… preparing for the worst!
The honest truth is that backpacking alone is NOT SAFE. It’s very possible for an accident or assault to happen in the wilderness where you are out of reach of help. The other truth, however, is that being in the wilderness is much like being on an airplane: the chances of something going wrong are very, very slim, but if they do, you’re probably screwed because no one is around to help. So, why do I choose to put myself in danger by hiking alone? Quite simply, I want to hike, have had difficulty finding the right hiking partner, and I’m not willing to put my life on hold until someone comes along that will take these journeys with me. I go into these adventures with an awareness of the risks I’m taking and I take every precaution I can as a solo woman to prevent and handle any dangers that arise.
Below, I’ve listed a few precautions one can take to alleviate danger.
Wilderness First Aid Course
Although, every long distance hiker I’ve talked to insists I’ll probably never have need of advanced first aid skills, it’s still something worth having. One experienced hiker, Beav, recently told me his story of night-hiking over Forester Pass in the Sierras when another hiker tumbled over the edge in the snow. The injured hiker luckily sustained only broken ribs and a punctured lung, and Beav was able to carry him 20 miles to the Onion Valley trailhead and hospital treatment in the little town of Independence.
I attended a 2-day wilderness first aid course presented by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The course did not include CPR training, but luckily I already earned that certification before becoming a teacher. The cost was $249 and I believe it was well worth it. We learned how to identify and handle medical conditions including dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, burns, broken bones, concussions, frostbite, shock, and animal bites. Firstly, prevention of these conditions should be a hiker’s number one goal. If a condition arises, then implement your knowledge to correctly identify it so you can determine whether to treat with the materials you have or call for help.
The SPOT Gen3 GPS Beacon
This little 4 oz. device tracks me through the wilderness and allows loved ones to look up my location on a map through the findmespot.com website. It also lets me send two different preset messages to email accounts and cell phones. I use one preset message to let them know I’m okay for the night and the other I use in case there’s a change to my exit plan (ie, in case I’m running a day late or if I need to be picked up at a different location).
Search & Rescue: The device comes with an emergency button, “SOS,” that will notify emergency responders through GEOS if I’m in danger or injured and need help. The SPOT Gen3 basic service includes GEOS SOS/911 monitoring and dispatch for the Internatioanl Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). You can choose to upgrade and become a GEOS member for $17.95 a year. Membership to GEOS will give you reimbursement up to $100K in Search and Rescue expenses (it’s like having insurance for the wilderness!).
Con: Many hikers forget to hit their “Check-in/OK” buttons and their mothers immediately call Search and Rescue, which can result in expensive bills. This has happened numerous times to hikers and even multiple times to a few unfortunate souls. One young PCT hiker, Babyface, showed up in Idyllwild to find posters of his face in the shop windows and cafe owners telling him to call his mother immediately!
The moral of the story is if you’re going to use a GPS device, make it clear to your loved ones how you intend to use it. You can choose to use it every day and tell loved ones to be concerned if they don’t hear from you, but you MUST be diligent about pushing the “Check-in/OK” button. Or, you can choose to only send messages for plan changes and emergencies, in which case, loved ones should only get concerned if they DO hear from you.
You can check out the SPOT website here.
Review by Sportsman’s News TV:
I’m registered to take one of Ned Tibbits snow & ice skills classes from Mountain Education in April. Whether the course actually happens or not will depend on how much snowfall we receive over the next couple of months. Assuming the 3-day class does run, some of the things we’ll be covering include:
- Navigation and route selection
- Avalanche awareness, snow-caving and snow analysis
- Over-snow movement skills and self-arrest techniques
You can check out the Mountain Education website here.
Self defense classes have been on my To-Do list for a long time. I finally found one that worked with my schedule and budget at a local gym, Crossfit Pacific Coast. The 4-hour workshop covered:
- Statistics, scenarios, and theory knowledge is power: when you know the who, where, how, and why’s of assault, you’re better equipped to prevent and deal with it.
- Techniques- practicing tried and true defense moves (I even learned a few I think would be quite useful against animals!)
- Application- fighting off and escaping from a full-sized man as he tried to attack students
Our teachers had extensive backgrounds in personal security and mixed martial arts, but the number one point they wanted us to walk away with was prevention. By staying aware of our surroundings and potential dangerous situations, you can prevent bad situations from ever happening or escalating. There are so many opportunities to change the course of events before things get ugly and it’s important to rely on our instincts to alert us to danger. If I ever feel uncomfortable camping near particular individuals, I should not feel ashamed to pack up and move on away from them. (They recommended a book on this topic, The Gift of Fear.)
The instructors also stressed how important it is to have something worth fighting for, either your own sense of self-worth or for someone else’s security (like a child waiting for you at home). In in the midst of a life threatening situation, you will need every ounce of empowerment. I joke about my fantasizes of fighting mountain lions to the death, but those mental rehearsals have helped me draw on strength when I’ve been too terrified to act in real situations. I’ll never forget the fear I felt when I believed I was being stalked by an animal on Mount Baden Powell. The first attempt I made at an aggressive scream came out of my fear-constricted body as nothing more than a hoarse squeak.
Armed now with quite a bit of knowledge, numerous good moves, and a few actual fights under my belt, I feel so much more confident in my ability to defend myself. I’d say this might be the best $100 spent in pursuit of my backpacking journeys so far!
My Opinion on Weapons
Emergency whistles can be more of a deterrent to both animals and people than you might expect. Animals approaching you only out of curiosity or as a potential food source will most definitely be surprised and intimidated by the piercingly loud sound of an emergency whistle. A self-defense expert noted to me that humans attacking you will be thrown off by anything you do that seems unexpected to them. So blowing an extremely loud whistle into the ear of someone grabbing you may buy you the moments you need to turn the situation in your favor.
Many friends suggested taking along everything from guns and knives to tranquilizers and tasers. After talking with the gentlemen at my local gun shop, they all agreed that bear mace is the best kind of self-defense weapon to take backpacking. Guns and knives both require extensive training to be used successfully, plus both can be deadly if turned against you. Although they’re not lethal, tranquilizers and tasers can be as inaccurate and cumbersome as guns and knives. Bear mace, or bear spray, is pepper spray strong enough to deter a grizzly bear and can be used on lions and humans as well without causing permanent damage. It will easily shoot out a cloud of pepper spray to a distance of 18-40 feet, and so accuracy is not as important as with guns. It was also suggested to me to wear the pepper spray not only in a place that’s easily accessible, should I need it on quick notice, but also visible to any potential human predators. Just seeing a weapon can be a deterrent to predatory people.
Check out more info on bear spray at How Stuff Works’ article here.
Dealing with illegal marijuana growers on the trail
The PCT Water Report lists the areas that may have illegal or dangerous growing activity. Before hiking these sections, it’s a good idea to call the local ranger districts and ask them about any updates on the activity. While preparing to hike Section A, I spoke with a ranger who assured me of one particular grow that had already been ripped out by officials. They’re pretty good at monitoring the areas and will let you know what to look for should there be any new activity.
Check out the PCTA Blog Post on this issue here.
Wildlife: Mountain lions and bears and rattlesnakes. OH, MY!
Lion safety: Mountain Lion Foundation
Bear safety: USParks.About.com
Snake safety: Department of Fish and Wildlife