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.
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?
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?
“You never believe everything you hear.” ~ Haley Hightower
It was supposed to be a simple carryout. But if there’s one thing you learn in Search and Rescue, you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.
The “heads-up” text comes in at 12:30 early Friday morning; a warning that a call-out might be on it’s way. I groan, roll back over and stuff my head under the pillow. The call-out may or may not happen, but I’ll catch as much sleep as I can in the meantime.
At 1:30 the sharp “ding” of a text announces that we do indeed have another mission.
Everyone but Craig Wills and I are off the hill tonight. With the team so short-handed, there’s no going back to sleep on this one. I roll out of bed and shuffle over to pull on my hiking pants and orange shirt. I load the 4Runner up with gear: my standard call out pack plus additional food, water, medical, warmth and overnighting gear. Even though it’s reported as a simple carryout, you never really know what’s coming when you hit the trailhead. I swing by Craig’s house for a quick pickup and we’re on the road with our traditional Rammstein blasting out the stereo.
The request is to assist Cal-Fire with a critical carryout. Intermittent cell service contact with the subject tells the highly dramatic story of a man with “two prosthetic legs, injured and covered in blood.” Cal-Fire is already on trail to his location. We are to provide backup manpower on the litter.
The flashing lights lead us directly to the fire engine at Cactus Spring trailhead. We arrive on scene, ready to spring into action. Not so fast. We’re informed that the fire crew is already on their way back out, but without the subject. They hiked in several miles with a heavy litter in their full call-out gear, but were not able to locate the subject at his self-reported location at the crossing with Horsethief Creek.
Apparently the elusive subject has moved and isn’t responding to attempted voice or cell contact. With failing headlamps and sagging energy the Cal-Fire guys are simply not set up for a major search. What was once assumed a simple assisted on-trail carryout has now become a full-blown search covering miles of wild canyons.
Oh man. I look over at Craig. This is big country out here. There’s a lot of ground for just two people to cover. I guess we’d better get to it! As Craig and I conduct a last cross-check of our gear and sort out our plan of attack, a paramedic brings the welcome news that DSSAR has been contacted to join in on the search with an additional 6 people. We decide to hold off heading into the field until we have the additional manpower.
In the meantime, the RSO deputy has established shaky cell contact with our subject once again. Parked at the Tewanet overlook, the deputy pointed his headlights out into the abyss of canyons south of the 74 and was able to roughly ballpark the subject’s location on the trail. The deputy repeats cardinal rule of Search and Rescue to the subject: “Stay put. We’re coming for you.”
The united RMRU/DSSAR Search team decides we will hike in together with CDF along the trail. Once we can see the police vehicle headlights, we should be directly in the subject’s vicinity. He’s been told to stay put, so we should be good to go. Great! Sounds simple enough.
As we head out, the final search party consists of RMRU and DSSAR joint squads joined by 2 CDF and 1 paramedic carrying around 60 lbs of gear. We take turns trundling the litter and the wheel over the dusty and rocky terrain towards the subject’s last reported location. Hiking with a litter can be strenuous, even without a subject strapped in. After several minutes on litter duty the cold night seems suddenly all too warm and we stop to strip down to our bright orange team shirts.
After a couple miles we reach the crossing with Horsethief Creek. Staring up in the moonlight we survey the challenge ahead of us. The ridge looms in front of us, a final extended vertical push of steep and rocky switchbacks up to where our subject supposedly awaits us. We stop to deliberate. Should we lug the litter up this extreme grade without confirmation of the subject’s whereabouts? He’s already moved on us once. “That could just burn us out- and if he’s not there, well…” notes Sharon from DSSAR.
We call out towards the ridgeline “1…2…3… Hello!”…and wait expectantly for an answer. None comes. Calling again produces the same result. The decision is made to leave the litter at the base of the climb until we’ve confirmed his location. He should be nearby. How far could a man with 2 prosthetic legs get in this sort of terrain?
We wind our way up the ridgeline, towards the slowly brightening horizon to the east. We call out once in a while, just in case our subject has gone to sleep or wandered off trail into a nearby ravine. Reaching the top of the climb, I look to the North. In the far in the distance the red and blue flashers of the deputy’s vehicle are visible, its headlights pointed directly towards us.
