For those that love the outdoors, living in southern California has a few advantages. The beach, deserts, and mountains are all within a couple of hours of each other. As the slight changes in weather occur, you can shift your activities to another ecosystem. In the fall and winter, the deserts in California are simply amazing.
In this article, I’ll be speaking about the Colorado Desert which is actually part of the larger Sonoran Desert. While not necessary, a four-wheel-drive vehicle can transport you to more interesting places to hike.
Why hike in the desert? Many reasons, but here are a few:
- The solitude is prevalent. Living in an area like SoCal with its millions of people can give you the feeling of being surrounded. The desert with its wide open spaces is like being transported to another world
- The flora is astonishing. There is always something blooming and growing in the desert. The variety of chaparral and cacti will bring out the botanist in you.
- There is wildlife, you just have to look for it. Hummingbirds, chuckwallas, roadrunners, foxes, jackrabbits, and hawks. Some days you will see many, some days – none.
- The terrain can vary. The desert isn’t all flat and sandy. The Peninsular Range in SoCal brings some variety to the landscape, especially in the Anza Borrego area.
We combine hiking with off-roading and exploring. Using a local guidebook named Afoot and Afield: San Diego County we copy a couple of pages from the book, stick it in our packs and head out. This resource is loaded with amazing hikes providing detailed explanations of the surroundings. There are slot canyons, wind caves, and fossil fields all over the place. We have seen palm oasis’, desert streams and the strangest geological formations.
A few precautions on desert hiking. Trails are often not well-marked or maintained. There are no trees and very few references on the horizon. It is a great way to develop and improve your land navigation skills. We have been turned around on more than one occasion. The compass and GPS are great companions. While the weather doesn’t change quickly in the Sonoran desert, the winds can be strong and blowing sand is annoying.
Look for upcoming desert hikes on my blog. I’m excited to share some of the more interesting ones with you all. A good resource for the Anza-Borrego region is listed in the link below,
We started hiking around the time I turned 50. As a Baby Boomer, I’ve heard the term “late-bloomer” used when someone does something later than normal in life. So now you know why I named my blog thelatebloomerhiker
Living in crazy California certainly made it easier to get out and enjoy the numerous trails available. After a few times out, I was hooked. The freedom and fresh air were awesome. Within a year, I did a four-day trek into beautiful Yosemite. This trip was with Marines who were half my age, and the hardest physical challenge in recent memory. While in the Sierras I discovered how much I loved camping in the backcountry. A couple of years later, I convinced my bride of thirty-one years to go with me for a 70-mile journey along the John Muir Trail. It was an experience that we will never forget.
For awhile, I was impressed with my ability to venture out and hike above 10,000 ft. with a 40lb pack on my back. Then, I started running across people who were at least 20 yrs older than me. My ego was level-set after a few encounters with these senior citizens. Physical disabilities aside, I discovered that hiking is one of those things that doesn’t have an age limit. From toddlers in backpacks to an 80-year-old Japanese man on Mt. Baldy, I’ve seen some amazing people. To date, the most impressive hiker was a blind senior citizen on Mount Cuyamaca. Basically, if you can walk and have a fair sense of balance, then you can hike.
So, for the rest of you Late Bloomers, shake off the nay-sayers and hit the trail. You will be glad that you did.
Oh, I can relate to this one. My first year of hiking was almost my last. My big toes hated me. Even lost some of my second nails. Either that or I developed some kind of fungus and they decided to fall off. By year two, I was down to an occasional black/blue toenail. Eventually, I learned how to hold on to my nails and it wasn’t because I was producing more keratin.
My problem was simple. I was losing toenails because my boots were too small. Of course, they fit when I purchased them, but little did I realize the dynamics of human physiology. When hiking, you exert a lot of pressure on those feet, especially when going downhill. For those that are not flat-footed, you arch helps to absorb some of the force – like a built-in shock absorber. Afte a while, the feet swell and flatten out a bit. Unfortunately, the toes are on the receiving end of the punishment. The solution is simple!
Buy your hiking shoes/boots 1/2 size larger than your normal size. This requires some adjustment. I typically hike with a synthetic sock liner and a light wool blend hiking sock. The synthetic sock wicks away moisture and the wool blend will provide some cushion and keep your heel from sliding around. If your heel moves around, you will normally get blisters. You can keep the 1/2 size larger shoe from moving by tightening the laces a bit.
Another thing that you can do to keep your toenails is to trim them. Trim them like you normally do and you should be fine. Don’t pull your black/blue nail off, let it fall off naturally. If you do let it progress naturally, you may find a fresh, new nail underneath. This process could take several months! You should also use trekking poles to lessen the impact on your knees and feet. I use these and they are awesome: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
For more tips on hiking or trekking poles, refer to an earlier blog: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2013/05/10/hiking-poles-are-not-for-wimps/
I remember my last day on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. All I wanted was a cheeseburger. Well, a huge cheeseburger and fries. After eating mostly dehydrated food for 8 days and losing 14lbs, I was beginning to be obsessed with real food. Imagine the through-hikers doing this for weeks on end. When they do exit the trail for resupply, they often have binge eating episodes.
A backcountry trip requires quite a bit of planning and food is a major part of it. There have been many innovations in the area of dehydrated food. I’ll discuss some suggestions for other foods that may work for you on the trail and a few that may not.
Mountain House makes quality meals. My favorites are grilled chicken breast with mash potatoes, lasagna with beef and beef stroganoff. Backpacker’s Pantry has some good selections too. Rounding out the top three is Alpine Aire Foods.
A good variety pack: Mountain House Best Sellers Kit
Another good one: Backpacker’s Pantry Jamaican Jerk Rice with Chicken
When cooking dehydrated meals, you have to account for higher altitudes. Let it soak longer when you are above 8,000 ft. Undercooked freeze-dried food is just gross.
– Ramen is the most portable. You can put it in plastic baggies. Add some pita bread or tortillas and you have a meal. Good when you don’t have much of an appetite.
