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. Cellphone…try this first
    3. 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 that summer. 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.

 

Epilogue

Eighteen hours after getting home, I threw my pack in the van with all the camping gear, and Steve, Patrick, and I headed for Madras, OR. It was amusing to be heading back to Oregon so soon, but we were well east of Mt. Jefferson, well northeast of Ashland, and far from where I was the day before.

The eclipse was incredible, and totality was unbelievable. If I couldn’t be on the trail, I’m mighty glad I could see totality, especially with my family. It was a gift.

I learned a few days later that the trail I would have been hiking out of Ashland, California Section R, was partially closed due to wildfire. Given my hiking speed, I could say with 100% certainty that I would have been in the closure zone. When an area is closed, firefighters sweep the trail, looking for hikers and hustling them to safety. Fast. I’m grateful I didn’t get caught up in that. And the air quality in Section R has continued to range in the moderate to unhealthy range, especially for people with asthma.

So it became pretty clear that getting off of the trail was even more important than I had anticipated. I’m grateful for that.

By the numbers: Section D, from Willamette Pass to Highway 138 (northern border of Crater Lake National Park), is 60 miles. I took the Oregon Skyline Trail alternate, which cuts ten miles, so I did 50 miles there. I flipped past Section C, and hiked Section B, from Fish Lake to Callahan’s, 54 miles. That puts me at 104 miles for the summer.

In some ways, I’m disappointed, because I wanted to hike straight through to Seiad Valley. Let’s face it, I wanted to get my Oregon tat, to match Washington. It’s my little bit of vanity.

But really, given where my health has been, 104 miles is a mighty fine number. And I’m learning to keep that in perspective.

I don’t know what next summer will bring. But I do know that I’m in good health. And I completed two sections, when the odds were against me even taking a day hike. I am profoundly grateful.

August 18, 2017, Home

I woke up this morning, and took some time just to enjoy being in my tent. Gratitude.

Michael and Karen and I went to breakfast together. I had awesome French toast, bacon, juice, and so on. I figure I’d end this thing right.

As it turns out, Karen works for a gear manufacturer, focusing on military, but also doing work for some of the smaller shops. Her dream is to go to her hometown of Dunsmuir, and open a gear repair shop. My jaw hit the floor. A gear repair shop *right* on the trail? That would be fantastic, and I told her so. We talked over different kinds of gear, and what she’d be able to do. I really hope she can make it work.

When we got back to our tents, Karen pulled out a pro-level repair kit, and said if I needed anything, to just take it. Wow! My pack had to be organized for a flight, rather than the trail, but I managed to get everything inside or attached, and didn’t need to take her up on her generous offer.

All too soon, the shuttle van arrived, and Karen gave me a big hug. I loaded my pack into the van. It felt very weird.

We picked up a couple in downtown Ashland, and then we headed for the airport. Again, weird.

But the weirdest of all was when I watched my pack go down the conveyor belt and out of sight. For two weeks this year, and for many, many weeks in different years, that pack has been my everything. So while I knew perfectly well that I’d see it in a few hours, I still felt naked without it.

A quick lunch later, and I was boarding the plane. I had specifically chosen the east window of the plane, so that I could see what was happening below on my dear trail.

Smoke in Oregon. Smoke in the valleys. Smoke flowing in different directions. Enormous smoke plumes bursting through. I saw Three Fingered Jack, and where the trail was, but other than that it was shocking. Washington was relatively clear, but there were still fires.

We landed, and I made my way to baggage claim and Steve. In tears, I retreived my pack, and we headed for home.

 

August 17, 2017, Mile 1716: Calling It

At Callahan’s Lodge, Ashland, mile 1716

It’s just not fun right now.

I developed a large bruise on my right shoulder, so I spent most of the day with my pack hanging off my left shoulder. It was painful enough to make me cuss, loudly.

California Section R, which runs from Ashland, OR, to Seiad Valley, CA, has a steep start, and right now is covered with smoke. That smoke is all over Ashland, Medford, and the Rogue River Valley. It’s hard to breathe, and is playing utter havoc with my asthma. There’s more, and worse, smoke and wildfire in the northernmost sections of California.

