I go to the wild to recover my sanity in an insane world. The deeper the better. My goal is not to see another human being. I’m sure there is another name for this, but I call it deep wilderness hiking. If there is not a human being for a mile in any direction and no sign of man except the trail you are on, then you are in wilderness. If you are far enough back that you could go for days in that state, then you are in what I consider deep wilderness.
Wednesday’s wilderness might not be so wild on Saturday. There are times when you can go for ten miles on parts of the Pacific Crest Trail and not see another person. There are times and places when you meet a thru-hiker or group every few hundred yards. These things vary. The distance isn’t the important determinant, it is the isolation at the time.
Deep wilderness means that you are at last fully responsible for what happens. By “responsible”, I mean that if you screw up, you will pay the price. Nobody is coming to get you right away. Meeting a good Samaritan is not on the agenda. The ambulance won’t be there in a few minutes. Even if you have a communications device, rescue is still hours away. Plenty of time to bleed out, freeze to death or die from heat stroke or shock. There are also dangers that can kill you immediately. Falls, drowning, lightning, avalanche, etc. The search and rescue people may not find your buzzard eaten corpse even after someone reports you missing.
It is still pretty damn easy for one to stay alive. Just don’t do stupid things and do the intelligent things with all due prudence. It is all about knowledge. Knowledge about the environment and your physical capabilities. What to do when things go wrong and how to keep them from going wrong. Situational awareness and humility. I don’t find deep wilderness scary. It is relaxing and exhilarating. I won’t say I have never screwed up in deep wilderness but I can say it was never more than just painful and not even close to life threatening. You live and you learn – the only advantage there is to age.
The trails in California are harsh. Everything seems to involve long distances up and down a 20% grade. My knees are the limiting factor. Going up isn’t bad. Just go slow and rest often. Downhill is the killer. Downhill is why I can no longer hike the great trails of the land. Last time I tried a long steep downhill, it was two days before I could resume hiking.
So I have to search farther. The John Muir trail is lost to me, along with most other long thru hikes. I scout out sections of trails, level sections with gentle grades but still wild enough to be alone on and interesting enough to be worth keeping my camera at the ready. Or trails where I can save the downhill for the end of the day. If I am to be crippled, I must save it for the end of the hike. Not the middle. Turning a 4 day loop trip into 2 days of hiking with a 2 day convalescence ruins the fun.
Sometimes I take a dog. Avery has proven to be the best hiking companion a human could ever have. Oliver is not far behind. Rex used to be a good companion for cool weather, especially winter in the mountains. At sixteen, he can’t manage more than a klick on the flat, He’s still wonderful for car camping and leisurely strolls but his wilderness days are done
I use my dogs. They don’t just accompany me. They carry their own packs with their own supplies. They keep me warm at night. I let them pull me up really steep sections. (Fifty-plus pounds of 4 wheel drive is not to be sneered at.) Pound for pound, canines are better draught animals than horses. During his prime, Rex (Bernese Mtn. Dog) was quite capable of dragging you face first thru the snow, no sled needed.
Oliver is the newcomer. Full of energy and playfulness, his favorite thing is to cuddle. He is quite the heat generator.
Avery is a portable rattlesnake alarm. When she spots one she backs away and goes into a point while emitting a growl that sends shivers up my spine. She is the best behaved on the trail, sitting and being quiet when ordered to. That’s really important if you don’t want to scare off wildlife you’ve spotted.
She is also a natural bird dog. One time she went on point and then slowly approached a juniper. When she got close, she jumped and flushed out a covey of quail. Not satisfied with this, she caught one in mid-flight, killed it and brought it back to me. She was now the happiest dog you could ever see, face and chest covered in blood and tail wagging wildly. This dog had never been trained as a bird dog but has all the instincts.
I reluctantly left the bird behind. It wasn’t quail season – and I didn’t have a license even if it was. Odds were heavily against seeing anyone else out there but if I did, I didn’t care to have to explain having the bird or get her in trouble. She was just trying to provide for her family. I’ll need to watch out for this in the future, that’s all.
A hiker needs gear. Starting with the feet you want good shoes and socks. Younger folks can go with a pair of trail shoes. I happen to like the Merril Moab Ventilators because I hike mostly in dry areas and I don’t need any arch support. The Merrils are fine for a well-maintained trail and if you get them wet, they dry very quickly. Many people find sneakers do just fine.