Radio contact with the deputy yields disturbing information: He recently saw the subject’s light 400 yards below our current location. Since there’s another ridgeline between us and the road, the only way the subject’s light could be seen below us is if he’s …(sigh) massively off trail! Oh dagnabit: He’s been moving again! I share a look of frustrated understanding with Craig. We both know we’re in for a much longer night.
Looking again to the North, I can understand why the subject would be tempted to make a go of it. The lights from Highway 74 are so tantalizing. They appear to be so close, almost within reach, especially when the rough terrain and impassable cliffs are concealed under the cover of night. But still- you have to marvel that a man with two prosthetic legs could make it that far off trail in this kind of rough terrain! Something just doesn’t seem quite right here.
After a brief conference, the decision is made to head back down to the crossing with Horsethief Creek. We’ll attempt to access the neighboring canyon by following the scar of the boulder-strewn creek downstream. We once again make the wise decision to leave the litter at the crossing. In brightening light of dawn, we pick our way through the rocks, debris and puddles that clutter the narrow base of the ravine.
Just over a mile in we receive encouraging radio contact: “He’s on the move! The deputy can see him!” The subject has made his way to a ravine far below the Tewanet lookout. Of course the canyon is far too steep for him to climb out of, but now we at least have a visual. The deputy establishes faint voice contact and finally gets the subject to stop moving.
A few minutes later, even better news crackles its way over the radio. A Cal-Fire Helicopter is available and will be here in a few minutes. “Alright!” The relieved team shares a quick celebration as we take a much-needed break from clambering through the ankle-twisting rocky debris. Snacks are passed round and drinks shared. As the thup-thup-thup of the helicopter approaches our mood starts to lift. Help from the air is always appreciated.
“The copter says we’re about 1500 feet from him as the crow flies, but there are some very steep drop-offs between us and him,” the Cal-Fire crewman on radio detail reports. Getting to the subject on foot would be very difficult and extricating him on foot even worse. Luckily, the weather is calm and clear and the canyon wide enough for the Cal-Fire air-crew to hoist. What a relief. We stand by as the Cal-Fire Helicopter extracts our elusive subject and returns him to trailhead parking lot.
Now all we have to worry about is ourselves. After hiking around all night carrying a full call-out pack and litter after a moving target, we’re not looking forward to the long hike out. Luckily, our generous friends at Cal Fire have a greatly appreciated solution: spend the extra time and effort to extract the search team as well! The helicopter crew drops a man in along the trail behind us to clear a landing zone. The copter extracts us in groups of three, cutting an exhausting hike of several hours down to a matter of minutes. Thank you Cal-Fire!
Back at staging area we get the scoop on our subject (who has refused medical care and already left). The man “covered in blood” with “prosthetic legs” was actually a guy with a couple of bad knees who had gotten a bit scratched up by the brush during his cross-country travels. Craig and I look at each other and can’t help but laugh. What a great punch line.
Sigh… like I said before… you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.
Fall. The days are still deceptively warm, but the night air carries a crispness that speaks of snow and ice to come. It’s the perfect season for hiking- that is if you follow a few tips that will enhance your enjoyment and safety.
A mild Autumn day hike can turn uncomfortably cold with the addition of a surprise storm. Air temperature drops about 3° to 4°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Heading for Tahquitz Peak? With around 3,300 feet in gain, the temperature may drop as much as 13 degrees from downtown Idyllwild (not accounting for wind chill.) That means a simple drizzle in downtown Idyllwild could turn to biting cold rain or even icy flurries as you climb.
How to keep safe and warm despite the changing weather?
Hiking tips: heating up the trail
Stay dry: While you’re updating your pack for the colder weather ahead, make sure to pack your rain gear and additional dry insulating baselayers to change into. Clothing wet from sweat or rain conducts heat 25 times faster than air and can lead to a surprisingly quick loss of body heat.
Switch to higher-fat snacks: Calorie-dense foods like chocolate, nuts and nut-butters, and cheese burn slowly, keeping you warmer longer. I love those serving size packets of Justin’s maple almond butter and coconut butter. You can find a variety of single serving packets at our local Harvest Market.
Bring enough water and/or a water filter: Many of the water sources in the high country have dried up and sources that were fresh flowing may have become stagnant over the summer. Staying hydrated allows your body to regulate it’s heat stores much more efficiently.
Overnight tips: Keys to staying cozy in camp
Be picky about where you pitch your tent: Your camp-site choice is critical to spending a comfortable night. Pitch your tent well above lower-lying areas like gullies, meadows, and creeks where cold, damp air settles. Nighttime temps can be as much as 25°F warmer just 250 feet above the inversion layer!
