Safe & Sane in the Wilderness

I took the day off a few weeks ago to head to the mountains, as I often do. I drove along Mountain Loop Highway for an hour or so before arriving at the trail’s large parking lot. It was completely empty, which wasn’t particularly odd for a chilly Wednesday morning in December. Plus, I usually don’t mind being the only hiker, as I enjoy the solitude of an empty trail. Of course I took my normal precautions, such as reading the latest trail reports and telling two friends where I was and when to expect me home. I also placed a note on my dashboard with emergency contact information should I not return by the time specified. Nature is unpredictable, as is any accident, so I do try to be prepared.

A WALK IN THE WOODS

It was drizzling as I walked to the trailhead, and as I glanced at the bulletin board at the start of the trail, I looked intently at the poster of a missing woman who mysteriously vanished while hiking on a nearby trail this past summer. I’d forgotten about it until that moment. My eyes then moved to the poster about proper bear preparedness, and I briefly recalled that there was a sighting recently, though it was reportedly “non-aggressive.” I felt mildly uneasy, but buckled my backpack and continued on – I try not to let fear prevent me from doing what I otherwise would. 

I walked beneath the trees, which were dense and made the day feel darker than it already was. It felt a bit eerie and I walked with a sharp stone in one hand and my keys in the other, alert and ready to defend myself if needed. After I rounded what felt like my 40th switchback, but happened to only be a mile up the trail, I stopped. Fear not, I didn’t stop because I saw something sketchy or even necessarily because I was afraid, but rather because I felt flummoxed at what I was doing and found myself in a state of deliberation. Do I continue up the trail or go back down? On the one hand, I’d driven all that way and was already on the trail, so it made sense to push on and not let a little fear hold me back. But on the other hand, I was in a dark forest on a rainy day, holding a sharp rock and “what if?” questions were firing into my tiny brain at lightning speed – “what if someone is hiding behind a tree?,” “what if the bear doesn’t want to have a non-aggressive picnic with me, but wants to serve me at their picnic instead?” – and did I really want to feel anxious for another 8 miles, possibly putting myself in danger just to prove that I can be independent and have more control over my fears?

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Above: Flashback to turning back on a solo hike in the Slovene Alps, en route to Tromeja, the border where Italy, Austria, and Slovenia meet. I really wanted to make it, but opted to turn around due to the remoteness of the area and increasing snow. 

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After a few moments in the dark undercover of the trees, with rain slipping through and pattering against my face, I looked up and glanced down, then back up and back down again; my head following an invisible tennis match between the trees. Up or down? Conquer fear or admit defeat? In the end, I turned around. I wasn’t particularly peachy about it, but I did it nonetheless. As I headed down, I felt a bit defeated by my decision, but tried my best to replace that with something more closely resembling pride, because sometimes turning back is just as hard as going forward. 

Fifteen minutes later, I had made it safely to my car and drove back the way I came.  Knowing that there was a tried-and-true trail on the way back that I’d done before, I felt like my day could still be salvaged. I knew this trail to be a popular and not quite as isolated, and I was right. When I arrived, there were three cars in the lot and and as I began walking I felt a surge of comfort and confidence with each step. I had to remind myself that although hiking helps challenge me, I also do it to get out of my head while being amongst greenery and mountains and fresh air. I don’t hike to feel anxious, and there is a clear distinction between challenging myself and being reckless in doing so to prove a point. Recognizing that line is something I learned that day.

The day didn’t go as planned but I am happy with my decision and that I had the experience. Would I have been just fine on the first trail? Probably. But for peace of mind and just sensible safety, I’m proud that I turned around. When it comes to travel and hiking, it’s not something I often do, and should probably practice more of.

