Tag Archives: RMRU

High Country Helicopter Rescue

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Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t a dark and stormy night.

The sun shone warm on my back, a light breeze whispered through the pines. Little chickadees sang of spring. All in all, it was a beautiful early spring afternoon.

In the middle of this Disney-esque day, my phone vibrates against my leg.

It’s my partner, Lee calling; “Want a helicopter ride?” is his greeting. “There’s a hiker, possibly in full arrest in the High Country. Star-9 needs a team ready to go immediately.”

My prep has an extra edge to it. I pull my uniform on, quickly check my backpack for the essentials, head out the door and jump into Lee’s waiting truck. We’re on our way in a handful of minutes towards Keenwild helipad. On the way we get the news that Donny and Les will be backing us up as the ground team hiking into the high country, with the rest of the team on standby to head in if we need assistance.

The A-Star helicopter touches down as we arrive. Technical Flight Officer Eric Hannum leans out and waves us in. He briefs us as Pilot Mike Calhoun speeds us towards the High Country. “Our subject’s name is Donna. She is a 70 yr old woman, blond hair, blue eyes, white jacket, black pants. She was hiking with her husband near Laws Junction when she experienced “Heart attack symptoms”, Husband hiked several miles back to Notch 5 in the State Park before he could call for help.” Eric relates that the husband reported a “large opening” in the trees nearby that he thinks should be perfect for a helicopter landing. Hmmm… we’ll see.

Star-9 makes a series of wide circles above the trail near Laws for what seems like eternity- but is in reality only a few minutes. We peer down trying to somehow pick up any slight movement, any change in color. Where is she?? It doesn’t help that our subject is wearing black and white against a background of patchy half melted snow, blackened remains of trees left over from the Mountain fire and dark mountain soil.

As the minutes tick by, I start to doubt the location information we’ve been given. The husband had to have hiked out along the Hidden Divide trail to get back to Notch 5 from Laws… And it could be that they never made it all the way down to the actual junction, especially if they had to go through the burn area to get there…

I key my mic: “Hey guys, why don’t we locate the upper end of the Hidden Divide trail and backtrack?”

Mike swings the helicopter to the North and we start to scour the steep slope for the remains of the trail. Bingo! Within 2 minutes of changing our strategy, we’ve located the subject. Even better, she is obviously still responsive and no longer alone. 2 other hikers have joined her to help in her time of need.

Unfortunately what seemed like a “large opening” in the tree cover to the husband is far too small and dangerous to land a helicopter in. Pilot Mike thinks quickly and flys back to the closest large clearing to land and insert us. Once on the ground we grab a screamer suit to carry with us. We’re pretty sure this will end up being a hoist situation and we want to be prepared to get our subject safely in the air as soon as possible. The afternoon sun is fading into a warm alpenglow, the evening wind is starting to kick in and the already crisp temperature is starting to drop. We had best get moving before our window of opportunity closes. I don’t know if our subject could survive a night out here, and we don’t intend to find out.

The helicopter flies out to convert to their hoisting setup as we hike at double time down through the brisk mountain air towards our subject’s location.

Within minutes we see her ahead of us, sitting on a rock flanked by her caretakers. It’s a relief to see her responsive and in far better condition than we had right to expect from the original call-out.

Lee and I quickly introduce ourselves to our subject and her helpers. Our subject greets us with shy sweet smile, bright blue eyes and a friendly, soft spoken voice. Instead of meeting her situation with panic she is calm, although obviously worried. I begin my medical examination as Lee heads down the trail to search the nearby forest for a safe and close hoisting location.

I notice right away that she is trembling, I’m not sure yet if it is due to the cold or something more serious. I ask her questions to get her talking and help me assess her mental state. I check her pupillary response, then vitals. Her pulse is rapid, but not strong. Breathing is somewhat labored, and slightly fast. She has recently eaten and had water, already taken aspirin, and reports no history of cvd or any other medical conditions or medications. So far, so good.

Even as I lead the conversation to what happened, I’m closely watching my subject, Always assessing her, watching for any clues to her condition or information that will need to be passed on. She is alert and aware of what has happened to her, has a good memory of the situation and can explain it well.

She describes hiking down the trail to clearing, having lunch with her husband. She had a slight headache, and took a nap. She woke to extreme shortness of breath and muscular weakness. She was unable to hike at all, and found it hard to even walk a few feet. They quickly decided that he would run for help.

One of the hikers has kindly shared her jacket with Donna. Despite this, she is still shivering. As soon as I’ve made sure there is no immediate threat to her life, I break open my pack, pulling out a down jacket, a thick wool beanie and warm wool gloves. Once she is warmer, we will be better able to rule out the source of her trembling.

Since we are out this far in the Wilderness, our best bet is to get her out as quickly as possible. Unless an immediate emergency comes up, our priority is to prep her for transport, take care of her immediate physical needs and get a pattern of vitals established so I have some trends to hand off to the Hospital. Any information I can gather at this stage may play a key role in saving her life if her condition suddenly worsens.

Lee arrives back from his scouting trip. “There’s a good hoist location just a 2 minute walk to the West.” His arm points down the slightly inclined slope. Good, I think. It’s a short, clear walk downhill. It should be manageable if we take it easy. Donna’s heart and respiratory rates have slowed down a bit and her breathing seems much less labored.

I glance to the sky. The sun is hanging low in the sky. We need to get her out of here while we can still easily do so. I’d much rather hoist while we still have light to do so safely.

Donna is a real trooper and makes the trek with no complaint. Time to get her ready for the hoist. Lee holds up the screamer suit for her to put her arms through as I strap her in and join the rings with a locking carabiner, securing her into her “cradle”. Lee verbally walks her through the steps of the process.

Lee keys his radio: “Star-9, we are ready for hoist.”

The helicopter approaches, the rapid beat of it’s rotor blades echoing up and through the wide ravine. The sudden gale throws up ash from the recent fire, pelting my face with bits of debris. I turn to shelter Donna from the onslaught as Lee reaches out for the rapidly descending hoist hook. The air crew (now a new shift: pilot Kevin Boss, TFO Manny Romero) manages to swing the hook right into Lee’s hand! I clip Donna into the hook, double check that the system is securely closed and wave my hand upward and out from my helmet to signal the TFO to lift.