Take the chill out of the wind chill: make use of natural windbreaks by pitching your tent behind thicker stands of trees, bigger boulders, and on leeward sides of slopes.
Downsize: Bring a smaller shelter. A lower-volume tent requires less of your body heat to warm it.
Snack yourself warm: Eat a snack and brew hot drinks while you set up your camp. Snack again just before bedtime; digestion will help raise your body temp.
Fat is your friend: Add oil and spices to your fall meal plans. Coconut oil is a quick burning fat,butter is just plain delicious (and has gotten a much undeserved bad rap) and olive oil can add great flavor to any meal. Eating spices like ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon can increase blood flow to the skin and make you feel warmer.
“People are meant to connect with natural places. It is good for the human soul for people to explore their relationship with the places where they live.”
There was a time not too long ago that I felt more connected to my iphone than to the wilderness. At work I spent my time on the phone providing tech support, or hunched over my computer keyboard designing logos for hours on end until my neck and back were on fire with pain. My obsession with my TV shows, tech gizmos, and structured “play” activities made it harder for me to truly allow for free time. Something was always demanding my attention, distracting me, offering the promise of cheap, quick and effortless entertainment.
I grew up in a different world. I was three when we moved back to the family ranch. We had no TV. I spent my days outside. I played as much with sticks and stones as plastic toys. I knew only knew about town life from short resupply trips.
We were always outdoors. My older brother and I built dams in the stream near the house; making our own swimming holes- then destroying them a few days later just to watch the swirling power of the water take everything away. We climbed the oaks for lookout posts, built forts in the trees and bunkers in the brush. It made me feel proud that we had made these things together. We had built them ourselves. They were somehow ours in a way that things simply given to us were not.
I was always in touch with and learning about the world around me. My father took me out and showed me the local snakes, animal tracks and scat. He told me how to tell them apart by what they ate, how they moved and how their lives (and ours) followed the seasons. I learned to look before I placed my foot, watching the ground and surrounding brush carefully for threats. I learned to respect my environment in its power and beauty. I felt connected.
In Girl Scouts we would stagger up the trail under the weight of old fashioned tents on multi-day camping trips. We were often short a tent and I discovered I loved sleeping outside under the stars. The cold wind would bite my cheeks as I stared at the night sky. I remember my first view of the stars from the mountains up near Idyllwild. The Milky Way was a brilliant white splash. I would lay awake for what seemed like hours making up my own constellations.
I felt like I was part of something bigger. Like I had a purpose.
As a child I had run free with a light heart and an inquisitive mind. My relationship with nature as a young adult became gradually more structured and constrained. Although I never completely stopped my outdoor activites, they took on a different tenor. With my new University and then job obligations I felt I had to make an effort to spend time in nature. Living in the city, it seemed all so far away and harder to get to – any outing had to be planned- and it seemed I never had the time.
I rarely approached my now brief journeys into the wilderness with the same completely open and accepting attitude I had as a child. I had learned the ways of modern distraction. I was often thinking of the other things I had to do. I filtered my experience through my camera, by listening to music, by looking for connectivity with my “smart” phone to check my email.
It took me a while to realize that most of the barriers that kept me from connecting with my wilderness were of my own making. I had made the choice to make these limitations and barriers part of my life- and I also could make the choice to let them go.
In the last couple of years I’ve looked back on my childhood relationship with the wilderness and resolved to restore our free and easy bond. Finding ways to connect despite my busy life have been key. Working with the Forest Service as a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger, with Search and Rescue and the Sierra Club as a WTC intstuctor have been critical to reconnecting me with my love of nature, with my love of life itself.
I believe that a life without a connection to nature becomes more sterile, somehow blander. It robs you of basic skills of self-reliance, creativity, spirituality, of a feeling of connectedness with the cycles of life.
Away from the easy distractions of technology you not only can, but are forced to hear the ebb and their flow of your own thoughts and become comfortable with them. Without this inner ear you are likely to become disconnected from your own sense of self and goals in life. You are more likely to float on the surface of life and less likely to truly live.
