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Hot Stove

uch like fantasy baseball, winter is the “hot stove” season for high elevation wilderness adventures. It is time to study and plan for the upcoming summer. But instead of preparing to draft players, we find ourselves preparing for wilderness backpacking and stock travel excursions…securing vacation time, permits, reservations, studying chosen routes, pinpointing camp locations, water sources, and devising “Plan B’s”. Through travelogue-style articles, I try and inspire those who have never traveled the wilderness areas to get out and do so. In an attempt to assist those thinking about experiencing the wilderness -- and to keep the hot stove warm -- I will cover some basic rules-of-thumb for wilderness adventures.

Getting started in wilderness travel, a few things are essential; proper clothing and footwear, backpack, tarp or tent, sleeping bag, food, stove and fuel, map and compass, knife, and some sort of first aid kit. Other things such as bug dope, sunscreen, raingear, headlamps, and water filters are not necessarily essential but nice to have and will greatly enhance your experience. Anything else is pure luxury…sleeping pads, trekking poles, gaiters, cameras, fishing gear, books and spirits.

blue lake surrounded by gray snow peaked mountains with green grass meadow in the foreground. Photo by Phil Flip Akers
Many exotic wilderness locales are waiting for you.

Truth is you don’t need anything…if you want to play survival, or be a nature freak…which brings me to a story. It was a gorgeous early afternoon in the southern Sierra, on the John Muir Trail, high above tree line at 12,000 feet, at least two days away from the nearest trailhead. To be precise, I was at Bighorn Plateau, soaking in arguably the best view the high Sierra has to offer. Llamas grazing in the lush grass, I had just downed at bit of lunch and now enjoying a stogie. My midday bliss was interrupted when I noticed something strange far in the distance, perhaps a mile away, moving up the trail toward me. It looked like four people all dressed the same…in jumpsuits or something…all the same color. Retrieving binoculars from a pannier and glassing that direction, I scarced believed my eyes! Don’t look Ethel because it is four naked backpackers, two men and two women, were headed my way. Now…I know of backcountry hot springs, where clothing is optional, I get that. But backpacking down the trail nude? Seriously? I waited for them.

They spoke engaging pleasantries as they approached, a very outgoing group, sharp eye contact, and grinning from ear-to-ear. Then, I endured the standard bombardment of questions and comments a llama sommelier receives; Oh how neat! Can I get a picture with them? Do you ride them? How much weight can they carry? What do they eat? Will they spit at me? It goes on, repeatedly, and honestly gets quite old. But after some conversation I couldn’t help but ask why they were nude. “Oh, we are naturalist”, they answered. I was somewhat taken back by their response, I have friends who are naturalist and they don’t parade around naked. I replied, “Naturalist? They study plants and animals. Again, why are you nude in the middle of the wilderness?” With wide eyes and big smiles they responded, “What we mean by ‘naturalist’ is, we are into nature. We are all born nude…it’s the way God intended us to live.” Okay hippies, I thought to myself, but one last question I couldn’t hold back, “So what’s up with the backpacks and shoes? Were you born with those? Why are you not barefoot…naturalist?” Quickly, we bid good riddance and they were off -- four full moons going down the trail -- spreading peace, love, and prayers to the bong gods.

Llama face with green webbed bridle, photo by Flip Flip Akers
Japa isn’t too impressed with nude backpackers
portable stoves for camping, photo by Phil Flip Akers
Most essential backpacking gear depends on where you are going and your intended use. Stoves for example, can be as simple and lightweight as a homemade beer can white gas stove, or a pocket rocket stove perfect for just boiling water, or larger cooking stoves.

Most of the essential items needed are application dependent. They all have a specific size, weight, and purpose. The backpack depends on preferred style (most now are internal frame) and size for the amount of desired gear and length of outings. Stove and fuel depends on if you are merely boiling water or actually intend to cook. Water filters depend on the area you intend to travel. Some wilderness areas require more treatment than others. Anywhere range cattle are allowed certainly requires treatment of the water before consumption. Footwear depends on the type of terrain being traveled. Sleeping bags are temperature rated using the EN testing standard. Tent selection depends on the type of ground -- some tents require the use of steaks which are nearly impossible to pitch in rock or granite slab regions found at high elevations, high above the sweet duff of a forest floor. I recommend consulting with an outfitter for guidance in your selection of the essentials. They will provide the best advise and assistance in fitting and assuring gear suits your specific needs. You can also attend seminars on backpacking which are usually held at outfitters.

