Because it’s good to stay safe and happy out there
Earlier this year, my book The Great Outdoors: A User’s Guide came out, representing about 12 years’ worth of poking around in the out-of-doors—climbing, backpacking, hiking, skiing, trail running, mountain biking, bike touring, and just about everything else. I haven’t climbed Everest, but I’ve survived a few hundred days of all those other activities and a few hundred nights sleeping under the stars. And, if memory serves, I think I’m still friends with 100 percent of the people I did those things with. So I put together a list of tips and ideas that I think will help people 1) Stay alive and 2) Not piss off their friends.
#1. Get Your Priorities in Order
In any adventure, be it a five-mile hike or a multi-day climb, this is my list of goals, in numerical order:
Get to the summit/campsite/lunch spot/waterfall/whatever
Prior to his attempt on K2 in 1995, American climber Rob Slater famously told a climbing magazine, “Summit or die, either way I win.” He summited, but died on the descent with five other climbers when weather conditions abruptly changed. To each his/her own, but if I were to adapt Slater’s quote to reflect my own ideals, it would be something more like: “Summit or live another several years to eat deep-dish pizza, either way I win.”
#2. Avoid Failing to Plan
If I learned one thing from my climbing mentor, Lee, it was this: if we say we’re meeting at 5 a.m., be there at 4:30 a.m. with all your stuff packed so we can start doing whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing that day. Not: show up at 4:45, spend 15 minutes rooting around my car trying to find all my gear, fill up water bottles, change shoes, take a dump for 10 minutes, and then realize I don’t have my headlamp.
I mean, do you like waiting? Me neither. That’s why I always appreciate people who have their shit together, like Lee. And I strive to be one of those people.
Here’s one addition to this point: I know I am very, very stupid in the early morning. So I pack the night before. I put all my stuff in my backpack, and I lean the backpack against my front door, because then there’s no way I’ll forget anything—the rope, my climbing shoes, the entire backpack (which I’m not saying has happened, but could). Being an idiot is one thing—figuring out how to prevent yourself from doing idiotic things is another. Signed, a guy who has definitely shown up for a day of climbing without the rope, and another day with mismatched shoes.
#3. Avoid Just Hoping Someone Will Find You
If you don’t know Aron Ralston’s story, here’s the short version: he went canyoneering by himself in 2003, got his arm trapped behind a boulder, spent 127 hours trying to figure out what to do, and then cut the arm off with a dull knock-off multitool. Plenty of people who haven’t survived 127 hours alone in a slot canyon with their arm trapped under a rock can tell you all the things Aron Ralston did or didn’t do correctly, but all that Monday morning quarterbacking aside, I think we can all learn one thing from his survival story: always tell at least one person where you’re going and what to do if you don’t come back on time.
Ralston likely survived that misadventure because of two things: one being he’s enough of a badass to cut off his own arm, and two being that his mother hacked into his email account to try to figure out where he was after she hadn’t heard from him for several days. Nothing against my mom’s computer skills, but I’m not counting on her to guess my password if I’m out stranded with a broken leg somewhere for a week. Instead, I tell someone where I’m going, when I will get back to civilization and text them that I’m OK, and who to call if I don’t. Pretty simple, and way easier than hanging out in a freezing slot canyon for five and a half days and then cutting off your own arm.
#4. Avoid Spending the Night Outside Freezing
I have a little stuff sack I throw in my backpack whenever I go anywhere, backpacking, hiking, climbing, skiing, whatever. It has a space blanket and a headlamp in it. The headlamp is so I can find my way back to the trailhead if it gets dark, and the space blanket is so I can survive a night outside if I can’t get back to the trailhead. The headlamp weighs three ounces, and the space blanket weighs three ounces. That’s a pretty good insurance policy for something that weighs about as much as two Clif Bars.
An Alaskan guide told me once that the best place to pack extra batteries for a headlamp is in a second headlamp, so if I’m on a multi-day trip, I often do that. If I’m only going out for one day, I figure my iPhone has a flashlight on it, so that will probably work if my headlamp dies.
#5. Avoid Getting Lost
In the olden days, just as I was starting to get into the mountains, you had to carry a paper map with you to know where you were going. Often times, you had to figure out where to get USGS quad maps, and order as many as four of them to get the right terrain. Nowadays, like a lot of things, it’s much easier. Maps are online, and there are a billion tools you can use to get ahold of the correct one. I still love paper maps, because the battery never dies, the screen never cracks, and there’s zero software that has to function correctly in order for them to work. Also, I don’t need cell service to use one. So if I’m going on a trip somewhere I’m not familiar with, I get a map for that area and go over it before I leave.
In addition to that, I carry a lightweight compass (yes, your phone has one, but again, phones break/die/don’t work correctly sometimes), which is handy for figuring out where to go and usually doesn’t need to be super-fancy in order for you to orient your map correctly.
Also: I take my phone with me. There are several GPS apps you can use for navigation, including Gaia GPS and ViewRanger, and those are very useful for off-trail navigation, or just turning on your phone to see where you are on a map in relation to the terrain—you’re the little orange arrow on the north side of the lake, or little blue dot on the east side of the peak, or whatever. Note that most of the time you’ll have to download the appropriate maps before heading into an area where you won’t have cell service.