“Before we had airplanes and astronauts, we really thought that there was an actual place beyond the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow. There was an actual place, and we could go above the clouds and find it there.” ~Barbara Walters
Dark clouds boil across the horizon. A flock of ravens coughs out the last of their calls towards the oncoming storm and flies off towards the thinning blue horizon to the east. I’m in a “scenic” pull out on the side of the road Arches National Park, UT, and things are about to get ugly.
Thunder rolls down through the canyons, lightning spikes through the heavy air. A spattering of raindrops becomes a torrent. The rain falls so hard it stings my fingers. Tourists quickly flee for the shelter of their cars. Other photographers flee en masse, shielding precious lenses against the suddenly wasted day. I almost laugh- it’s practically a scene from an “Armageddon” style movie, without the inevitable end of the world, of course.
I make a hasty retreat to my trusty 4Runner, swing open the door. Using the running board to launch myself inside, I slam the door against the pelting rain. I take off the sunglasses I still have on my head, uselessly try to wipe off the droplets with my wet shirt. The rumble of cars pulling out of the lot gradually dies down as the others filter out back towards town, towards mouth watering burgers at Milt’s and a tasty microbrew at the Moab Brewery. It’s my decision, do I turn left onto road and follow the crowd out of of park? Or turn right and drive deeper?
The rain pelts the windshield so hard and fast that all I can see of the twisted road is a vague blur as the back and forth whine of wipers strains to keep up. Its a half an hour drive until I reach the signs for Balanced Rock. The white noise of the rain on the roof soothes, bringing on a Zen-like state where time doesn’t matter.
A beam of sun announces that the deep blue of the desert sky is reclaiming some of its’ territory. The rain recedes into the distance. I roll down the window. The clean scent of wet desert earth washes up through my nostrils and breezes into my lungs. Everything feels lighter. Cleaner, better. The clouds range high above to the southeast, piled up on top of each other. The sun shines down, reflecting through the water vapor. The smooth vibrant tones of a Rainbow form behind the rock. The car door swings open with a slight creak. Canon in hand the rainbow pulls me forward. The cracked red plain feels cool under my feet.
The rocky plain warms up in the sun. Rivers of water are dying quickly to rivulets, the cracks in the rock of the desert floor drinking up their life blood. Pools of vanishing water reflect the dramatic sky. I shoot for hours, barely noticing as the occasional car makes a hum in the distance – people slowly filtering back in to explore the park.
I reach the trailhead to Delicate Arch as the sun swings low down the horizon. The sandy trail is perfect. I throw my shoes into my backpack, swing it up onto my shoulders, nestle tripod into the notch of my right shoulder. Some of the tourists have ventured back into the park and I nod my way past surprised looks as I run barefoot up the trail past them. Bare toes digging deliciously into the wet sand soil, I book it up the trail towards Delicate Arch as the sun sets behind me.
The sun beats me up the trail. At the Arch a raven struts along the smooth golden red bowl below. The gold fades to yellow, then gray. The crowd sifts away. I’m left alone with a brilliant splash of stars and the dark silhouette of the rock surrounding me. I don’t have my timer for a long exposure to capture the stars, but that doesn’t matter now. Now is not the time for photos… I lay back into the rock, rest my head against the rough stone and soak in its’ warmth. I have my headlamp, my gear and my backpack. In a few hours, I’ll head back down, check in at the friendly little Rustic Inn. But now? I’m over the Rainbow… This is as good as it gets.
I noticed this obvious little fact last week as we were running litter races up and down North Circle Drive in all of our call out gear, carrying litters full of girl scouts throwing candy. After the parade we were dripping in well-earned sweat and very happy to enjoy a cold beverage of choice.
Whether you’re running litter races or hiking a trail, you can become dehydrated in any season. Heat can cause you problems quickly if you’re not prepared for it. You can lose up to 20% of your stamina with only 2% dehydration. That’s a big drop. Even worse, when your system is low on water, you tend to lose mental acuity as well- and that can lead to other, worse mistakes that can put you in real harm’s way.
As you get more and more dehydrated your body quickly loses it’s ability to regulate its own temperature. As you may have guessed, this is not really a good thing. Loss of temperature regulation on a hot day in the back country can lead to both heat exhaustion and heat stroke, neither of which you really want to experience.
Heat exhaustion happens when a person exercises in a hot environment and can’t get rid of enough of the heat generated in their body by sweating. Their systems start to become overwhelmed as they become more and more dehydrated and lose temperature regulation. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include profuse sweating, weakness, nausea, vomiting, headache, lightheadedness, and muscle cramps. This is a serious condition that can escalate into a life threatening emergency.
