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Over-estimating your experience or under-estimating the terrain in a place like Big Bend can result in serious injury or death. Use the information and advice found here wisely. Climb/Hike/Camp/Drive at your own risk.

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Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions

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Offline kevint

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Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« on: October 10, 2013, 12:24:33 PM »
Moderator Note: this topic was split off from http://www.bigbendchat.com/portal/forum/big-bend-ranch-state-park-qa/bbrsp-rescue/

I'm not experienced enough of an outdoorsman to cast much judgment on this couple although I do think I would have fared a little better in that I'm a little geeky about  maps so I'm usually carrying something and I know how to use the GPS in my phone.  However, for a day hike, I don't usually carry much extra water and often only an orange or a granola bar to eat.  In short, in at least some areas, I am only prepared for a successful trip--not for contingencies.
 
So, I'd be interested hearing some thoughts on preparing for day hikes in Big Bend.  I understand some trails, like the Window trail would take some work getting lost from.  On the other hand, I've heard (but not yet experienced) that some other trails (Mule Ears?) are sometimes a little hard to follow in places.  How about a few general guidelines, independent of the trail, on how one should prepare for a simple day hike at Big Bend.
 
Given this story, I'll toss out a recommendation to have a decent map coving the area and knowledge of how to use it.  Also, a simple compass. And at least minimum food and water in case you have to spend the night.  Maybe a light jacket for some warmth at night and to rig some shade by day.
 
Another thing I'd say is to always try to know where you are.  Last year my family and I camped at La Noria and made a few trips to scount the area, see the old town, check out Tornillo Creek etc.  With all of the gravel mounds in that area, you didn't have to venture far before you couldn't see your campsite down in the little valleys.  My wife later remarked that it made her uncomfortable.  I shared with her that before we set out, I had made a mental note of a tall mound with a little tree on top near one of the La Noria campsites.  Also I knew that the Old Ore Rd runs pretty much north/south and that if I got lost, I just had to head east until I ran into the Old Ore and then North to the turnoff to La Noria.  I knew I could even pull this one off after dark.  In the odd event that wouldn't work, I knew that Tornillo creek heads south and under the main park road.  What I later realized is that I had never told my wife or kids that I was thinking those things.  They aren't geeky about maps like I am.  They just go wherever I take them.  I need to be explaining these things so they learn and, in case I become incapacitated, they can fend for themselves.
 
Other suggestions for novices appreciated.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2013, 04:10:33 PM by RichardM »
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Offline Quixote Kid

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #1 on: October 10, 2013, 01:41:54 PM »
I'm not experienced enough of an outdoorsman to cast much judgment on this couple although I do think I would have fared a little better in that I'm a little geeky about  maps so I'm usually carrying something and I know how to use the GPS in my phone.  However, for a day hike, I don't usually carry much extra water and often only an orange or a granola bar to eat.  In short, in at least some areas, I am only prepared for a successful trip--not for contingencies.
 
So, I'd be interested hearing some thoughts on preparing for day hikes in Big Bend.  I understand some trails, like the Window trail would take some work getting lost from.  On the other hand, I've heard (but not yet experienced) that some other trails (Mule Ears?) are sometimes a little hard to follow in places.  How about a few general guidelines, independent of the trail, on how one should prepare for a simple day hike at Big Bend.
 
Given this story, I'll toss out a recommendation to have a decent map coving the area and knowledge of how to use it.  Also, a simple compass. And at least minimum food and water in case you have to spend the night.  Maybe a light jacket for some warmth at night and to rig some shade by day.
 
Another thing I'd say is to always try to know where you are.  Last year my family and I camped at La Noria and made a few trips to scount the area, see the old town, check out Tornillo Creek etc.  With all of the gravel mounds in that area, you didn't have to venture far before you couldn't see your campsite down in the little valleys.  My wife later remarked that it made her uncomfortable.  I shared with her that before we set out, I had made a mental note of a tall mound with a little tree on top near one of the La Noria campsites.  Also I knew that the Old Ore Rd runs pretty much north/south and that if I got lost, I just had to head east until I ran into the Old Ore and then North to the turnoff to La Noria.  I knew I could even pull this one off after dark.  In the odd event that wouldn't work, I knew that Tornillo creek heads south and under the main park road.  What I later realized is that I had never told my wife or kids that I was thinking those things.  They aren't geeky about maps like I am.  They just go wherever I take them.  I need to be explaining these things so they learn and, in case I become incapacitated, they can fend for themselves.
 