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The wind from the chopper is brutally cold, and my hands have become painfully stiff from just a couple minutes of exposure. I’m going to need all th dexterity I can manage to clip myself into the hoist, so this could be a problem. I jam my hands deep into my jacket pockets to warm them up. Another minute and I’m gazing up expectantly, positioning myself, reaching for the hoist, clipping in… Suddenly I’m flying straight up. As I reach the helicopter, I walk my hands on the struts to avoid bumping my head. The TFO gives me a nod and a smile and helps me into the the seat next to Donna. Our unwieldy packs come up next, spinning in the wild wind currents.

It takes far longer for Lee to come up. As the minutes tick by, I start to get worried. Is something wrong? Finally I see Lee’s head emerge over the edge of the deck. He looks sick. He has completed the most hoist rescues ever on the team, but I’ve never seen him like this. The TFO clears up the mystery “The wind spun him like a top on the way up- I’ve never seen anything like it!”

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There’s not enough room in the small cabin for all of us and the enormous packs, so Lee and the TFO sit perched on the outside of the copter, safely clipped in, but exposed to the bitingly cold wind as we fly towards the desert.

As we beeline towards our destination the scenery is majestic enough to take your breath away- craggy cliffs, the sharp relief of impenetrable ravines and razor ridge lines flying by almost to fast to absorb. Donna is fascinated- it’s a real joy to see the worry leave her face, replaced by wonder… “What an adventure!”
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We arrive at the transfer point and pass our subject off the the waiting EMTs. I give them a briefing on her vitals and current condition, shake her eagerly waiting husband’s hand, give her a big hug and wish her well.

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Over Before You Know It

After a long hard work week, it was finally time for a night out. Dinner down in the desert had been great. It was a long winding back up the mountain, but it was worth it. An hour later I could still taste the lingering flavor of Duck confit with chanterelles in my mouth as we pulled with a gravelly crunch into the driveway. Now, all I was looking forward to was a hot bath and warm bed.

I had just unclipped my seatbelt when a new text chimed out.

I look down at my phone, eyes widening: “We have a mission!”

Two lost hikers at Marion Mountain. Dang, this could be a big one! Marian Mountain is one of the steepest trails in the area. It is notorious for sending people down it’s offshoots into deep, dark, dangerous canyons. Over the years we’ve rescued many people from its grasp, and it’s usually been a doozy of a mission. We’d better prep for an overnighter for sure.

Instead of jumping in the bath, I head directly for the rescue room. In a matter of minutes I pull on my uniform, double check my gear and backpack, and am ready to head out. I grab a extra radio for the deputy and I’m out the door.

I heave my backpack in the bed of the truck and hop in. My Partner Lee speeds up the 243 towards the mission base location marked by a google pin drop. On the way we get the news that our teammates Cameron Dickinson and Kevin Kern are on their way here. Good. It’s always a good idea to have backup on a Marion Mountain mission.

Turning off the main highway we wind our way along the pockmarked and potholed asphalt back towards the Marion Mountain trailhead. As we approach we can see the Sheriff’s lights ahead, red and blue flashes piercing the pitch black, illuminating the pines in an eerie dance of color.

Thank Goodness for Cell Service
Dispatch is on the radio with the deputy. One of the subjects has managed to get weak cell-service and is on the phone describing their location. The deputy slowly repeats the conversation to us. “They’re at a campground with water towers nearby”. Lee’s eyes light up immediately “I know where they are!”

“Sound the siren!” Lee suggests to the deputy. A loud whoop comes from the car. A couple of seconds later, confirmation from dispatch: The subjects have heard the siren. Perfect! Lee and I grin at each other. We won’t even need our backpacks for this one. He turns to me: “They’re at the old campground” that makes sense- it’s still closed this early in the season. They could’ve gotten sidetracked on their way back down, found an old campsite and decided to stick it out somewhere that seems at least somewhat civilized.

A 15 Minute Rescue
We ask the deputy to wait. “This won’t take long”. A quick eight minute march up a steep hillside covered in slippery pine duff, and we see the glow of a fire ahead illuminating up the trees in a warm circle of light. “Hello!” We yell out as a greeting. Excited yells greet us back.

As we approach I see two people huddled near the inviting blaze of a fire ring. Our subjects are ecstatic to see us. A quick set of introductions goes around before we get to the meat of the interview.

Ron and Diana started out separately that day. She was part of a hiking meetup group and he was travelling on his own near the group. The Meetup group had asked people to pick a hiking buddy. Through an understandable mixup Diana had chosen Ron as her partner and only realized much later that he was not part of the group.

Still, they had a great hike up to the peak but ended up making it back down in the fading twilight. They had both made some of the classic mistakes that tend to get hikers in trouble. Neither one had counted on staying out so late. They had underestimated the length of he hike, had not brought extra provisions, not familiarized themselves with the trailhead, and they had no source of light between them.

In the fading light at the end of the hike they got off the trail, but managed to make it back down. Unfortunately the simple map they had showed only the trails without the topography. (One more reason to learn to read a topo map and always bring your own!) Once off trail, they had no way to find the location of their cars. The darkness made everything unfamiliar and they weren’t even sure they were in the right area on the mountain.

“I had figured our car was over that way”, Ron said pointing North in the direction of Dark Canyon. “But she insisted we stay put”.

“I’m glad you did.” If they had headed off that way they would be lost in the middle of a tangle of deep dark ravines and thick brush right now. No cell service there! Our job would’ve gotten a whole heck of a lot harder. An amazingly simple search of several minutes would have morphed into long hours or even days, with a large potential of our subjects becoming injured, hypothermic and/or severely dehydrated.

Luckily for us all, they decided to hunker down instead. Diana had brought some matches for the fire and they both had jackets which helped keep them warm.

Heading Home
“Well, let’s get you back”. Lee puts out the fire. I stamp out the last embers with my heavy leather boots. We each hand out one of our many spare headlamps for the subjects to use. As we walk back, I review a few of the lessons of the night. Our new friends readily confirm they will not be heading out without their full set of ten essentials again, especially their not without headlamps and a good map! A short hike down the slope and we hit the pockmarked road leading to their cars.

In a couple minutes, we see flashing lights illuminating the road ahead. Time to hand them off to the deputy.

They’ll have a exciting story for friends and family. They were lucky- they had all the ingredients for things to go horribly wrong, but got a brief adventure and a good lesson instead.

 

Hiking Gear: Time to Retire?