Heat stroke is one of the most severe forms of heat illness. It can kill you or damage your brain and other internal organs irreparably. It can occur as a slow build up from conditions like heat exhaustion, or happen suddenly. Symptoms range from headache, lack of sweating despite heat, rapid heartbeat and breathing, nausea and disorientation to the extremes of seizures and coma. The best treatment is to cool them as rapidly as possible and calling for advanced medical aid asap. Not really on my agenda for a fun day hiking.
Make sure you drink, but don’t just chug water. Your body needs electrolytes in order to keeps its systems balanced and running well. You can actually “overwater” your body to the point that things start going wrong. This condition is called “hyponatremia” and can be pretty serious, with similar symptoms to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.The only major difference? You’ll probably be peeing like a racehorse as your body attempts valiantly to rid itself of the excess fluids to restore electrolyte balance.
If you are eating as well as drinking, you’re likely to get enough of these electrolytes from your food. If not? Make sure to bring an electrolyte powder mix to add to some water or something like gatorade to fill the need.
Carry enough water and be sure to actually drink it. Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s worth it! It also doesn’t help if your water solidly wedged into the unreachable side pocket on your backpack. Either make a pact with your hiking partner to grab it for you whenever you stop, or invest in an easy access solution like a camelback or platypus water bladder and suction tube.
Know your resources: Most people don’t carry enough water, or know where it’s available if they need it in the high country. USFS Rangers have a good idea of the conditions of water sources in the high country- ask at the USFS front desk for an update before you head out.
Wear loosefitting, lightweight clothing. Wearing heavy clothing or those really hip tight leggings you just bought won’t allow your body to cool properly.
Wear light-colored clothing, especially if you’re in the sun. Keep that awesome black workout shirt for your indoor jazzercise class. Dark colored clothing absorbs heat. Light-colored clothing can help keep you cool by reflecting the sun’s rays. So, even if its not as fashionable that beige hiking shirt is the way to go.
Get conditioned to heat. Limit the amount you spend hiking in the heat until you’re used to it. It’s just the beginning of the summer season- you don’t have to scramble up to the highest peak during midday just yet, do you? People who are not used to hot weather are especially vulnerable to heat-related illness. Remember, it can take up to several weeks for your body to adjust to hot weather.
Consider this your yearly temperature regulation reminder!
When I started backpacking over two decades ago, I was convinced that packing fresh food was “verboten”. The colossal weight of several extra ounces of avocado on your back were just not worth the delight of savoring it’s creamy green goodness. The hiking gods would never allow such a sin to go unpunished. If you knew what was good for you, you’d stick with convenient and quick processed meals of dehydrated chicken and rice and count your bland, ultralight blessings.
While I still invest in lightweight gear, I’ve moved steadily away from gulping down the mummified remains of freeze-dried meals. I now know it’s possible to cook real, healthy food without wasting hours hunched over the stove or earning a hernia while carrying my dinner.
Here’s some helpful hints to turn your boring freeze-dried dinner into a (relatively) lightweight backcountry delight:
Remember: Water is water. Your body doesn’t know the difference between the water in your Nalgene and in that succulent heirloom tomato. You’ll be carrying that water weight anyway- wouldn’t you rather some of it be in the form of delicious, juicy fruits and veggies? Benefits abound: Tomatoes alone provide a great amount of vitamin C and an outstanding antioxidant content- shown to fight fatigue and support your immune system- generally a great idea while hiking.
Spices, spices, spices! Spices are worth their weight in gold. Salt and pepper are a must, but you can also bring anything from cumin to garlic powder. BONUS: include copious amounts of Curry for the anti-inflammatory powers of tumeric and you’ll be a lot less sore after your long days on trail. Skip the full containers and use Ziplock baggies for your kitchen on the go.
Include healthy fats. Fat carries the most flavor- and serves as a great source of energy and materials to help your body to repair itself. Butter, coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil are all great choices. Ounce for ounce, fats provide the most fuel and flavor you need to keep going. TIP: The medium chain Triglycerides in coconut oil are particularly useful for quick energy since the body can absorb them directly from the digestive tract without having to go through all the extra work of emulsification.
