water four-wheeling altitude sickness mountain water
hypothermia getting lost thunderstorms mine shafts
mountain passes fire safety tips seek more advice sources


Take the time to read this webpage. Your safety is at stake.

Some good tips include taking a first-aid course to brush up on handling medical problems in the backcountry. We'll generally be within a couple hours of civilization at most times, but that is a long time if you don't know first-aid and need it. Guard against fatigue, recognize hypothermia or altitude sickness coming on and deal with it immediately. Let someone know. Stop driving and have someone else take over. I've had to do this myself once and I'm glad I did because I would've been taking an unnecessary risk to keep driving.

Use your head. Use common sense. Tools, first aid kits and proper clothing will all help in making your four-wheeling and camping adventures safer and more enjoyable. Be sure to carry a fully equipped first-aid kit with you in your vehicle. The good kits tend to be fairly expensive, around $50, but ask yourself how much you'd pay for that same kit if you're in the middle of nowhere needing medical equipment you don't have. I purchased a rather extensive kit from REI. Bring along spare food, such as Clif Bars (these are like PowerBars only they have pleasing texture and taste good).

The U.S. Army Survival Manual says that in emergency situations a very strong will to survive is the key factor in survival. You must be flexible to deal with any and all situations, not letting repeated downfalls sap your desire to fight on and keep trying to survive. But you must also be very stubborn in your desire to survive. Now, we aren't likely to run into any kind severe situation like this, but why not learn a little bit and be prepared? Maybe one day this information will come in handy. If you want a great example, in my opinion, of poor survival skills, go watch the film The Edge with Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. The Army also tells us to focus on food, water, fire, shelter, signals, and first-aid in order of their importance in your current situation.

But enough about survival itself. Let's talk some more about simple safety tips and prevention.


The most important thing you can bring is plenty of water! The body can survive for a long time without food, but only three days without water. Now, we aren't going to get stuck in the hills for a long time on our group trips, but it is good to get in the habit. Further, you need to drink plenty of water, more than you realize, in this dry Colorado air, especially at high altitudes. Water may help prevent altitude sickness, as well. So bring one gallon per person per day, more if camping. Don't forget your magnetic compass (the electronic ones are cool but what if that AA battery dies?). You should bring maps as well. There are plenty available for the area. Add to the list matches, pocketknife, and a small candle.


Stay on the trail. It is imperative that we preserve the natural beauty of the environment. Driving off-trail can be deadly to four-wheelers, as a group of Texans nearly proved in Ouray in 2000, as well as to the delicate flora and fauna you have the privilege to enjoy from the seat of your vehicle.

Altitude Sickness

It takes between two days and a week to fully acclimate to Colorado's high altitudes from sea level. Altitude sickness or mountain sickness results from a lack of oxygen resulting in a general "sick all over" feeling. If you or someone in your party is experiencing nausea, dizziness, headache or loss of appetite, immediately have them stop and rest, reduce their exertion level (stop driving), drink plenty of water and ensure they are getting enough sodium as well, and have the victim eat high energy foods. If symptoms become severe or if these actions do not reduce symptoms in a reasonable time, seek lower altitudes!

Don't feel bad if you get altitude sickness. It is odd in that it does not discriminate based on physical fitness or previous history of altitude tolerance. Oddly enough a fit person I know who has hiked many miles in the mountains got it one time out of the blue. It probably has more to do with exertion level, hydration level, food intake, and so on. Just take care of it and try to prevent it ahead of time and be careful if you are coming from lower altitudes. Consult your doctor prior to going to high altitudes if you have health problems.

When traveling from sea level to...

5000 feet - 20% of people get AMS
8000 feet - 40% of people get AMS
10000 feet - 50% of people get AMS
12000 feet - 60% of people get AMS

The following links aren't meant to frighten, but prepare. Simply be aware of the symptoms and the cure (typically descending to a lower altitude, among other things). If serious enough, medical attention is required but the problem is treatable, provided one seeks treatment. It is simply a matter of being aware and informed and dealing with any problems that arise.

WebMD - Altitude Sickness

Traveler Information on

Mountain Water

Boil mountain water before drinking it or at the least, use a filter or in an emergency, tablets. Filtration will usually only protect against Giardia which causes an infection that can be quite awful known as "backpacker's diarrhea". Symptoms appear within several days to several weeks of ingesting infected water and results in severe diarrhea, weight loss, "rotten egg" belches, fatigue, and cramps. Ugly stuff! If you contract this you must contact your doctor immediately. I'm not trying to scare you, just to prepare you. The good news is if you bring in your water in your FSJ you have nothing to fear. If you're ever backpacking, just buy a filter which is really the best option. Boiling works but is not 100% effective thanks to the increasing altitude and decreased boiling point, and iodine and other chemical treatments must be used for much longer or in much greater quantity than is probably safe. Make sure the filter has a 5 micron or smaller pore size and that it specifically states that it is effective against Giardia. Disposing of human waste more than 200 feet from water six inches deep will help prevent the spread of this disease, believe it or not.


Be aware of the danger of low body temperature otherwise known as hypothermia. It leads to mental and physical collapse. Even if by some odd course of events you find yourself out wheeling in the middle of the night or during cold weather or in the winter, just because you're in a vehicle doesn't guarantee you'll stay warm. You will probably have to be out of the vehicle more than you realize. What if the vehicle stalls or gets stuck? Hypothermia is the number one killer of outdoor recreationists so pay attention. It is caused by exposure to cold, and is significantly aggrivated by wetness, wind, and exhaustion.

