Sunday, 13 June 2010

So you want to walk the coast... safety

Walking the coast should be safe - I have only heard of one person suffering a serious injury whilst attempting it - he was the victim of a fall down a cliff at night in Cornwall. Given that over 100,000 miles would have been walked around the coast, that is good going.

However, safety should never be taken for granted. Some parts of the coast are very remote and, although the worst can happen to everyone, being prepared can save a great deal of trouble and pain.

First, even if you have a GPS, take a map and compass and know how to use them. This is absolutely vital. Various groups do training in their usage. Nothing can test your skills better than going onto Kinder Scout and trying to navigate between two points. I once met a man in Lynton who was attempting to walk the South West Coast Path using only the A5-sized publicity guide to the path!

Secondly, take a mobile phone. True, it is extra weight and it may not be possible to get a signal, but that would be a minority of the time. If you get into trouble then it could be a lifesaver. If mobile phone charging is not going to be practical very often then leave it switched off until a prearranged hour of the day - say between eight and nine at night. Also arrange for people to send you text messages for routine calls, saving power and allowing you to pick them up at any time.

Take a whistle and know the signal to use. A torch is also vital, both for signalling in emergencies and for use if you get benighted. Good, lighweight and powerful LED headtorches are fairly cheap nowadays.

Another useful thing is to tell people where you are as often as feasible, and when you will next be in contact. Ideally do this with someone who will know what to do if you do not get into contact, and not someone who will panic.

Another useful device would be a Personal Locator Beacon. These were originally developed for sailors, and send a signal via radio to satellites. When combined with an in-built GPS, they can be an invaluable way of trelling emergency services both that you are hurt, and where you are. I looked into getting one of these before my walk, but farcially they are illegal for use on land in the UK - as they are mainly used for maritime purposes the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had to deal with distress calls. This is in contrast to Tasmania, where you can hire them from the Parks and Wildlife Service. Fortunately it looks as though sanity will prevail soon. However, there is a solution available now. The SPOT device is technically not a PLB as it uses satellites phones rather then dedicated rescue satellites. As well as being a rescue beacon, it allows people to track your progress as you walk, providing a Google Earth map of where you last signed in. If I was doing another coastal walk then I would definitely get one. Note, however, that the situation is changing all the time, and you would be best off investigating which product (if any) best suits your needs.

Get a first aid kit, and throw out any contents that you do not know how to safely use. For instance, many kits come with syringes; I always get rid of these as I have no idea how to use them, and no real idea of a sensible scenario where I might need them. My kit includes various bandages, plasters, scissors, nail clippers, antiseptic cream, medistrips and zinc oxide tape. It is far from heavy and very compact. Your contents may well vary.

If you have particular medical problems (e.g. allergies), then put details in your wallet or purse where it can easily be found. Be sure to incude any medication you may be on. For serious conditions, consider using a medical bracelet.

Also investigate carrying a survival bag or storm shelter. A basic survival bag is a rectangle of orange plastic that you can crawl in if you get into difficulty. A storm shelter is larger, and can be used for similar purposes. It is basically a small, lightweight tent. It can seem a shame to carry the weight of a bag when you may not use it, but it may just save your life. Again, know how to use them.

One serious injury that has occured to coastal walkers are fractured metatarsals (the little bones in the feet made famous by David Beckham). John Merrill suffered from a fractured metarsal on his walk, and so did another coastal walker a couple of decades later. Both of these men were camping (i.e. carrying a great deal of weight) and doing 30+ mile days. It appears that the constant flexing of these small bones causes them to snap.

Perhaps the best safety advice I can give is this: if you believe that something is marginal - weather, tide or route - then take a safer option. On several occasions I changed my route due to high tides; in others I stated away from high cliffs due to high winds. It is better to change your plans than end up injured or worse. I prefer to carry a little extra weight with me and have the peace of mind.

Remember: to walk the coast, you first have to finish.

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