Ray Ford: Tips for How to Stay Safe on the Trail | Outdoors - Noozhawk.com

2022-09-24 03:55:39 By : Ms. Amber Lu

This page was cached on Friday, September 23 , 2022, 8:33 pm | Fair 77º

Most hikers don't leave home for the hills thinking something bad will happen, but it can, and much of that depends on the decisions a person makes

I don’t think anyone leaves home for a hike in the hills thinking something really bad is going to happen. But it can happen, and much of that depends on the decisions one makes — both before heading out and, critically, once on the trail.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve been on many hikes over the years, and have come back fully intact, with perhaps a few scratches, a skinned knee or a twisted ankle that might give you a problem for a few days. Minor stuff, nothing that might keep you from heading out again soon.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. This summer, we’ve had two tragic deaths, both related to extreme heat distress.

Search and Rescue callouts are on the rise. The need for good judgment is more important than ever.

The causes are many. 

Information available on the internet showcases the glamour without the appreciation of the potential challenges involved. They come with vivid images, easy-to-follow directions, and the lure of an adventure waiting to be had.

For many, hiking or biking has become an extreme sport. Apps such as Strava that track one’s trips and ranks users by time encourage going beyond the limit.

What these outdoor sites mostly don’t provide is a sense of the difficulty involved, the challenge of route-finding if you happen to head off trail and get lost, or how to handle an emergency if one should occur.

They’ll lure you out there, but if you get in trouble, you’re on your own.

A year ago, while I was leading the construction of the kiosk at the junction of Tunnel, Inspiration Point and the Power Line road, I talked with lots of the hikers passing by in the days we were working on the installation.

Half of them had never been on Tunnel Trail before and had no clue which way to turn when they got to the intersection. Many were college-age students new to Santa Barbara. Quite a few were tourists who had learned about the hike from websites such as All Trails; and others were local but there for the first time.

It’s a wonder more people don’t get lost.

A few days later, during a Red Flag Day, I met a family of five — parents and three teenage kids — who told me they were heading up to Cathedral Peak, a challenging route even on a cool day.

They were from Texas, had hired an Uber to drive them up to the locked gate marking the start of the Tunnel Trail, and seemed to think nothing of the 90-plus-degree temperatures.

Thankfully, a few minutes later, they realized their mistake and headed back to town. But this isn’t always the case.

Cellphones, iPads and other technologic devices have become so embedded in our lives that they are the main go-to solution for most everything. The natural inclination is to assume they’ll be so on the trails as well.

After all, if you get in trouble, can’t you always call a friend, perhaps dial 9-1-1 if in more serious situations, or press the SOS button on your Spot, Garmin Inreach Mini or other satellite-capable device and get help?

However, depending on them in an emergency could lead to disaster.

Sadly, the same device that got you out on the trail will be utterly useless should you be out of cell range or the battery has died.

Technology may not be able to save you, but the choices you make can.

The irony is great. In a world of increasing knowledge of the outdoors and appreciation of it, few seem to have developed the skills required in dealing with adversity should it occur.

It isn’t that most people aren’t capable of doing so, but in unfamiliar situations like those that often occur outdoors, especially when one is used to relying on devices such as a cellphone, a different mental approach is needed to meet the challenge.

It’s getting late and it will be dark soon, it’s hot, the water is almost gone, the loop hike is one you haven’t done before, the phone is dead and your partner just stumbled on a rock and sprained an ankle.

Any variation of these things can create the potential for an emergency that will require critical decision-making. 

Will you be up to the task? Or will others in your group be?

Developing the type of mental approach that will serve you well incorporates what firefighters call “situational awareness” — a willful watchfulness — of the environment around you, the people with you, and current conditions.

It might be called a state of “constant vigilance,” reassessment as conditions change and making adjustments to plans when they occur.

It includes the idea of establishing “trigger points” — specific points on the trail or conditions that occur that should trigger an action. That might be a decision to abandon the hike, reassess plans or, in more serious situations, make a call for help.

Physical triggers might include an intersection, a major change in trail conditions, changes in elevation, resources such as food or water, or loss of a cellphone connection.

Others might include changes in weather, time of day, or physical limitations.

Reassess if the temperatures reach the 90s. Reassess any time you have to lose elevation that you will need to regain later. Reassess when you reach the point where it will take you longer to return the way you came than to continue ahead. 

The more you know about our local environment, the better prepared you will be. Plan on it being at least 10 degrees hotter in the mountains.

