Tag Archives: safety

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.

 

Rescue Me!

So you’re lost.

You’re not quite sure where you got turned around, but if you just keep going, you’ll probably figure it out, right? Maybe if you follow this stream downhill… didn’t Bear Grylls say something about water leading to civilization?

Lost in the Wilderness

The shadows start to grow around you and the trees that seemed so welcoming now hold hidden menace… Night is falling and you’re getting nervous. You’re starting to realize how unprepared you are: no headlamp to illuminate the growing dark, no jacket to hold off the chill. The cold is starting to bite at your shorts clad legs. You can see some lights in the distance; maybe if you just keep going it’ll work out alright…

It’s always there; the temptation to just keep going. It’s a natural tendency, to want to rely on yourself, to avoid the embarrassment of “getting lost”, but there’s a dark side to this self reliance. There comes a time to acknowledge that you are indeed lost, and to sacrifice your ego, call for help (if possible), stop moving and find a safe place to hunker down.

Here are some tips to help you stay safe and be found as quickly as possible.

  • Let em’ know before you go. Let someone reliable know where you are going and when to expect you back. It’s common sense, but too few people actually do it. We can’t send out a rescue team unless we know approximately when and where you disappeared.
  • Keep your lines of communication open. Bring your cell phone and conserve your battery until you need it by turning it off or using airplane mode. A sketchy cell connection may someday be enough to save your life. If you have a GPS enabled phone, the Sheriff may be able to get a ping on your rough location for the rescue team. This is useful to us only if you stay put!
  • Find a safe spot out of shelter of the wind and elements to spend the night. Getting cold? You can jog around your improvised campsite, do push-ups, exercise…. But above all, stay put!
  • Don’t be lured in by the lights. Our local Southern California mountian ranges are often surrounded by a network of roads and cities. The lights twinkling in the distance can seem so tantalizingly near, so achievable. But what you can’t see at night are the dangers that lie ahead of you in the dark, the rough terrain and impassable cliffs that are concealed under the cover of night. Many a lost hiker has been lured in by the siren song of the city lights, only to be trapped in the dangerous jungle of steep ravines with no safe route back up or down.
  • Stay put! You are far more likely to fall and injure yourself while moving in the dark or in unfamiliar territory. Moving will probably only make a bad situation worse. If you could depend on your sense of direction you wouldn’t be lost in the first place. Moving wears you out and wastes your resources.
  • DON’T lead us on a wild goose chase! (Did I mention you should stay put?) Moving puts not only you at risk, but also the rescue personnel that are trying to find you. If you’ve managed to put a call through about your location or believe that you have been reported missing from a specific trailhead or area it’s particularly important that you don’t go wandering off in another direction and widen the search area.
  • Be prepared to patiently wait. It can take a while for emergency services to activate the search team. We are all volunteers with our own jobs and lives. We must stop whatever we are doing, or climb out of our beds, gather our gear and drive to the trailhead. Also remember, the people looking for you won’t be moving as fast as you; we are carrying heavy packs with extra supplies (for you!) and must often stop to call out and check out side canyons and gullies for your tracks before moving on.
  • Help us out! Can you see or hear a helicopter looking for you? It’s amazingly hard for the air crew to see people on the ground, especially if you stand still. In a recent interview with aviation one of the guys remarked; “If you stand next to a rock, you look like a rock”. If you want to be found, go to a nearby clearing, ridge line or rock outcropping and make yourself visible: wave, move around to catch their attention. (NOTE: they can’t hear you over the rotor blades, so save your voice!). Don’t expect them to immediately land and pick you up. Often they will instead call in your location for our ground crew to reach you. If you’ve been sighted don’t move- even if the helicopter flies away, stay put!

 

So go out, have fun, try not to get lost…. But if you do happen to get in trouble, did I mention you should stay put?

Dinner Can Wait

“Ding!” I look down at the text, sigh and kick off the high heels I had just slipped on. Dinner down in the desert can wait; we have a call out.

15 minutes later my heels and dress have been exchanged for an orange shirt and hiking boots. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Lee’s truck as we bounce up the rutted dirt road leading to South Ridge Trailhead.

It’s a search. Out from the coast for a relaxing time camping in the mountains, the subject (Herb) had wandered off to the South to meditate, became disoriented and used his cell to call his friend back at camp. As Herb became increasingly lost, his friend made the call to contact 911.

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We see the red and blue flashers ahead and pull up parallel to the Sheriff’s car. Mark Young is the RSO deputy on scene. He’s in contact with the subject by cell and already has a good handle on the situation.

Deputy Young uses his previous military experience to help pinpoint Herb’s location. “Point your chest to the setting sun and describe what you can see in front of you.” Having the subject turn in a circle and relate what he sees at each 90 degree angle gives Young a good idea of Herb’s location. This helps him guide the Sheriff’s helicopter rapidly to the spot. Star 9 hovers above Herb for several minutes, allowing us to get a bead on the direction and distance we’ll need to go.

We get the news that several members of the team from off the hill are on their way. Gwenda is bringing our RMRU Rescue Truck, Dana is heading up the mountain and Paul is already on the way out from Orange County. Good to know- if anything goes wrong we may need additional people.

Since we still have daylight, Lee and I make the call to head out as a hasty team and see if we can locate the subject before nightfall complicates the matter. After a quick cross-check of our gear, we swing on our packs and head out cross country through the heavy brush. Thick stands of Manzanita, Chinquapin and various other thorny and spiky obstacles have us swerving off course more than once. We note landmarks along the way to keep us on track for our way back.