Some meats and fish
– Foil packed meat like chicken, fish like tuna, salmon do well. Pepperoni, summer sausage do ok. Beef or turkey jerky-oh yeah.
– Apples, oranges last up to a week.
Nuts or Trail Mix
A mixture of nuts with dried fruit and/or yogurt chips will last. Chocolate chips can melt in hot temps.
Packets of peanut or almond butter are nice for apples or crackers.
– Starbucks Via worked well. Also have used instant coffee. Powdered milk or creamer mixed with sugar in a baggie.
– I carry a portable spice container: http://amzn.to/1KKNEli that holds about 8 different spices. Nice to be able to spice up your meals.
– Pancake mix with powdered or crystallized eggs is excellent. A little maple syrup in a small bottle goes a long way
– A brand name Ova Easy Crystallized Eggs tastes close to real scrambled eggs. http://amzn.to/1KKNN8B Much better than powdered eggs.
Oscar Mayer or Hormel Pre-cooked bacon worked great, just heat it up for a few minutes in a pan.
Things that don’t work well on the trail:
Soft fruit like bananas, pears, Chocolate, Bread that doesn’t have preservatives, canned food-you have to lug the empty cans around.
Planning Meals, Carrying your food
Before your trip, plan out your menu and carry an extra day or two of supplies. Lay out your food and pack it as individual meals so you aren’t digging through your canister or food bag for each meal.
Depending on where you hike, bear canisters may be required, check with the Forest or Park Service Rangers ahead of time. Canisters are bulky and add a few pounds but will keep the critters out of your food. In non-bear areas, a waterproof food bag will work. You will still need to hang it to keep the little vermin out. Those shelters on the Appalachian Trail are hosts to plenty of well-fed mice.
Remember the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. Pack-it-in, pack-it-out. I carry some extra gallon baggies to store the used packaging. The plastics and foil packaging is not biodegradable and doesn’t burn well in a camp fire. Please pack it out.
Thinking back, I remember the tingling feeling of hair rising on the back of my neck, like when you are really scared. Yes, that was it – then the brightest flash ever.
On a one-week solo section hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), I hopped on near Fontana Dam in North Carolina. It was mid-August and the weather forecast for the week was for scattered thunderstorms with highs in the 80’s. Most of my experience has been hiking the PCT and in the mountains of southern California. While we do get thunderstorms, they are infrequent and not as intense as the ones I remember while living back east.
My ride dropped me off on Hwy 28 near Fontana Village where I picked up some last minute supplies. I walked to the trailhead and stopped to take in the view at the dam. It brought back memories from my honeymoon 33 years ago. That was a glorious week spent exploring the Smokies and hanging out on Fontana Lake.
Today would be a short day and I would only knock out about 7 miles. Hoping to make Mollies Ridge shelter, I extended my hiking poles, took a deep breath and started walking. Fontana Lake was to my right and had plenty of water in it. Man, I was jealous because California has been in an awful drought and our lakes and reservoirs were almost empty.
Making good time, I thought about going for Double Spring Gap. It is a couple of miles west of Klingman’s Dome, the highest peak in NC/TN. At 6,643 ft. it provides awesome views of the surrounding landscape. It was no Mt. Whitney, but the trail wasn’t any easier. The SUDS (senseless-ups-downs) were just as tough as the switchbacks in the Sierras.
As I passed over a ridge, I took a snack break and noticed the cumulus clouds gathering to the west/northwest. A cool breeze picked up and it felt like the swamp-coolers we have in the desert. The pine trees started waving their spindly branches as the wind made a waterfall like sound. I caught the first whiff of rain, a refreshing smell. About 10 minutes later, I heard the first rumblings of thunder. Passing a fellow hiker who was getting out his rain gear, I thought to do the same and stopped a few minutes later. The hiker walked past me and I asked where he was stopping for the day. He mentioned that he was trying to make the Mount Collins shelter about 7 miles away.
Decent waterproof hat: Columbia Men’s Eminent Storm Bucket Hat
I dug out the rain cover for my pack and rain jacket. Back west, I used the jacket more as a windbreaker and only remember using my pack cover one other time on the AT up in the Maine wilderness. Back on the trail, the thunder became more frequent and I saw the first flashes of lightning. Hmm, those clouds became fully developed thunderheads now, nice and dark with flat tops. I started looking for a place where I could ride out the storm when a lightning strike hit too close for comfort. A flash and almost immediate boom made me speed up my search for shelter. Of course, this part of the trail had no shelter, just plenty of pine and oak trees. The rain came next, almost immediately a downpour. Well, this sucks. I know, if you hike the AT long enough, this is fairly common. For this California acclimated dude, this was going to be interesting.
What followed happened quickly. I remember feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, a tingly feeling- like when you are really scared. My training kicked in and I dropped my pack on the side of the trail and began to sit on it. The flash came and occurred at the same time as the crack.
I woke up with the rain pelting me, the sound of it bouncing off my jacket. My vision was blurred and I was looking at a tree trunk sideways. Disoriented and dizzy, my ears were ringing. I laid there on the ground for a bit and got on my hands and knees and moved over to my pack. I had one hiking pole still strapped to my hand. My fingers were a bit numb, but no other damage. The storm continued as I sat on my pack to minimize contact with the ground. I looked around and saw an oak tree that was smoking about 30-40 ft away. The lightning had struck it about halfway up and split a large part of the trunk. Hoping that lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place, I sat for another 10-15 minutes and made sure I was ok.
As the thunderstorm passed to the east, I put my pack on and got back on the trail, thanking the Lord that it wasn’t a direct hit. My ears were still ringing when I strolled into the Double Spring Gap shelter. I met about three other hikers there and shared my tale of woe. They stared at me with wide eyes and said they were pelted with hail about an hour ago. I rested well that night but remember waking once to the sound of distant thunder.