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It’s supported you loyally throughout the years, but bringing worn out gear into the backcountry can do you far more harm than good. Here’s a quick guide of when to replace key gear.

BOOTS:
Your boots should be allowed to go hike the great trail in the sky when:

-Your soles wear thin and smooth. It’s critical that your boots have excellent traction. From creek crossings to that granite slab traverse, when you’re on slippery or wet surfaces you need a strong grip if you don’t want to risk life and limb with every step.

-Your boot develops an uncomfortable fold or kink that hurts your foot and shortens your hike. Pain is no fun and can distract you into making bad decisions that could affect the safety of your hike, or at the very least make it miserable.

-Your boot’s upper delaminates or the threading starts sticking out of the seams. Either of these can compromise the weatherproofing of your old friend. This can turn from annoying to downright dangerous in the winter. Nothing will lead to frostbite faster than a set of poor sealing shoes in cold wet conditions.

PACK
Packs can be the longest lived of your gear. Kind of like Frankenstein’s monster, most worn out components like ripped seams, torn up shoulder straps, and hip-belts can be repaired or replaced. Unfortunately, sturdy old models tend to weigh in on the heavier side and lack many useful newer options. Upgrading your pack to a lighter, more convenient version can help better distribute your load and make your hikes a heck of a lot more enjoyable.

TENT
Your trusty old tent has weathered blown seams, broken zippers and shattered poles with simple repairs and replacements, but use caution when deciding to milk that last bit of life out of your shelter. Eventually even the walls will degrade, and a torrential downpour in the backcountry is a dangerous place to discover that your old tent leaks like a sieve. Test your tent every season with a simulated extended downpour to make sure it can truly weather the storm.

SLEEPING BAG
Even with proper care, your sleeping bag fill will eventually lose its ability to keep your toes toasty warm. Synthetic fills can last you five (or more) years with good care, and down may survive up to ten. Note: improper laundering, or storing your bag compressed can significantly shorten this number. It’s time for a new bag when the old one looks deflated, has flat spots, or just no longer keeps you warm.

HEADLAMP
Cheaper headlamps will need to be replaced more often, as buttons fail, controls get twitchy and the connections to the batteries wear out. Upgrade to a good quality headlamp (with extra batteries). You can keep an older model around to avoid black widows on trips into the storage space, but don’t make the mistake of heading miles into the backcountry with an unreliable light strapped to your noggin.

It’s often hard to give up something that has done a good job for you over the years. Nostalgia has its place – so reward your old gear’s loyalty by giving it a place of honor on a display shelf, but don’t bring it out onto the trail.

Helicopters, Hoists & Breakfast, Oh my!

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The call comes in at 3:30 AM. It’s my partner Lee. “They need a helicopter hoist team for a lost hiker on Skyline”. My bed is warm and my fuzzy flannel sheets are so comfy… But this is more important than a few hours sleep! “Count me in”, I slur with sleep still in my voice.

Shaking my head to clear it, I throw the warm covers back, roll out of bed and head straight for my gear closet. Perfect! My Go-Pack is still full from the last mission. I dig around inside – ticking off my mental checklist. Good, everything is accounted for. I refill my Nalgene, pull on my pants and shrug into my fluorescent orange uniform shirt.

Within 15 minutes I’m already on the way to pick up Lee. Another speedy half an hour drive down the mountain puts us in the parking lot at RSO Aviation. One more cross check of gear and we head straight into the hanger.

Pilot Chad Marlett and TFO Manny Romero are on tonight. The Aviation crew are all amazing guys and exceptional at what they do – we really enjoy working with them and readily trust them with our lives.

Following protocol we do a brief review of the Screamer suit and rescue gear, then load our packs and ourselves into the helicopter. I clip the seat belt together, strap on a headset and snug it down over my ears, bending the microphone down directly in front of my mouth.

“Good to go?” Lee and I give Manny a thumbs up and a verbal confirmation of “oh yeah!”. Manny confirms we are securely strapped in, then cranes his neck around out the door, scanning one last safety check of the environment as Chad preps for takeoff.

One minute we’re on the ground feeling the increasing thup……..thup…. thup ..thup.. thup.thup of the accelerating rotor, the next the ground swings eerily away beneath us , disappearing into the black.

We discuss the mission on our headsets as we watch the twinkling city lights cruise by beneath us. “Want to hear the transcript?” Manny briefly reviews the mission notes and original call text with us.

Our subject called 911 for help with a weak cell signal. He had been hiking all night and was now trapped off trail in the thick brush of the coastal mountain range, unable to hike any further. He was scratched up, dehydrated, exhausted, and utterly disoriented by his efforts. He described seeing red blinking lights on a nearby hill. The 911 operator told him to stay put and await further contact, but RSO has not been able to raise him again. He has likely run out of battery. As is often the case in emergencies, people don’t think to conserve their batteries until it is nearly too late.

The only “red blinking lights” in the area are a set of radio towers. A ping of the subject’s cell phone put his location at 2 miles Southeast of the towers, but it’s best not to put complete trust in these coordinates. Over the years we’ve learned that since they tend to ping to the nearest cell tower, they can sometimes be miles off.

Chad suggests we start in the vicinity of the towers. In the subject’s description he said he could see the flashing lights on a NEARBY hill. I agree. “That ping is too far south for him to see the lights clearly.” It’s generally best to trust a subject’s physical description over a set of cell coordinates. Hopefully our subject has followed instructions and hasn’t moved.

We reach the edge of the city lights and venture out and above the inky black mountain slopes. Manny hands back a pair of night vision goggles. As I raise them to my eyes the world below lights up with an eerie green brightness. Ridges and valleys jump out in a rough grainy contrast. I pass them over to Lee for a quick acclimatization.

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We start our search near the radio towers, cruising slowly in the air up and down each ridge and Canyon, eyes intently searching for something, anything that will signal us that our subject is here.

In addition to a spotlight, we also have a set of cameras that allow us to pick heat signatures and the night vision goggles which will starkly reveal anything more reflective/bright than the background of dense scrub brush.

Manny, Lee and I scan the landscape as Pilot Chad concentrates on the added difficulties of mountain flying. The steep ridges guide and magnify any wind into strong updrafts, and each time we cross a ridge he must slow down to compensate for the increased rpm of the blades. Even a slight breeze over this rugged terrain can increase the risk of our flight.

