What to do in an emergency whilst out walking

Top Tips - 28/02/2024

Posted by William, 5th March 2024


This is the last of three articles about staying safe in the mountains or remote locations. This article focuses on the best ways to react in case of an emergency. The others cover preparing for your trip and what to carry in your rucksack.

Walking and trekking are enjoyable pastimes with proven benefits for your health. There is, however, a small risk of accident and injury associated with walking even on relatively easy ground. An inadvertent trip can lead to a stumble, which could entrain a broken bone or head injury. Walkers need to be aware of these risks and accept them, and be responsible for their own actions. It is for this reason that everyone should know the basics of what to do in the event of an accident. This advice applies to independent walkers, as well as clients on our self-guided walking holidays. Please also consult our blog article about preparing for your trek or day's walking, which includes advice about researching the walking trail, checking the weather, leaving details of your proposed walk and having the right equipment and clothing.

If one of your party has an accident, follow these basic rules. 


Assess the injury and prevent a further accident 

Do not risk your life to access the person if they have fallen to a dangerous spot. If you cannot get to them, descend directly to get help. If access is possible, make sure that you and the injured person are not at risk of a further fall or if possible are not in the line of falling stones. Assess the person's injury. Judge whether they can move by themselves, whether there appears to be anything broken etc. 

Undertaking a first aid course is the best way of being able to treat injuries with a degree of certainty. In any case, there are a few basic principles that will help. If there is excessive bleeding apply pressure with clothing to the cut. Do not remove any objects embedded in an injury. If the injury is serious, for example badly cut head or arm, make sure the person is lying or sitting down. Movement will only aggravate the bleeding. If there are serious head injuries keep the head immobilised as movement could lead to complications. The injured person is likely to suffer shock which can lead to them becoming cold. Make sure they are adequately covered and have water to drink. An emergency can also arise through severe illness, for example altitude sickness. 


Assess your location on a walking map 

If the person cannot be moved you will need to tell the emergency services where they can find the injured person. Use your detailed walking map to assess your exact location and grid reference number. Make a note of any features such as hills, trees, fences, cliffs etc that will help locate the injured person or may present a danger to the emergency services. See our blog article about how to read contours.


Getting help 

How easy it is to get help will depend on where you are. Many mobile phone networks cover upland areas including even some remote mountainous zones such as the Alps. Remember to turn off your phone whilst walking so that you do not run out of batteries when you need it (as it will search for a network and run down the battery). If you are in the UK dial 999. Report the nature of the accident, the nature of the injuries, whether the person is alone and the grid reference where they are situated. If you are in Europe dial 112, which will put you through to the local emergency services of that country. 

In many rural and mountainous locations including the Alps, it is not always possible to get a signal. In this situation, leave someone to care for the injured person if possible. Make sure you leave some additional clothing, food and water with them where it can be spared. Bright clothing is good for attracting attention (see below.) However, make sure the person going for help, also has adequate resources to arrive at their destination. Make sure you choose a safe walking route down to reduce the risks of a further accident. 


Attracting help 

If you are trying to attract the attention of the emergency services, then you should know the signals which indicates that you need help. The international mountain distress signals are six blasts on a whistle and flashes with a torch after dark spaced evenly for one minute followed by a minute's pause. Repeat as necessary. The response is three signals per minute followed by a minutes's pause. If you are signalling to an incoming helicopter - then raising both hands above the head in a V indicates that help's required. One arm raised upwards and the other down by the body indicates that help is not required.