Safety In The Mountains (review)

Safety in the Mountains, 11th edition cover

I’ve never read a copy of Safety in the Mountains until now. It’s a booklet, first published in 1937 by Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), to collect important points of safety for exploring the back-country, and designed as a carry-with-you reference guide. Over 75 years, 130,000 copies have now been printed. The 11th and latest edition of 2012 was launched earlier this month.

Not having read previous editions makes me inadequate to comment on changes or make other comparisons with what came before, so here I express my impressions of the 11th edition from an isolated viewpoint. I’ll also state a disclaimer for a potential conflict of interest, because I’m indirectly a member of Federated Mountain Clubs (via the Wellington Tramping & Mountaineering Club), and tend to be aligned with much of its advocacy.

About the book

The text says it best: “This booklet is intended as a collection of reminders for use in the field rather than to replace any instruction manual, or textbook. They are for the guidance of readers and are binding on fools.”

The 11th edition is the first revision of the text since 2003. It’s edited by Robin McNeill, who may be recognised as the present editor of Moir’s Guide South, or alternatively as the personality behind the FMC Bulletin’s Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column—a regular column that compiles often-ingenious ideas and tips for outdoor excursions in the hills. Contributions and comments have also been made by a variety of others listed in the acknowledgements at the start.

Unlike previous editions, if I understand correctly from the editor, this edition “unashamedly presents a mildly technical introduction to snow and alpine techniques on the basis that, sooner or later, most of us will want to venture into that wonderful environment”. The introduction does go on to clarify that this material alone is not suitable for serious mountain climbing.

A surprising aspect of the booklet, for me, is the price. Despite a look and feel consistent with much more, it costs only $5 plus p&p. If the book had cost thrice the amount, I doubt I’d say much differently in what’s generally a very positive review. For the price, you’ll have an A5 sized booklet with more than 60 content pages of clear, full colour illustrations. There’s a smooth matt-surfaced cover, it feels stable enough to hold without risk of pages falling out, and the corners are rounded—a nice touch that may help to avoid corners being damaged quite so easily. The production quality is impressive.

According to Richard Davies, president of FMC at the time of production, the low price is a consequence of donated editorial time, combined with a large volume print run. The low price is also consistent with the goals of the FMC, which will be to get the book into the hands of as many recreational outdoor users as possible and promote safety in the back-country.

Importantly, while much that’s presented could be applied elsewhere, the book is very specifically targeted at New Zealand audiences. It’s most clearly designed to be about what to expect and how to be safe in this country.

Tracks: “Generally, it is pointless to make much effort to avoid getting your feet wet, or trying to avoid mud on the track, especially as efforts to avoid these perceived obstacles often spectacularly backfire.”

Safety in the Mountains doesn’t aim to provide detailed reasoning behind its points or be a definitive guide, as is clarified by the editor from the beginning. It does aim to be “inspirational and informative”, aiming at an audience of the experienced and inexperienced alike.


Safety in the Mountains is structured with a very practical intent. Space is provided inside the front cover to write a name, medical information and emergency contact details, should you be discovered in a bad state with the book in your possession. Final pages include templates for an intention form, and for describing a patient, and for collating information to usefully provide details to Search and Rescue officials during an incident.

From start to finish, the book is divided into clear sections, perhaps a consequence of its evolution through the past 75 years. Each section is distinctly colour-coded, with headings in the top corners of the pages to assist quickly locating information.

A Starting off section describes issues like comparative grades of trips, how to guestimate likely travel times, and sources of information for research. The Navigation section is substantial and covers much ground with use of compass and maps, explaining map grids and compass aspects, although there’s notable brevity around GPS use (see my criticism below). A short Below the bushline section contains tips for getting around on track and off track, spending significant space describing some handy methods for the likely structure and layout of deer trails, to assist with finding and using good ones.

A large section of seven pages is devoted to river safety, then followed by Above the bushline and Snow and ice. These sections describe issues that can be encountered around scree and sub-alpine scrub, leading into use of an ice axe and also reminders about belaying techniques. A single page section for Knots shows several useful knots, and will doubtless be useful to some who need or want to learn how to apply more appropriate knots whilst in the field. Next come notes in relatively short sections on Huts, Camping Bivouacs & snow, Firelighting, then Cookers and cooking.