BE MINDFUL, BE SAFE

This bit of reflection comes after reading about the recent tragedy in Morocco of two wonderful Scandinavian women who were brutally murdered by religious extremists while camping in the Atlas Mountains. From what I read about them, they were both adventurous souls who were enamored with the outdoors, enthralled by the world, and sought to satiate their curiosities. Their lives were cut short, but in that time they likely saw so much beauty in the world and experienced more than many ever will. This news makes me feel many things. I feel utter sadness that this is something that happens in our world; I feel guilty for always jetting off when I have a comfortable and safe life at home; I feel inspired by their passion and fearless spirits; I feel twinges of regret for the risks I’ve taken while traveling; I feel lucky that I’ve not fallen victim to tragic circumstances and been in unsafe situations.

I’ve travelled on my own across several continents, and I do try to be mindful of my surroundings, but as the old saying goes, you never know. And you really never do. I could tell you that those women were murdered by Muslim men that practice Islam and that I lived in a nation with the world’s largest Muslim population (Indonesia), yet the most unsafe I’ve ever felt while traveling was at a train station in Marseille, France. In Indonesia, I never felt threatened or in an unsafe situation. In fact, Indonesians are amongst the friendliest bunch I’ve encountered. And how many people travel to France versus Indonesia? But in the end, it’s not about religion, nor is it about what country you are in – it comes down to human behavior. And, as you may have noticed, there are humans everywhere. A whole lot of them, in fact. And some are not so good. Despite this, I find solace in knowing that a whopping majority are.

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Above: In Indonesia, I took a doozy of a fall that ended with seven stitches just under my knee cap. Since it happened in a rural area, the only option was to get back on the bike and drive back. I tried to be nonchalant while I drove to the beach, where I would need to wait for a boat to take me to the island that had a hospital. I stopped at a small store in a village along the way and asked for bandaids and Kleenex (I know… wildly useless, but in the moment it seemed like a fair request), and without my asking, a boy offered to clean my leg, which was covered in blood. At the time, I thought I could clean myself up just fine, but I realized afterwards that I was nauseous and that I couldn’t have done it without his help. Plus, he didn’t charge me for what medical supplies he had sent me off with, which were minimal but helpful, and as a random Westerner with likely far more money (and only able to give him what little amount I had on my person), this was the ultimate kindness. Once at the beach, a few men helped as well. In my travels, I’ve found humans to be generally well-intentioned and kind. 

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Despite this recent unsettling tragedy, I do still want to go to Africa; I want to visit the pyramids of Egypt, to eat my way through Ethiopia, frolic through the deserts of Morocco, and go on a safari in Kenya and Tanzania. I also want to visit the Middle East (sorry Mom), and see Iran and Jordan. Every country has it’s difficulties, and I plan on visiting all these places, but I’m okay not going quite yet, or visiting with a friend or group (you’re welcome, Mom). Would I be fine going on my own? Probably. But you never know, and I’m not feeling particularly risky at the moment.

Bear in mind that all these sentiments are coming from a risk-taker. I am many things, but an avid rule-follower is not one of them and if I’m told not go somewhere or do something, I’m rather good at disregarding it entirely. Admittedly, it’s not one of my finer qualities… I’m also fairly strong-willed and often don’t have a large enough dose of fear in me and will spontaneously venture out willy-nilly (which is usually great!), but I have to remember that it’s okay to take a step back as well. For now I’m happy with my current travel plans and being aware of my limits; it’s not an admittance of defeat, and I need to remember that. As much as I love to go off the beaten path, the well-trodden one is just as wonderful. Speaking of which, I’ll be in New Zealand this March, Patagonia in February and, who knows, maybe a work trip to Antarctica is on the horizon (penguins are 100% the least threatening creatures on the planet, this is inarguable scientific fact). 

A TIP OR TWO

To bring this all full circle, if you are heading outdoors, traveling alone, or just a human looking for a safety tip or two, I’ve got a few to share. Not a lot, but why not share the few goodies I have in my back pocket?

Step one: get yourself outside or to a new place, that’s a good place to start. Next, be smart, stay safe, and have fun. Easy peasy! For a little extra guidance, read on.