Well folks, for the 10 or so people that follow my blog, you knew this was another one of my tall tales. I have hiked around thunderstorms and know about precautions to take. If there is a chance of lightning where you hike, consider the following:
– If you are with people, spread out. One lightning strike can take out an entire group if they are close to each other.
– If you ever do feel the hair rising on your neck or arms, immediately drop to the ground into a crouching position. Try not to touch the ground and drop those poles.
– If you have time, sit on your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
– Don’t seek shelter under a tall tree. If you can, seek a medium sized grove of trees, head there.
– Don’t go into caves or sit on rocks. They conduct electricity very well.
– If someone does get struck, they will quite possibly go into shock. Check for pulse and treat for shock by keeping them warm and covered. Seek immediate help.
Bottom line, there is no sure way to prevent lightning strikes. A strike can occur 30 miles or so from a thunderstorm. Tents provide little protection from lightning but may get you out of that pelting rain. If you do go into your tent, sit on a pad or your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
This is an awesome rain jacket and has never leaked: Marmot Mens Precip Jacket
We actually do get nasty thunderstorms in the Sierras and hikers have died from lightning on Half-Dome in Yosemite. Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada are generally mild compared to the ones on the Appalachian Trail. Enjoy the trail, you will be talking about that hail and stinging rain for years to come. 🙂
Inexpensive pack cover for occasional hiking: KLOUD City ® Black nylon backpack rain cover for hiking / camping / traveling (Size: L)
Hike long enough in the Sierras and you inevitably notice the FedEx and UPS carriers of the mountain trails. There are around 16 commercial outfitters or packers in the Sierras. Most often, you will see evidence of their passing littering the trail. Initially, you complain about the smell and of the doodles, but then you realize that it’s just part of the experience hiking in one of the most amazing places ever.
The pack or mule trains in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are the primary way of supplying the remote camps throughout the region. Thru-hikers on the JMT definitely appreciate the deliveries of their supplies to the Muir Trail Ranch. Without the mules, people would be exiting the trail for resupply or carrying much more weight.
These sure-footed creatures usually weigh in around 600-800 lbs and can carry around 20% of their body weight. The trains are as short as four mules or big as ten. They are fairly docile and move along at a steady pace of 3-5 mph. As you may know, all mules are sterile, the result of a male donkey and a female horse. The scientific name of the species is Equus asinus x Equus caballus (donkey x horse).
Our first encounter with pack mules was on the John Muir Trail. They were on their way to a High Sierra camp and were loaded down with supplies for the “glampers”. The train drivers are usually cowboy types and almost always friendly.
Trail etiquette: Always give the pack trains the right of way. When you see them coming, find a safe area to stand or on the uphill side if you are on a narrow part of the trail. Generally, they are not skittish, but it’s best to be quiet. If you take pics, ensure your flash is off!
Lessons learned: When getting your water refilled, do it on the upstream side of the trail. Once, I was taking a break next to a creek near the Palisades Glacier. A pack train passed by and several of the mules did their business as they passed over the stream. Ten minutes later a couple of hikers came by and one of them started drinking right out of the stream. I was actually filtering some water upstream. I mentioned that a pack train just came through and well, you know. The hiker continued to drink water and mentioned that she has been drinking out of the streams for over 20 years and hasn’t gotten sick yet. Well, if it wasn’t for her Swedish accent, I would have thought she was a direct descendant of John Muir. Even John would have gotten his water upstream. 🙂
These are awesome light-weight trekking poles:
Each year around Memorial day, an event named Bishop Mule Days Celebration http://www.muledays.org/ is held to commemorate the impact that the mules have had in the Sierras. The town of Bishop, located on Highway 395 in the eastern Sierras puts on a spectacular event that showcases these hard working equines. Looks like fun.
The pack trains of the Sierras. Yet another part of an awesome experience.
“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) chapter 2.
I use this type of camera on the trail and am very pleased with it: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Cedar Springs Trail-4E13
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks.
Distance as hiked: 6 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,400ft., Top of trail- 6,800ft.
The Mountain Fire in the summer of 2013 devasted a large area of the southern San Bernardino Mountains. Located near Mountain Center and Idyllwild, Ca. the fire eventually spread to over 25,000 acres and burned in steep, difficult terrain. I don’t know of any deaths, but unfortunately homes were destroyed. Some info and pics here: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=81677
The fire affected an approximate 10 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail and a half-dozen trails throughout the San Jacinto Forest area. PCT hikers in 2014 and again in 2015 will have to detour onto Hwy 74 before getting back on the trail near Idyllwild. It also destroyed one of our favorite trails – Spitler Peak.
We would find a trail just south of the burn perimeter named Cedar Springs Trail. It’s located off of Hwy 74, about two miles from the junction with Hwy 371 and four miles south of Lake Hemet. There is a trail marker along the highway and a paved road takes you up and over a ridge several miles to the trailhead. The trail is located on private land, named Camp Scherman – a 700 acre camp owned by the Girl Scouts of Orange County. The pavement ends about 100 yards past the trailhead and parking is very limited, you basically have to angle your vehicle on the inclined hill.
The path starts out on a fire road and makes its way into a wooded area through a gate. There are several gates on this hike; not sure why but suspect there are horses or maybe some free range cattle. We paralleled a dry creek bed and the trail becomes a rocky, rutted path that appears to be a dry creek. The oak trees are the dominant tree and offer nice shade. We came up to a picnic area consisting of two tables near a meadow. To the right, the trees and shrubs are concentrated in a riparian area. We noticed a ribbon of a stream about 25 yards off-trail. Ahead was an ominous sign that made us giggle.
Up until this point, it was a leisurely walkabout along a fire road and a riparian path through the woods. Now, we would hit some switchbacks and begin a gradual climb. The views usually get better when you have switchbacks. If nothing else, the perspective changes. The hillside was covered with young yucca plants and skeletons of the old ones. It’s an interesting plant and can live for many years. I suspect the average life of this variety is less than ten years. Some species live to be over a hundred.
