Death on a trip

  • Assumption of death
  • Legal obligations
  • Protection of the body

The possibility that a death might occur on a trip is not easy to accept. Most people tend to think of outdoor recreation as a healthy, relaxed activity, and generally believe that the physical risks are well within their control. Most trips are done with groups of friends - you do not want them to die and your mind simply rejects the notion that this might happen. Fortunately deaths rarely occur, but a few bushwalkers, ski tourers and canoeists have died, and others will die in the future. A leader needs to know what to do.

There are two types of death among party members which need to be considered: death from accidents or misadventure, and death from ‘natural causes’ such as strokes or heart attacks. Then, in addition, there is the possibility of encountering a dead human body.

Among party members, the first requirement is to take all possible steps to prevent a death occurring. First-aid training will emphasise the sorts of conditions which might result in death if not properly treated. Skilled leaders will quickly recognise these conditions and respond appropriately. If in doubt, treat the matter as life threatening. Set up camp and send for help. If pulse and breathing cease, commence cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately. Legally, you are expected to continue CPR until the patient responds or medical help arrives. In remote area bushwalking this may not be practicable, but you must do all that a reasonable, caring person would do in similar circumstances. Only medical practitioners (and certain appointed officials) have the authority to declare that someone is dead, but when some hours have passed and a body becomes cold it can reasonably be assumed that the victim is beyond further help.

It is unlikely that any ordinary walking group would have the physical resources to enable them to carry a body out of a remote area to civilisation. In any case, it would be a grim task. It would also be rather demoralising to split the party, leaving some with the body while others went out to get help. It is much more likely that a leader would decide to leave the body and take the group out to civilisation. Before doing this, certain actions must be taken to comply with the law and to facilitate the later recovery of the body.

You should:

  • Take careful notes of the circumstances surrounding the death, including time, place, symptoms, treatment given, other action taken, people involved, etc. You and all party members will be required to make a detailed statement for the Coroner, as discussed in Chapters 58 and 60 and Appendix 4. All members should be warned of this and should be encouraged to make notes to aid their memories.
  • If death has resulted from trauma or an injury (e.g. a fall), a diagram showing the position where the body came to rest, the landmarks and topography involved and photographs (if a camera is available) should be arranged. In this event, the body should be not be disturbed in any way until photographed.
  • Protect the body from animals and the elements. Wrap it securely in a groundsheet or tent, and firmly secure it with rocks, logs or earth. Leave a note indicating that you have gone for assistance and asking that the body not be disturbed.
  • If a dead body is encountered, it should not be disturbed in any way as this would interfere with police investigation. It is a requirement of law that you report the discovery of any human remains to the police.
  • Mark the spot very visibly and note any nearby clearings where a helicopter might land. Thoroughly mark a trail out to the nearest easily found road, track or habitation. These two tasks may require a large amount of material, preferably brightly coloured.
  • As soon as possible after the death, report the matter to the police.

Two other important considerations should be noted. First, watch for signs of shock in your party members, including yourself. At the very least there will be depression and distress, which will call for strong support and leadership. Second, you should note any valuables found on the body or in the equipment of the deceased. Have others witness and attest to a list of these valuables and take them out with you. Then, at first opportunity, hand them over to the police and obtain a receipt for them.

Knowledge of the information contained in this chapter is like insurance. You hope that you will never need it, but it will be very useful if the occasion does arise.

Further reading

Coroners Act 1985 (Vic).

Hallenstein H. & Miles D. 1991. Legal Liability: Outdoor Education, 2nd edn. Leo Cussen Institute, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.