By Dan Kidder
I headed down the road the other day to locate a cool geocache only about a half mile off the highway. Since a GPS only shows you how far something is in a straight line, little did I know that the geocache in question was a half of a mile on the other side of a steep mountain up a boulder-strewn wash.
Since I thought my journey was going to be a breeze, I opted to make the short trek with no supplies, other than the items I carry in my pockets every day. As a survival instructor, I know better. I constantly tell my students to avoid placing themselves in dangerous situations without the proper preparation. I tell them that it is never a single thing going wrong that gets people killed, but a cascading alignment of multiple failures that lead to doom. It usually starts with a poor decision.
As I worked further up the canyon, it became clear that what I thought was going to be a simple stroll in the desert was going to involve serious bouldering and climbing almost sheer walls. Obviously there was another path to approach this cache, but in my mind, I was already committed, since I had passed the half-way point.
At several points along the hike, I told myself this was a bad idea. I chided myself for not bringing at least a bottle of water. I reminded myself that no one knew where I was or when to expect my return and the danger of mechanical injury was very high. I laughed at myself because the back of my SUV resembles a survival store and all of the gear I needed was just a short half-mile away. Half a mile too far away. Worse yet, all of the day hike essentials I am going to talk about in this article were prepacked into a hiking pack in the back of the car.
Even on a short hike out in the wilderness, a confluence of unfortunate events can leave a well trained, physically fit, and normally well prepared person in danger of serious injury or death. Having the right equipment and supplies and the knowledge of how to use them can mean the difference between emergency personnel performing a rescue or a recovery.
Fortunately, I usually wear a good pair of quality hiking boots every day. On this trip I was wearing my Keen Glarus hiking boots and a pair of Lorpen merino wool hiking socks. This was the perfect combination for the terrain I was on and it is better to have too much shoe than not enough. Your footwear should be sufficient for the terrain, fit properly, and have enough ankle support to help prevent mechanical injury. Good quality wool or synthetic socks will wick away moisture and prevent the build up of hot spots that cause blisters. In colder weather, these socks will keep your feet dry and warm.
Since I was geocaching, I had a GPS receiver loaded with local maps. (I wish I had used the topographic map feature.) What I didn’t have that I should have had was my compass and a local 7.5 minute topographic map that you can download for free from the US Geological Survey at store.usgs.gov. As part of the New National Map program, these maps are a vast improvement over previous topographic maps as they combine geospatial imagery with navigation and topographic guides. Having the knowledge to use a map and compass together will make sure that you never get lost, even should your batteries on your GPS die on you. When you get turned around in the wilderness is not the time to learn how to navigate. A good source for learning how to use map and compass together is the book Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook by June Fleming. A quality baseplate orienteering compass such as those made by Brunton or Suunto are what you are looking for.
Water makes everything in our body work. It acts as a conductor of the electrical signals fired off by our neurons. It allows the white and red blood cells to flow freely in our blood vessels. It cools hot air and warms cold air as it enters our lungs. It flushes away toxins from our muscles as we exert them. In short, without water we start to see a dramatic degradation in performance, and then we die.
Not only do you need ample water, but you need a container to carry it in and a method to purify more water. The best canteen is your stomach. Before a hike, make sure you are well hydrated and have filled up on as much water as you can comfortably carry in your stomach. On your way to the trailhead, be drinking water and avoid stomach filling fluids that offer little or no hydration benefit like coffee, alcohol, or soda. Plain water is also often much more beneficial for you than a sports drink. If you are worried about electrolytes, eat a banana, eat a tube of GU or lick up a salt packet. These will give you far more beneficial electrolytes than those sugary sports drinks. Next time you order the supersized fries at your favorite fast food place, ask for extra salt packets and toss them in your hiking pack. Also in my pack, I have a Geigerrig Hydration Engine. It is a pressurized bladder that has an inline water filter. It holds a liter of water and purifies it for drinking. Should I need to find more, an additional 6 Katadyn Micropur tablets and a Nalgene water bottle give me multiple options for carrying and purifying water. Remember as well that at the first signs of thirst, your body is already getting dehydrated. If allowed to continue, muscle cramps will set in followed by headache, nausea, lightheadedness, and then finally death. Stay hydrated.
Truth be told you can go days without eating. But the reality is that your body needs fuel and the more strenuous the activity, the more calories you will need to replace to keep up your strength. Not only does food fill your belly, it also provides nutrients that help your body thermoregulate or keep it from getting to cold or too hot. Even for a short hike, a couple of energy bars, some fruit leather, or a little jerky can help keep the motor running and if something happens and you have to spend more time than you anticipated in the wilderness, you will be very glad that you took the time toss some munchies into your pack. It beats eating bark off the trees. Oh, and a power bar makes great squirrel bait so you can turn that gross tasting gooey mess into a hearty meal with a little ingenuity and luck.
Cotton kills! That is the mantra to remember when selecting your clothing for the outdoors. Synthetic clothing and wool fibers are the best route to go. Even when the weatherman calls for great temperatures and clear skies, keep in mind that he only has to be right 20 percent of the time to be one of the best meteorologists on the planet. You only have to be wrong once to die in the wilderness. Having a rain poncho and a hat can help keep you dry and warm if there is a sudden downpour. You can die from hypothermia on a relatively warm day if you get wet. Also, make sure that you have layers of clothing so you can protect yourself from the burning rays of the hot summer sun, but still shed a layer to keep cool. Always have a hat that covers all of your head and can be adapted to cover your neck as well. These areas are vital to proper thermoregulation.