We rounded a switchback and were confronted with a mixed breed Rottweiler off-leash who was barking angrily at us. I got in front of my wife and held out my poles in case he charged. Three women were about 50 ft. behind and his owner tried to get him to stop advancing and barking at us, but he wasn’t very obedient. Eventually, she got him under control and we passed. I love animals, but some breeds are a bit intimidating on the trail. I reigned in my frustration over the incident and hiked on.
As we hit a summit and intersection with the PCT, we also saw some other signs which were disappointing.
Oh well, we will just hang a right and go south on the PCT for a bit.
The wind picked up as we trekked south and eventually we found an area sheltered from the wind looking down into the desert.
As we enjoyed the solitude and had our lunch with some hot tea, I noticed someone passing about 30 ft. behind us moving fairly quickly. I don’t believe he saw us because we were down behind some rocks. After lunch, we hit the trail for our return trip. Within a few minutes, we ran into the guy who passed us. He looked a bit frazzled and stressed. He had a distinct British accent and mentioned that he had been lost for several hours just south of here and was supposed to meet his wife at a restaurant nearby. I assured him that he was on the PCT heading back in the right direction. This gentleman was out alone, no map, no backpack, a GPS with a dead battery and a 20 oz. bottle of juice. We made sure he was ok and followed behind him. He was moving quickly and eventually disappeared.
Our descent was uneventful as I reflected back on another enjoyable day on the trail. While the beautiful Sierras are the ultimate eye-candy, the short hikes on the PCT near our home are a good prescription for the office cubicle doldrums.
– When hiking alone, pack the 10 hiking essentials and always let someone know where you are hiking. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Essentials
– When day hiking, I carry a little extra water and snacks in case we run into a lost hiker.
– If you get lost, take a break, calm down and try to get reoriented.
– If you are hopelessly lost, do not get off the path. Stay put, eventually you will be found.
Gear we use:
In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail:
You may be a potential class of 2015 PCT thru-hiker, or are wondering what your chances of encountering a rattlesnake on the trail are. Based on my experience, the odds of running across one of these vipers in southern California are high. The more you hike, the higher the odds. Should that keep you off the trail? No! It is more likely that you will be hit in a crosswalk than being bitten by a rattlesnake on the PCT. I know, not very reassuring is it?
The truth is, by understanding the basic behavior of these snakes, you can reduce your chances of a direct confrontation with them. First of all, they are not the aggressive human-attacking species that people make them out to be. They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.
Behaviour: They are a cold natured species and generally are not found slithering about in cooler temps. Rarely seen in winter and colder days. Could you see them in the morning? Not likely, unless you are cowboy camping and one has climbed into your sleeping bag for warmth. But, you are more likely to get a scorpion in your bag in the Mojave than a snake. The most common encounter with a rattler is one laying out in the sun on the trail. The trails are exposed to the sun and relatively close to brush where they can escape. Most of the rattlers that I have come across are getting sun in the mid-late afternoon hours. When sunning, they often stretch out to their full length. Somewhat nocturnal, they have been known to move about at night while hunting but do not usually travel far.
Habitat: In southern California and into the Sierras, mostly found in the dry, arid chaparral which pretty much describes most of the state. In the mountains, usually below 7,500 ft. It doesn’t mean you will not find them above that altitude, just not very common because it gets cold up there. Often found around/under rocks or loose pine needles and leaves.
If you happen to come upon a rattler on the trail, my advice is to give it a wide berth. If you prod it with your hiking pole, it may get into a defensive posture (coiled up) and can strike up to 3/4 of its length. Sometimes, a gentle coaxing with you pole may work, but it depends on the mood that it is in. Be careful when detouring around a snake because they do nest in the brush and chaparral. Bushwhacking increases your chances of being bitten.
Rattlesnake Avoidance: Your best defense is to be aware. This is hard when you’ve been hiking all day and your eyes are focused three feet in front of you. In my opinion, snake gaiters or leggings are not worth it unless you do a lot of bushwhacking. Hiking with pets? Dogs are frequently bitten by rattlers and it is often fatal to smaller breeds. Larger breeds survive, but the bite can cause intense swelling and permanent tissue damage. Use caution when taking your dogs on hikes. While the idea of your dog roaming free sounds like fun, a leash could save them from getting bitten.
If you are bitten: I am not qualified to give medical advice but can tell you that you will probably not die from a rattlesnake bite. The bite is very painful and your limbs may swell extensively. If you carry a GPS locator or beacon, now is a good time to activate it. If you are with someone, have them get help and stay calm. If you can walk, make your way to get help. And no, don’t slice into the snake bite area with a knife and suck out the poison. The Mayo clinic has some good first aid advice here: http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681
My closest encounter: Less than a foot. While hiking with my wife I often provide a safety brief like what to do in thunderstorms or first aid, and today I mentioned that a rattler can sound like bacon frying when it is warning you. Around 7,000 ft near the beginning of our hike, I was walking and unwrapping an energy bar when my wife suddenly sprinted ahead and told me to stop. The sound was unmistakable and very close. To my left, was a large boulder and a Pacific Rattler was coiled underneath. I slowly backed off and gave this critter a wide berth. Afterward, she mentioned that “the sound of bacon frying was very accurate”. Moral of the story, eat bacon and you can avoid rattlesnakes.
A good handbook with lots of info for the backcountry hiker: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
Disclaimer: I am not a herpetologist and can barely spell it. My observations of rattlesnakes are based upon my experience hiking in California. Being aware on the trail is your best defense against snakes or any other wildlife that could harm you. Never go out of your way to kill a rattler – they serve a good purpose in the food chain. There are fewer rodents out there because of them.
Have you ever crossed a rushing stream or creek? I’ve read many a tale from hikers crossing rain-swollen streams up to their chests in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. Obviously, they survived to tell about it but was it worth the risk? This could be a very short blog and I could say – use common sense. If you hike in the backcountry long enough, water crossings are inevitable. Most of the time, it will be safe to cross to the trail on the other side. Sometimes, the choice could be the difference between life or death.
