Father and his two young sons die hiking the Ozark Trail – Are you properly prepared?

On Sunday January 13, David Decareaux was found dead near Brushy Creek Lodge. His two sons who were with him later died in the hospital from the effects of the cold. David leaves a widow, Sarah, and three other children. Our sympathies go to the Decareaux family and all those impacted by these tragic events.

We will never know exactly what happened, what decisions David Decareaux made. All we do know is that ultimately the outcome of a weekend family hike in the Ozarks was fatal. What remains is for us to explore the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy.

We all make mistakes. And sometimes we even do downright stupid things that ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time’.

Hiking Hawksbill Crag (Whitaker Point) with its 150 ft. bluffs and drop-offs at midnight, is one of my less wise decisions that could easily have ended in disaster.

One recent comment on an article about the deaths tried to pin the blame on nature. The author of the comment said “Nature is always out to get you.”

I can’t agree with that. No, it’s not. Nature is totally indifferent to us. Nature is not malignant or evil, it just is. We can’t blame nature.

When we voluntarily venture out into the wilds it is our responsibility to be prepared for whatever may happen. The question we need to ask is this: Are we adequately prepared and equipped both mentally and physically?

How can we make sure we don’t end up in a similar situation?

Always remember the Ten Essentials for outdoors activities

This is taken straight from the beginning of our Terms and Conditions page:

  1. Navigation – a map and compass, do not rely solely on electronics
  2. Sun protection – suitable clothing sunglasses and sunscreen
  3. Insulation – season appropriate additional clothing
  4. Light – headlamp or flashlight
  5. First-aid supplies
  6. Fire – fire starter and matches or lighter
  7. Repair kit and tools – including a knife
  8. Nutrition – extra food
  9. Hydration – extra water
  10. Emergency shelter.
Caution

 

Be prepared

Hiking in the rough terrain of the Ozarks we have developed a saying to remind us to take care and plan for the unexpected. It is:

We are always one step away from disaster.

We discuss possible risks and scenarios, so that we have as least some rudimentary plans available. The scenario we most often go over is where one of us is incapacitated due to a slip or fall. We assume that there will be no cell phone service, and that any rescue attempt will likely take a day or more. So even on a short day hike we carry enough emergency gear to survive overnight, we always take our headlamps (useful for caves and looking under rock shelves too!) and an extra layer of clothing.

Thinking through various options in advance can save you valuable time should a real emergency arise. The rugged, outdoors guys will tell you that in an emergency you can build a shelter. Yes you can, but to be any real use in bad weather it’ll take a good couple of hours to do so. So you’ll need to take a decision to stop and build one well in advance. Not after it’s grown dark.

Do you know the techniques for starting a fire in wet and cold conditions?

Do you really know how quickly you cover ground when you hike? We do. 1.1 – 1.5 miles per hour averaged over a a trip is our typical speed. We use one mile-an-hour when planning trips. If we’re faster we’ll have more time to enjoy the views and take pictures.

Check the weather

Oregon Scientific Weather Alert Radio

Oregon Scientific Weather Alert Radio

Always check the weather before you leave, just in case.

If we are going to be out for several days, or if the weather is unstable, we take our Weather Alert radio.

When you are on a four day hike, a weather forecast can’t protect you from the sudden onset of bad weather, but it can shape your plans. It can dictate which side of a ridge you pitch your tent, how near to a creek you camp, and even which way to hike around a loop – if it’s cold you’ll want the wind at your back for as long as possible. Of course sometimes you’re just helpless, like the time we spent holed up in Hercules Glades listening to the progress of a tornado. It was too late then to discover that our knowledge of the surrounding area wasn’t good enough for us to be able to tell if the tornado was coming straight at us or passing harmlessly to the north (it was the latter).

Carry an Emergency kit

Photograph of the contents of a hiking emergency kit

Hiking Emergency Kit

Our day hiking emergency kit is kept in a small 7″x5½” pouch. It contains two space blankets, two very cheap plastic rain ponchos, a whistle and two small Altoids tins. One tin holds our first aid supplies, the other emergency supplies.

We also carry our headlamps and a compass.

Read more about our Backpacking and Hiking Emergency kits.

Plan

Have a plan, review it and have a back-up plan. It doesn’t have to be detailed but do think about it. When it’s possible, I email our plans to a friend before we leave, and I also mention any back up plans too. Your plans should include decisions about when to turn back/abandon your hike. If you leave the decision until you are on the trail, the bravado of the moment can encourage you to over extend yourself.

Map and Compass

Always take a map and compass, unless you know your destination very well. Just having a map and compass doesn’t help without the knowledge of how to use them.

Don’t rely on there being a map at the trailhead. We find that trailheads are poorly maintained and the map dispenser is usually empty. Look online for maps before you go and print one out to take with you. (We have created downloadable terrain and trail maps for many of the hikes we’ve been on, including several of Missouri’s Wilderness Areas.)

Don’t forget that you cannot rely on the trails being where they are marked on the map. Trails move over time, so you have to learn to read the terrain, which doesn’t change. We have a GPS, but we do not rely on it for directions. We limit its use to route logging, statistics (how far have we gone?), and occasionally confirming our map reading. Electronics and Batteries fail. We carry spares of the latter, but you shouldn’t rely on something that can easily stop working for something essential like navigating. Particularly you shouldn’t rely on a cell phone for maps and GPS functionality.

Clothing

In cold weather layer up and carry extra layers. Only wear clothing made from artificial fibers or wool, both of which remain effective when wet. Cotton kills. Wet cotton will leach away your body heat. In warm weather we still carry fleeces – it’s surprising how cool it can get in the evening or under the shade of the trees.

Final Thoughts

We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to David Decareaux, but some things can be pieced together from statements in an article published by the St Louis Post-Dispatch. You can read the full article here and draw your own conclusions.

As I wrote this post I was reminded of our recent post of the 1946 Forest Service Flyer – What to do when lost in the woods. I wonder if there was anything in there that might have averted the disaster that befell David and his two boys.

What do you think?