Taking Care of Yourself On the Trail (or Giving Your Loved Ones Peace of Mind)

NPR posted an article about hikers leaving the trailhead utterly unprepared. If things go south, could you take care of things? Would you need help, or could you deal with problems on your own?

I am seeing this more and more frequently: one or two people, heading up the trail, with a tiny pack, carrying only what they’d need for a long walk in the county park. It’s okay if you don’t carry high end backpacking gear. But you absolutely have to be prepared to spend an uncomfortable night in the woods.

The NPR article also assumes that a hiker can use a cell phone from the trail. That’s not always the case out here in the West. For example, if you start a hike off of I-90, you can easily climb a ridge and then descend to the other side, to eat your lunch by a lake. But at that point, you’ll most likely be out of cell range. Consider a personal locator beacon, such as the SPOT. This is used when a person is in danger…broken leg, completely lost, hypothermia, etc….after a person has exhausted other options. But try your cellphone first.

Besides communication (consider it the 11th essential), make sure you have the 10 essentials. I am *more* than happy to consult on these…the last thing I want is my friends to get into trouble in the backcountry!

Here are some inexpensive ways to fill out your Ten Essentials kit. Once you get them, just leave them in your pack (well, except for the food and water).

  1. Navigation (map and compass…bringing a GPS app is fine too, and you won’t need cell signal, but have the map and compass as backup)
    1. Maps: Get them for free at Caltopo.
    2. Compass and loud whistle: Coghlans Four Function Whistle is very simple, but it will get the job done. $4
    3. Also ***make sure*** you leave your hiking plans with a friend or loved one
  2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing, AND a warm hat, AND a raincoat…this is the Northwest)
  4. Illumination (headlamp/flashlight AND extra batteries)
    1. Headlamp, if you don’t already have one: Energizer Headlamp $15
    2. Batteries: Carry one extra set, in a ziploc bag.
  5. First-aid supplies (that you know how to use)
    1. This Lifeline model is a good one. I’d only add a small bag of Benadryl, in case of sudden allergic reaction. If you’ve got this stuff at home, just put it in a ziploc bag and you’re good. $10
  6. Fire (Lighter AND stormproof matches AND a firestarter)
    1. Lighter: Grab a Mini bic at the grocery store checkout stand, for a couple of bucks
    2. Stormproof matches: This Stormproof Match Kit comes in a case and last forever. $9
    3. Firestarter: Murphy’s Law says it will be raining. Use InstaFire to get the fire going. $8
    4. ***Don’t forget to put it out…dead, cold out…when you leave.***
  7. Repair kit and tools (like a pocket knife)
  8. Nutrition (extra food)
  9. Hydration (extra water)
  10. Emergency shelter (this large size space blanket can fit two people) $8
  11. Communication
    1. For day/weekend hiking, the SPOT is fine. It’s on sale at Cabela’s now, for $90. Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s an insurance policy. If you hike once per month, that’s only $7.50 per month, plus the $20 monthly subscription fee…less than you’ll spend on gas and an after-hike meal.
    2. For better coverage, better communication with Search and Rescue, and lower overall cost (with a larger up front cost), I strongly recommend the Garmin inReach. This is my go-to when I’m doing long distance hikes. Search and Rescue prefers this device.
    3. Cellphone…try this first
    4. The compass/whistle above

Please be safe out there.

Not Everything Is as It Seems

When I returned from my 2017 PCT section hike, I was in tears, and not the happy kind.

I completed one hundred miles, which was far short of my desired goal. Saying “one hundred miles” makes it sound huge. And it is, if you don’t hike like this. But for me, it felt like a defeat, even though it was clearly a victory. I had been ill from September through April…just a few months before I had planned to hit the trail again. Chronic fatigue syndrome bit me in the ass, and it wasn’t going away.

I wrote my blog from this space of victory and defeat. I couldn’t really dig into the story. It hurt too much, and besides, I didn’t want my family to worry.

I’m now two months removed from my hike, and I’m starting to gain perspective. I also know that other hikers have faced their own demons, and it is for these reasons that I wrote this.

August 8, 2017

After a handful of miles, I came to a water cache on a forest road. Water was so critical to me. Without enough hydration and electrolytes, I would be in serious trouble. My heart would start pounding. I would get dizzy. I wouldn’t be able to see straight. I certainly wouldn’t be able to walk much. This was my biggest problem…how to balance the need for far more water than normal, with the inability to carry excess water.

The cache was huge, and there was magic. I was very grateful for both…a chance to rest and snack, and fill up with the water that I needed. If the cache had been empty, I would have needed to hitch a ride to town. That had been weighing on me.

The next water source was 15 miles south, and 2000 feet of elevation gain. This isn’t a huge deal, and it certainly would have been fine the previous year. But now it was clear I couldn’t do that in one afternoon, so I needed to load up with water for a day and a half. That meant five liters, over six miles and 1100 feet, to the high point of the fifteen mile stretch, followed by nine miles of easier trail to the lake.

Mid-afternoon, I hoisted my pack. The weight had increased by more than 50%, heavier than the recommended pack weight by several pounds. This meant that I took a lot of the weight on my shoulders, which is really uncomfortable. I hurt in several different ways, and despite the snack, I was headed into despair.

I took a hit off of my inhaler, and headed up the hill, listening to my music. I focused on the rest step, and regulating my breathing. Step, straighten the knee, and breathe. Step, straighten, and breathe. Do this as long as possible. Stop and rest. Gulp some electrolytes. Repeat.

Every few stops, maybe every ten or fifteen minutes, my lizard brain screamed “GO DOWNHILL”. Retreating would have taken me down to the forest road cache, and would probably have netted me a ride to town. I fought to overcome the lizard brain, and pushed myself uphill. Step, straighten, and breathe.

Lizard brain was getting louder, when I met some northbound thru hikers. I have no clue what their words were, but it was all about encouragement. I could do this thing, they said.

Several rounds of this, multiple thru hikers, much encouragement, four miles, and 900 feet later, I reached a wide open campsite. There was a retired couple in front of me, and I dropped my pack. My body was done for the day, and I set up my tent next to the really awesome couple.

We shared some snacks, while thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain eventually started spitting at us, so I crawled into my tent and crashed.

The next morning, the couple had headed north. I had to push myself to get ready to turn right, uphill, southbound. I still had three liters, which was probably enough, but I had to be careful.

Once again, I hoisted my pack. But. My body started heading back downhill. My lizard brain started heading back downhill. I felt sick to my stomach. Everything in me was screaming “TURN LEFT! GO DOWNHILL!”

I made my feet stop. I almost literally grabbed my shoulders, and forced them to turn right. Uphill.

To this day, I’m still not sure how I did it. But I made myself take a step. Uphill. And then another. Uphill. And then another. For two miles, and then I stopped.

I had reached the high point.

It was easy from here, down to the lake. Fresh water and new friends awaited.

This is the real story of my hike.