From here, the book begins to address topics which usually relate to incidents and emergencies, including Lost, Leadership, Hunting, Weather, Helicopters, and then a lengthy section titled Wilderness medicine that, while not a substitute for a good outdoor first aid course, could be handy at crucial moment when trying to recall how to best treat particular injuries and ailments.

Towards the end, where it should be easy to find, the book includes a neatly presented template gear list, which cross-references and colour-codes items according to the importance of taking them on different kinds of excursion. A two page glossary lists a variety of back-country slang terms which are often heard in New Zealand.


Leadership: “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience is frequently the result of bad judgement.”

Safety In The Mountains (2012) is what I’d expect from something that’s evolved to its eleventh edition. This can be credited to the editor and others involved. The editor’s talent for keeping points clear, relevant and informative shows through.

The price is significant for how one might use it, because $5 is an amount which means people won’t be concerned about damaging it, and will therefore take it outdoors more easily. It’s one of few books of which you might choose to purchase multiple copies at the same time. The light-weight form, similar to an FMC Bulletin, is the type of book that can easily be taken with you into the hills, and as easily left behind as literature in a back-country hut for the next person to collect and read.

Aside from the text, another major and impressive aspect of Safety in the Mountains is its ubiquitous integration of great illustrations. The pages include roughly 41 illustrations, produced by Wellington-based Adele Jackson. The exact count of illustrations depends on how they’re counted, which is a reflection on how deeply they’re integrated with the layout of the text and each other.

All illustrations are sharp and highly annotated with labels and lines as needed. Combined with the text, there is very little waste or unnecessary repetition anywhere in the book. Every sentence, every annotation every caption and all but 2 space-filling illustrations are used to communicate something important and to the point, as clearly and as simply as possible.

With regard to content, I found it interesting that, towards the end of the River crossing section and consistent with FMC’s position, the editor has decided to mention rope use, albeit to state that while it can be done, it’s unsafe to do so without a thorough understanding of techniques. This is an assertive decision that may have garnered attention before the book went to print, because this edition is printed in the context of a recent debate (described here) being promoted by FMC, which questions a recent tendency towards not training people to use ropes in rivers at all, and simplifying instruction towards recommending that it never be done.


I had trouble identifying clear negative points of Safety in the Mountains, as for me it generally does exactly what it’s set out to do, and does it very well. The most notable criticism which comes to mind, and surprised me as I saw it, was that the section describing GPS use is very short.

By now, GPS technology has been affordable and in common use for at least a decade. I was surprised that with a 7 page Navigation section, most of which explains map and compass use in detail, the book offers just one third of a page regarding the use of GPS technology. (To be fair, some of the material on earlier pages, such as grid referencing, applies to GPS devices and the text says so.) Most of the space in the GPS section is used for a table that provides some of the parameters people may require to configure their GPS for use with New Zealand map grids. The only tip provided for actual use is to note that a GPS might not be accurate in some circumstances. There’s nothing else, and this doesn’t seem to be a space-related restriction because two thirds of the same page is then wasted with a space-filling illustration that offers nothing. (Such illustrations are very rare throughout the remainder of the book.)

Anyone who follows my blog will know that I’m personally a strong advocate for not relying on a GPS, and learning to navigate with a multitude of tools, beginning with location awareness, map and compass. From that perspective it doesn’t concern me that there’s little information about GPS use, because I consider everything before it to be more of a priority for safety. That said, a GPS can still be an awesomely useful safety tool to augment other techniques, and today there are even mountain safety navigation courses available that specifically target effective GPS use. Further advances in technology notwithstanding, I think a future edition of the book will benefit greatly if more GPS usage tips were included.

That really is the only significant criticism that comes to mind, although I’d also mention that as website links that are now provided in some places represent current information, so if you happen to obtain the book a few years after printing you should keep in mind that the references could be out of date. This is not a major issue, however, and it’s really the type of information that will be revised in a later edition, anyway.