Learn how to navigate. Purchase a topographic map of the area you intend to travel and learn how to use a compass in conjunction with the map. Topographic software is also available and can be used with GPS units. Many folks still use the old school map & compass and do not rely on technology requiring a signal or batteries.

Learn backcountry ethics. I encourage off-trail travel as you become seasoned, it provides a more primitive experience. But when traveling on trail, do not cut switchbacks or trail sections as it causes serious erosion and trail damage. If you do not use the trail stay well away from it. Both campsites and latrines should be at least 100 feet from any trail or water source.

Illegal/unsafe use of campfire is a major cause of backcountry wildfires. Campfires are always restricted at higher elevations, generally above 9500 feet. During the summer fire season (usually June thru October) the use of campfires if almost always restricted. This is why I put stoves & fuel on the essential list. Always check with the local Forest Service to find out if campfire restrictions are in effect. When and where campfires are allowed, use existing fire rings if possible, and use only dead or downed wood. At least an hour before breaking camp make sure the fire is “dead out”.

Horses and other stock have the right-of-way. If you encounter stock on the trail while backpacking, step off to the downhill side of the trail, be quiet, and allow the stock to pass.

If traveling with stock please realize pack and saddle stock can severely damage soil and vegetation. Use hitch/picket lines for tying them, only tie directly to trees when loading and unloading. Bring a good supply of ration pellets and use quality feed to avoid noxious weed establishment. Consider the water situation and don’t allow them to trash riparian areas. In some cases, It may be necessary to bring water to the stock. When you break camp repair pawed-up areas, scatter manure, remove extra feed or salt blocks, redistribute forest duff and litter.

Practice treating laceration and puncture wounds on chicken., photo by Phil Flip Akers
Practice treating laceration and puncture wounds on chicken.

First Aid. Realize you are a long way from medical assistance. There’s a big difference between “general” or “urban” first aid and wilderness first aid where 911 is not available. For general first aid, you only need to provide treatment or CPR just long enough for help to arrive, which isn’t a very long time. In the wilderness, help isn’t coming anytime soon so you should be prepared to provide more technical treatments. Wilderness first aid techniques may also be applied to urban areas during times of disaster. Anyplace can be considered wilderness following a natural or terrorist disaster.

You should not only carry a first aid kit but know how to use it. Start by learning how to identify and properly treat the most common wilderness injuries; blisters, head injuries, dislocations, broken bones, laceration and puncture wounds, hypothermia, dehydration, and high altitude sickness. There are various resources that provide courses specific to wilderness first aid. The course will teach you how to be resourceful when perfect supplies are not available. In times of emergency, be prepared to sacrifice gear. For example, ski or trekking poles, tent stakes, belts, climbing rope and boot laces can all be used for splints. A backpack waist band can be used as a neck stabilizer. The key is to be calm and resourceful.

A basic first aid kit should contain a pair of Latex gloves, varying sizes of bandages and gauze pads, maxi pads (actually performs much better than gauze which tends to stick to the wound and hurts when removed), a large roller bandage (the self-adhesive kind are worth the extra investment), syringe for flushing wounds, safety pins, iodine, triple-antibiotic ointment, duct tape, and some small diameter rope. Duct tape provides a wide variety of backcountry uses beyond just medical in nature. A nugget; it is good for blisters.

Phideaux dog with first aid wrap around his neck and upper torso after suffering 2 large puncture would to upper neck area. Photo by Phil Flip Akers
Don’t forget fly spray for stock and be prepared to treat any animals you plan to bring along. This past summer my dog Phideaux tangled with something that roughed him up pretty good, suffering two large puncture wounds in his upper neck area. Puncture wounds from sticks or other animals are the most common injury to dogs in the backcountry.

Safety prevents rescue. Planning and preparation is the best safety practice. Know where you are going in terms of type of terrain, elevation, water sources, and weather. Bad weather forms quickly at high elevations, snow is common even in summer, plan for that. Have a planned route and try and stick to it. Leave an itinerary with family or friends including entry and exit points, where you intend to camp, exit date, and contact information for the county sheriff. If you are going into an area where permits are not required, fill out the trailhead registry. This will greatly help rescuers locate you if things go wrong. Trailhead registries are intended for use only when rescue is warranted, such as an overdue backpacker. Signing the registry does not mean someone is following up to ensure you made it out.