I’ve crossed streams, creeks, and rivers and have never been swept away. Crossed frozen creeks and have never fallen through. But, what would you do if you got swept under, fell off the log or broke through the ice? Here are some ideas.
– Assess water hazards. Most well-established trails cross water at a location that is fairly safe. However, rainstorms and snowmelt can turn any crossing into a treacherous ordeal. Never cross:
1. In front of or immediately after a waterfall. Only a Darwin Award contender would do this.
2. Where there is debris, logs, branches that you could get entangled in. The water pressure can force you under the debris.
3. Rapid water above your thighs or waist. Even if it is below your knees, fast-moving water can trip you up. Assess the risk and look for a safer location.
4. Where there is a sharp bend in the creek or river. The water speed varies greatly here and it may be hard to climb out.
5. Where the bank is steep. You may not be able to climb out.
– Night crossings are not recommended unless you are familiar with the crossing and the water is very shallow. Do you know if there is a waterfall or some other water hazard downstream?
– Remove your socks and boots, strap them to your pack. I tie the socks in a knot. I carry a carabiner, tie my shoes in a knot and clip them in.
– If you have trekking poles, extend them to where the handles are above your waist to account for holes in the creek bed.
– Loosen the various harnesses on your pack. Unbuckle the sternum and waist straps. This allows for a way to shed the pack if it pulls you under. Often, the weight of the pack will pull you head first going downstream which is bad.
– Ziploc or waterproof bags should have been on your supply list. Put all electronics in those and stow in your backpack lid or high up in your pack. Depending on the depth of the water, might be a good idea to move your sleeping bag and strap it to the top. Same with your food supplies.
– If you have two or more people, face upstream and link arms. As an alternative, you can face upstream and form a conga line with the strongest person in the front. Hold on to the person’s waist in front of you. Shuffle feet sideways as you cross.
– If you perform the crossing alone or one at a time, use your hiking poles and face upstream. Always have three points in contact with the bottom. Shuffle or take small side-steps. Some crossings have rope or guy lines. If you feel comfortable with those, grab on and shuffle across.
– If hiking in a group, there may be someone who has a fear of being pulled under. Offer to make an extra trip and carry their pack. The extra weight of a pack while crossing a log or in the water unnerves some people. You can also tie a rope to their waist in case they trip or fall in.
– Cold water. Find a shallow spot. Icy cold water can cause you to lose feeling in your feet and legs and possibly cause debilitating muscle cramps. Cross as quickly as possible. Use a safety line if you are with someone.
– River shoes or water shoes with a thick rubber sole. Some people use waterproof sandals or clogs. Most waterproof hiking boots still allow water in over the top. If your hiking shoes get wet, you are just inviting blisters.
– Trekking or hiking poles provide you with additional stability. Put your hands through the straps in case you drop it.
– If you have convertible hiking pants, unzip the legs and stow them in your pack. If you are wearing cotton, you might want to cross in your tighty-whities or swimming trunks. It’s not great to hike in wet clothes.
– Carabiners, rope or paracord to tie loose items or as a safety line.
These work great and are lightweight: Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – gray, one size and strong paracord – Military 550 Paracord from Our School Spirit – Made in the USA (Black)
– Waterproof gear bags, bear canisters for food and ziploc baggies.
What to do if you fall in:
– In rushing water: If you followed the previous instructions about unbuckling the backpack harnesses before crossing, and it begins to drag you under, roll out of your pack and point your feet downstream to protect your head from rocks and debris. Try to navigate to the creek or river bank and grab on to overhead branches or anything along the bank.
– Once you crawl out of the water, assess your situation. If it is daylight, look for your pack downstream. You may see it washed up on some rocks or caught up in a tree root. Be careful when pulling it out., it would suck to fall back in. If a friend has a carabiner and rope, someone can attach it and pull it out.
– Falling through the ice: If your pack pulls you under, roll out of it. Frog kick and try to propel yourself onto the ice. If you are with someone and still have your hiking poles, extend one so they can pull you out. A rope and a branch can come in handy here too. Once out on the ice, spread your body out to increase the surface area and crawl toward the bank. Don’t stand up until you are at the bank. If you have a change of clothes, it would be a good idea to get some dry ones. Hypothermia is the real enemy now.
Do you have any tips for water crossing based on your experience or something you’ve read? Please share them with us in the comments section.
A great guide for backpackers: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
I like this guide in paperback form, but is also available in Kindle format.
Lastly, a true story and lesson learned from one of my crossings: Hiking on a southern California beach with my wife, we crossed a 10 foot inlet where the Pacific fed a lagoon. Up to our shins, it was easy. On the return leg 4 hours later, the inlet was 60 ft. wide and ultimately up to our shoulders as the tide rushed in to the lagoon. We made it, but it was scary. The salt water also caused a chemical reaction with my magnesium fire stick and almost caught my pack on fire. Whew!
Good, affordable trekking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is for informational use only. There is no guarantee that following the recommendations will protect you from harm. Use common sense when hiking. Most seasoned hikers are not competing for the Darwin Award.
The hike today had been a long one. The John Muir Trail was all that we had expected and more. Imagine Ansel Adams pictures in living color.
Rounding Emerald Lake, I proceeded down toward Thousand Island Lake to look for a suitable camp. To the left, a solid granite landscape rose up but appeared to level out after a few hundred feet. It looked promising so I climbed it with my pack. Reaching the top, it was mostly rocky with a few areas where one could pitch a tent. It was almost a caldera like depression, but the car-sized boulders made it obvious that this area was formed by ancient glaciers.
Dropping my pack, I retreated down the face of a granite hill to see how my wife and brother were doing. The final push toward Thousand Island Lake had been a hard one and my brother was experiencing a bit of acute mountain sickness (AMS). We had to find a place to make camp soon.