We know our subject is likely on top of a ridge, since he was able to see the radio towers. We fly for a while, scanning the ridgelines, seeing nothing but thick brush and short stumpy trees crammed in tightly along the hillside and steep slopes.

The goggles make everything much clearer, but nothing is jumping out at us. We’re starting to get discouraged… The Eastern sky is just starting to lighten, and now we’re racing against time to try and find him at night. Most people don’t realize that it’s easier for us to see most signals at night, Anything bright or reflective will instantly jump out at us. The contrast of even a small light or reflection stands out against the dull black of night far more than during the bright light of day. The pilots say that in the right conditions they can see the light from a cell phone 3 miles away.

Hunting as a child with my father, I learned to let my eyes go slightly unfocused to search the terrain for patterns and movement. When searching, focusing your eyes or your mind too hard on any one point can give you a myopic view and make you overlook whats right in front of you.

The guys are scouring the ground with their night vision goggles, and I am left with my naked eye. After what seems like an eternity, but is probably just another half hour, something on a ridgeline snags the edge of my eye.

“Wait. Go back. To the North. I saw something.” Chad swings the helicopter around. I verbally direct the beam of his spotlight to a spot on the ridgeline below us. There, silhouetted in the circle of light is our subject- a tiny dot with a white shirt jumping up-and-down wildly. Its nice to get confirmation on our decision- the cell ping was definitely off!

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“Alright!” I can hear the grin in Chad and Manny’s voices.

We examine the ridge nearby. It’s a jumble of high brush and short stunted trees, “there’s no place to land” reports chad. … and nowhere to easily hike in from. “We’ll have to hoist him out”.

We circle over him for a better position and Chad turns on the loudspeaker. “Wave your hands if you can understand us”. A few enthusiastic hand waves from the subject later, The flight crew gets confirmation that he can indeed hear us and will stay put as we fly away to reconfigure the helicopter for a hoist. The subject hunkers down under the shelter of the tall brush to wait as we fly away.

Chad beelines the helicopter to landing area at the base of the foothills, and the aircrew rapidly reconfigure the helicopter for the hoist.

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This takes time, by the time we are flying back through the canyons the first rays of the sun are hitting the mountain slopes. Since our subject looks like a heavy guy, It is decided that we will leave Lee on the hillside after we hoist the Subject and come back for him later. Chad sets the helicopter into a hover and Manny hoists Lee and then me down directly onto the hillside near our subject.

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Lee pulls the bright Red screamer suit out of his pack. It looks like a combination between a jacket and a diaper, designed to be simple to put on in an emergency and very secure. We help the subject strap himself in “put your arms through the holes like a jacket” I cinch the inner waist belt tight as Lee brings the straps together from each shoulder and between the subjects legs. He secures the front rings together with a locking carabiner at chest level.

After a quick but thorough briefing for the subject of what’s going to happen next and helicopter safety, we signal the TFO that we’re good to go.

In a great show of piloting Chad manages to put the hoist directly into my hand on the first try. I clip in, wave my hand in our exaggerated “lift me up” signal and enjoy the ride. Before you know it I’m at the skids and walking my hands upward to the TFO’s chest Carabiner. Into the helicopter, clip into the seatbelt, unclip the hoist and hand it to Manny. Soon thereafter the anxious face of the subject appears over the edge of the deck. He stares straight forward, clasping the cable tight, petrified by his first hoist and helicopter flight, but manages to follow all of our instructions perfectly.

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Within minutes we are back at the landing zone. Everything goes smoothly in the subject handoff to the deputies on scene and we head back for Lee. In a great mood, we fly back the hanger (and a much anticipated breakfast!) .

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Toasty Toes: Staying Warm While Hiking

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On the last few rescues there has been a very distinct chill in the air. One thing I’ve learned through hard experience is that the essence of staying safely warm in the winter wilderness is having the proper clothing layers and knowing how to use them effectively. Here’s some info to help keep you toasty while hiking this winter.

So why are some materials warmer than others?

It’s all in the air. Clothing helps hold “dead air” against your skin. This dead air is heated up by the body, providing a layer of warmth. The actual insulating value of your clothing is due to the thickness of dead air space it can hold. Your body is the true heat source, the clothing layers only serve to trap the heat and slow down your heat loss to the cold environment.

So what are the best ways to save this “dead air”?

1. Choose the right layers The key to staying toasty is by having a number of versatile layers of clothing to provide an appropriate amount of dead air space. Each layer should have unique properties to hold, protect and allow you to adjust your temperature as necessary.

-AVOID Cotton: During the winter cotton is downright deadly as it loses all its dead air when wet and thus its insulating properties. Wet cotton is worse than dry bare skin and will rapidly suck the warmth from your body.

-Polypro or other Synthetic base layer: Keep your body in a snug (not tight) synthetic layer designed to wick moisture AWAY from your skin. Synthetic fibers like polypropylene don’t hold water, so your sweat is driven outward beyond the synthetic layer and away from your skin. This prevents evaporative cooling and creates a thin protective layer of warm air.

Wear Wool: Wool’s insulating ability comes from the elastic, wavy crimp in its shape that traps air between fibers. Depending on texture and thickness, as much as 60-80% of wool cloth can be air! Because the water “disappears” into these fiber spaces, wool can absorb a large amount of moisture while still keeping enough dead air space to keep you warm. (Note: although not as versatile, fleece is an acceptable option as well).

Down jacket: Lightweight and highly compressible, down feathers are very efficient insulators. They provide excellent dead air space for very little weight. Unfortunately, if the feathers get wet they clump, lose dead air space and all their insulating power. Keep your down safely wrapped in a waterproof bag until you need it.

Wind and waterproof outer shell – it is essential to have an outer layer that is wind and waterproof while still having the ability to ventilate and allow excess heat and sweat to escape. Gore-tex and other similar fabrics are good options. Having underarm (pit) zippers on jackets greatly increases your ability to ventilate.

Hand gear: bring mittens!
Ever notice your hands feel colder after putting on a thin pair of gloves? It’s physics baby! When a thin layer of insulation is wrapped around a small diameter curved surface (finger), it increases the surface area and can actually increase heat loss until a thickness of about 1/4″. Good motivation to bring backup mittens (which get around this problem by combining finger pockets) for extra cold conditions.

Headgear– hats are essential in winter travel. The head has a very high surface to volume ratio and is heavily vascularized, so you can lose a great deal of heat without headgear. A balaclava or facemask may be required if it is windy to prevent facial frostbite.