Outdoors Communities

If you live in the PNW and are looking to hike or camp, I highly recommend checking Washington Trails Association before you head out. It’s a HUGE resource for hikers and is especially great for learning  current trail conditions (especially sweet to know in winter). I’m not familiar with what others use outside of the PNW, but I’m sure similar websites exist.

There’s an App for That

While I’m off on my adventures, I use All Trails, which is an app that has information and maps for hikes all over. My favorite feature is that you can download the trail map to have offline enabling you to follow your progress (including distance and elevation grades), as you go. This helps to make sure you’re on course, or is a great tool to see how much farther you have to go because let’s face it, sometimes your legs are done working for the day and all you want to do is drink a beer with a mountain in your field of vision ASAP.

Beer Saves Lives

I’m not kidding. Now hear me out: I was recently in a discussion about what items to bring in order to survive in the wilderness. In this particular hypothetical scenario, we could only take 5 of the 20 items listed (think 32 oz. water bottle, matches, tent, etc). A tallboy of beer was on the list as more of a joke, but I learned that it can actually be quite helpful in a pinch! Not only does it provide a sort of hydration, but it also has a small caloric count as well. Plus, once it’s empty you could refill it to carry water, or you could cut it up and use the aluminum to create a small, sharp weapon or other handy something or other. And if that’s not enough, you can also use the aluminum as a reflector to signal for help or even start a fire. SEE! Beer saves lives and is an official hiking essential in my book.

Mt. Rainier

Before You Go

Before heading out, I always text my friend, “______ mountain if I die.” It’s mostly a lighthearted way to let them know that I’m heading out into the wilderness and they are now casually responsible for my life, but also, YOU NEVER KNOW. I try to tell two people where I’m headed and what time to expect me back, since I won’t have service while out and about.

It’s also good to know your car in case of an emergency. I keep a first-aid kit and spare clothes in the back and also know how to access my spare tire. I also like to keep my info up to date info for emergencies. Things I don’t currently have but really, really, really should are jumper cables, chains, and a gas can. I feel like at one point I had all these things, but they have since mysteriously vanished over the years as they are no longer in my vehicle…

In the Backpack

In my bag you’ll always find a first-aid kit, emergency poncho, extra layers, a lighter, and a pocket knife. (And a beer, obviously.) Rarely do I actually use these things – except the beer of course, I absolutely utilize that – but it is good to be prepared. During winter in the PNW, I also pack my poles and microspikes as well. Plus, my backpacks are overachievers (Osprey mostly, but also The North Face) and all have whistles built into the top buckle that goes over the chest. Handy little thing that could be.

Recreation 101

If you’re in the market for a little extra professional guidance, REI has a large database on how to buy proper gear and also expert advice on staying safe, such as their Avalanche Awareness series. It’s not a class, which clearly has a 99% higher chance of being useful, but it’s better than nothing! They also offer a ton of classes and events, such as Maps and Navigation Basics and other slightly more exhilarating things like snowshoeing at night with guides, paddling down river, and climbing big things like mountains and whatnot. 

TO WRAP THIS ALL UP

I know I’ve used a ridiculous amount of words and it sounds like a lot to consider when all you want to do is just take a jolly walk outdoors, but proactivity can save lives and keep us out of sticky situations. I’m no pro and have my share of misadventures, so I’m not here to preach safety ad nauseam (I don’t even have a spare gas can – I’m clearly not a reputable resource), but it never hurts to knowledge share.

Have any other tips? I’d love to hear them! (Seriously, douse me in knowledge, please.) In the meantime, safe hiking and travels wherever you may be headed in this great big world! 

St. Helens

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** If I were cool enough to have affiliate links, I’d put a disclaimer here about clicking them, but I am not quite a blogging superstar (except to my grandparents, of course, thanks guys), so rest assured that the links above are all my personal recommendations with zero bias

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Sloth enthusiast, Nutella extremist, and all around sassy human with a deep love for hoppy beer and discovering the world's many gems. Currently gallivanting the globe while drinking more coffee than necessary.

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