Freeze your first night’s protein. Stash a great steak in the freezer overnight before your trip. Just before you’re about to go, take it out, double ziplock bag it and pack it deep in the center of your pack. Your other gear will act as insulation keeping it cold and leaving you with a real treat at the end of the day. (NOTE: Unfortunately veggies and fruits generally do NOT freeze well- ice crystals break up their cell structure and they will turn into mush as they melt). Protein and fat are both necessary materials to help repair your muscles after long hours of hiking with a heavy pack. Make sure to give your body what it needs to rebuild.
Precook some of your ingredients for the first night’s meal. Food such as onions, mushrooms and other side dish veggies can be precooked and then added to your pan at the last minute. You’ll cut down on cooking time, the size of pans and amount of fuel you’ll need to carry. By incorporating foods such as onions and garlic, you’ll not only drive away bears (and other backpackers) but also give your body the sulfur it needs to help produce the glycosaminoglycans necessary (amongst other functions) for the smooth, pain free movements of your joints and tendons.
Choose dehydrated wisely. Instead of going for bland dehydrated meals, choose individual dry ingredients that will actually enhance the end flavor and health of your meal. Sundried tomatoes, herbs and dried mushroom medleys are all just waiting to be rehydrated and mixed in as ultra-flavorful components of your meals.
Utilize dry staples, such as quick cook rice and (Gluten Free) pasta, then add fresh ingredients to spice up the meal. NOTE: A helpful trick to speed up the cooking process is to add your pasta or rice to a Ziplock bag full of water for the last mile or so (perhaps more depending on estimated cook time) of your hike into camp.
Fresh food may add some weight, but with the right choices it can more than make up for that in flavor and health. Everything tastes better in the backcountry, but that’s no excuse for eating just plain bad food.
We’re down the mountain in Hemet to grab some goodies for the girl scouts to throw at the parade and pick up the RMRU team truck and litters. Our energized litter races are always a big hit with the hometown crowd. Lee grabs a big bag of brightly colored candies out of a deep bin and tosses it into the cart.
As we start walking down the aisle, both of our phones chime with a new text. It’s 7:43 pm. “We have a search. 2 lost hikers. Respond to the tram.”
Dang… We don’t have our gear with us.
I look at Lee. Should we drop everything and drive to Idyllwild? Grab our gear and beeline to the tram around the other side of the mountain?
There’ll be no way to make it in time before the tram closes. Also, they’ll need the team truck for the rescue. No chance for us to pick it up for the parade. Most of the people responding are those who would be in the parade. A high country search? They’ll be way too beat for anything tomorrow.
Lee tosses the giant bag of candy reluctantly back in the bin. There will be more parades, but we always look forward to the Fourth in Idyllwild.
Getting in on the Action
On our way out of the parking lot Lee calls the rescue line for more info. Gwenda the Call Captain says the subjects departed from the tram side of the mountain, but during the brief, garbled cell phone contact they described traversing Willow Creek trail. If they are correct (subjects often aren’t: since they are already lost it’s generally not wise to trust their sense of direction) that would put them on our side of the mountain.
That changes things. If they’re on our side of the mountain we may be able to make it in on the search after all!
We quickly finish off our last errands in Hemet and follow the winding road back up the mountain, pack our gear and jet towards Humber Park. Seconds before we go out of cell service a text with gps coordinates comes through. They place the couple far from their last known location. Now they appear to be somewhere along the PCT, a section we refer to as Angels Glide, heading up from Saddle Junction towards Wellman’s Divide and the State Park above.
This places them solidly on our side of the mountain, but we have to be careful with this information. Coordinates are sometimes just plain wrong. We’ve even experienced them placing a subject on the opposite side of the mountain miles away from their actual location.
On Trail: Get it in Gear
It’s been dark for a couple hours by the time we hit Humber. We act efficiently, but don’t just rush off down the trail. When you’re in a rush you often forget something critical that could bite you later. Lee and I cross check that we have the correct gear for the mission before heading out. Sleeping bags for a potential overnight, extra food for us and the subjects, extra water, extra clothing for us and the subjects, 3 headlamps each, first aid basics, plus all the other small and large essentials. Check.
10:40 pm. Time to go. I swing on my pack and turn towards the trailhead. Our headlamps create swinging shadows as we steam up the familiar trail. As locals, we hike this trail for fun and training enough to have every switchback engraved in our memory. The full moon above silhouettes Tahquitz rock towering behind us and illuminates the face of Suicide Rock in front. It’s relatively warm in the mid 50’s (if you’re hiking that is), with a slight breeze- a good night for a hike.