2. Have a dry backup- and use it! Always have a dry backup of critical clothing and don’t wait too long to change into it after you stop moving. Heat loss from a wet surface can be up to 25 times quicker than a dry one. I’ve hiked with a person who forgot this cardinal rule. She went to bed too exhausted to take off her wet socks. She woke up with toes permanently damaged from frost-bite.

3. Right size clothing: Layers that are too tight will constrict the body’s circulation so that it’ll have a tough time warming up, especially in your extremities. Tightness will also compress your clothing and actually reduce dead air space- decreasing your insulation. Beware though: Too loose and your clothing can act as a bellow and actually blow out warm air and suck in cold.

Have a great winter, and stay toasty!

Plastic Fantastic

Hiking up the steep slope of a mountain can be hot and sweaty business. The refreshingly cool feeling of raindrops merrily pelting off your head in a sudden downpour can be a very welcome relief. Getting rained on can be fun, but it’s easy to get chilled to the bone if you’re not properly prepared. Unpredictable storms can very suddenly change your hiking conditions from dry and hot, to cold, wet and miserable in a matter of minutes.

But getting caught in the rain without all your hi-tech hiking gear doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. Although there are plenty of great tips for prepping yourself for rain, today we’ll be focusing on some options that I always carry with me, rain or shine.

They are waterproof, durable, economical, lightweight and come in a wide variety of sizes. That’s right, the humble plastic bag will finally given a chance in the spotlight as a top tool for emergency rainy day duty.

Plastic bags: your hiking buddies!

You want a versatile, durable, waterproof, multi-use item? Plastic bags meet all the criteria! They come in all shapes and sizes and can (at least temporarily) solve almost any backcountry rainy day need.

CONTRACTOR BAGS:

Backpack cover and stuff sack: I swear by large, 2 (or more) heavy duty contractor bags. You’ll find them in my pack for anything from a day hike to an extended thru-hike. These flexible black bags will serve you as a waterproof backpack cover and can also be packed around your sleeping bag and clothing for extra protection.

Remember, even the best backpack cover won’t protect your dry gear from a wet jacket or tent once it’s stuck inside your pack for travel.

Bonus: your handy dandy contractor bags can also be used as emergency rain ponchos, bivys (place two end to end), water carriers, waterproof seats for that wet log…basically anything you can come up with…..

ZIPLOCK BAGGIES
Miniature Dry Bags: Keep cell phones, cameras, and any other small dry items in small Ziplock baggies for easy access.
Use one-gallon Ziplock bags to pack your clothes. This will keep them dry in case your pack gets wet.

Waterproof map case: Want to keep your map dry, but also need to pull it out repeatedly in a deluge? Stop hunching over it in a vain attempt to keep it from disintegrating in the rain, just store it in a gallon sized ziplock and you’ll be good to go!

PRODUCE AND SHOPPING BAGS
Emergency “clothes”: Didn’t bring any gloves and a freezing wet wind is turning your fingertips blue? Plastic produce bags to the rescue! Inflate them slightly with just enough air to keep them from direct contact with your skin, stick your hands in and tie them around your wrists. The “dead air” space you’ve created will help insulate your hands from the worst of the cold. keep in mind that this is a short term solution, so head back to warmth and safety ASAP.

-Don’t have waterproof shoes and need to keep your feet dry in an emergency? Bring plastic produce bags or grocery bags to slip over your sock and stick your foot back inside your shoe- close the gap at your ankle with a rubber band- voila! You’ve got a short term rain barrier to keep your tootsies toasty till you can get back home

NOTE: I’m a big proponent of bringing the ten essentials on every hike, so please don’t take this as an invitation to leave out important pieces of gear in an effort to save time, money or weight. The best tip for dealing with a rainy day is adequate planning, preparation and packing. These tips/tools are not meant to replace any of the 10 essentials, but they sure are nice to have if you’ve let yourself slip and be taken off guard or need to supply someone less prepared that you meet along the trail.

Be Found Faster

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Be Found Faster.

Admit it, you’re lost. It’s a scary feeling, especially if you’ve been out for more than one day, even more so if you have hurt yourself badly enough that you can’t travel far. In addition to your ten essentials and adequate preparation for your trip, here’s a (not comprehensive) list of some goodies that might help a rescue crew pinpoint your location and get you home safe.

Signal mirror. You can either use a mirror dedicated for this purpose with a sighting hole or just bring along your standard compass with a built in mirror. On a sunny day, a well aimed mirror can help you catch the air crew’s eye.

Reflective Emergency blanket. Not only is it surprisingly warm for it’s size and weight, but it is one REALLY big reflective surface, which can be spotted from pretty far away.

VERY bright clothing. Take a tip from 80s fashion and go fluorescent, the brighter the better. That sage green shirt complements your complexion so well, but it won’t help you get spotted!

Get in the open or on a (safe) high point and make BIG arm movements if you see a helicopter. The helicopter may be obvious to you silhouetted against a clear blue sky, but from their vantage point you look like an ant in the grass.

Spot with texting, Satellite phone. Ask for help directly. The more information about your location and current condition you can give emergency resources, the better they can adjust their response- bringing the right equipment and personnel.

Flashlights and headlamps, especially if you have ones with a strobe mode can help to quickly call attention to your location at night.

Bring a (charged) Cell phone– not only can they be used to help contact authorities and roughly pinpoint your location if you have a weak cell signal, their light can be surprisingly visible from the air at night, sometimes up to several miles away in the right conditions.

Extra batteries for all these gadgets!

Signal fire. The word fire makes us all nervous, and rightly so. But sometimes a flame at night or smoke during the day can be the thing that leads rescuers your way. But be extremely careful, you don’t want to create another, much larger emergency!

Whistle. Not all search efforts will come from the air. Ground searchers can hear things that a helicopter crew cannot. Long after your voice would become raw from yelling, you can still blow a whistle.
-Leave obvious tracks. If you must move (to find shelter or to remove yourself from danger) make sure to leave obvious tracks. Dragging your feet in the ground, making arrows to your location, and being as obvious as possible can give ground searchers something to work with.

This is in no way a comprehensive list of what to bring for or do in a wilderness emergency. Make sure to always have your ten essential on you, and always prepare adequately for a safe trip. Rescue resources such as helicopters may not always be available due to local weather, terrain and resource limitations. A helicopter is NOT guaranteed, nor always a safe or necessary option.

