CANYONEERING IN THE US SOUTHWEST

© Christopher Earls Brennen

Precautions

Important precautions

We begin by detailing some basic precautions that should always be taken when hiking in the wilderness. When you venture off-trail these become even more important and there are additional factors that need to be considered.

First and foremost the hiker should know his or her limits and only graduate slowly from the regular, maintained trails, to the unmaintained trails and then to more remote areas.

Second, it is very important not to travel alone. On any hike, it is valuable to have companions who can seek help should you become ill or have an accident such as an injury to a leg. On an adventure hike, as simple and common an accident as a sprained ankle could be life-threatening if you were alone. Therefore, you should find some companions with similar interests and be prepared to adjust your itinerary to satisfy the group interests and objectives. The ideal is probably a group of three or four people.

A related and essential precaution is to leave a written description of your proposed route with a family member or friend who will be in a position to seek help if you or your party fail to return. You should also leave clear instructions with that family member or friend as to the steps they should take. I recommend the following instruction: ``Call the police or sheriff's department if you do not hear from me by 9pm on the day you expect me''. A third precaution in the same category is to carry a cellular telephone. However, the hiker should be aware that cellular telephones require line-of-sight for operation. Thus, they will often work on peaks and ridges but they will not work in canyons.

On an adventure hike, it is easier than one might imagine for an individual to become separated from the group. Therefore, it is important for the group to always remain ``connected''. For example, when struggling through brush in an extended single file every member needs to maintain regular contact both with those ahead and those behind. An important item in any emergency kit is a whistle; everyone should carry one on a necklace. Be sure that all members of the group know the universal distress signal: three sharp blasts on the whistle (or three short repetitions of any kind of signal). Note that it is part of the universal creed that every hiker has an obligation to respond to such a signal of distress.

The third category of precaution is to become accustomed and knowledgable about navigating your way in the wilderness. In the next chapter a brief summary of navigation is given. For the present, it is valuable to emphasize the importance of knowing where you are. In the wilderness, it is always important to plan ahead and, to do so, you must know your location relative to various destinations. You must always know the location of the next source of water. You must always have some estimate of the distance to your destination and whether you can reach it before nightfall. It is an essential safety precaution to be able to halt at least one hour before sunset so that proper preparations can be made for the night. This is especially critical when you underestimate time and distance and have to spend an unplanned night in the wilderness. If you are unwise enough to press on in the darkness you not only risk injury but you also reduce substantially your opportunity to prepare shelter and warmth for the night. I dwell on this because, on the one occasion when this happened to me, I found it very difficult psychologically to resign myself to a night in the mountains and to stop in time to gather firewood and make a fire and a bed for the night. In the wilderness it is often difficult to make accurate a priori estimates of travel time since that depends so much on the terrain. Therefore, it is essential to be flexible and realistic and continously adjust your plan.

The fourth set of precautions concerns proper safety equipment which we deal with in the next webpage.

Fires

In many wilderness areas, open fires are not permitted except in specifically designated fire places in campgrounds and, even then, a fire permit is often required. On overnight hikes, I strongly suggest a small, portable hiking stove for cooking and, if you must have a fire, use only dead wood, keep it small and confined to a safe firepit, preferably an existing one.

If you are trapped unexpectedly overnight in the mountains and you feel you have no alternative but to light a fire in order to maintain warmth then you must take every possible precaution. Learn how to choose a safe location and how to construct a safe firepit. Keep the fire small and under control at all times. Never leave the fire unattended. When leaving the campsite, douse the fire with water to ensure that it is completely extinguished and then dismantle the fireplace so that as little remains as possible.

Flash Floods

When hiking during or after rainfall you should be alert to the danger from flash floods, especially when travelling in one of the larger canyons or narrower gorges. If the level of the stream begins to rise quickly, take immediate refuge at a higher elevation. Perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon is a flash flood that involves a ``bore'' or sudden wave travelling down the canyon. These flash floods often produce a characteristic rumbling or roaring noise (often likened to a train) and you should take especially rapid action if you detect such a noise.

Even in the steepest sided canyons there are often places where it is possible to climb some distance above the level of the stream. About 30ft of elevation should be sufficient for safety in just about all of these situations. But it is best to avoid these kinds of hikes during rain or for several days thereafter.