We make good time up the mountain. The solid crunch crunch of Lee’s footsteps in front of me is my only timekeeper. A short way after Middle Spring we swing off the trail to an outcropping of rocks to call up into the dark ravines. Deep breath… and “1….2…3… HELLO!”
I listen to the sound of our voices bouncing through the canyons. The mountains call back their echoes for a long time, but there’s no response from the subjects. We call another two times. With no response on the third call, it’s time to shoulder our packs again and head up the trail.
We come up on the 3/4 point at the “Soil is fragile, please stay on trail” sign and stop. We catch our breath and call out again. And again. On the third call I think I hear something, but I can’t be certain. Either way we’ll have to continue up to the Junction to get access to the high country.
Minutes pass as we silently push our way up the trail. Out of nowhere I get an odd feeling and stop midstep. Lee holds up right behind me. “I think I heard something”. We listen for a few seconds and I do hear something: a yell from far away, carried by the wind over the ridge line. “If that’s them, they are on Angel’s glide, they’ve gotta be!” We call out in sync: “1..2…3… HELLO!”
A faint, but clear response echoes back in between the rustles of pine needles in the wind. “Helloooo….”
I grin broadly at Lee and he smiles and nods in response. With renewed energy we start up the trail. We hit Saddle Junction in record time and call out again. The response is encouragingly a little louder, a little clearer this time.
“That’s them, it’s got to be.” I say again. “No one is that persistent in yelling back this late at night unless they have a real good reason”. We yell again, identifying ourselves “Search and Rescue!” and giving instructions: “Stay put!”. After dealing with a couple of belligerent yells from a camper we have woken, Lee contacts Base and lets them know that we have voice contact with the subjects.
Rob May at Base relays our find to the other teams and gives us an update on their progress and location. Carlos Carter, Lew Kingman and Ralph Hoetger barely missed the tram and are waiting at the base with the rescue truck. Pete Carlson and Mark Houston have cleared miles of the upper park trails from Long Valley to Wellman’s divide. Donny Goetz and Les Walker have been blazing along the trail and have already swept Hidden Divide to Willow Creek. They now are headed our way.
It’s agreed that we will proceed to the subjects, with Donny and Les following as back up. Pete and Mark will stay put at Wellman’s Divide until we’re certain we have a handle on the situation.
As we hike up the Glide we stop and call out every few minutes, partly to confirm their position, but mostly to encourage them as they hear our voices getting closer. Finally, near the top of the Glide a very happy shout of: ” We see your lights!” says we’ve arrived.
We introduce ourselves and shake hands. I confirm they have no injuries. Their main issue is being cold. We may be toasty from our hike, but they are wearing only shorts and tshirts at night in the mountains. That can be dangerous in any season. Lee and I quickly break open our packs and pass out armfuls of warm clothing like candy. We hand out our extra stores of food and water. They tear into the snack bars and nuts as if they were Manna sent from heaven.
Chris confirms what Lee predicted. The missed turnoff in the State Park shunted them down Hidden Lake Divide and into the Forest Service Wilderness above Idyllwild. Their quick day hike turned into an extended journey. Despite being smart and nice people, they weren’t prepared with the necessary essentials to keep them on track and safe for an unplanned marathon hike.
Our new friends are understandably eager to get on trail, so we get moving. We run into Donny and Les back near the Junction. After a warm greeting for our teammates, we make some quick introductions and head back down the trail to Humber Park. It’s a long, dusty hike that always seems longer on the way down.
Still aglow from the buzz of a successful rescue, the team reaches a consensus- the parade is still on! Rescue or not- we agree we wouldn’t miss the litter races up and down North Circle Drive for anything!
Finally, around 2:40 am, we see the lights of the sheriff’s car shining in the distance through the dust of the trail and silhouettes of trees. Beat, but happy, it’s time to head home. Donny and Les pile in with us for a drop off at their homes. They’ll pick up their cars at the tram tomorrow afternoon. My eyes droop a bit now that the adrenaline has worn off. If I hurry to bed, I might be able to snag a couple of hours sleep before the parade.
RMRU members present on mission: Lee Arnson, Pete Carlson, Carlos Carter, Donny Goetz, Rob May, Ralph Hoetger, Mark Houston, Lew Kingman, Helene Lohr and Les Walker.