Stay safe out there!

An Unexpected Overnight

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At first I can’t figure out why I’m awake.

Out of reflex I reach over to the bedstand and grab my phone to check the time. Staring through heavy eyes at the glowing face, I realize its ringing. It’s my partner, Lee; “They need a team for a rescue hoist. Can you jump in with me as backup?”

I flick up on the light switch, blink to adjust my eyes, and stride towards the gear closet. I drag out my Osprey pack and pull open the top to review the contents. Helmet, Harness, extra clothes, food and water for the subject, overnight supplies for me… Check! Even though the hoist will probably go quickly, you never know… as a general rule we “pack for 2 hrs or 2 days”.

Inside of 15 minutes I’m jumping into the cavernous cab of Lee’s Dodge Ram. We bomb our way halfway down the mountain to the Keenwild Helipad. Lee parks, I swing my hefty pack out of the truck bed after him, then we make our way onto the pitch black landing pad. A coyote howls, then fades into silence. Far out in the distance I can see Star-9’s lights approaching, intermittently piercing the dark night sky. We crouch down to the side of the Landing Zone and watch the skids cruise above our heads. Even on the smooth pavement the rotor wash from the landing pelts me with enough debris to make me glad I am wearing my safety goggles.

With a quick wave, the TFO motions to us to approach the helicopter. We duck down at the waist, carrying our packs down low in our hands, and move forward. Up close I smile to see the familiar faces of pilot Mike Calhoun and TFO Eric Hannum. After a quick but warm exchange of handshakes and nods, we climb up into our seats and buckle up. In what seems like only a few seconds, the ground sways away beneath us, and we are cruising towards the High country. I pull on on my headset and swing down the mouthpiece. We cross check communications, “good to go”.

The dark desert floor wraps out below us to the north east, cities an oasis of bright lights twinkling in the black of night. Bright flashes of lightning flash threateningly far out over the Mojave. “There’s something brewing out there” says Eric, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come our way “. I cast a glance in the same direction and silently echo the same sentiment in my head.

I realize I have been gripping my pack since we took off and let it go, settling back into my seat. It’s an unexpectedly warm night. I’m usually colder in the cockpit but tonight I have to peel my jacket off within minutes of getting in.

“What have we got?” Asks Lee, voice echoing sharp and tinny in the headset. Eric turns toward us, “Injured hiker, missed the tram down. The reporting party is her boyfriend, says she hurt her ankle on the way back down to the tram. We have a general idea of her location, but we’ll need to pinpoint it first before we can decide how to insert you.”

Mike circles the helicopter around the high mountain valleys, while we search the slopes for any sign of light, any sign of our subject. The thup.. thup..thup of the rotors echoes across the valleys, breaking into the silence of the night and probably waking up a few annoyed backpackers along the way.

VISUAL CONFIRMATION
After about 15 minutes we see it, a faint light shining up from far below. “There we go. Light ahead at 9 o’clock.” From the color and strength it looks like it may be the face of a cell phone. Most people don’t know that we can see cell phone light at night from miles away given the right conditions. Lee pulls out a local topo map and I trace my finger over the area, starting to plan our hiking approach.

Mike and Eric are doing the same for the helicopter. “We can put it down nearby. Long Valley meadow looks good,” says Mike. “Sounds good to us!” I chime in and Lee gives a quick nod and a thumbs up. It’s not too far from the subject. We can hike in quickly as the hasty team to assess her condition. Our air crew can insert further rescuers and equipment as needed afterwards.

I lean forward and hook my fingers through the top handle of my pack in anticipation. Now that we have visual, I’m eager to get out on trail. “Hold up there. We can’t land yet.” Pilot Mike says.

When dealing with helicopters, there are a lot of factors to consider. The warmth of the night has altered the air density, making it unexpectedly thin for our purposes. Wisely preparing for a potentially longer aerial search, the crew filled the fuel tank. On a colder night this weight would not be a problem, but tonight, adding in the weight of a subject and multiple rescuers… If we land, we might not have enough power to take off in the short clearance offered by the mountain meadow. Despite dramatically staged movie portrayals, a straight up-and-down take off is very difficult, potentially dangerous, and consumes huge amounts of power.

“We need to fly around and burn more fuel to get the weight down”, states Mike. We circle the rim of the mountain valley several more times. It’s absolutely stunning and for a moment I gaze down and let myself relax into the view. Off to the North I can still see flashes of lightning illuminating the desert floor. I feel my brow furrow. The storm seems a lot closer. I’m starting to get a little nervous that it might show up before we can finish.

HITTING THE TRAIL
Another 25 minutes and things are looking good. We’ve burned enough fuel and it’s time to land. As we come into the meadow, tall grasses lie down flat in wide waves in front of us. The helicopter draws a circle of light out directly below us fading into the jagged black silhouettes of pine trees. Eric, our TFO, cracks open the door and leans out for a better view. It’s his job to make sure that the helicopter is safe, that we have enough clearance around us and that no major debris are poised to be sucked up into our rotor. Mountain landings are risky business.

Within moments we are down. Time to move out. Eric opens the door all the way and motions for us. I unclip my seatbelt, I grab my pack and step out into the dark.

After a quick radio check with Eric to make sure we can keep up communications with our air crew, we head out onto the trail. Within minutes, Lee spots the reporting party wandering along the trail. We gather information from him about our subject’s whereabouts and condition. He’s well off and in decent shape and we request that he return to the relative shelter of the tram station to remain safe until contacted.

Lee heads off first down the trail, long strides carrying him along quickly. I crank my own short legs into gear and manage to haul him back in. As we reach the base of the switchbacks I interject between strides; “Hold up, time for a call out!” We pause and I turn my shoulders to face upslope. “One… two…three…” I suck in a deep breath, spreading my ribs wide, and we bellow out “Helloooo!” in unison. My ears are met with silence for a few seconds, then a faint cry echoes in from far upslope. Great! I let my breath out, only then realizing that I was holding it. Lee radios in “Star 9, we have voice contact, proceeding to the subject“. A few minutes of intense hiking later, I see a faint light ahead and my heart lifts further.

Hello, we’re from Search and Rescue, we’re here to help”. Our subject, Teresa, is happy to see us. She is sitting in the middle of a switchback on the trail, obviously exhausted, but smiling a greeting back at us. Despite her smile, it’s obvious she has not had a fun night.

