Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hiking: How I hike by myself and survive (So far anyway)

I'm often asked, and sometimes derided, and once in a while chastised, about all the solo hiking I do, so I thought I'd take a moment and talk about that.

Yes, I agree, there is a risk to solo hiking, but I would also like to point out that a solo hiker is not the riskiest of hiking configurations. I believe that award goes to two males and a female all under the age of 30, especially if both males are unrelated to the female and she happens to like the attention. As the two males compete for the female's attention, and against each other, they're going to push things farther and farther and the female is not likely to do much to stop them. If they're lucky they come away with an adventure to remember, if they're not so lucky then most likely our tax dollars are going to be spent rescuing one or more of them.

So, although I agree solo hiking carries a higher risk than other possible hiking configurations, there are riskier things I could get up to yet don't, so I kind of balance it all out. - Hey! It's my rationalization no mater how lame it is, besides my personality and circumstances often dictate that I either hike alone or just sit on my behind and - well - I'm just not very good at sitting.

So it's all about managing that risk. And that's not too difficult since, when I'm out there on the trail, I've only got myself to impress and - well - frankly, I'm easily impressed and I don't need to push for an adrenalin rush to enjoy myself. (In fact I think I might be allergic to adrenalin rushes and becoming more so the older I get!) And as an experienced hiker I would like to think I know my limitations, can listen to reason when I'm scaring myself, and have at least some idea of what I'm doing out there.

So the short answer to the question of how I've gotten away with hiking more wilderness miles all by myself than I can count is; experience, preparation and common sense.

But if you've been reading my blogs you know by now that I can't stop myself at the short answer, so for those that dare, read on. . .

My hiking modes; now down to one

For a while I had two 'modes' of hiking. For simple strolls, say around a short, well marked nature loop, I carried a waist pack with a few simple things like a couple bottles of water, a poncho, my camera gear, a few other bits of stuff like bug juice, a Band-Aid or two and maybe a jacket. For more ambitious hikes I used a larger day-pack with a more elaborate set of gear.

This meant that if I was strolling a well groomed trail within sight of the visitor center I could travel light, yet if I was on a more ambitious trail that was going to take the better part of a day I would have everything I felt I should with me. I was sized for the circumstances. But it also meant that I was carrying two different sets of hiking gear all the time, relying on myself to make the proper decision about which set to use for each hike, and having to constantly switch some of my gear back and forth between the two packs.

So, when I finally had enough of the inconvenience of two-mode hiking I abandoned the 'stroll' mode and now hike with full gear regardless of the trail type. So, when you come across me out there with my hiking stick, GPS and full day pack on that short paved trail that never gets more than shouting distance from the parking lot, you're welcome to chuckle behind my back, I won't mind because I know my gear is overkill.

The backup plan

As an IT professional in charge of multimillion dollar data centers loaded with tens of millions of dollars worth of computer gear where downtime could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour, I learned to think in terms of redundancy. Ideally I had three separate systems for each function, a primary, a secondary, and an emergency fallback.

That sort of thinking served me well in my professional career and I've carried it on into my personal life as well. At the property we have electrical power from the co-op, but if that fails we have a generator that can run almost everything we have, including the heat and air-conditioning, and if that fails we have solar power on the van that will supply the basics.

And in my pack I have three different ways of starting a fire. Kind of ridiculous when the visitor center is just a few hundred yards away, but that same, well stocked pack allows me to get out there and hike some of the more challenging and interesting trails with confidence that I have a good chance of being able to take care of myself.

The three basics; shelter, water, food

As a young Scout I was taught the rule of three's. You can survive for three hours without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food. Of course, those numbers are not exact. If the weather is balmy and calm you can certainly last more than three hours without shelter, and I don't know about you but three weeks without food doesn't sound particularly survivable to me; but the concept has always stayed with me.


So I'm going to start with shelter. That might seem a strange thing for a day hiker to be worried about but, even though it only ever happens to the other guy and never to me, you never know when a day hike is going to extend to an overnight stay for some unforeseen reason. Besides, if you think about it shelter actually starts with clothing, and for the sake of anyone else out there on the trail with me, I usually wear clothes.

I start with a good pair of boots over a decent pair of socks over a good pair of liner socks. Even if it's hot I wear liner socks under hiking socks because I've found that they will keep my feet cool in the heat as well as warm in the cold and I haven't had a blister since adopting this dual strategy.

After that it's all about layers, even in the heat, because deserts can get cold faster than any place I've been except for on the wrong side of a roaring cold front. (I was once driving north through Oklahoma and ran head on into a cold front so extreme it caused the exhaust system on my truck to contract which broke loose all the scale on the inside of the pipes which got trapped behind the spark-arrester screen and caused the truck to stall!)

My standard attire starts with a long sleeved shirt. When it's cool this shirt will be a standard weight cloth but when it's hot I use a shirt with a light colored, light weight, rip-stop type fabric, also with long sleeves. (I prefer to keep my skin covered and away from direct radiant heating by the sun even when it's hot out.) In either case, no mater how hot it is when I start out, I carry another standard weight shirt to use as a second layer, because, once again, you never know. When it's cold I just wear more shirts and carry a heavier jacket. And when it's too cold for that it's too cold for me to be out there!

I have a carabineer hooked into the carry-loop at the top of my pack and I'll often hang a jacket or over-shirt I'm using frequently, like on rest breaks, on this where it's out of the way but handy. (So that's what those silly little loops on the back of shirts are for!)

When it's warm I'll sometimes wear shorts on a casual hike, but usually go for long pants for the extra protection from prickly things, ticks and the sun. I really like cargo style pants because of all the pockets, especially the ones secured by flaps where I can tuck my keys and cell phone away and not worry about them falling out. (Wouldn't that just ruin your day! Get back to the van after a 10 mile, day long hike and discover your keys are somewhere back out there on the trail!!)

As with shirts, I have pants of two different fabric weights for dealing with different temperatures. When it comes to layering on my lower half, if it's cool enough I'll put some long-johns on underneath. (Hint, leggings from the drug store are a whole lot cheaper than thermal underwear from the outdoors store!)

I rarely go outside without a hat on, and not just a ball cap but a full brimmed, straw cowboy style hat. This keeps the sun off the top of my skull and provides shade all the way around my head. If it's cold out I'll clip the straw hat to that carabineer on my pack and don one of those knit, Sherpa-style hats instead. I like this style because it pulls down over my ears and around the back of my neck better than a standard knit cap. I do cut off the tassel on top as well as those thick braids hanging down from the sides. Never could see a use for them anyway. If it's going to be a wet, drizzly day I switch over to a tilly hat, though mine is so old and worn persistent rain has started to ooze through it lately.

For shelter beyond clothing I carry a poncho. Not one of those thin plastic things that folds up into a little pouch you can stick in your shirt pocket but can only be used once because it tears to shreds at the slightest excuse and will not, no mater how hard you try, fold back up to fit in that pocket sized pouch again. Instead I carry a military style poncho that is heavy enough to stand up so some abuse, is large enough to cover me and my gear almost to the ground and has grommets all the way around the perimeter. Besides keeping me and my pack dry and comfortable in the rain, using those grommets and the skein of parachute cord I also carry, I can fashion a serviceable shelter out of my poncho in pretty much any terrain.

Besides stringing a poncho up over my head, that parachute cord also comes in handy for all sorts of things like; substituting for a failed bootlace; standing in for a broken shoulder strap buckle, bundling up a fair maiden to bring her home - no, wait - that can't be right - anyway, it can be used for all sorts of things, preferably honorable things.

And to round out my shelter inventory I have one of those thermal blankets that fold up to almost nothing, but are surprisingly effective.


What's to say, right? You grab a few bottles and go. Well, yes, but as far as I'm concerned, and this is speaking as someone who has done without a time or two, (Yes, I was young and dumb once too. I think it's an unavoidable affliction.) this is the most important bit of gear you can take with you so deserves a little thought. (I once watched TV news film of some criminally stupid Houstonites evacuating ahead of hurricane Ike walking out of their nice neat city houses with car-keys and a can of soda in one hand and the baby in the other, only to be stuck out there on the road with no gas, no food, and no water for two days before aid could get to them. More people died in that evacuation than died in the actual hurricane. . .)
Bladder inside its pocket in the pack
I have a daypack with a sleeve that will accept a bladder-type hydration system. As my secondary supply I carry at least one and often more, depending on the climate, weather and trail, 0.7 liter bottle of water. Smaller bottles are just too small and larger bottles don't ride in the pack very well.

If I run the bladder dry, which can happen since it's buried out of sight there in the pack, then I know I have to turn around right now, regardless of how interesting that next turn looks, yet I still have at least some water for the hike back.

Secondary water supply in bottles and
the filter straw (Blue cylinder)
Here you can also see my multi tool
and the quick-release camera carry system
attached to either half of the waist belt
And finally, as my emergency fallback, I carry one of those filter straws. This has an element in it very similar to the Berkey filter elements in the larger system I keep at the house (In case the well fails for some reason and we need to use the bulk stored water.) but, as the name implies, is used more like a straw. These things are small, light and couldn't be simpler, but are effective enough that they are standard equipment for many relief organizations. Of course there isn't always going to be water laying around to suck up, but the straw weighs next to nothing and if I get into a bind and if there is surface or any other questionable water supply available, I'm ready. Not that I have ever planned, or ever do plan, on getting into such a bind but. . . you never know.  .  .

I have the biggest bladder available, 3 liters worth, and I used to try to estimate how much water I would need for a particular hike and only fill it up with that much, but after resorting to my secondary water supply once too often I've gotten a little smarter now and always start out with the bladder filled to the brim. It might be a little more weight than I really need to be carrying, but I only really notice the weight when I'm grunting as I swing the pack up over my head to put it on, and the peace of mind knowing I have a good supply of water is worth the extra weight. Besides, hiking with a few extra pounds on my back probably helps cut down on some of my own personal extra pounds.


The third element of the survival trilogy, food, is the one I spend the least amount of time worrying about. People that supposedly know about these things say you can live for three weeks without it but I'll have to take their word on that because I've rarely ever gone a day without eating something. In fact you could say that I'm carrying my own emergency rations right there around my waist!

But, since that's for emergency use only (After all I worked hard to collect it!) my standard trail nutrition strategy is to grab a couple bags of home-made gorp and snack a little during breaks. For a special reward on longer hikes I'll grab one of the MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) desert cakes. These are pound-type cakes squished into a tough foil envelope and sealed, need no refrigeration, will last for years on the shelf and are surprisingly palatable, maybe not what you'd go for at home where you have access to your fancy kitchen but out there on the trail they're damn good eatin'. . .

1200 calories of good trail eatin'
And if I'm feeling particularly malnourished, I throw one of the full MRE's I always carry in the van into my pack. These are 1200 calories worth of a main dish, side dish, crackers, and desert packaged in a heavy plastic pouch along with utensils, napkin, seasonings and even a toothpick and, at around $7 (Last time I bought any.) cost about the same as a fast-food meal.

Everything can be eaten straight out of its foil envelope but if you want hot food you can drop a little water and a still sealed envelope of whatever you want to heat into the plastic pouch the meal comes packaged in then add a special heater pack (These things oxidize in the presence of water just like rusting steel but do it so fast they generate a good bit of heat!) and wa-la! Gourmet eating!

And now for the rest

So, it's probably long past time for me to get down to the nitty-gritty. To talk details about all the other stuff not directly related to the '3's' elements, that I take with me while hiking.

The pack

When I was a youngster, which was so far back students study it in history class now, the choices were limited but today there are hundreds of different packs to choose from and that can create its own problems. And I've managed to go through a few of them! Some have proven to be unwise purchases and unsuitable for real hiking, usually the more exotic designs, and others worked well but have just plain worn out. Now days I've outgrown the allure of the exotic and go for simple, tried and true.

The first criteria I look for is a pack that's hydration system compatible. I really like these systems. They encourage small sips at frequent intervals rather than desperate gulps widely spaced out because of the hassle of reaching behind your back and wrestling a water bottle out of a too-tight side pocket, or worse, discovering that the side pocket wasn't tight enough and now your nearly full water bottle is back there along the trail somewhere. Another advantage of hydration systems is that the weight of the water is kept right up against your back where it belongs for comfortable carrying. The disadvantage is that they can be awkward to fill and handle and it's difficult to tell how much water is left until you're sucking air since they're buried down in a pocket out of sight inside your pack.

Then I look for a suspension system that can be adjusted to fit me comfortably. (You would think clerks in a sporting goods store would understand the need, but try asking one of them to hang their weight on a pack you're trying on and see the expression on their face!) I also like a waist belt for two reasons. One is the extra stability it provides and the second is the ability to hang my multi-tool and the quick release carry system for my camera off of either side of it right where I can reach them easily.

After that it's about being big enough to carry my gear and maybe some extra clothes. Oh - and the color. I don't like walking around with some neon sign on my back; reminds me too much of a target and I'd much rather blend in with my surroundings than announce to the world 'here I am!', so I look for more natural colors. My current pack is black, not my first choice but it fit all the other criteria well so I can forgive the solar absorbing qualities.