Once the helicopter peels away and the forest becomes quiet again, we yell ahead to establish voice contact. “1…2…3… Hello!” Herb responds loudly and boisterously “Hey, Hey, Hey! I’m over here! I’m here!” His voice is coming from a few hundred yards directly ahead. “Stay put! We’ll come to you!” We start out again, picking our way through the brush and calling out once in a while to make sure we stay on course.

Within a matter of minutes we crest a hill and come across a thankful Herb. He’s dressed in tattered blue sweatshorts, his arms and legs covered with scratches from forcing his way through the sharp foliage. After shaking our hands, he gratefully guzzles the Nalgene of water Lee passes his way. “Man, I’m soooo glad to see you! I was waving at the helicopter, but then he flew away. If the deputy wouldn’t have kept telling me to stay put, I would have definitely moved!”

After giving Herb a few minutes to drink and eat, we make the call to head back quickly. We might still be able to beat the sunset. Herb certainly isn’t dressed for nighttime in the mountains and the temperature will be dropping quickly.

Lee is familiar with the area, and after a few minutes of hiking he locates an unofficial mountain bike trail. Having a nice, smooth, brush-free trail makes the going much easier for our exhausted subject. We reach the truck and load Herb into the back seat. We pull up next to Deputy Young as the last fading rays of the sun disappeared in the west. Mission accomplished.

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Wilderness Adventure: The Lucky 13 Essentials

Wilderness Adventure and Safety the 10 (plus 3) essentials, Idyllwild

Planning a roadtrip? Want to hit some wilderness areas for hiking and backpacking? As a Backcountry Skills Instructor, Search and Rescue Team Member, volunteer USFS Ranger and general Know-it-all I’ve had quite a bit of experience planning for safe trips into the wilderness. Here’s my own personal Adventurer’s list of 13 essentials for Wilderness Safety.

  1. Common Sense. Truly essential number ONE. Having the right gear is one thing, but knowing how and when to use it is another. Most often, it’s not a person’s gear that saves their bacon. It’s experience, know-how, and good judgment.
  2. Extra clothing. I always bring a down jacket, extra socks, rain gear and an emergency shelter. The weather can change its’ mind minute by minute. If you or your friend is injured, you may be required to stay in one place for an extended period through weather extremes. Contrary to what the media presents, rescues often take many hours to coordinate, even when you are lucky enough to have a helicopter available. Extra clothing can make the difference between a merely unpleasant night and a life threatening one.
  3. A hiking partner. Consider hiking with a partner. Hiking alone, especially in winter, can be dangerous. A critical point to remember: a cell phone is useful, but does not replace a partner. Batteries can go out, certain areas do not receive reception, and you may drop, damage or lose your phone.
  4. Headlamp and backup batteries. You never know how long you will have to stay out in emergency situations. Light to illuminate your surroundings and the trail home can be the difference between a safe trip home and a broken leg.
  5. Extra water and/or filter, especially in the summer- remember you never know what’s up the drainage… dead horse water anyone? Remember that your water bladder line can freeze in the winter and leak in the summer- it’s wise to bring a back-up Nalgene. Even 2% dehydration takes your physical and metal efficiency down 20% and makes you much more vulnerable to hypothermia or heat exhaustion. Most people we rescue are dehydrated in addition to being lost or injured.
  6. Extra Food. Getting stuck in the back country without extra food can be pretty uncomfortable. Keeping your energy up can help you stay in good health and keep you more mentally alert to make good decisions.
  7. Gear for Seasonal conditions: Microspikes, gloves, extra dark sunglasses and snow gaiters are always in my bag in the winter. Crampons, ice axe and snowshoes are always out in my gear room to be brought on an as needed basis. Hiking partners are on speed dial. A hat with a visor, sunglasses, insect gear and repellant, sunscreen and a head/neck buff are summer standards.
  8. Sun Protection. Dark sunglasses, hat and suncreen are more important to your safety than you know. A little sunburn may not kill you, but unprotected exposure to bright light (reflected off of snow or light graveled trails) for as little as an hour at high altitudes can (initially) painlessly burn your cornea and then lead to supremely painful snowblindess within a few hours. If you’ve experienced it full blown you will never forget it. Remember, if you are out on your own it is difficult and dangerous find your way down the trail without the use of your eyes.
  9. First Aid Gear– Carry the basics, know what you have and make sure you know how to use everything you carry. It won’t do you any good to carry something if you have no clue how to use it. It’s very a good idea to enroll yourself in a Wilderness First Aid course like one of those offered by Wildernessoutings.com (some of the best instructors I know).
  10. Map & Compass: Always bring a topo map of the region. Make sure you know how to read it and use your compass to orient the map. Knowing UTM coordinates is also really useful. You never know when you may have to call out the coordinates of the nearest meadow for a helicopter landing zone for Search and Rescue.
  11. Fire: a reliable source of fire can be critical to keeping you warm in emergency situations. Even though most Wilderness areas are fire free, there are situations where survival can trump all.
  12. Knife/repair tools. Having a knife can help you out in a lot of critical survival situations- not necessarily so dramatic as cutting off your own arm (a la 127 Hours), but important nonetheless.
  13. Vision aids. Have a prescription? Wear contacts? Make sure and bring both extra contacts and a set of glasses. I’ve had contacts tear, glasses break or my eyes become too irritated for contacts. On one particular high angle snow and ice rescue I was very glad I had brought an alternative. Take it from me, it’s not fun trying to make your way down the mountain while only seeing a vague blur of the trail ahead of you.

So get out there and have fun! But make sure you take the time ahead of time to prepare with the right gear, the right training, and most especially copious amounts of common sense. There are certainly other things that you can bring that will help you safely navigate the back country, but nothing trumps going into the wilderness with a good head on your shoulders!