Know that there will be no water available during the hottest parts of the year. Understand that there will be no shade any time you leave the riparian corridors.

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Above all, be clear that there are no shortcuts in the chaparral. Stay on the trail regardless of the temptation to try to find a shorter route.

From the point of view of a fire crew on the edge of a wildfire, humility is not just a quality to value, but a state of mind that has clear and immediate life-and-death implications.

Practicing it is as important a quality on the trail as it is on the fire line. Learning to know one’s limits — and those of the people around you — is not an easy thing to do, but is equally important to the development of critical decision-making skills.

The loop hike to the top of the mountain is three miles and close to 2,500-feet elevation gain. The forest road is dirt and open but steep. The viewpoint is fantastic, and many would call it a day here and heading back down.

But the lure of making this a loop hike rather than an out-and-back is too much to resist.

However, doing so requires following an old bulldozer line downhill that is overgrown, gully filled and extremely steep.

Near the bottom is a junction of poorly maintained trail, a bulldozer line that climbs to a high point overlooking the coast, an old road that leads downhill east to a creek, and what appears to be the loop route east back to the car.

But the group is in trouble. There is only one functional cellphone, barely a quart of water for the four hikers, and they don’t have a map with them.

This is a first time hike and no clue how far it is back to the car or what the trail conditions are like.

The impulse is to act quickly and get moving. The reality is that taking the time to assess conditions, especially the physical (and mental) state of each in the party, develop strategies, and talk out the pros and cons, is critical to dealing with the situation successfully.

Having a pad, pen or pencil are essential to this assessment. Having written information also means being able to share it accurately with rescue personnel should one or more in the group leave for help. Including phone numbers or other personal information may be helpful as well.

The key is to develop a plan that takes into account as much information as you can so it has the highest level of success possible.

Despite the best of intentions, accidents do happen. People overestimate their limitations. People slip and ankles get sprained or broken. Darkness hits before you’re back to the trailhead. 

The best of planning can’t prevent everything, but it can minimize the impacts when things do go wrong.

The bottom line is that good planning means never having to make the best choice from among a number of poor alternatives.

Weather. Aside from other environmental factors, weather is often a key factor leading to emergency situations. Apps such as Weather Underground, Windy and MyRadarPro can provide important information when pre-planning.

MyRadarPro in particular can provide extremely accurate information as storm fronts approach.

Pre-planning. A casual attitude toward planning, especially spur-of-the-moment hikes where little thought is given to being prepared, creates a much higher probability that an accident could happen and you won’t be prepared to deal with it.

Above All, Water. Running out of water is one of the key reasons that a hike could lead to a tragic outcome. Always carry more than you think you'll need. You can live without food, but especially on hot days, without water you may not.

Cellphones. Everyone should have one. Make sure it is fully charged. The more in the party who have them, the more cell carriers you may have access to and best chances that one will get out.

Backup battery. Having a power bank with you means not running out of juice for your phone. If you end up lost overnight, your phone won’t make it. Have one with you — cheap insurance in an emergency.

Pad and pen. Always have writing materials with you as noted above. Don’t count on your memory when the chips are down.

Numbers. Hiking alone means being even more careful, and situational awareness is critical, especially if on trails that are used infrequently. 

Be Wary of Hiking Alone. Hiking with a partner creates the choice of staying together or separating for help. It's absolutely a must that both have cellphones and phone banks. Think very carefully about splitting up unless there is no other option.

Hiking with three provides an opportunity for one to stay and one to go if you have an injured member. Caution is required given the person leaving will be alone, and above all has to get out either to the trailhead or to a spot where a call can be made.

With four or more, this allows for several to leave for help and at least one other to stay back.

The larger the party, the more critical that group planning time is spent to ensure everyone has a say and there is a clear understanding of the actions to be taken. 

While outdoor-oriented websites and cellphones can be a nuisance and dependence on them a part of the problem, in an emergency, they can be a lifesaver.

Having a fully charged phone and backup battery (and plug) is absolutely essential. No ifs or buts.

The backup should always be in your pack, along with the headlamp, and recharged regularly.

While most cellphones won’t work on many of the front-country trails, and especially on those away from the urban areas, meaning no connection and no access to the internet, there are a number of sites that allow you to download digital copies of maps that you can access regardless of whether you have a connection.

An app that I recommend highly is Gaia GPS. Currently, the site is offering its premium account for $19.99 for the first year and $39.99 thereafter. 

Look for a followup article on Gaia GPS and why I believe it is an essential tool to have with you whenever you are outdoors.

— Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) . Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.

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