Plan ahead and know where your water sources will be. On topo maps, a solid blue line indicates a year-around water source while a blue line interrupted by three dots indicate a seasonal water source. Boil, chemically treat, or filter your water.

Don’t traverse exposed ridges when ominous clouds or thunderheads are visible. If you find yourself in a high elevation thunderstorm find the safest place you can, away from lone trees. Put down something to insulate you from the ground, and sit upright with legs straight. Instruction used to be to squat on the insulation with only your boots touching but this has been revised for a few different reasons.

If you have allergies or pre-existing medical problems requiring medicine, do not forget to take this medication along. Put it at the top of your pack list. If hiking with others, make sure everyone in the party is aware of each others allergies or pre-existing medical conditions, including symptoms any possible side-effects.

snake-proof gaiters to protect against snake bites, photo by Phil Flip Akers
I don’t mess around and wear snake-proof gaiters if going into places I know is rattlesnake infested or when exploring off-trail in river canyons. It is nice to have the insurance and not worry about every step.

Snakes. We are lucky, we live where the only poisonous snakes are all of the pit viper family. Still, a rattlesnake bite will put an abrupt halt to your adventure. The best treatment for a rattlesnake bite is not to get bit in the first place. There is a definite demographic to bite victims; drunk males in their early twenties. Here, hold my beer while I catch this guy…those types. But people do get bit in the backcountry when stepping or reaching in the wrong places. Anticipate swelling, loosen or remove anything restrictive near the bite area such as shoes or rings. Keep calm and cool by finding shade. If you get bit in country that requires a long and treacherous hike out, and are lucky enough to have cell service or a SPOT device, rattlesnake bites do warrant a SAR type of rescue.

To cover a few myths, the old western cowboy method of cutting the bite and sucking out the venom is totally the wrong thing to do. Don’t allow venom in your mouth (duh) and never, ever, make an incision to a bite. This is total myth. Also, the larger the rattlesnake doesn’t mean more venom will be injected. They develop the ability to control the amount of venom delivered and even “dry bite” as they mature. The smaller, more aggressive adolescent ones deliver all the venom they have built up. Another myth. And finally, those snakebite kits, the ones with the little suction cups, have only a thirty percent chance of working IF used within the first thirty seconds. Snakebite kits buried in a backpack, does absolutely no good. Grand Canyon National Park rangers carry these kits readily available on their belts, not to treat others, but to treat themselves. If readily available and used immediately, they can work…so not a total myth.

Ticks. The threat here is serious disease (such as Lyme disease) and other tick-born illnesses. Use repellant such as DEET to lower the chances of contact. The best treatment is to daily examine your body for ticks which will most likely be located in the hard-to-see areas. Ticks cannot transmit Lyme disease unless they have been attached and feeding for over 24 hours, generally up to 36-48 hours. This is plenty of time to remove them without worry of contacting any disease.

Mosquitoes. These blood suckers can be horrendous during early season and many times more obnoxious in wilderness areas than urban areas. The only real threat is irritation. Prevention is the best thing to do by carrying DEET and even head nets. For treatment, dab bites with ammonia-soaked gauze.

A bear canister not only protects your food but also doubles as a chair, tabletop, and cutting board. It also protects the bears from developing a taste of human food and becoming a “wilderness bum”, photo by Phil Flip Akers
A bear canister not only protects your food but also doubles as a chair, tabletop, and cutting board. It also protects the bears from developing a taste of human food and becoming a “wilderness bum”.

Bears. Hungry bears can walk through camp, ripping open anything that smells like food. Invest in a bear canister. Hanging food by counter-balance methods can work if done properly and the local bears haven’t figured how to defeat them. Bear canisters are actually required in many National Parks and wilderness areas. Not only store all of your food in the canister but also anything else with scent such as toothpaste. When in camp, never store the canister inside a backpack. Leave backpacks open with all pockets unzipped. Make it easy for the bear to realize there is no food…it will quickly move on. If you see a bear, cherish the moment.

These are only some basics, from my perspective, but plenty enough to get started and enjoy the wilderness. It is highly rewarding to experience the best fishing, hunting, wildflower displays, and scenery. Plan well, be safe, and have fun traveling the many wilderness areas. Meanwhile, time to throw another log in the hot stove.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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