Poison Oak

Many people are susceptible to poison oak, common at the lower elevations in the Southwest. It is therefore wise to learn to recognize this low (3-4ft high) sparse, weed-like plant whose leaves are shaped like those of an oak tree. In the summer and fall, the leaves often turn multicolored, red and green with some yellow. Some individuals are fortunate to be immune from poison oak and can walk through these plants without any fear of the dreaded rash and itch appearing a couple of days later. Others have a mild reaction and merely have to avoid direct contact, for example, by wearing long pants. A third group seem to suffer severely even from second-hand contact such as that acquired by rubbing a hand over clothing that has contacted the plant. During adventure hikes at lower elevations, it is often hard to avoid all contact with poison oak. For those that are susceptible it is wise to cover legs, arms and hands as completely as possible and to be very alert to the presence of poison oak. Alternatively it is now possible to purchase creams that you can apply to exposed skin and provide a measure of protection against poison oak. It is always wise to shower thoroughly after returning from an adventure hike and this can also help after exposure to the plant.

Wildlife

One of the glories of the southwestern wildernesses is the fact that so much wildlife still survives. There are deer, bears, cougars, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats and many other smaller animals. I hope that you are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one or more of these marvellous creatures. Provided you are sensible, the risks are essentially negligible.

Deer are plentiful and, because of their camoflage, you often hear them before you see them. As elsewhere, it is most likely that you will catch a glimpse of them at dawn or at dusk.

The populations of bear and cougar are increasing in many places. Cougars tend to avoid all human contact and are very rarely seen. In all my years of exploration I have never been fortunate enough to see a cougar. And, the danger from cougars is extremely remote. Black bears are more frequently seen though I have only had the privilege on one occasion. They may present a marginally larger hazard though still a miniscule one. Probably the only significant danger might occur if you placed yourself between a mother and her cubs.

For those who might have read of confrontations between humans and bears in the distant past in the southwest, we should note that the original bears in many of the wildernesses of California were California grizzlies, an extinct species closely related to the grizzly bears of the northwestern states. The last grizzly in the San Gabriels of California was shot in 1898. However, smaller black bears were imported by men in the early part of the century and have now found their place in the biological niche originally occupied by the grizzlies. Black bears are much less dangerous than grizzlies and so the confrontations of the distant past would not occur today.

If you are confronted by a bear or cougar, you should stand up, wave your arms, shout and scream. A walking stick is valuable not only to strengthen your own resolve but also for defensive action in the extremely remote chance of an attack by the animal. Do not move forward because such a move might trigger a defensive reaction. Do not turn your back or run away because cougars have a built-in urge to attack a fleeing prey. Rather you should move slowly backward while continuing to make very aggressive motions and noise.

Bighorn sheep can be found in a number of remote places in the southwest. For example, they roam the slopes of Mount Baldy near Los Angeles.

Snakes and Insects

Perhaps the most significant danger from wildlife is the possibility of a rattlesnake bite though this is also a rare event. On the few occasions on which I have encountered rattlesnakes I have seen them before they saw me. It is probably sufficient to recognize the rattle noise of these snakes and to step away from the sound when you hear it. If you are unfortunate to be bitten be sure to follow the standard instructions. Try to immobilize the area and get to help as soon as possible. Only if you are a long distance from help (more than four hours) should you resort to drastic measures such as cutting open the area of the bite. It is wise to carry a snake-bite kit just in case and these always come with explicit instructions. Finally, you should note that there are also many harmless varieties of snakes in the southwest, including some whose patterns are similar to those of a rattlesnake. The latter is most readily recognized by its rattle and diamond-shaped head.

As to insect bites, it may be important for any hiker to ensure that they are not allergic to any insects, for example bees or mosquitoes, and to carry appropriate medication in case of a problem. Even if you are not allergic to wasps, bees or yellowjackets, these can pose a danger comparable to that of rattlesnakes. The author once inadvertently stepped on a wasp nest and was stung about 20 times before he could jump into and immerse himself in a pool of the nearby stream. The subsequent reaction of the body that included dizziness, sharp pains across the forehead and, later, a sore throat were alarming and debilitating. They could have caused a serious problem for someone with a less robust immune system. Some hikers I know carry medication in a hypodermic syringe for such emergencies.

If you have been bushwhacking (or even if you have not) it is wise to check for ticks after returning home. Provided you detect them early and before they have had time to burrow in, ticks are easy to remove. If one has buried its head in your flesh it is probably wise to have a nurse or doctor remove it, otherwise it may itch for a couple of weeks.

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Last updated 1/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen