September 29, 2010

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Underestimating a Hike

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Chad S. Ritchie.

It happens to almost everyone eventually. You’re in a new area, a friend of a friend tells you about a great hike, and you jump in. You’re told it’s an easy climb from 8000 ft to 9500 ft. No big deal-back home you’d climb 1500 ft to get a Twinkie. Next thing you know the two day out-and-back you’ve planned for is really a three day hike, and the 1500 foot elevation gain you can easily handle is actually 9000 feet of elevated incline when you include the numerous ups and downs from valley floors to mountain tops. You start to feel like perhaps you are in over your head. So what do you do?

First things first. Look at the person leading the trip, and calmly say, “Carry me?” This may or may not work depending on whether or not you are holding a firearm at the time.

Next, if you start to feel tired, unexpectedly winded, or just “off”, stop and remember some important tips when backpacking:

Don’t Panic

Douglas Adams said it best. Don’t Panic. Even when you are miles from civilization and you find yourself out of your element, never, ever panic. And if you do panic, do so in a way that resembles someone who has to pee. It’s much better for everyone else if you just cross your legs and hop up and down for a bit until you can calm down. Still, make sure you tell someone you are having trouble.

Assess Your Situation

As soon as you feel you may be in over your head, stop. Assess your situation:

  • How far are you from your camp?
  • How is the weather?
  • How are your supplies?
  • Are you feeling fatigued?
  • How is your heart rate?
  • How is your breathing?
  • Are you sweating?
  • Have you stopped sweating?
  • Are you feeling nauseated?
  • Are you feeling dizzy?
  • Are you feeling lightheaded?
  • Do you have a headache?

These are important questions. For example, if you are hiking above 8000 feet for the first time, you could succumb to altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness). Back home hiking 10 miles in a day may be a warm-up for you. After all, you’re the kinda guy who walks to work and then busts out a set of 100 push-ups before you sit down to your desk and work 12 hours straight without getting your shirt wrinkled. But above 8000 feet you have 30% less oxygen in your lungs. You can find yourself winded much sooner than you would expect at your normal elevation. Altitude sickness affects 70% of people who are active above 8000 feet up to the first several days. Also, it can strike at any time. Just because you feel fine for the first day, doesn’t mean you won’t feel like hell the next day.

Make Changes to Your Plan

If you are feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, heat exhaustion, or any other signs of illness, stop. In the case of altitude sickness, the best thing to do is get down to a lower elevation, but make sure you are capable of doing so in a safe manner. If you’re starting to feel faint or dizzy, take your pack off, drink plenty of water, and rest for an hour. Then decide if you want to continue or head back.

If you are feeling overheated, stop, find some shade, get your pack off, and rest. Loosen your clothing and try to get your feet up. Drink plenty of fluids and try to cool yourself off with cold water. Heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke if not treated, and heat stroke can kill you … very quickly.

If you ever find yourself in over your head, remember to stop, assess, and revise your plans as needed. A plan is after all, only that, and should always be open to change. You always have options. And the most important one is: at any point, you can stop and rest or even cut the trip short and head back. Sure, it may not seem like the most manly decision. After all, you’ve set a goal, and you want to reach it. But in the backcountry ego can kill you. There is nothing unmanly about realizing you may be making a mistake and that you need to re-evaluate your options before that mistake takes a toll on you that you cannot walk away from.

Be safe and know your limitations. In the end no one really wants to drag your dead body out of the wilderness, so good friends will most likely just let the bears eat you – and that’s awkward to explain to your loved ones:

“Sorry Mrs. McKay, Brett was … eaten by bear.”

“How could you let that happen?!”

“Well, he decided not to let anyone know he was getting sick and he sorta just… you know… started hopping up and down like he had to pee… then a hour later he was dead from heat stroke.”

“… like he had to … pee … and died from heat stroke?”

“Yeah, it was a hell of a thing. And as you know he’s not exactly a featherweight… we tried to stuff him in the pack, but it was no good. So we threw some bacon bits on him and let nature do it’s thing.”

“Bacon bits?”

“Oh hey, look at the time… gotta run.”

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In glorious hand-to-claw combat Chad Ritchie almost defeated the legendary Grizzlephantasaurus in the artillery-shelled mountains of West Virginia.  He also writes in-depth backpacking gear reviews at http://itestyourgear.com/


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