In my pack is an Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pack. This kit contains the means to make fire for warmth, cooking food, and purifying water. It also has a small flashlight so I can see in the dark should my hike take longer than anticipated. A headlamp is also a good addition. A loud shrieker whistle is in the PSP Plus so I can signal to others if I am injured. Other items in the PSP Plus can help me trap food, repair gear, signal for help, and offers me options to assist in my survival in an emergency. Having a kit like the PSP Plus or the Bear Grylls Gerber Survival Kit offers you a wide variety of items in a very compact and lightweight package. Be careful of kits packaged in water bottles or tiny tins as the quality of the products is questionable and the items fall short of helping in an emergency. A kit like that just gives a false sense of security. A better route is to check out survival forums and assemble your own kit of safety items.
Having an ambulance drive behind you might almost ensure that you have what you need for any kind of medical emergency you might encounter on the trail. None of it means anything if you don’t know how to use it. The best first aid kit has a wide selection of products, is small and compact, and provides you with the ability to stabilize someone who is seriously injured. The more first aid training you have, the more you can do with less. The proper balance for a day hike first aid kit is something small enough and light enough to be easily carried, but also containing enough of the right items for a variety of medical emergencies. Hands down, the best pre-made kits on the market are made by Adventure Medical Kits. The quality of the items inside is first rate. The containers hold up to abuse and keep everything organized, and the products are appropriate for a wide variety of injuries. Other kits on the market provide higher piece counts but many of the pieces are low quality or repeats of seldom-used items, like those little dot bandages. Never judge the quality of a first aid kit based upon how many pieces are in it. Another bonus of the AMK products is that they all come with Dr. Eric Weiss’ book, A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine, which is worth of the cost of the kit alone. The kit I carry in my pack is the Mountain Series Weekender.
On any given day, I carry several knives, anywhere between three to seven depending upon what I am doing on that day. I have different knives for different purposes, but no matter what, I am never without a sharp blade of some sort, whether it be a fixed blade, a folder, or some kind of multitool. One of the oldest tools known to man is a sharp blade. It has so many uses that I won’t even try to catalogue them all here, but I will say, never go anywhere, except on an airplane, without a knife of some kind. It doesn’t need to be Crocodile Dundee’s giant Bowie knife, but something suitable for chopping wood, building shelter, cutting up and dressing the squirrel you trapped, and cutting clothing into bandages needs to be in your pack. I have a SOG Flash II clipped to my pocket at all times and another Leatherman Sidekick in my hiking bag. Another great skill to have is learning how to knap flint or use other stones to shear off a sharp blade in an emergency.
A lot of hiking involves going up. Whether you are starting at the base of a mountain and walking toward the summit or you are following the contours of a ridgeline up and down the hills, hiking means spending time underneath the sun and often at altitudes that enhance the sun’s ability to do permanent damage to us. Having the proper sunscreen protection, either in the form of a topical paste or in the clothing we wear, can allow us to prolong the amount of time we can be in the direct sunlight without doing harm to ourselves. Even on cloudy days, the sun’s UV rays can cause us pain, discomfort, and even create burns bad enough to become infected and kill us. Use the Highest SPF sun block you can get. Don’t worry about how long it protects or if you get more benefit from a 75 SPF than you do a 50, just use the highest you can.
As important is protecting your eyes from the burning of the sun. Good sunglasses are a must, especially as you move above the protective canopy of the trees into the direct sun. In the winter, snow can blind you, permanently if you are exposed to the glare of the sun on the snow for long enough.
Finally, you need a pack to carry all of this gear. My daypack is a 5.11 Tactical Rush 12 pack with a Giegerrig Hydration Engine water bladder inside. It is roomy enough to contain everything I need to carry, but not so large that I feel like I am through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. It also allows me to toss in a camera, some binos, and other sundry items that help me record the trip and make it an enjoyable excursion.
People like to laugh at me and make some fun for all of the things I carry, but the reality is that every year thousands of hikers who were ill prepared were injured or killed. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, Hiking is the third most dangerous outdoor activity and resulted in more than 13,000 serious injuries or deaths between 2004 and 2005, the last years for which data are available. Additionally, our nation’s various Search and Rescue agencies spend tens of thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars rescuing and recovering hikers who didn’t take the proper precautions. The difference between a rescue and a recovery is in a rescue you retrieve a breathing victim and in a recovery you are retrieving a dead one.
I end up carrying a lot of gear that I never need to use, and I am okay with that. All told, my pack weighs less than 10 pounds, including the 2.2 pounds of my water. It gives me a better workout, kind of like carrying a weight around to increase resistance. Additionally, I always assume that others are not going to be prepared because, well, they have usually demonstrated that they aren’t, so I carry enough extra gear for them as well. I am quite happy when I carry gear I never need to use. It feels a whole lot better than the feeling I got the other day when I didn’t have the gear I needed. I much prefer the reassurance of having what I need on me than the empty pit in my stomach when I realize that I am woefully unprepared should an emergency arise.
Take the time to assemble the items you need into a pack that you can leave in your car and have ready for when you decide you need to put some miles of path beneath your boots. You don’t have to spend a fortune. Just use these guidelines or logon to www.AmericanHiking.org for more information that will help you be prepared for a safe and enjoyable hike. Happy Trails!