After a quick scene safety assessment, I settle down by her on the dusty trail. “Are you hurt? What happened?” Careful questioning gives us a good outline of her backstory and method of injury. After a long and exhausting hike attempting to keep up with her friend, (probably excessive for her level of conditioning) she reports having slipped, twisting her ankle and bumping her hip, luckily with no head, neck or back involvement.

After her friend left to get help, she did her best to try and self-evacuate, sliding and dragging herself downhill for an extended distance until her strength gave out. She finally found a relatively soft spot on the trail to hunker down and await rescue. She has been sitting alone in the middle of the dark trail for hours.

She’s a friendly, tough lady, a nurse, and makes no complaint as we examine her. We gather necessary information. A thorough head to toe reveals some scrapes and bruises, in addition to a painfully sprained, potentially broken ankle. LOC, SAMPLE and quick set of vitals shows her to be in generally good condition, although we will keep track to make sure she maintains a positive trend. As soon as we examine her foot, it’s quickly obvious that our subject will not be walking anywhere tonight. Lee keys the radio: “Star-9, we will need a litter, a wheel and additional rescuers to help with transport.”

I pull out my first aid kit. Time to prep our brave lady for transport. One SAM splint, and plenty of coband and TLC later and we have a stable injury. I make sure to leave access so that we can continue to check her distal pulse and make sure she is getting circulation. Hopefully we will have her out of here in just a few minutes, after the rest of the team arrives with the litter, but it’s always better to prepare for the long term if possible.

Now that we’ve dealt with the most pressing safety issues, it’s time to further address patient comfort. Teresa has been sitting still for a long time on the cold ground. Lee pads her sitting area and wraps her up our spare sleeping bags and down jackets. I make sure she has enough to eat and drink. Getting her insulated, rehydrated and fed will fuel her body and help keep her warm.

Are we good to go?” Lee asks. “Good to go“. I reply, giving our subject an encouraging smile.

Lee walks off to the side and calls in: “Star-9, Team One. We’re ready for transport. Where are we with the litter and additional rescuers?”

The radio crackles; “Team One, this is Star-9. Bad news. We have the litter, and rescuers are standing by, but the storm is almost here.” Oh heck. I almost forgot about the storm.

HUNKERING DOWN
Star-9 isn’t exaggerating-the storm has moved in unbelievably quickly. Seconds later, the first burst of lightning streaks across the sky and thunder booms close behind. The sky opens up in a pelting rain. The first raindrops splash cold onto my scalp.

Team One, we can’t pull you out! Are you and subject prepared to overnight?”

Lee glances at me and I nod.

Star-9, we are good, we repeat, good to overnight, request additional rescuers and resources when available.”

With our last radio contact I put in a request that the Sheriff’s Department let my school know that I won’t be in to teach class in the morning. At least I have a unique excuse: left behind on a mountain helicopter rescue is something they probably haven’t heard before!

The helicopter peels off. We are alone on the mountaintop. Without the helicopter we have no outside radio contact. We’ll just have to wait until the storm breaks or the tram opens up in the morning to allow new resources.

We ramp down from our evacuation efforts, and start to prep for a long, wet, and cold night. Lee pulls out a tarp and I wedge several logs up against a deadfall tree to form a lean-to shelter in place above Teresa. Luckily, within a few minutes the torrential downpour has passed. Unfortunately, the cloud cover is still far too thick for a helicopter to penetrate.

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We make sure Teresa is warm and as comfortable as possible in the circumstances, check distals and vitals again, then bed down nearby for an uneasy rest. I set my alarm to repeat every hour, so we can check in regularly on our subject. High winds moan through the trees as we settle down for an uncomfortable night.

I meet first light with the reassuring weight of my rescue pack on my back. Lee and I have decided that I will head out to the tram to re-establish contact with the Sheriff’s Department and try to wrangle up some reinforcements. I leave my first aid supplies, spare sleeping bag and clothing behind to help take care of our subject.

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On the way back I swing by the Ranger Station. Although it is officially closed and unmanned, I notice that there is a CCC crew camped just outside. Perfect! With some aggressive pounding and loud voice I quickly manage to wake them up. A quick explanation of the situation gets them in motion. In a few minutes they have pulled a litter and wheel from the station (which they conveniently have the keys to) and we now have several strong young guys to help us transport our subject. That’s what I call using the resources at hand!

I radio Lee with the good news: “I’ve got a gift for you on the way up. Litter, Wheel and four strapping, eager young guys”. Lee is more than happy hear this: “Copy that!”
I send the guys back up the trail to Lee and Teresa and continue on my way to the tram.

The tram employees have just arrived on the first car. Once informed of the situation, they are eager to help. Sharon from DSSAR has just arrived at the base of the tram. I brief her and the deputy on scene, and we coordinate to bring up more rescuers and gear with the first car.

Together RMRU and DSSAR escort the subject back down to the tram and to safety. Our brave subject has kept a good attitude through her entire ordeal and soon will be heading home after a quick check out at the hospital!

As an extra surprise, the Riverside Sheriff Department has not only informed my School that I would be late, they also provided an officer to drive me back to my side of the mountain. I arrive in class only 5 minutes late, and with a great story to share with my kids.

Right on Track

It’s Saturday morning.

Pulling into the dirt upper parking lot at Simpson Park I swerve around the large puddle left from the rain the night before. Just this winter we had a frustrating search in the rugged terrain at the back of the expansive park. Dogs and helicopters combed the terrain to no avail. A “ground-pounding” by our foot searchers yielded results only after a long and exhausting night. Now in an odd coincidence we’re returning to the same scene to sharpen skills that just might help us find the subject faster on future missions.

For the next 2 days Fernando Moreira, a highly respected tracking expert, will be giving us in-depth Search and Rescue Tracking Training.

It’s a cloudy day, the sun showing through only intermittently. Fernando takes this opportunity to show us how varying light conditions can affect the visibility of the tracks. With direct early morning sun at a low angle, the tracks he has laid for us stand out in sharp relief. But as a cloud covers the sun the contrast fades and the print disappears into the ground. The effect would be the same around noon with the overhead sun obliterating contrast. He explains we can counter this by shading the area and shining a flashlight at a low angle to create shadows and reveal the prints.

The class dives immediately into practical experience for the SAR tracker. How do you estimate the height and weight of a person from their shoe size? Predict the path of their travel? Where their foot will fall next? How can you tell the age of the tracks? How can you measure and use knowledge of their stride length to your advantage?