I discovered that many trails I’ve been hiking are a bit rugged for those. I’ve been doing a bit of boulder hopping and bushwhacking lately and the bottoms of my feet sometimes feel like they’ve taken a bit of a beating. That’s where my Keene Targhees come into their own. They are a waterproof mid-height hiking boot with support for the ankle and a more solid base. Next up the list is a pair of Lowa Renegades for even more support.
Do not buy boots too snug. When you do buy them, try them on with the thickest socks you can find. I suggest a pair of “expedition” weight wool socks and do your actual hiking in something a little thinner. As the day and the hike go on, your feet will naturally swell. This allows for a bit more expansion. I only wear merino wool or wool blend socks. Cotton may be okay for light use but on a trail they will soak up water and produce rucks and wrinkles. Not good. The two brands I use are REI and Smartwool.
You’ll probably want to wear pants. (Hmmm… Maybe a kilt?) I often prefer to wear nothing at all between my hat and my shoes but not all trails are “nude safe”. For warm weather work, I wear nylon cargo pants with zip-off legs. Take the legs with you. If you get stuck out late or it cools off, you’ll want them. Same material for shirts but make sure they are designed to be able to roll up your sleeves. As it starts to cool off in winter I’ll wear warmer versions of the same thing and take a cheap down jacket from Costco. Packs well and weighs almost nothing.
Except for some kind of footwear, a hat is the most important piece of clothing in your ensemble. In cold weather, your body will do whatever it takes to keep your brain warm. That includes sacrificing ears and nose, fingers and toes. Or worse. In hot weather, an overheated brain leads to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
OTOH, an awful lot of hiking is done with sneakers, jeans, baseball hat, and a t-shirt. Don’t get preoccupied with gear. I’ve been collecting gear for 40 years now. My current hiking pants are from Costco. I spent a bit on my current summer hat but a lot of my time I just wear a $9.95 boonie. My current shirt is one I picked up in the Everglades as a souvenir.
One of the nice gadgets to have is some kind of satellite communicator. SPoT has one, Garmin has another. This allows you to send out an SOS even when way beyond cell phone range and regular text messages to keep friends and family from worrying. This is not instant rescue. It is rescue in hours to days, depending on how good a GPS fix you got.
Obviously, you should have a First Aid Kit but first aid training is probably more important. With training, you can make your own FAK- and you should. A lot can be improvised. Red Cross Advanced First Aid is a good start. Wilderness First Responder is better.
You should carry water. A 3 liter bladder isn’t too much for a hot day. If there are natural water supplies along the way, a filter will stretch your range. For snacks, I tend towards cheese balls, jerky, PopTarts and whatever breakfast bars I happen to like. Carbs are king on the trail. A person can survive a long time without food, they will just be miserable. Dehydration, on the other hand, can kill in a couple days in a hot climate and only a bit longer in a cool climate.
You should be able to make and tend a fire. It looks very romantic to make a fire using a bow drill but I prefer matches or a Bic lighter. Knowing how to make and keep fire – and prevent it from spreading – is one of those fundamental bushcraft skills you need to know. Another is skill with map and compass.
Be sure you bury your poo and TP deep and away from any water source. If you don’t, I will personally come after you and make you eat it.
For the basic hike, you need a backpack or fannypack. Needs to hold the water bladder, the food, the FAK, your fire starting kit, satcom device, Swiss army knife, a light, a couple of Space Blankets, map and compass, some lightweight rope and maybe rain gear and a jacket. I prefer a pack with a wide padded hip belt but you may not think it worth it.
Backpacking trips are a bit more elaborate. Too much here for me to discuss but pick up a copy of The Compleat Walker plus a couple other reasonable looking books and you’ll have more info than you’ll ever need. Many outdoor shops offer classes, esp. REI Co-op.
Winter is a bit different. Always dress for the worst weather you are likely to encounter, be it rain or snow or subzero temps with windchill. Not to do so is to roll the dice with catastrophe. Dress in layers. As you go thru the day you will be constantly adjusting to the changing environment and your changing energy production. The idea is not to let yourself get hot and sweaty. The sweat will destroy your inner layer of insulation. When you stop working, your body will cool off quickly and you will be miserable. Or possibly dead, should the weather go bad. It should be noted that cotton is notorious for having zero insulation value when wet. And it stays wet far longer than wool or synthetic. That can be good when it is hot and disastrous when it is cold.