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Mt. Shasta, almost obscured by the northern California smoke

Going uphill is taking me longer, and longer, and longer. I understand why. I get it. But it’s sapping the fun out of my hike. And it’s draining my energy, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I don’t think I’ve got enough energy to continue, and still enjoy myself. You’ll never find a hike which is all fun, all of the time. But if it’s not fun at all, for whatever reason, it’s time to rethink things.

So I did eleven miles today, plus another 1.5 mile roadwalk, to get to Callahan’s. And I decided to call my hike for the year.

Callahan’s has been a great place to make the transition. I got to wash my clothes, and wash me. And while the laundry was going, I talked with Steve.

He listened to me for a few minutes, and then I asked if it was too late to join the family camping trip to Madras, OR. Madras is on the centerline of the August 21 eclipse. The family was planning on a trip from the 19th through the 21st. All I had to do was to make it to Seattle on the 18th.

So within a half an hour, I had tickets on a midafternoon flight from Medford to Seattle, plus a shuttle ride to the airport. My head was spinning, but it was the right thing to do.

I pitched my tent in the small grassy area at the front of the lodge, and went to have dinner in the restaurant. I had filet mignon, and the largest piece of chocolate cake I’d seen in a long time. Because it was time to treat myself. Well.

I’m sharing the lawn with Michael and Karen, his niece. They’re great, and it’s good to spend time with like minded people, before heading home.

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My final campsite, at Callahan’s

I made the right choice, but I wish I didn’t have to.

 

August 16, 2017, Mile 1727: Just Plain Tired

At a campsite spring, mile 1727

Slower than a snail going backwards this morning. And then I went down to the outflow stream to get water. There was nowhere simple to do this. I found a drip with icky critters, and said nope. Finally, I went downstream, scooted out onto a log, and managed to get a slow flow of gicky water. Three liters later, I was off.

Today was a much larger climb than I’ve had before. Again with the “I should be able to do this,” and then reality sets in. Even my playlists weren’t doing the trick, as I plodded up the hills, along dirt roads, through gates onto and off of private property. Like yesterday, I have no recollection of anything interesting. It just…was.

I reached my destination about six. The spring water was delicious, especially after the gick of the morning. The spring itself was under a lid, with water flowing out of all sides. It was really easy to rinse and fill my water bottles.

There were several tentsites, which filled over the next couple of hours. Mine was next to the spring access trail, so instead of directing traffic all night, I used a few branches to make an arrow in the dirt.

Heading for Callahan’s in the morning.

August 15, 2017, Mile 1739: The Last Thing You’d Expect to See

At the Hyatt Reservoir Outlet, mile 1739

I slept in a bit this morning, given my short miles. There were camp chores that needed to be done…emptying trash, rinsing socks, etc. It was nice to have access to running water, a trash can, and an outhouse!

While I was busy with my gear, one of the guys from the family came over with a cup of (hot! real!) coffee. He asked about my food, and I told him a bit about hiker hunger, magic, food choices, and so on. A little later, he showed up with bacon and eggs, plus a Gatorade. Score! I was grateful, to say the least.

The rest of the day, unfortunately, was kind of a blur. Ups and downs. Fatigue, both physical and mental. More stops than I cared to admit. I have no idea what the trail was like; all I wanted to do was just knock off miles.

And then, a treat. Imagine for a moment that you’re on the trail, hot, tired, and discouraged. Suddenly, you find a group of hikers laughing and talking, taking a sit-down break, and just enjoying life. You head over, introduce yourself, and find this.

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Ice cold, potable water! With a special touch! I drank my fill, topped off my containers, and hung out for awhile. Just what the doctor ordered 😊

I plowed on a couple more miles, and came to the Hyatt Reservoir, my goal for the day. I found a campsite by scrambling up a small hill, to an unused road at water level. The outlet made its own waterfall, and listening to it was a good way to fall asleep.