This past weekend, my wife and I set out for a short 7.4 mile “out and back” hike. We had a great time even though she did sprain an ankle due to a concealed rock at the end of the trail. Thankfully, she was prepared and used her trekking poles to save her from much more severe injury. However, we noted over and over that many, if not most, of the other hikers on the trail were totally unprepared for this, or any other, type of eventuality.
The Chinnabee Silent Trail in Lineville, Alabama is rated as easy to moderate by “All Trails”. It is a 7.4 mile “out and back” trail with some beautiful scenery. The trail is relatively heavily trafficked by hikers, campers and many others. It is NOT a paved pathway with restroom facilities throughout and clean drinking water at every turn. However, we saw multiple families with no water bottles, no packs, no food and no shelter. The morning was cool at 45 degrees. There was significant cloud cover and a possibility of rain. Many were dressed in shorts with no sign of rain gear for themselves or their children. Keep this situation in mind as you read through the next few paragraphs.
While the level of preparedness for a trail will differ from person to person and from trail to trail and season to season, most would agree that there is a minimum level to which all hikers on even the easiest of treks should prepare. Certainly it would not be necessary to pack two weeks of food for a day hike on a small, inner city park trail. However, there have been many cases of a “short day hike” turning into an overnight or even multi-night stay in the wilderness.
Just Google “day hikes gone wrong” and peruse the thousands of examples of people going out unprepared. You will notice familiar themes such as, “we weren’t even planning to hike that day” or “it was just a short walk” or “we had hiked this trail dozens of times”, just to name a few. These stories are usually followed by tales of cold, overnight stays with little to no water or food. Some even require search and rescue evacuations. Sadly, some end in lasting disability or even death. The truly sad part is that many, if not all, of these situations could have been avoided with a little prior preparation.
We’ve all been there. A business trip with no outdoor plans suddenly provides a chance to get in the woods. You are in a new place, possibly one you will never get a chance to come back to and a hiking adventure presents itself. You’ll only be gone for a few hours and it is gorgeous outside. No way you’re going to give up this opportunity. No one can blame you for your excitement and enthusiasm. However, there is a minimum level to which you should be prepared.
If you feel like the above paragraphs are a bit redundant, GOOD! This is purposeful to engrain the importance of the topic on your brain. The next part of this article will contain the what and why of my “minimum pack”. Again, this may not work for you. If you are in the ultralight hiking crowd, you may even begin to feel a little whoozy. But it may provide you with some useful ideas based on your hiking level and skill set.
I take along the following gear:
1. I fill a 70 oz. Camelbak bladder with water and take along a spare 20 oz. aluminum bottle just in case my Camelbak bladder leaks.
2. I also take enough snacks/food for 2 days. You can determine how much to take by calculating necessary calories (Google this as there are innumerable ways to calculate, pick your favorite) or using weight (most agree on 2-3 pounds per person per day) or just by estimating what you would need to eat to stay comfortable and content in such a situation. But remember, you may be burning a great many calories looking for shelter or trying to find your way or trying to recover from injury.
3. Being a physician, I also take a relatively extensive First Aid kit. I won’t go into the contents in this article. But I will do so in an upcoming blog. So look for it! Suffice it to say that you need a first aid kit commensurate with your skill level. No need to have a mountaineering ultrasound if you’ve never used one in the city!
4. Never be without your compass. In most areas, you will be familiar enough with your surroundings to know if you head one direction, you will run into a road where help and a return trip to your car can be found. It is very easy to get turned around in the woods, even if you have “an excellent sense of direction”. GPS technology is great. But only so long as your batteries hold out!
5. Toiletry supplies are also a must for me. You may not plan to need them but there is nothing worse than finding out the hard way that the leaf you just used for toilet paper is one to which you are allergic.
6. Of course, I always take trekking poles. I won’t go into the reasons here as you can reference my previous article.
7. Some form of overnight gear is also a must for me. I take along a space blanket and a couple of heavy duty garbage bags. These are the extra large orange bags that are used for highway pick up by the DOT. These make excellent rain gear and even sleeping bags or tents (sounds like another article!) with just a few minor modifications.
8. Finally, I take along a light source and fire source. I prefer a head lamp for the hands free aspect. I have used these with great success as surgical lamps in the mountains of Ecuador. Especially in an emergency or during night hiking, these are worth their weight in gold. You can argue that the fire starter might not be necessary (as well as other parts of my pack) but I think being able to light a fire provides comfort, water purification and a hot meal source along with signaling ability in what is likely to be an otherwise stressful situation.
While the above list seems extensive, it includes only 8 items: water, food, shelter, trekking poles, compass, first aid kit, toiletries and light/fire. The list can be cut down to 7 if your trekking poles have a compass (like my wife’s does). Even for the ultralight hiker, these items can be found in low weight alternatives. So, don’t let the list scare you.
In a future article, I will go though my pack piece by piece and offer comparisons of different brands and the reasoning behind my selections for each piece of gear in my pack. Hopefully, after reading this article you will be better prepared for your next trip out and not end up a victim of “it was only supposed to be a short walk…”.