I took out our JMT maps and discovered the area up the hill was off-limits. It wasn’t worth getting caught by the ranger, so I went back to retrieve my pack. Starting up the granite escarpment, I noticed something moving in the area where I had left my pack. Marmots! Those sneaky pests found my pack and were checking it out.
I yelled “Hey, get outta here!” and one of them perked up like a meerkat. Still far off, I looked for rocks to throw, but they were too big. Continuing to climb, it was difficult to scale the rock and yell. Kinda like chewing bubble gum and walking. Anyhow, I did find some rocks and started slinging them at the vermin but my shots all fell short. I think one of them snickered something to the other one and they didn’t budge.
It seemed like it took forever to reach my pack and I was worried now that they ripped it open trying to get to my food. Most of it was in a bear canister, but I did keep some snacks in the outer pockets for easy access. As I got to within 20 feet, the two burglars scattered and disappeared down a hole. Man, they’re like Orcs living underground.
Checking my pack out, everything was intact and I was able to meet my wife and brother back on the trail. We ended up camping on the north shore of the lake with Banner Peak as our backdrop.
The yellow-bellied marmot, a ground squirrel – a fat one mind you, is an omnivore that eats anything including stuff in your backpack if left unattended. They hibernate and are generally fattest in the fall. They can live up to 15 years and are nicknamed “whistle pigs” because of the sound they make when predators are near. To me, they look like groundhogs or beavers without the tail. Don’t let their cuteness fool you. They are sneaky and will steal your lunch.
Lesson learned: Never trust a marmot.
We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics. An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)
Nestled between Cuyamaca State Park and the southern section of Anza Borrego State Park is a nice trek along the Pedro Fages Trail. As we pulled off the road and read the trail marker, I tried to visualize the path that the Native Americans and later the Europeans took as they made their way through Oriflamme Canyon. The trail starts on the Sunset Highway (S1) near the junction of Hwy 79 at Cuyamaca Lake. The California Riding and Hiking Trail which actually starts near Otay Lake in southern San Diego County passes through Cuyamaca and through this area toward Chillihua Valley.
What makes this hike enjoyable are the wide open views as you start out in Mason Valley. One of the things that amazes me about southern California is the diversity of the land. Sure, it is dry and rocky in most areas, but you will find contrast all around. Today, the deep blue sky with scattered clouds was set apart from the rocky terrain of the Laguna Mountains.
The single track trail with wide open vistas made you want to run, but I’m a hiker not a runner. The breeze from the Anza-Borrego Desert made the dry grasses wave in unison. It was tempting to lie down in the meadow and just watch the cloud formations, but we had a goal today. We would hit the junction with the PCT and see how far we would go.
After 1.5 miles, you come to a Jeep trail. Out here they call them truck roads, but they’re mostly service roads for the USFS. Turn right, go through a gate and you will see small signs for the PCT. Turn right and you’ll follow the PCT to Mexico. A little farther up on the left is a battered sign for my favorite trail north. My wife and I talked about setting up some trail magic near here for the PCT class of 2015. Hmm, we will have to see. I’ve always had thoughts about becoming a trail angel. People who bring drinks, food to PCT thru-hikers are trail angels and the stuff they provide is trail magic. It’s an awesome way to bless people when they least expect it.
The trail has been fairly level to this point but as you follow it east-northeast it begins to drop into the canyon. It appears to descend around 800-1,000 ft. This is a very quiet hike through here, the only sounds are aircraft passing by and the fluttering birds. It’s definitely one of the trails less travelled. We were not exactly thrilled about hiking down and then having to hike back up at the end, but sometimes it is just what you have to do.
At the bottom of the canyon is another Jeep trail and the PCT hikers will take a right and walk along the road before bearing left 1/4 mile up. We took our lunch break at the bottom on a couple of boulders and took our shoes and socks off to cool down. It’s always a good idea to remove the boots/shoes on a warm hike. Helps to cut down on the blisters. A rare patch of cool, green grass made it even more inviting. A cool creek or mountain stream would have been perfect, but we are in the desert of So-Cal.
The hike up was a tough climb, and I must have left my trail legs in the Sierras because my calves were complaining. This would be a hot hike in late spring, summer and not recommended. Back at the main fire road, we noticed a Forest Service or Cal-Fire concrete water tank. On top was a steel lid to the inside. Unfortunately, it was empty but it sure would make a nice sleeping bunker on a cold night.
After the leg workout, the valley and meadow was a nice way to finish the out and back hike. About 200 yards out, a lone coyote trotted by. I tried howling at him, but my throat was parched and all that came out was a failed attempt of a silly human trying to make an animal sound. He did glance over at us and barely slowed down.
Today’s out and back to the PCT was a solid 6 miles. It was good to be back on the trail with my hiking partner. This trail didn’t have the best vistas, but any day that you can hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail is a good day. Thanks for stopping by my blog and remember to take the 10 Essentials when you trek into the backcountry.
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
This is the end of a two part story. Part 1 can be found here:
We entered an area of bear grass and watched as the breeze caused the creamy white flowers to sway in unison. Figuring that we had two miles to go, I was ready to hop on to the shuttle and enjoy a nice steak at the restaurant in the RV park where we were staying. The Piegan Pass – Siyeh Pass Trail had been an amazing hike thus far. I noticed several piles of huckleberry-laden scat on the trail and slowed to see if it was from a bear. As I got closer, I noticed steam rising from it. I froze and raised my arm to signal to my wife who was about thirty feet behind to stop. Suddenly, there was a rustling to my right and two bear cubs jumped out running across the trail. Within seconds an adult grizzly appeared and stopped in the middle of the trail, between us. I spoke in a calm voice and said “hey bear”. The mother grizzly reared up on her hind legs and let out a snarl that resonated through every bone in my body. I fumbled for the bear spray in the holster on my hip.
