“Anything can happen in the mountains,” I tell my 19-year-old son, Kyle, as I show him how to use the SOS button on my GPS tracking device. When I hand him a windbreaker, he looks at me as if I’m insane, because we’re living through a heat wave and the sky is cloudless.
My son, who does not share my love of running, is so bored and feeling cooped-up by life during the pandemic (summer job opportunity evaporated, minimal parties, the well of new-movie releases running dry) that he surprises me one weekday in July by announcing he’s going to summit the mountain he’s been staring at while lying in bed. He starts to leave the house wearing treadless Vans and a bathing suit with the Metallica logo, carrying only a hand-held water bottle, his phone and Airpods.
I emit the cry of a panicky mother, “Wait! Don’t go!” and lasso him back to the kitchen to force him into trail-running shoes. He grows visibly impatient as I stuff my husband’s pack with food and a water filtration system, and dodges sideways when I rub sunscreen on his neck. By the time I explain what the small syringe in the first aid kit is for (to irrigate a cut), he squirms as if I’m forcing him to try on clothes in a store dressing room. “I’m outta here,” he says, bolting toward the door.
Kyle texts me a selfie a few hours later, next to the summit’s rocky outcropping, and I experience a pang of love and pride mixed with satisfaction because he’s wearing the windbreaker! When he returns hours later with scratches and dirt covering his legs, having consumed all the food and water from the pack, I sense a new feeling of mutual respect between us.
For any challenging run in the wilderness, ask the following, “Could I take care of myself for at least an hour if I got injured and had to call for help?” Imagine sustaining a significant injury that forced you to sit and wait. Or picture getting hopelessly lost and consequently spending much more time than anticipated on the trail – perhaps past nightfall. Your body temperature would drop. You’d grow hungry and thirsty. Or, you might get disoriented.
Let’s cover the basics to prevent these kinds of scenarios.
Know where you’re going and maintain a line of communication. Many of us who escape to the mountains want to disconnect from devices and reconnect with nature, so I understand the urge to leave the phone behind, but this would be a mistake. Take the following steps:
- Download a map of your route and use an app such as Gaia for route-finding.
- Put your phone in low-power mode to preserve the battery.
- Share your location with a friend so that someone can track your whereabouts.
- Program a local rescue number into your phone (this may be the county sheriff’s office or park service), to call for help directly rather than relying on 911.
- If cell coverage is spotty, carry a GPS tracking device (I use the Spot Gen 3).
- Carry a signaling whistle; three short blasts are recognized as a distress call. Having a whistle to call for help is much better than using your voice, which will give out.
Carry first aid and know how to use it. I can’t overemphasize the value of learning wilderness first aid. My first aid kit fits into a sandwich-size Ziploc bag. It saved me once when a sharp-edged rock slammed into my ankle and gave me a blood-spurting puncture wound.
Carry extra layers for changes in temperature. A lightweight windbreaker, a cheap plastic rain poncho, gloves and an emergency bivvy all go in my pack. During monsoon season, or when I’m in an ultra that goes past dark, I also bring rain pants and an extra wool base layer.
Bring more calories and fluid than you think you’ll need. Pack a variety of snacks, some containing sodium to replace salt lost through sweating, and take extra in case you’re out longer than expected. I always carry the Katadyn Be Free filter to refill my water bottles at streams.
Take little comfort items that can make a big difference. Small tubes of sunscreen and anti-chafe lube, a bug repellent wipe and toilet paper in a baggie (pack out the toilet paper; leave no trace!) are small items that weigh next to nothing but can make your outing much more pleasant.
Carry trekking poles when exploring unfamiliar terrain. My Black Diamond Z Poles often stay folded up in my pack the whole time, but occasionally they are life-savers if I need to ford a storm-swollen stream or navigate a scrabbly slope. They also will help if you roll an ankle and can’t bear your full weight while hiking.
Have a light source if there’s any chance you’ll be out past sunset. Your phone’s flashlight can do in a pinch, but take a headlamp if you’re heading out in the afternoon and might be on the trail past sunset.
Bring a Buff. Perhaps my favorite piece of clothing is the basic Buff (or, if you’re like my husband, you might prefer to tie a bandana around your neck). The strip of fabric can shield the neck from sun, warm the ears and head, function as a towel, tissue, bandage or tourniquet. These days, when you pass another person on single track, it also can function as a mask.
If you think that carrying all this gear is overkill, I’ll remind you what I told my son: anything can happen in the mountains.