#6. Avoid Not Being Able to MacGuyver It
We love to say duct tape fixes everything, which is almost true. Duct tape will usually not fix a flat on your mountain bike when you’re six miles from the trailhead, for example. But it will work to prevent blisters from ruining your life, or temporarily patch a hole in your rain fly, or hold the sole on your hiking boot for a few miles. But you should carry some other stuff too, dependent on your sport/situation.
You don’t need to haul a box of tools and a bunch of repair stuff everywhere you go, but a few things can save the day when your gear breaks down. I generally have a few items I swap in and out of a stuff sack that goes in my pack whenever I’m out a few miles from a trailhead. Including, but not limited to:
Duct tape (obviously)
Single-serving super glue tubes (great for cuts as well as other minor repairs)
Zip ties (for bike cables)
Baling wire (minor repairs to tents, snowshoes, other stuff)
Cord and safety pins
Needle and thread (if you stay at a nice hotel, swipe the sewing kit from the toiletries)
All-purpose patch kit for clothing/tents
Multi-tool (doesn’t have to be mega-fancy; I rarely find myself opening wine or sawing tree branches with a multitool in the backcountry, but your needs may be a little different)
#7. Avoid Lightning
This one may seem pretty obvious, but I bet anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in the mountains can tell you at least one story about a time they were way too close to a thunderstorm (myself included). You don’t have to be a meteorologist to figure this one out: small clouds are OK, but when clouds start to build and get taller, a storm could be brewing. Or if you’re in Colorado, it’s going to thunderstorm in the afternoon sometime every day of the summer.
What should you do? Get somewhere where you’re not the tallest thing. i.e., don’t be on top of a mountain, or on the side of a mountain above treeline. Get to lower altitude, in tree cover. If you can’t and a storm comes in, your last resort is to get far away from anything metal you’re carrying, drop your backpack, stand on your backpack (so your feet aren’t in contact with the ground), and then crouch down and hug your knees. You probably won’t feel safe, but it’s the best you can do—that’s why it’s called a “last resort.”
#8. Avoid Critter Encounters
Unless you’re a tourist driving around Yellowstone, you probably recognize that animals that weigh more than 300 pounds are dangerous and not something you should approach as if they are Minnie Mouse at Disney World. This is good policy. In addition to having physical implements and skills that can slash or smash you to death, pretty much every piece of megafauna in the mountains can run way faster than Usain Bolt, so the safest place to be when viewing a bear, elk, moose, bison, or other large animal is about the length of one American football field.
Don’t feed squirrels, don’t try to get a closer look at a mountain goat or bighorn sheep, and if you see a rattlesnake in the trail, get the fuck away from it. Forty percent of rattlesnake bites happen to people who have a blood alcohol content of .10 or higher (surprise), and 40 percent of rattlesnake bites happen to people who are handling the snake at the time of the bite (no shit). If you’re in an area where rattlesnakes are active, be aware, and don’t haul ass down overgrown trails without taking a look under the brush at the edges of the trail (use trekking poles).
Also be aware of how much an animal getting into your food can ruin your day. Squirrels in popular climbing and hiking areas can unzip zippers, chew through backpacks and wrappers, and when they do, they’ll probably eat bites of all your food before leaving. Keep them out of your stuff with screw-top plastic containers, which, although bulky, keep your PB and J free of hantavirus.
#9. Avoid Ending Friendships Out There
If you communicate expectations, have your shit reasonably together, and in general don’t create drama amongst your peer group, you’ll probably be OK with this. Sometimes people have different goals (see previously mentioned “summit or die” quote vs. my “summit or live” idea), and this can produce friction. If you can avoid being a jerk to your friends and adventure partners for the duration of your hike/trip, you can stay friends. If your friend doesn’t have that laser focus on finishing the climb or staying out all day skiing in nasty weather, don’t sacrifice the friendship for some contrived adventure goal. One day, you might find yourself thinking, “I really wish someone would go to the new Wes Anderson movie with me, but I was such a dick to Jeff/Jen when we were skiing, I can’t ask him/her now.”
#10. Don’t Be Afraid to Bail
If you always summit, always finish the climb, always have a great day out skiing, and never get shut down, well, please call me, because you apparently have the best luck ever. The fact is, if you spend enough time trying to do things in the outdoors, you’re going to fail sometimes. You will have to sit in a tent for a day or two in a rainstorm instead of finishing the big loop backpack you wanted to do, you’ll have to rappel off three pitches shy of the top, you’ll have to abandon a day of skiing because of bad avalanche conditions. Sometimes it’s OK to realize that going would suck way more than not going. One time a few years ago, my friend Mitsu and I arrived at the Lumpy Ridge parking lot for a day of climbing, and found ourselves getting pushed around by 35 mile-per-hour wind gusts. I said I thought the route we were doing was still probably OK, although the rappel might be a pain in the ass in the wind. Mitsu said, “I’m not worried about it being dangerous. I’m worried about it being not fun.” And we drove into town and got coffee instead, which was fun and not dangerous.