Finding my way

I've already mentioned the poncho, parachute cord and thermal blanket that are part of my shelter strategy but in order to prevent having to resort to that strategy in the first place I carry some things that help me stay on track.

Now days my primary tool for this is a GPS. This is something I added recently and boy is it nice to have along! Most everybody knows what these can do (Including 'making' you drive down a boat-ramp and into the lake!) so I'm not going to say much more about it except. . . It clips to one of the pack's shoulder straps where it's handy; I can sync maps, routes and tracks back and forth to my laptop-based mapping system. I carry 4 sets of rechargeable batteries that get a fresh charge monthly as well as every time they are used and each set will last for 6 to 8 hours of continuous use; and I still carry old-school backup in case it quits on me.

My backup consists of: the familiar orienteering compass I've been using since I was a boy; a paper map of the trail; if I can't get my hands on one of those then a photo of the map posted at the trailhead or in extreme cases a photo of the map taken off my laptop screen. In case I push things too far into the evening I also carry an LED headlamp along with a spare set of batteries for it, even though the batteries last forever in these things. And for when things still go all to hell, a signal whistle that also has a puny but workable compass on one side and a thermometer on the other.

First Aid

Of course, like all good Scouts (Hey! Stop laughing, I was good once!) I also carry some first aid supplies, but not the stuff that actually came in that little yellow container we're all familiar with. I mean really! Does anyone ever actually use half of what comes in those things?

Instead I have what I consider more realistic stuff in mine, which is; a generous assortment of Band-Aids that will hopefully cover the vast majority of my trailside first aid requirements; a tube of triple antibiotic cream which I am a big fan of and carry with me wherever I am (I once cut my hand pretty bad while I was working down in Mexico and didn't get it seen to until I was back in the States three days later. Because I packed it with this cream and closed it up with several band-aids all they had to do was clean it out and stitch me up. No infection at all! And, because it's greasy, it can also double as a lubricant over a hot-spot on your foot.); a large wound pad and roll of gauze in case I really screw up;  Some dental floss, which is crazy strong stuff, with a large curved needle tucked into the box with it (Though just the thought of sewing up anything other than the seat of my pants with this setup makes me turn green and want to puke. . .); a few aspirins; and, sometimes the most used item in the kit, a tick key for getting rid of any unwanted hitchhikers quickly.

Fire starting

When it comes to that most manly of outdoors skills, making fire, I admit I'm not too proud to cheat. I'm not a smoker but I carry a  butane lighter with me for the quick and convenient flame, one of those miniature ones secret smokers like because they're easy to hide.

In case the lighter isn't up to the task for some reason I also carry a waterproof container with both storm matches and wind resistant matches in it along with two miniature zip-lock bags, each of which contains a striker. (It's become  more and more difficult to buy strike-anywhere matches and the only way to get a safety match to lite is on the appropriate striker surface so you better make sure you have plenty.) The reason I carry both wind resistant and storm matches is simply that I have a supply of each. The only difference I can see between them is that one has sparkler-like stuff down the stick and you have to really watch what you're doing with them! Since I have never had to use these for real I pull a few out of my stash once or twice a year and make sure they will still  light.

Being in dire need of fire is not the time I want to be playing Daniel Boone and collecting dried bird's nests, or the inner bark of some exotic tree, or belly lint, so for a very effective tinder I carry a second waterproof container stuffed as full as I can get it with cotton balls that have been thoroughly dredged in petroleum jelly.

These things light easily and burn long, but never hold onto one as you are lighting it or you'll find you can light your fire with a flaming fingertip! Instead spear one on the end of a small stick, carefully wipe your fingers clean of any residue and only then light the cotton ball. Because I have them stuffed so tight into the container I also inset a small metal rod in there with them that I can use to extract the sticky little balls.

And if I'm having a really bad day, one where I've lost my lighter and then dropped my matches down a cliff, I also carry a striker style fire starter. Despite what the TV survivalists would have you think, it's not as easy to get a flame going with one of these as with a match, but it can be done. (I recommend a couple practice sessions per year just to remind yourself how to do it. This also serves as incentive not to lose your matches in the first place!)

Additional comfort

I already mentioned the straw hat I usually wear on the trail but I also carry a couple other items that contribute to comfort and even health.

