Van Beek: Practicing situational awareness in the mountains (column) |

Van Beek: Practicing situational awareness in the mountains (column)

James van Beek
Valley Voices

Situational awareness is a skill heavily utilized in the military and for wilderness survival where being alert to environmental conditions may save one’s life. Living in a rural, mountainous area, populated by wildlife, requires unique skills to fully enjoy our surroundings. As a distant “suburb” of Denver, urban skills are also necessary, particularly as we are situated on a major interstate, with traffic originating all the way from Maryland to Utah … bringing wildlife of a different sort into the area.

Surrounded by the White River National Forest, we can imagine life as wilderness survivalists … of course, that is, if “the wilderness” includes mountain bikes, high-tech camping gear, off-road vehicles, designer outerwear, and the latest GoPro, GPS, and other toys.  We “survive” in style. 

Still, we must be cautious because, despite our mountain savvy, the area’s original inhabitants are out of hibernation and on the hunt for food. With much of their sustenance still under snow, they will be wandering closer to our food source … no, not City Market. Our homes are diner-central to wildlife and we must take added precautions.

Even animals who normally avoid people will knock you over in route to their food; it’s primal. They aren’t attacking, they are simply moving about their turf, and make no mistake, it is their turf. They are uninterested in your expensive remodeling — to them, it’s no different than a pile of wood in the forest. 

They are like James Bond, on a mission, and you are safe as long as you stay out of their way. Even our black bears, who normally run from humans, will take you out if you unknowingly wander too close to their cubs, who are naturally hidden underbrush. Mountain lions are another story; they view you as a walking buffet, however, they will first attempt easier prey.  And, just like mama said, don’t be viewed as easy. 

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Of course, we reside in a ski resort community, not the jungles of South America, but predators exist everywhere, and living here, we must learn how to coexist with Eagle County’s original residents, wild animals. Remember, animals do not read maps, there are no geographic boundaries; they think anything they can reach is theirs … sort of like your average 2-year-old.

Spring is also our time to venture out of hibernation. Off with the helmets, skis, and layers of tech wear, and onto the slopes with our favorite exploration uniform of shorts, tees, boots, sunglasses … the usual survivalist attire. As we explore into our natural surroundings and venture into the city, let’s remind ourselves how to be safe. 

  • Before departing, check all equipment including batteries.
  • If biking, bring along tools and a spare tire.
  • Bring a two-way radio; cell phone coverage may be minimal.
  • Bring a map since GPS may be compromised.
  • Convince a friend to come along for help, if needed, or at least to carry the beer.
  • Before entering a wilderness area, leave a note at home and in your car with expected time of return.
  • Even on short hikes, pack snack bars and water in case you are unexpectedly stuck.
  • Food should be in airtight containers. Bears don’t understand that you’re not delivering take-out.
  • Always carry a first-aid kit, army knife, extra socks, light jacket with a hood, and bear spray (kept within reach, not in a backpack).
  • To avoid smelling like a food source, don’t use scented grooming products.

Situational awareness 

  • As you enter an area, observe conditions. Does anything seem out of the ordinary?
  • Don’t decide on an afternoon climb to see the sunset — you may get stuck in the dark.
  • Are the trails cleared? A bunch of twigs could be covering a deeper hole that could wreak havoc with an ankle or cause a fall with greater consequence. 
  • While most animals move quietly for survival, listen for twigs or leaves crunching. Many animals, especially bears, smell quite potent; if you notice an unusual odor, do not proceed.
  • Make noise while hiking. It will encourage animals to retreat, and quite likely, your companions too.
  • If you encounter wildlife, make yourself look larger, don’t run and never turn your back on the animal. Walk away slowly to allow the animal to regain its turf — they tend to be territorial.
  • A moose will charge at you if you venture too close. Stepping behind a tree will inhibit an attack.
  • Mountain lions are the most dangerous. They are carnivores and will attack. Your only tactic is to fight back, in hopes that they retreat, viewing you as not worth the trouble. 

Urban awareness 

  • Don’t assume crime only happens at night.
  • Trust your instincts. If you sense something is wrong, take evasive action.  Your instincts come from subconscious awareness, while your conscious is wondering what you’ll watch on Netflix.
  • That bear spray you have, bring a small one and keep it within immediate reach.
  • Reduce temptation by keeping jewelry and valuables out of sight.
  • Leave your location with a fully-charged phone.
  • When possible, travel with others.
  • Parking lots require precautions. Park near overhead lights even during daylight, in case of a late return. Look under your car as you approach.  Immediately lock the door upon entering. If parked next to a van, enter from the other side or have someone accompany you to your auto. Sitting in the car alone may invite danger — don’t hang around. When getting gasoline, lock the doors. It’s easier than you think for intruders to sneak in. 
  • Wear handbags inside a jacket or across the front of the body. Backpacks should have locks.
  • Observe those approaching or behind you, don’t be looking at your phone.  If uneasy, cross the street or enter a public building.
  • Walk against traffic and away from parked cars or too close to doorways or alleys.
  • When walking down a street, occasionally check window reflections

The Sheriff’s Office and police departments are here for you, but the best plan is prevention. Stay safe. 

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at

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