Other suggestions for novices appreciated.

kevint - I'd have to recommend this book: Desert Survival Skills by David Alloway

http://www.amazon.com/Desert-Survival-Skills-David-Alloway/dp/0292704925/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381428910&sr=8-1&keywords=desert+survival+skills

It has a lot of good info in the book, from common sense stuff (keep your head covered and drink water) to making a survival kit to take with you on hikes.

On the recommendation of the book, my wife and I have each made up a basic survival kit that fits inside a soap container (roughly 3"X4"X1"). Basic items include tweezers for those pesky thorns, survival blanket to keep warm on cold nights, shade during the day and is reflective to see by search parties, cosmetic mirror (for signaling) ibuprofen, benadryl, bandages, mole skin, etc and it all fits in that little container.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2013, 04:06:43 PM by RichardM »

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Offline Desert_Dave

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #2 on: October 10, 2013, 03:10:36 PM »
One thing I never leave without, which is small and invaluable in a survival situation, is a disposable lighter to start a fire.  In addition to being able to keep yourself warm on cold desert nights, your fire will alert the search party to your location.  You will produce a significant heat (IR) signature at night, and during the day the smoke will alert others to your location.  If you have something plastic to burn, like your trash bag, it will produce a thick black smoke that can be seen for miles.

I work in the Law Enforcement/Intelligence community for the Big Bend region, the agency I work for helped coordinate this search and rescue, and other recent S&R operations.  This is actually the second incident of missing or lost persons in BBRSP in the last ten days.

On OCT 01 2013,  two females visiting from China managed to make a 911 call from NW side of the park, near the Botella Residence.  They advised that they were lost, and out of water, and had been trying to find their vehicle for the last five hours.  Sun was setting, and helicopter air support from the Texas Department of Public Safety was dispatched to assist TXPWD Park Rangers to locate the pair.  After about 40 minutes, the pair was located and air lifted to nearby Park Rangers. 

The two could actually see the helicopter searching above them for 15 to 20 minutes before the chopper crew spotted them.  I'm not sure if a signal mirror would have worked well due to the setting sun, but it may have expedited their rescue.

Situational awareness is your best tool for self rescue, or surviving such an incident.  Knowing aprox where you are, which direction is N S E W, and how far you are from roads ect.

This most recent couple who were lost for days, could have ended way worse.  When I heard the woman was located after all that time, I couldn't believe it.  They are lucky that they found water, but washing their clothes was a mistake.  Its been getting into the 30's and 40's here at night, and hypothermia can kill.  A space blanket is a worthy addition to anyone's kit, even for a short day hike.

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Offline kevint

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #3 on: October 10, 2013, 03:38:23 PM »
Thanks. Quixote and Dave.  Good input.
 
I actually have Allender's book and have a soap dish kit.
 
One funny thing I have to relate about being able to build a fire.  Last time I camped in the National Park, when we got the permit, the ranger told us the basic rules including no ground fires.  He actually was specific in saying no building signal fires.  I just thought, really, if it's life or death you expect me to not build a signal fire.  Really?  He also quizzed my 11 yr old on how long the blade on her swiss army knife was.  Very young ranger.
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"It's not an adventure until something goes wrong."  --Yvon Chouinard

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #4 on: October 10, 2013, 04:04:51 PM »
To follow Quixote Kids recommendation I have two books, one is "The Ultimate Desert Handbook" by Mark Johnson that I really like.  The whole book covers lots of areas and is really good on navigation but his "necessities" list for a short day hike on an established trail has 2 qts or more of water depending on heat, wide brimmed hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, map, compass, a small flashlight, small first aid kit and a poncho or pocket sized space blanket.

The other book is Backpackers "Desert Sense" by Bruce Grubbs.  His Ten Essentials discussion includes:
Hydration- adequate water
Navigation- topo map and compass, a cell phone doesn't cut the mustard here
Sun Protection- broad brimmed hat, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses
Fire- means of starting a fire, a lighter is better than matches
Illumination- headlamp or flashlight
First Aid Kit
Repair Kit- pocket knife and maybe some tapes, glues, etc.
Nutrition- at least a few energy bars
Insulation- clothing for the worst conditions you might experience for that time of year and at least a windbreaker
Emergency shelter- at least a space blanket

Desert Dave is right about a signal mirror.  I use a compass with a sighting mirror that would double if need be.  He also talked about starting a fire.