In southern California, you don’t get much winter below about 3000 ft. elevation. More like 7 months of summer, a couple months of dry autumn and three months of wet spring (if we are lucky). I adjust my deep wilderness day hikes and backpacks according to the season by varying the elevation. When I first arrived here, 30 in the winter and 90 in the summer were quite comfortable.
My comfort range is no longer so wide. I live by the adiabatic lapse rate. In normal weather, the temperature will drop by 3-4 degrees F for every thousand feet of elevation gained. In the summer I head into the mountains. In the winter I go to the low desert. If I am expecting a daytime high of over 90F, I don’t go very far unless there is recreational water along the way.
Did I say that loud enough? If your hiking pace is 1 mph, then that is how fast you should hike. If it is 3 mph, then that is how fast you should hike. The steepest hill can be walked up by even an out of shape person if you just do it slowly enough. Hiking with an organized group has some very small advantages (meeting members of the opposite sex is one of them) but also huge disadvantages. You are stuck with their pace. If you take off and leave them eating your trail dust, there was no point in the group at all – unless it is just to rescue your butt after doing something stupid.
Stopping to get that perfect photo of a butterfly (in a group) means you have to hurry
later to compensate. Being in a hurry on the trail is being in danger. If you feel the need to hurry, you have made a mistake. Stop and rethink your position, then proceed calmly.
If you can’t keep up, once again you are by yourself, eating their trail dust and probably a bit embarrassed by your relative lack of fitness. (Or maybe they slowed to your pace and are irritated at not being able to go full steam ahead.) And the group may still have to rescue you after getting heat exhaustion from trying to keep up.
Groups are stuck to a particular route. What about that canyon to the right? The one with the intriguing flora and all those deer tracks? They aren’t going to wait for you to go off and come back. I can send off a text message via SPoT indicating I’m going to investigate this canyon and have it track my position. The location and time are delivered to the internet every ten minutes and anyone with a topo map of the area will know exactly where I am headed. You aren’t deviating from a known course, you are delivering a real-time course modification. Someone still knows where you are and when to expect you back.
With an organized group, if you deviate from the designated route, you may well be excluded from the group in the future. The group’s insurance may not allow for such a thing. (Never mind that any group will frighten off the wildlife long before you get to see it.)
However, I don’t mean to disparage organized groups. They are important, just not my cup of tea. Between Scouts and Sierra Club and other organizations, a lot of people are exposed to wilderness that otherwise would not be. They are a safe place to get your feet wet. They are great for kids. Groups hold social events. I am not a social hiker. I want to be alone. I grew up traveling alone through the wilds of northern Michigan as a teenager and even younger. Whether hunting or fishing or just rambling, I was usually alone. I hike my own hike, laid out for bad knees, my personal desires and for my own level of fitness. You should too.
There is something cleansing about the wilderness. Almost every religion has some story of extended stay in the wilderness as a mode of purification. At one time the native Australians had a rite of passage known as the Walkabout. In it, a boy between the ages of 10 to 16 would spend a half year in the outback on his own on a spiritual quest. When he came back he would have found his true self and be ready for manhood. Literature is replete with stories of authors who visited the wilderness and emerged a different person. Think of Muir, Thoreau, or the late backpacking guru, Colin Fletcher. Even a couple of popular movies recently, Wild and A Walk in the Woods.
Happy (and rare) indeed is the person who has a spouse that loves wilderness. The very best trail stories involve a married couple dealing with the stress of pain and hunger and exhaustion and becoming closer for it. (On the other hand, if it doesn’t work, a divorce may be in the offing.) Nothing speaks to a person’s character or their compatibility with another quite like shared hardship.
I find young children will happily tag along on an adventure that is within their capabilities. They are natural born explorers. It is not difficult to get them onto day trips and car camping and overnights and you should do so with the entire family at every opportunity. Those memories will last a lifetime and are worthy of a bucket list. The rare teenager who loves the outdoors could be a good partner for moderate adventure. The kinds of things an advanced Scout or Explorer might tackle. Sadly, most teens are glued to their gaming systems and/or the social life and have no time for your eccentricities.
You don’t push children (or a spouse) to the limit on a trek. You risk having them hate the wild for it – all work and no fun. You risk their physical well-being in a way that only a well-prepared adult should attempt. And keep them VERY close. If I die of exposure or fall off a cliff or get eaten by a bear, it would be sad. If a child does because of some risk I instigated, then I should burn in the hottest part of hell.