A single isolated issue aside, my overall impression of the book has been that it’s well worthwhile. I hope as many outdoor users as possible have a chance to read it.

Sandfly bites: “Stoicism goes a long way when dealing with sandflies.”

Table of Contents

Not all headings and sub-headings in the book follow a strict format, so in some cases I’ve made minor adjustments with the structure shown below so as to better convey the topics that are covered.

  • Preface (page iii)
  • About Federated Mountain Clubs / Acknowledgements (page iv)
  • Starting off (page 1)
    • Packs
    • Intentions
    • Access
    • Farms
    • Weather forecasts and road conditions
    • Telecommunications
    • Travel times
    • Typical tramping grades
  • Navigation (page 4)
    • Maps
    • Compass
    • Using a compass
    • GPS (see earlier criticism)
  • Below the bushline (page 11)
    • General
    • Tracks
    • Off-track, using deer trails
    • Bluffs
    • Boulder bashing
    • General route finding
    • Ridge travel
    • Didymo
  • Rivers and river crossing (page 14)
    • Three-wire bridges and flying foxes
    • Boulder jumping
    • Fording rives
    • Crossing with mutual support
      • Standard pack-strap method
      • Over shoulders pack-strap method
      • Pole method
    • Solo pole method
    • Rope methods
    • Gorge tubing
  • Above the bushline (page 21)
    • Scree
    • Snowgrass and tussock
    • Subalpine scrub
    • Gullies
  • Snow and ice (page 23)
    • Snow travel
    • Step chopping
    • Ascending and descending slopes
    • Belays
    • Snow anchors
    • Self-belaying and self-arresting
    • Avalanches
      • Predicting avalanches
      • If caught in an avalanche
    • Glacier travel
    • Crevasse extraction
  • Knots (page 31—one page of annotated diagrams)
    • Single fisherman’s knot
    • Clove hitch
    • Figure of eight knot
    • Italian (or Munter) hitch
    • Reef knot
    • Prusik knot
  • Huts (page 32)
  • Camping (page 34)
    • Campsites
    • Tents and flies
  • Bivouacs and snow shelters (page 36)
    • Snow caves
    • Snow trenches and snow mounds
  • Firelighting (page 38)
  • Cookers and cooking (page 40)
  • Lost! (page 41)
    • You are lost
    • Losing another party member
    • Ground signalling codes
  • Leadership (page 43)
    • On the move
    • Party fatigue
    • Risk taking
    • Emergencies
  • Hunting (page 44)
  • Weather (page 45)
    • Heavy rain
    • Heavy snow
    • High winds
    • Lightning strike
    • Extreme cold
    • Poor visibility
    • Alpine weather indicators
  • Helicopters (page 47)
    • Helicopter safety
    • Landing site
    • Winch and rescue net
  • Wilderness medicine (page 48)
    • Mishaps
      • ABC (Airway/Breathing/Circulation)
      • RICE (Rest/Ice/Compression/Elevation)
      • Shock
      • Brain injuries
      • Spinal injuries
      • Burns and scalds
      • Broken ribs
      • Sprains and strains
      • Fractures and dislocations
      • Wounds
      • Bruises
      • Snowblindness
      • Foreign objects in eye
      • Drowning, or near drowning
    • Cold injuries
      • Frostbite
      • Hypothermia
    • Medical emergencies
      • Heart attacks
      • Abdominal pain
      • Asthma
      • Diabetes
      • Seizures
      • Unconscious state
    • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, CPR
    • Tramping ailments
      • Blisters
      • Chaffing
      • Dehydration
      • Sandfly bites
      • Skin conditions
      • Sunburn
      • Tendonitis
      • Toenails
      • Wasp stings
      • Wrinkled feet (warm water immersion foot)
    • Medication profiles
      • Paracetamol (Panadol, Pamol)
      • Ibuprofen (Brufen, Nurofen)
      • Diclofenac (Voltaren, Cataflam)
      • Codeine
  • Environmental Care Code (page 57)
  • Suggested weekend gear list (page 58)
  • Intentions form (page 60)
  • Bibliography (page 62)
  • Glossary (page 63)
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