I told my wife to back away and not run. Time seemed to stand still as the massive bear lowered to all fours and stared me down. I think that I kept talking to her in a calm voice to avoid an all out confrontation. At this point, she was probably 20 feet away as I continued to back away. She was looking at me and snorting while occasionally making glances toward her cubs off trail. Due to the adrenaline rushing through my body, my ears started ringing. I flipped the plastic safety off the bear spray and put my finger on the trigger. Not wanting to provoke her, I backed away and kept talking. The grizzly rocked back and forth on her haunches, growled took a couple of steps toward me.
My mind was racing as I thought about what to do in a grizzly attack. I avoided eye contact as much as possible since they see this as a challenge. If attacked with this species, it is best to curl up or lay on your stomach. Protect the back of your neck and play dead. It is usually not effective to fight back unless you are being mauled and death is certain. In the midst of this I prayed a simple prayer – “Dear Lord, please get me out of this alive. Amen”
I had to put more distance between myself and this mad momma, so I must have done a moon walk or something because she was now 40 feet away. Suddenly she snorted and charged, closing half the distance in a few seconds. I raised the bear spray, squeezed the trigger and swept it back and forth for a few seconds. It created a cloud of industrial strength capsaicin between me and the angry ursine.
The cloud of pepper spray floated in the air. The sow sneezed and let out a roar. I backed up another ten feet or so preparing to give her another dose. Everything seemed to be in slow motion again. She advanced toward me again before suddenly turning and trotting toward her cubs. Standing there, I came to my senses and started yelling for my wife. Not hearing anything, I made my way back up the trail, blowing my whistle. I heard my wife’s whistle and saw her about 100 yards away, standing on a boulder.
We hugged and talked about how we would get back to the trailhead. Not wanting to back track for ten miles, we proceeded down the same path making a lot of noise. I even let out a blast of a portable air horn that I kept in my survival kit. We emerged into a clearing and increased our pace. Passing a series of cascades that feed Saint Mary Lake, the beauty of the surroundings escaped me.
The remaining mile seemed to take forever. We passed through one last forest and heard some cars as they traversed the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. It was surreal as we stepped out on the road and made our way to the shuttle. Breathing a sigh of relief, we boarded the shuttle and made our way back to the visitor center. I reported our encounter to the ranger. He mentioned that this was the second report of a sow and cubs on the Siyeh Pass Trail this week.
Back at the RV park, we went to the restaurant where I had the biggest steak ever. That night and for many more, I would relive the experience and would wake up in a cold sweat.
This two-part blog was a work of fiction. If you have read some of my other tall tales, you probably knew that. I weave a story together using actual hikes that we’ve done with some creative story telling. Grizzly attacks are a rare occurrence in the U.S. Some quick research showed five fatal grizzly attacks on humans in the lower 48 since 2010. There are probably less than 1,500 grizzlies south of Canada. Alaska is home to over 30,000 grizzlies. Sometimes they are confused with equally aggressive black bears. Bear-spray is probably the most effective deterrent for a charging bear. Research, experience and statistics show that firearms are less effective than pepper spray. Understand the risks where you hike and camp. Take proper precautions and avoid hiking solo in areas with grizzly or black bear activity. This is a good resource for understanding bear behavior: http://www.bearsmart.com/becoming-bear-smart/play
Hike strong, and for heaven’s sake take out that headset!
Some gear that we use:
Survival blanket: Adventure Medical Kits Sol Survival Blanket, Two Person, 3.2 Ounce
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
……Within seconds an adult grizzly appeared and stopped in the middle of the trail, between us. I spoke in a calm voice and said “hey bear” The mother grizzly turned, reared up on her hind legs and let out a snarl that resonated through every bone in my body. I fumbled for the bear spray in the holster on my hip.
Our trip to Glacier National Park was on our bucket list for hiking destinations. We were on the tail-end of a RV trip through Canada and looking forward to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. St Mary is a nice village outside the eastern entrance to Glacier. The RV park was within walking distance of the national park visitor center so we struck out on foot. It was a mostly cloudy day and the peaks in the distance were obscured by a cloud layer, but we were determined to get some hiking in. The ranger in the visitor center recommended the Piegan-Siyeh Pass Trail to get the most bang for the buck in a day hike. He mentioned awesome views and a steady 2,500-3,000 ft. climb. It was late August, so there was still plenty of daylight for the eleven mile trek.
My wife was watching for the shuttle and motioned for me to come along. Good thing too, because it was ready to pull out. The shuttle system in GNP is efficient and covers a large area. The Going-The-Sun-Road was undergoing repairs and the ride to the trail was slow. As the shuttle traversed St Mary Lake, I hoped that the trail would not be totally in the clouds. Our stop came up and we were the only ones that got off. We found the Piegan Pass trailhead sign and took a few pics – of course.
As you can see, the clouds enveloped the trail behind me. We checked our gear, I had the bear spray and my wife the bear bell. The bell was a last-minute purchase. I found this joke. Some background: The hiker was buying a bear bell and asked a store owner how to tell if he was in grizzly territory. They were discussing bear scat (poop):
…Well, what’s the difference?” asks the hiker. “I mean, what’s different between grizzly scat and black bear scat?” “The stuff that’s in it,” replies the store owner. Getting a little frustrated, the hiker asks, “OK, so what’s in grizzly bear scat that isn’t in black bear scat?” he asks, an impatient tone in his voice. “Bear bells,” replies the old man as he hands the hiker his purchases
The effectiveness of the bell is debatable. In bear country, it’s a good idea to make some noise while hiking. We definitely made noise, occasional whooping, hitting our poles together and talking in our outside voices. We did this so that we didn’t surprise a bear. They don’t want human interaction so, they typically will avoid the noise.
Making our way through the forest, I occasionally made an “aahroooh” sound just to make some noise. Funny thing, a hiker coming from the opposite direction said people behind him thought that they heard a moose bellowing. There you go, I can make moose sounds. Glad that it’s not mating season.