The first step is exposure and exhaustion. As soon as your body is losing heat faster than it can produce it you are undergoing exposure. The result is your body burns up energy trying to create more heat either through involuntary responses to preserve internal organ temperature, or by your voluntary exercise. If you reduce the degree of exposure, you reduce the energy drain.

The next step is hypothermia when exposure continues until your energy reserves are exhausted, cold reaches the brain depriving you of judgement and reasoning power. You will not be aware this is happening. You will lose control of your hands. This is hypothermia. Without treatment this leads to stupor, collapse, and death. Now, again, I'm not trying to terrify you. The odds are in your favor that you'll stay warm and dry. You're in a vehicle or a tent. You're going to dress warm, drink and eat enough, and take care of yourself. But this is good stuff to know. It is always better to be prepared for the worst, than to pretend the worst will never come. There is less to fear from a dangerous situation you have prepared for than one you haven't!

The number one tip is to stay dry! This is incredibly important. Clothing loses 90% of its insulating value when wet. It is better to be naked and dry than heavily clothed and wet. No. I am not kidding. Also understand cold. You might be surprised to learn that most hypothermia cases take place between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit! There was a sad story of an Air Force soldier who within a few minutes died of exposure outside his barracks because he went out in just a t-shirt, pants, shoes. Watch yourself and your party for signs of uncontrolled shivering; vague, slow, slurred speech; memory lapses; incoherence; immobile, fumbling hands; frequent stumbling, lurching gait; drowsiness (to sleep in these circumstances is to die); apparent exhaustion; and inability to get up after a rest.

Forget whether the person denies that there is a problem. Even mild symptoms demand treatment. First get the victim out of the wind and rain. Strip off all their wet clothes. If mildly impaired, give them warm drinks, warm clothes, and a warm sleeping bag and give them well-wrapped warm (not hot) rocks or canteens to wrap themselves around. If the impairment is severe do your best to keep them awake, put the victim in a sleeping bag with another person, both stripped and if you have a double bag put the victim between two people. I once saw this done on film pertaining to an outing gone awry on Everest. When your friend is about to die, any discomfort with this treatment surely fades away. Lastly, build a fire to warm the camp.

Getting Lost

Don't. Seriously though, if you do for some reason get lost hiking, first don't panic. It really will be ok. You have a map and compass so sit down, calm down, and try to figure out where you are after a few deep breaths. If that fails, it is nowhere near uncommon to spend an unplanned night in the wilderness if you must. Just remember your survival tips of food, water, fire, shelter, signals, first-aid. Stay put. Before you leave for a hiking trip, make sure you have left information as to your wereabouts and planned time of return with someone back home and they'll be searching for you in no time. I was once hiking back with a friend from a sunset photo shoot in the mountains and for some stupid reason it never occurred to me that hiking back in the dark would be difficult. Well, we had flashlights but we got lost. I insisted on getting back home, though if that had proven impractical I would have stayed overnight for sure. At any rate, after stubbornly searching for the path back we found it and got home, albeit late.


Colorado is known for thunderstorms that usually appear in the afternoon and are especially a problem in the high country. However, I have yet to see a thunderstorm in Ouray so we may get lucky and have perfect weather. But, why not be prepared? Your best bet is to stay below timberline, though in our case, our best bet will be to head back to the city out of the high elevation. A hardtop vehicle such as our FSJs offers far more protection from the elements than being outside, but don't touch anything metal in the vehicle. If you are outside and you feel your hair stand on end, immediately crouch and grab your ankles. Sounds strange, but this may prevent lightning from passing through you in a fatal manner. Better yet, don't stand outside, and certainly don't stand near trees or tall structures!

Mine Shafts and Tunnels

The San Juan Mountains are peppered with hundreds of old mine shafts. Do not under any circumstances explore them. Mine shafts require constant maintenance by qualified engineers to keep them safe to work in. Most of these mine shafts have not enjoyed this care since the 1920's, many longer ago than that. Thus, the shafts are waiting to collapse. Enjoy the heck out of them from the outside where it is safe, but don't go in.

Paved Mountain Passes

The key to surviving all the steep mountain passes in Colorado is to use your gears instead of your brakes. If you ride your brakes down a mountain pass, they get hot, and eventually your brake fluid boils making it totally useless and you go plummeting off the side of a cliff and we read about you in the newspaper. Just don't do that. Instead, shift into lower gears, and occasionally use the brakes to keep your speed in check if necessary. Be very careful with blind curves, pass only where it's allowed, and stay to the right unless you're passing someone. Also worth mentioning, unless you have fuel injection you will probably be very surprised at the tremendous loss of power your rig experiences due to the thin atmosphere and steep grades so keep that in mind when climbing. Lastly, be careful on those corners. FSJs are not sports cars.

Fire Safety Tips

Colorado is currently experiencing the driest conditions it has seen in a century. It is imperative that everyone learn some fire safety tips, learn about existing fire bans, and be extremely careful in Ouray this year. Some highlights of the fire bans in effect:

Please learn about fire safety and prevention and be VERY careful about campfires, smoking, etc. Visit all of the following URLs please. Remember, "Only you can prevent wildfires" - You can find information about the San Juan National Forest and retrieve fire information here: You can get tips on fire safety here.

Seek More Advice

This is by no means to be considered a complete compendium of safety advice. Check the sources below and any other books or websites that discuss related activities to learn more ways to stay safe and be prepared.


Hiking Colorado, Caryn & Peter Boddie
100 Hikes in Colorado, Scott S. Warren
U.S. Army Survival Manual, Department of the Army
Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails, Charles A. Wells

Last updated October 21, 2006
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