What is a panic time?…and why you should always have one

If you haven’t already noticed, there seems to be an endless supply of survival narratives, wilderness rescues, and backcountry survival stories that usually garner national media attention every few months. These accounts remind us that there will always be an inherent danger with adventuring outside. What they also provide, however, is a constant reminder of how many wilderness emergency situations could have been significantly improved or altogether eliminated by following two simple rules …let people know where you are going…and what time you plan to be back.

Every time we set out on an overnight adventure, and even on most day trips (outside of visits to high traffic parks/recreation areas) we leave an itinerary and a panic time with someone (usually mom!). This ‘panic time’ is our way of saying, if you haven’t heard from us by then, it’s time to PANIC! Ok, just kidding, don’t panic, but please begin contacting the proper authorities. Whatever you decide to give to your friend or family member, whether a neatly typed itinerary, quick phone call, or notes on a pad of paper, it should contain a mixture of the following:

Where you plan to go

What land management agency oversees the area you plan to venture into? Is it national park? national forest? wilderness? This will help narrow down exactly who your friend or loved one will need to contact in the event that you don’t show up.

Are you staying overnight? What campsites do you have reserved, if required by the area, and when do you plan to be at each?

Where will you be parking? Many national parks have designated, and numbered backcountry sites. If someone is able to give a specific site number to a park official, it will immediately clue them in on the exact trip/area that you were planning to be, and most likely still near.

Most likely alternate route if weather or other circumstances change your original plans

An example of a navigational note on a nautical chart that was left with a family member before a coastal kayaking trip.
An example of a navigational note on a nautical chart that was left with a family member before a coastal kayaking trip.

Learned the hard way on our first trip to Shenandoah National Park how important it can be to have, at least a general idea, of what your weather or other contingency looks like. If storms are bad will you set out on a different route that has shelters? Again, someone being able to quickly relay this information to a rescue operation will expedite any attempt to locate you.

Phone # for the nearest emergency services provider/ranger station/coast guard/etc.

911 should always be the first option in a true emergency, however, it might speed up the relay of information if your friend or loved one is also able to directly contact the most likely group to be heading up a search and rescue. Generally, on large bodies of water this will be a regional coast guard command center, and on land it will depend on the federal agency that manages the area (see above).

Don’t Forget…

What time you plan to be out of the wild

This might be the time you plan to be back home, or just the time you plan to have cell phone service to make a ‘we’re ok’ call. In most cases, it will be almost impossible to predict exactly what time you will be out of the woods. Plan changes, weather delays, no cell service where you had hoped, or your hiking partner convincing you to hike up 2,200 more feet to one last summit bald before heading out can all change your exit time, even without being in any danger. That is why you will need to use your best judgment in selecting the ultimate panic time. We typically give ourselves a cushion of 4-8 hours from when we expect to be out (if we think we will be out at 2, and have no plans to spend the night, our panic time might be 8).

Regardless of the exact panic time you choose or the degree of detail you leave in your trip plans, the important part is that you are letting someone know of your trip intentions. It’s not always something you feel like doing in the hectic, final moments of gear & trip preparation, but it’s a habit you should develop sooner, rather than later. Unless you are hoping to be the underlying subject in hollywood’s next ‘I really should have died’ segment (I mean… have you seen that scene in 127 hours?), this habit could save your life one day.




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