The location is perfect for our purposes. To put it plainly- it’s confusing. Simpson Park is a popular mountain biking, running and dog-walking destination. With so many tracks and current activity in the vicinity it can be vital to have several tools that help you to distinguish the track of your subject. Quite often you wont get a clear print- only a series of scuffs. How can you tell if this is your man? Knowledge of their usual stride length (measured from prints at their last known location) can help you rule out many prints and keep on track.

Those who have gone through the class the year before are enlisted to help guide the new trackers in the basics of Micro-tracking. The slightest of clues; the transfer of grains of wet dirt up onto vegetation, a broken leaf, and pebbles shifted slightly forward from their positions are the language of Micro-tracking. We line up across a vaguely level hillside about half the length of a football field. Tracking sticks in hand (trekking poles with a set of adjustable rubber bands to mark print and stride length) we kneel down to read our first tracks of the day.

The ground is already covered in tracks from daily usage of the park, but after a few pointers from Fernando and his aides the subject’s prints start to announce themselves. As my eyes warm up I see the telltale slight depressions, transfers, and subtle shifting forward of pebbles that signal that we’ve discovered the next step.

The next couple days are full with practical exercises and live scenarios designed to help us find our subjects more quickly and efficiently. We learn leapfrogging or ‘cutting ahead’ in boxes and half moon patterns to speed up the process of tracking. We learn to look for natural “Track Traps” along the path of travel. Tracking at night had once seemed impossible, but if you angle the light just so the patterns of slight depression in the ground can become a path pointing directly towards the subject.

Fernando discusses how to most efficiently set up and work tracking teams. We learn to read the story that tracks are telling us- did the subject shift their weight to one side to look back? Throw something? Trip and land heavily? “The tracks don’t lie”, he states.

Several live scenarios are staged to test our growing tracking skills in the field. The team responds successfully to a search for a missing hiker. Another person is “lost” and we learn to track from a central location such as a car, determining a Direction of Travel. We measure the prints leading out from the car, mark the stride length on our tracking sticks and move out in a spiral pattern, careful to not destroy any prints we encounter.

In our final live scenario slight scuffs on the ground, dirt transfer, drag marks and a broken quail egg under leaf cover lead our team to the ‘body’, an orange team shirt. We return proudly bearing our prize and a newfound confidence in our own practical tracking skills.

After a weekend of practice with Fernando, what before had seemed a series of hints in the dirt transformed itself into a clear trail pointing to our subject. After this weekend I’ve come away with an entirely new respect for the value of tracking in Search and Rescue. We’ve added a valuable new skill to our arsenal as a team, one that we can use on missions to come.

 

 

RMRU Members at Training: Glenn Henderson, Gwenda Yates, Carlos Carter, Helene Lohr, Craig Wills, Rob May, Nick Nixon, Mike Herman, Roger May, Michael George, Matt Jordan, Alan Lovegreen, Paul Caraher, Joe Erickson, Lew Kingman, Pete Carlson.

 

Gambling with Gear

Gambling with your Backpacking gear: Should you really bring all your 10 essentials?

It’s the night before your big backpacking trip.

You’ve been a good camper and packed all of your 10+ essentials, checked the seals on your water bladder and made sure you have enough chocolate Goo packets to feed a small nation. While test-hefting the final weight of your pack your mind can’t help but wrap itself around the memory of those steep switchbacks halfway up the trail, recalling the sweat rolling down your brow and the burning of your quads accompanied by constant mental curses.

Not even 10 seconds later you start pulling things out of your pack to lighten the load. What can go? …What about that medical kit? You haven’t used that at all the last few trips. Hastily, glancing around the room as if you were on the lookout for the backpacking police, you grab a couple bandaids out of the kit, then stuff it quickly back into the gear closet.

We’re all guilty of it. Gambling on gear. Lightening your load of important gear in order to make it up the trail with less sweat. Its the old trade off of hassle vs. safety.

Here’s some tips on how to make a trip safe without literally breaking your back.

Traveling in a group? Split up some of the burden. Everyone should have some of their own key items, but if you will be staying together its not necessary that all members of your group come loaded to the gills with gear. For Search and Rescue, each team typically divvies up our gear so that one of us carries the tent, stove and cooking gear, another the heavy call out rope and technical gear. Caveat: Make sure you still keep enough gear with each backpacker to keep them safe and warm if they do get separated from the group.

Invest in lighter weight solutions, especially on key items. That titanium cookset, lightweight down jacket, and the ultralight sleeping pad may initially cost more than their heavier counterparts, but you’ll be more likely to bring them than the bulkier version and the weight they free up in your pack can be used for other critical gear- like your first aid kit.

Knowledge weighs nothing. Depending on what you want to do and where you want to go, its a very good bet to stock up on related training. Your best gear in the backcountry are your skills.

  • Wilderness First Aid Courses teach you the basics of how bodies work and break. You’ll learn when you need to evac asap, and when you can still stay and play. You’ll learn how to improv with your gear and backcountry materials. You get lots of critical hands-on experience to help you stay calm when things hit the fan. For an excellent local resource, look into the Wilderness Outings course taught in Idyllwild.
  • Backpacking skills courses. You can take anything from a basic day clinic like those offered by REI to a multi-day backpacking and snow travel course like NOLS or Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) and beyond. Whatever you want to do, the training is out there to help you do it safely.

Improvise wisely. Think critically about what you can and can’t Macgyver in the backcountry. Try to stop severe bleeding with pressure from your dirty clothes (that you need for warmth) while shivering in a snowstorm? All of the sudden you might be pining for that pile of sterile compresses nestled back home in your gear closet. Bottom line: think it through before you discard a piece of gear from your pack.

Bring multipurpose items: Multipurpose gear means more functionality for less weight. I like to keep a stock of multi-purpose gear like bungees, plastic bags and duct tape, just to name a few. Example: 2 durable contractor garbage bags can form a pack liner in rain, an improvised rain jacket or even be joined end to end around my sleeping bag as a makeshift waterproof bivy for weather emergencies.

Still feel like grumbling about the time and expense of investing in good gear and training for the off chance of an emergency? Just remember, it is a gamble every time you go out unprepared. Sooner or later, if you spend enough time in the Wilderness, something happens to everyone. The only question will be if you win or lose your bet.