How To Be Prepared While Hiking
Reprinted as seen in the March + April 2011 Issue of Washington Trails Magazine, by Russ Hanbey. Russ is a wilderness ranger for the Darrington Ranger District.
Is It Really Necessary or Just Another Cliché?
My wife, Jeanne, was ahead of me as we descended a fairly steep and slippery trail on Patterson Mountain, near Winthrop. We had already enjoyed several hours of fine hiking up through the sagebrush and ponderosa pine landscape that defines this rolling hill in the Methow Valley. It was the end of October, and the weather was relatively mild. All was well. However, after our lunch on the summit ridge, we watched the clouds dropping and felt the temperature head towards the lower end of the thermometer. It was only midday, but it was time to retreat the several miles back down to the car.
A mile later, we hit a stretch of trail that was downsloped, rutted and greasy. Jeanne turned to say something to me and did not notice the iceberg of a rock jutting out near her left foot. Instantly, she tripped and pitched forward. She threw out her arms, but not fast enough to cushion the blow of her chin hitting a large and unforgiving rock at the bottom of her plunge.
Immediately she rolled over, blood dripping from her chin. She was distressed by the blow. She knew she had done something seriously bad to her jaw.
I have spent nine summers as a wilderness ranger, four years in search and rescue, and have gone through numerous wilderness first aid courses. The accidents I’ve dealt with are mainly after the fact, not as they happen. From this experience, I discovered that nothing can completely prepare you for dealing with a traumatic incident, especially in a remote location, while it is raw and in real time. Jeanne was hurt and frightened and ready to leave. I did a quick assessment and sized up the situation. She was able to stand and move, so we decided to walk out. The first raindrops had already started to fall.
In my many seasons with the Forest Service working the front- and backcountry trails of the Darrington Ranger District, I have encountered thousands of people. One of our jobs as backcountry caretakers is to size up people as we see them and make mental notes as to their location, condition and how well they are equipped. I can unequivocally state that 80 percent or more of the people I encounter on the first 4 miles of the trails I have worked on are grossly under equipped, especially based on The Mountaineers recommended list of 10 essentials. Without proper supplies, the prospects of managing an accident and keeping yourself or your group warm and safe for any extended length of time, are dim to nonexistent. And, that’s assuming fair weather and plenty of daylight left to cope with an emergency. If it is late in the day or a foul weather system is moving in rapidly on Mount Pilchuck, Lake 22 or Mount Dickerman, for example, the odds for a positive outcome dwindle dramatically.
Back to Patterson Mountain, a deceptively easy frontcountry hike. We were fortunate enough to be able to walk out. Had Jeanne been immobilized by her fall, I would have needed to leave her and go for help or wait for someone to pass by. In that case, a decision to “go lite” could have been a potentially disastrous decision, compounded by the rapidly deteriorating weather. As it was, I was equipped with all of my day hike gear and prepared for the worst. For others, the decision to hike with nothing but shorts, tennis shoes, and a small water bottle may seem benign, but, as they say in the disabled community, we are all TAB— temporarily able-bodied. Anything can happen, and it does.
In the end, we were able to make it down to the car and drive to the Aero Methow Rescue facility in Twisp. There, a paramedic looked Jeanne over and decided to transport her by ambulance to the emergency room in Omak. Once there, she was stabilized and diagnosed with a broken jawbone socket, cuts and bruises.
It’s true that on most popular frontcountry trails in the Cascades and Olympics, someone will come along eventually depending on the time of day, day of the week and the weather. But you can’t depend on that. Nor can you rely on cell phones to get you out of trouble. Cell phone reception is always sporadic. I never depend on one to compensate for the unexpected or for faulty decision-making.
Before your next hike, ask yourself these questions: Can I take care of myself and help others in case of an emergency? Will I become a liability instead of an asset if I am injured, ill or lost?
In the end, everyone has a responsibility to attain the skills, experience, common sense and equipment to be a self-reliant hiker. If you are just getting started, go out with someone with more experience. Your careful preparation will help prevent a fine day in the mountains from turning into a bad dream.
Here’s what backcountry rangers like Hanbey carry on all day hikes:
1. Heavy duty, large day pack
b. Wool Hat
d. Sweater or over shirt
3. Reliable rain gear, top and bottom
4. Sit pad
5. Large black plastic bag
6. Wilderness first aid kit, with extra compresses and moleskin
7. Large water bottle (full at the trailhead)
8. A safety kit containing a whistle, mirror, fire starter tabs and matches, 25 feet of cord, flagging,
a small sewing kit and a 59-inch by 80-inch emergency heat blanket
9. Toilet paper
10. Compass and map of the area (not a GPS) and altimeter
11. Enough extra food for one to two days
12. Bug repellent
13. Head lamp and extra batteries
15. Pencil and waterproof paper
This is all in addition to whatever work tools and supplies are needed for the day. Everything is kept in waterproof bags or containers.