Of course if you're going to be spending any time at all outdoors, carrying a good supply of bug juice is a must, as is having a good sunscreen along, and using it!

Because I sometimes end up hiking where the bugs are swarming too thick for bug juice alone(Seems that they think the outdoors belongs to them too!!) I carry a head net. It drops over my hat and cinches around my throat (Hey! Not so tight.) and once or twice was the only thing that made being out there tolerable. It packs into a very small space and weighs nothing.

Miscellaneous items

You know those mesh pockets on the side of your pack that are supposed to be for water bottles? The ones that are such a pain to get a bottle in and out of? Unless I know for sure it's going to be a dry hike I use those to carry a pair of water shoes instead.

I've used those shoes many times on many trails to keep my boots and socks dry without having to risk impaling my bare foot on something I can't see down there under the water. One of my favorite trails just a few hours from the house is land-locked by large, private ranches and can only be reached by fording a river. Because of this there is hardly ever anyone out there, (Even the staff at the main part of the park on the other side of the river didn't know there was an old, unmarked cemetery over there when I asked about it.) but the river is knee deep, sometimes more, sometimes less, and has a sharp, rocky bottom! Minnesota advertises itself as the land of a thousand lakes, but they don't tell you about all the boggy areas and creeks around those lakes! Alaska has lots of great trails, but many are lightly used and don't warrant bridges to get across all the streams they cross so unless you're prepared to get your feet wet you're going to miss out.

Oh, and by the way, you might want to wear a decent pair of underwear so you aren't too reluctant to take you pants off for those deeper crossings.

Not that it's ever happened, but I also suppose that if a raccoon ever ran off with one of my boots I'd be mighty glad to have an alternative to protect my tender foot, so you could even say the water shoes are my boot backup.

Of course keeping my boots and socks dry while crossing a river isn't quite as effective if I have to stuff wet feet back into them, so I also carry one of those synthetic chamois, actually only a piece of one no bigger than a washcloth. Since it wrings out nearly dry that's plenty big enough to get my various body parts that somehow managed to get wet dried off again.

All I have to do is heave the pack onto
my back and I'm ready to go
Among the final few bits that make up my miscellaneous gear is a baggie of toilet paper, because being caught without is not a pleasant experience, a spare baggie in with the toilet paper so I can carry my used paper out without making a gross mess, spare batteries for the camera because you always run out of battery at the best part of the trail, and a mesh bag, just because it's nearly weightless and might come in handy sometime.

And last but certainly not least, is my hiking stick. Up until I nearly fell of a cliff-hugging trail in Alaska, some 30+ years ago now because I stepped on a loose rock and lost my balance, I didn't think I needed a 'cane', no mater how stylish. After scrambling back up to where I was supposed to be and catching my breath, I immediately sat down right there in the trail and used my knife to fashion a hiking stick from the nearest branch. Now you  won't catch me out there without one. Though I've usually locked the van up, tucked the keys deep into a buttoned pocket and made it half way to the trailhead before remembering I left it behind. I've had to go back for it so many times you'd think I'd have learned by now, but nooo. . .

For now I just use the one stick which leaves my other hand free for the camera, which I have in that hand for much of most of my hikes so it's ready for those quick shots, but, as I age and get more 'tottery', I can add a second stick and just keep right on going.

Keeping it real

Of course all the experience and prep in the world isn't going to negate stupid. So after all that babbling on I just did, the most important part of hiking, solo or not, is to think about what you're doing, keep it real and make sensible choices.

Once I have all my gear on my back it's still my own personal responsibility to pick trails according to my abilities, to keep an eye on the time and weather and be willing to turn around before the 'end' of the trail if that's what my body is telling me to do.

The pack rides safe and secure on its hook just inside
one of the rear doors of the van
Fortunately this is made easier by the fact that I've matured beyond the 'got to bag it' stage of hiking a 5 mile round trip in less than two hours just so I can say I've been there, without ever really being there. Now days I can get distracted by the tinniest of details, the most subtle beauties, or just plain daydreaming, and spend hours poking along until I'm barely out of sight of the van and yet come away just as satisfied as if I topped a distant peak.

I attribute the fact that in over 40 years of solo hiking I have had fewer close calls than fingers on one hand and, so far, zero issues serous enough that I couldn't get out of it by myself, to a little luck, but mostly to my own sense of personal responsibility backed up by proper preparation.

Anyway, that's more than anybody should ever have to be subjected to about me and my hiking so. . . see y'all on the trail!

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