The weather changed to light snow, reminding us that in Glacier it is so unpredictable. The wind picked up and we added another layer of clothing. The trail came to a intersection with Piegan Pass going north west and Siyeh Pass to the east. We went east and reached the summit where the clouds broke long enough to take some photos. After a lunch break, the clouds closed in and visibility was 50 feet. The switchbacks helped us descend fairly quickly, and I could see through a break in the clouds where the trail leveled out and entered a bushy area.
Next: Hey bear! Encounter with a Grizzly in Glacier National Park – Part 2
Gear that we use:
Bear bell: Bear Bell w/ Silencer
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
October was a busy month, so we took some time off the trail. Fall weather is gradually coming upon us in southern California. Fall in So-Cal? Sure, the leaves change here too. We even have aspen trees in the mountains! To really experience the change in season here, we head for the hills. The hills of the San Bernardino Mountains.
Today, we would load up the Jeep and head to Mount San Gorgonio. “Ol’ Greyback”, as it is affectionately known to locals, is full of diverse trails. Many of them converge north of the summit. It is the tallest of the three highest peaks in So-Cal – San Jacinto and San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) They all have similar eco systems and have desert terrain around them.
The trails on all these mountains are challenging and well maintained by volunteers. Some of the treks are heavily travelled, especially on weekends. Mt. Baldy probably sees the most traffic due to its location north of Los Angeles. Still, it has some of the most beautiful sub-alpine trails.
Back to our trip. Ever since I heard about the three guys from San Diego that went missing for three days off the Fish Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness in 2013, I wanted to check it out. Fish Creek Trail is located on the northeast side of the peak. It’s quite a haul from north county San Diego, but as most avid day hikers know, the trail less travelled is worth enduring the road most travelled. Yeah, driving through Riverside/San Bernardino is a lesson in patience. Making our way through Redlands and Mentone, we would stop at the ranger station to pick up our permit. It’s usually staffed by the friendliest volunteers, most who have explored this area extensively.
Hwy 38 loops around the west side of the San Gorgonio Wilderness and is a popular route for an alternate route into Big Bear. You gradually climb to 6,000 ft. and traverse the northern side of the wilderness area. This area is popular with campers in the spring/summer. In November, only Barton Flats Campground is open. The road is very curvy and the highway signs reminded us of the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. We arrived at a collection of campgrounds including Heart Bar and the equestrian camps of Wildhorse which were closed. Due to the mild weather, the fire service roads were still open. This would be the second time we took the 1N02 fire service road. On a previous hike we drove the bumpy, rutted dirt road to the Aspen Grove trailhead. The road to Fish Creek trailhead is a solid seven miles, easily navigated with a 4-wheel vehicle; it would present a challenge to the average car due to the exposed rocks and deep ruts. As we pulled into the trailhead lot, there were actually a couple of cars. Now, that’s determination. Parking here does not require an Adventure Pass since it is just outside the National Forest boundary.
The signs to the trailhead are decayed and in need of some TLC. The trail was in decent shape. It is actually a nice way to hike to the summit. At approximately 9 miles, it’s easily done by the average backcountry hiker. The trail starts out at 8,000 ft. and meanders around two ridge lines. At .7 miles, we came upon the junction to the Aspen Grove trail which goes northwest. We continued on a rocky trail without gaining much altitude. The land was semi-arid with chaparral mixed in with deciduous trees. To the right was a meadow that continued to the west. The terrain changed to a forest and we crossed a small creek several times. Recent heavy rains through the mostly dry creek bed caused the plants to lie down. Nearby, skeletons of California Wild Lilies from an earlier season vowed to return to their full glory next spring.
At 2.6 miles, we passed Fish Creek Camp, an area set amongst the pines below the trail. The path is mostly single track and varies from sand to decomposed granite. After the camp, the trail begins a gradual climb of 600 ft/mile. The view constantly changes as you traverse the canyons over mostly easy switchbacks. We took a lunch break and had a nice view down Hell for Sure Canyon. Not sure where they got that name from, but have heard that there are a couple of aircraft crash sites there. Caught nice glimpses of Palm Desert. It was tranquil as we made some hot tea. The sun settled slowly behind Ten Thousand Foot Ridge near Fish Creek Saddle. Looking at the time, we decided to start back down.
Hike long enough and you can figure out how long it takes you to descend. The terrain affects your time, but we do about 3 mph downhill. Sometimes, the only sounds were the clacking of our trekking poles. As we descended into the ravines and gullies the cool air enveloped us as it sank to the lower elevations.
We emerged at the trailhead with plenty of daylight left and took one last pic. Chalk up another great hike.
Tip: When using trekking poles, shorten them for uphill and lengthen them for downhill. Using poles is like being on a Nordic Track machine. You will benefit by getting a nice upper body workout. Today’s walkabout was about 16,000 steps. I have these poles and recommend them. Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue They are light weight and durable.
It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing . Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time. Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail. This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California. We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them. Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent. What the heck? Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps. Nothing. The light continued to shine, barely moving. Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on. A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out. The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.
Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent. Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death. That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.
If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites. Those are valuable resources. Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. It is an awesome resource. I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close. Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.
Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule. I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep. Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact. You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass. Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate. Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.
Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site. I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek. The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss. So, rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down. Rocks also are good lightning conductors!
When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour. Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch? Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball? In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.
Widow-makers: Those dead trees that are still standing. Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you. If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest. Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.
Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks. A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night. If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point. Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad. If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.
Some other tips:
Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent. Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance. If not you may get some late night company looking for food.
Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent. 🙂 At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.
For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent. The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher. Use a tent footprint. It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent. It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots. I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.
Invest in a good set of tent stakes. Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily. There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy. These are virtually indestructible. I usually find a rock and bang them in. I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy. Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.
Klingers: People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp. Don’t be a Klinger.
Lightning: No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry. During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following: If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack. If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.
In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower. If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail, use your camp towel to wipe it down. If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry. Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip. It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew. It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap. I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here: Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.
I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night. Hey, you’ll understand when you get old. But the most important thing is a site with a view. You will know it when you see it.
Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent? Please share them in the comments! Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.