long hike is not the place to break in a new pair of boots. A bad blister can absorb a hiker’s complete attention and they may either stumble and fall or miss the threatening situation ahead or behind them. Be aware and pay attention to potential dangers.Watch your step! Photo of woman photographing at edge of cliff. Photo by Lorelle VanFossen
Learn Your Equipment and Maintain It
Understand how your photography and camping equipment works and be familiar with its limitations and restrictions. Nothing is more frustrating than fighting with a camera in an inconvenient place like a mountain side. Battling with unfamiliar equipment can distract you, especially if you are walking, from the hazards around you. Learn how it works and keep it clean and maintained.
Phones Everywhere
With today’s technology, cell phones offer a form of self protection and a feeling of security. Like any weapon, it only works if you can get to it. Keep it accessible in your pack or pocket, ready to use. And for the nature lovers’ sake, don’t let it ring. Please set the “ringer” to vibrate or make a very small ring or noise that is low and inoffensive, as the ringing can startle wildlife, ruining a wonderful photograph opportunity.
Thwart the Thief
Don’t help a thief to steal from you. Stow your gear in the trunk or in a hidden place in the vehicle before arrival. Don’t show off your gear. If someone asks you about your equipment, be vague about its value. Don’t invite thievery. Serious photographers know how much cameras and lenses are worth.
Be in Good Physical Condition
“Misery is struggling, panting and groaning every step up a hillside,” advises the Mountaineers. That misery doesn’t include carrying heavy photography equipment. A photographer can be toppled off balance when tired and exhausted. Being in good shape increases your margin of safety should something happen, and can prevent injury.
Leave Your Itinerary With a Responsible Person
Let people know where you are going, the path you are planning to take, and when to expect you back. If something happens, the rescue team has a starting point. Carry the Ten Essentials to make sure you have the tools for survival; being prepared is half the battle.
Guns and weapons are illegal in national parks and must be licensed even where they are allowed. Carrying a weapon with you means either carrying it exposed, which may threaten others, or keeping it buried in your backpack and not within easy reach. If you choose a weapon, learn how to use it and take classes and training. Practice with it. Remember, the only weapon you carry with you all the time is your body. Take a self defense class to keep that weapon in shape.

Be Sensitive

There are a lot of things to be sensitive about in nature: scents, behaviors, others needs and actions and your own. Be aware of your impact on other’s and on wild animals, and you can better prevent yourself from attracting danger.

Some scents are more attractive to animals than others. Some may be considered threatening, while others may be pleasing. Personal hygiene products are taken for granted but they can attract or threaten some wildlife. Avoid using perfumes and scented personal products. During mating season or rut (while there is some debate about this issue), the long-standing belief is that a woman is at risk during menstruation, as the animals may find her “appealing”.
Learn behavioral responses of wildlife. Standing up and walking directly towards a large mammal, such as a moose or elk, is considered threatening behavior and may invite an attack. Recognizing similar behaviors in other people will help you to determine whether or not they may become a threat. Trust your instincts when you feel someone may become a threat and get away from them or get help.
Others’ needs
Photo of Brent acknowledging others while photographing. Pay attention to our work disrupting others. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenPeople come to nature places to get away from the noise of the city, as well as to relax and enjoy themselves. Sometimes their recreation may not be compatible with yours. Be sensitive to their needs, but be clear about your own needs as well. In other words, wait and watch a bit before charging over to complain to another camper about the loud stereo. Patience may also protect you.
Your needs and actions
Part of being sensitive is to recognize your impact on the lives and recreational activities of others. Maybe you are the one with the noisy radio? Maybe your group is too loud? Avoid annoying your fellow campers.

Common Sense

Watch big hats and cutting off your peripherial view for safety. Photo of Ramona by Lorelle VanFossen, Akko, IsraelBy combining common sense and advance planning, you can eliminate the stress related to personal safety. Use your common sense. Don’t bring valuables or leave them in your car. Avoid telling people you are alone or have expensive camping or camera equipment. Tell friends and rangers where you are going and when you expect to be back. Bring a map and compass. Trust your instincts. People take safety precautions and practice responses to earthquakes, fires and floods; why not also for personal safety? Make a plan, practice it, share it with others, and feel the stress level drop and the enjoyment of nature rise.


One Comment

  • Jessi-Lou
    Posted November 8, 2006 at 2:20 | Permalink

    Hello! Just one more thing, make sure if you’re using digital cameras, have a multitude of spare, rechargeable batteries on hand, and millions of spare memory chips, because its amazing how fast you can go through memory!

    I’m in Australia and went on a barely five hour walk through our King’s Park Memorial and Botanical Gardens in Perth, Western Australia, and managed to go through almost three gigabytes of memory!

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