Navigation is an important skill to develop but situational awareness is really important.  Staying found is fundamental, constantly rechecking with the map, knowing landmarks and having "handrails" like kevint did with the Old Ore Rd. and Tornillo creek.

... Also I knew that the Old Ore Rd runs pretty much north/south and that if I got lost, I just had to head east until I ran into the Old Ore and then North to the turnoff to La Noria.  I knew I could even pull this one off after dark.  In the odd event that wouldn't work, I knew that Tornillo creek heads south and under the main park road...

These folks were very lucky, did a few things right but made a lot of small mistakes including not having good maps and not turning back when they first knew they were in over there head and not going to make it.  They could have bought the topo maps at PJ, Terlingua store and Barton Warnock to mention just a few places.
« Last Edit: October 10, 2013, 04:16:03 PM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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Offline Flash

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #5 on: October 10, 2013, 10:22:01 PM »
A space blanket is a worthy addition to anyone's kit, even for a short day hike.

Yep. I usually carry a small ditty bag in my day pack that contains a space blanket, Power Bar, couple fire starter sticks and a lighter, cheap folding knife, iodine tablets, 3 or 4' of parachute cord, tiny zipper pull flashlight, sunscreen stick, small bug spray, extra AA's, etc.

Once when I was out geocaching in one of the patches of woods near Houston I got caught in a sudden downpour 1/2 mile from the car. The lowly space blanket spread out wide over my head kept me mostly dry and from getting soaked to bone by that cold thundershower.  :great:

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Offline steelfrog

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #6 on: October 11, 2013, 12:15:54 AM »
Insofar as your question, the above suggestions are great. And then, there's no substitute for experience. Just go out and do stuff. Mule ears is a good one. Nearly impossible to get lost because of the landmarks. User trails branch off past the spring, heading south and up to mule ears.  Then you can head down the west side and wind your way through the washes etc. you can see Trap mist if the wayang if course mule ears so getting lost would be pretty hard.

The tough places are in Colorado and New Mexico where there is heavy forest and lots of ridges and arroyos. You need a GPS there unless you really know the areas

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Offline Hoodoo

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #7 on: October 11, 2013, 12:44:19 AM »
One thing I never leave without, which is small and invaluable in a survival situation, is a disposable lighter to start a fire.

My outdoor excursions are mostly day hikes, truck camping, and river canoeing/rafting.

For starting fires I usually have either a lighter or matches and a secret weapon consisting of an old pill bottle stuffed full of cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly. One cotton ball burns like a candle until the tinder/kindling/wood is hot enough for combustion. Works well in damp situations.

I recently needed new shoe strings for my boots and used parachute cord for the new laces.

The space blanket resides under the back seat of the truck but I think it will play a larger role in the future.

Don't forget the duct tape!

Don


Don
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Offline Reece

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #8 on: October 11, 2013, 09:39:16 AM »
Kevint: They call it "mental mapping". You create a map in your mind as you travel. Some are better at it than others. Some do it unconsciously. Some don't do it at all - they get lost. Personally, I have to make a conscious effort to stay found. Without a GPS, I might even resort to taking notes on paper in difficult terrain.

I got lost once in Big Bend Ranch, early on in my solo hiking career. My terror only lasted about 4 hours but it was a life-changing 4 hours. The terrain can be tricky - with few prominent landmarks to reference and lots of arroyos and wildlife trails. On an out-and-back walk, just glancing back occasionally to picture your way back will not suffice since all pictures look the same. Near any water source, the wildlife trails become a maze and look for all the world, just like hiking trails.

I would not venture out into the featureless BBR on foot without some planing and preparation and a good GPS for tracking. Simple map and compass navigation would be difficult because of the lack of identifiable elevations. You could do it but you would have to posses some experience and a good sense of distance. A sense of distance is key.
« Last Edit: October 11, 2013, 10:04:50 AM by Reece »

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Offline kevint

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #9 on: October 11, 2013, 10:24:41 AM »
Then you can head down the west side and wind your way through the washes etc. you can see Trap mist if the wayang if course mule ears so getting lost would be pretty hard.