What about all the wilderness survival we see on television? Whether it is Naked and Afraid or Bear Grylls, or someone else, reality television is in reality, “full of it”. Most survival shows are carefully scripted to include false dangers and gratuitous personal conflict – including the ones that supposedly aren’t. (Probably the closest to reality is Les Stroud’s Survivorman. Or perhaps Ray Mears.) They are entertaining but don’t take them seriously.
There is potentially dangerous wildlife out there in some areas. Bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, bees. Give them their distance. Bears and cougar attacks are spectacularly rare. Almost every incident gets major news coverage. You are safer on the trail than you are on the road to the trail. But if large mammal predators are an issue with you, bear spray is somewhat better than a gun. (Except for the rare person who is the secret love child of Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickock.)
If you see a rattlesnake give it space. Be mindful of your environment so you don’t step on one and never put your hands/feet somewhere you can’t see. Step on top of large obstacles and then over. You need to see what is lurking on the other side. First aid for rattlesnake bite is to stay calm, keep the bitten appendage below your heart and get rescued any way you can. There is no field expedient way to neutralize venom outside the ER. Cut and suck and electroshock cause much damage and no good.
Staying alive when things go south is a matter of keeping your composure and thinking things thru. It isn’t about scaling cliffs or hunting meat or constructing long-term shelters. Nor is it about having that expensive knife or special high-calorie “emergency” rations. Your mission is to stay warm enough and hydrated enough until Search and Rescue find your sorry butt or the emergency abates enough that you can walk out on your own.
Survivalist training is a hobby. A very interesting and potentially useful hobby – but still a hobby. It is nice to know you can get by with nothing but a knife and some paracord and under many situations, I imagine you could. For the right financial incentive, I wouldn’t mind trying.
bare feet.) That may be too much to ask. If so, accepting the consequences of losing the skin off the soles of your feet and dealing with it without anger or fear is what you have to master. (Experience speaking here.) Knowing the risk of a bit of pain versus the risk of death is really important.
The wild is a very sensual place. Walk silently and gently upon the land. Speed is of no concern. Your legs doing are exactly what they were meant to do. Once you get into shape, you’ll rejoice in their steady and tireless motion, swinging like pendulums.
Take a deep breath. (You may need a daytime antihistamine to enjoy this.) The air is clean. Is the scent of wildflowers on the wind? Do you smell the desert? Maybe a distant campfire. The swamp? A lake? Perhaps the ocean? Are you downwind of something dead? Doesn’t the simple act of breathing give you pleasure?
No ear buds. Listen to the wind in the trees. Are insects buzzing? Do you hear birds? The chattering of a squirrel? Is there a babbling brook nearby? Waves lapping a shore? Can you hear your own footsteps? Thunder in the distance tells you to prepare or leave. If you are fortunate, maybe the coyotes are serenading tonight.
Feel it. The warmth of the sun and the sweat on your skin. Or a cool mountain breeze. Or the crisp cold of winter. The air moves. Is it a welcome respite from the heat? Or is it a reminder to put on another layer? Feel your feet especially. What are they telling you? Are you developing a hot spot that needs to be addressed? Are the toes in pain from being jammed into the front of your boot? Are your shoe soles so flexible the bottom of your feet feel like they have been beaten upon? These are warnings. Do not ignore them.
More than anything else, humans are visual creatures. Modern humans rely on vision so much the other senses are ignored or even suppressed. Despite this, much of human vision is also dismissed. People trudge down the trail and miss the tracks of a bear or where a snake crossed. That deer off to the side might as well have never existed. Never notice the robin in the tree or the ravens dancing in the sky or the eagle circling overhead. They don’t stop to fully take in the beauty around them.
They miss a dust bath made by the quail, the bees in the flowers or the ants in their nuptial flights. The fossils in the eroded rocks. Hell, they even miss the wildflowers. Too much of a hurry to make the next GPS coordinate and so they miss so much of what is really important.
It is never about the destination. It is always about the trip. You don’t need the Grand Canyon or Yosemite for greatness. It is around you always, in the tiniest of things, regardless of where you go.
Take time to smell the roses, as the old saw goes. You don’t want to run out of time and realize that you have never really smelled a rose, having always put it off to a more convenient time.
William Blake said it best in his Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour….
Once you understand that, you maybe might be on your way to understanding the natural world – and perhaps even yourself.