Thanks for the response Steel.  I've read the last half of this several times.  There must be some typos in here or some references I'm not familiar with.  It may need an edit.
-- Kevin (W5KLT)

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Offline salukicolt

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #10 on: October 11, 2013, 11:11:05 AM »
During my first trip to Big Bend in 1990, I spent one night where I wasn't suppose to be. Other than carrying the necessary items for water, weather and whereabouts (see above) I had two takeaways from that experience that may be helpful to those new to the desert environment and/or desert hiking (especially those from the Midwest):

1.  Landmarks are farther away than they appear. If you are from the Midwest, landmarks, like silos and tree lines are actually closer than they appear due to humidity, dust, etc. It takes awhile to acclimate visually to the clear desert air to understand that it is quite the opposite.

2.  Understand the Alluvial fan.  The Chihuahuan desert is not the Grand Prairie, or the High Plains. What may look like a gradual slop on a contour, may not be so gradual, and if you lose the trail, and try set a bearing across what appears to be flat desert, you will be encountering canyons which will impede your route.

The only other general suggestion I have is that is important to know yourself well enough to understand your thought processes during a hike: For example, I am a natural wanderer, prone to be mentally elsewhere while enjoying the day and the hike. I have always, and always will blow past cairns coming out of a wash or arroyo. I just need to be aware that this will happen and adjust accordingly. (take frequent breaks in arroyos to scout and confirm exit points, and incorporate backtracks into my energy and time plan.)

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Offline Homer67

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #11 on: October 11, 2013, 11:29:15 AM »
I agree with Steel; experience is a key factor. 

Get out there, start with small steps and work your way up. I won't get in to the usual about research/study before one's trip; that should be a given. Get familiar, get good and when the time is right, go for a big trek!

I can understand how the recent two in BBSRP got into trouble.
Ah Big Bend, we will soon return to reacquaint ourselves in our ritual of blood, exhaustion and dehydration. How can we resist the temptation to strip ourselves of the maladies of civilization?

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Offline presidio

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #12 on: October 11, 2013, 02:23:16 PM »
the ranger told us the basic rules including no ground fires.  He actually was specific in saying no building signal fires.  I just thought, really, if it's life or death you expect me to not build a signal fire.  Really?


Yeah, he really did mean it. You would have to determine whether he said it because he was ignorant of real life, or just over-committed to the idealized world of the NPS.

Quote
He also quizzed my 11 yr old on how long the blade on her swiss army knife was.  Very young ranger.

Can't be too careful. A long blade probably means to the NPS you are up to no good.
« Last Edit: October 11, 2013, 02:44:18 PM by presidio »
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Offline presidio

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #13 on: October 11, 2013, 02:30:00 PM »
I'm not sure if a signal mirror would have worked well due to the setting sun, but it may have expedited their rescue.

If you can see the sun, you can make a signal mirror work. It does take a bit of skill, and few folks practice using one. A low sun angle will make flashing a signal a bit more difficult than higher angles, but you certainly can do so.

A mirror can be used to flash a signal nearly 180 degrees from the sun. However, it's not too likely you would be trying to flash someone on the opposite horizon when the sun is setting...it's just a point that it can be done. All other angles are easier.
« Last Edit: October 11, 2013, 02:44:53 PM by presidio »
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<  presidio  >
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Wendell (Garret Dillahunt): It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones): If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.
--No Country for Old Men (2007)

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Offline presidio

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Re: Desert Hiking Safety Suggestions
« Reply #14 on: October 11, 2013, 02:41:01 PM »

common sense stuff (keep your head covered and drink water) to making a survival kit to take with you on hikes.

It's easy to tell experienced desert folks from the tourists.

The experienced wear long pants, long sleeve shirts (even, and especially, in summer), wide-brim hats and boots.

The tourists wear t-shirts and tank tops, shorts, and sandals or sneakers, and look at you funny when they see you.

If you are not properly clothed, your well-being begins to suffer at the outset of the hike, even though you obviously don't feel it, and even though most folks never reach a state where it much matters.

However, when it does matter, you already are behind the power curve and that places much additional stress on the body and on any supplies you may have had the foresight to carry. Sunburn and dehydration happens quickly and body water loss is greatly accelerated by exposed skin. The folks recently rescued at BBRSP are good examples of this.

I even wear leather gloves when hiking so that I do not have to worry about what I might have to grab should some maneuver be necessary (I mostly hike off trail).
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<  presidio  >
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Wendell (Garret Dillahunt): It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones): If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.
--No Country for Old Men (2007)

 


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