Welcome to the fresh air

Helpful information to plan and execute safe, fun and exciting outings.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is it trash?

What’s your reaction when you see an empty can when you’re hiking? It’s trash left by some careless hiker, right? Not so fast. Sometimes there can be a debate about what is considered trash. The Indian Hill area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has many rusty cans left by the workers in the 1930s that built the railroad that crosses that section of the desert. Many people consider that trash and pack it out. But others want it left undisturbed as part of the history of the region.

There are many examples of mining equipment, wood sheds, and supplies abandoned by miners in Death Valley National Park several decades ago. The National Park Service leaves these sites undisturbed. The sites draw many visitors. Perhaps the abandoned equipment helps visitors envision life from a simpler time. It helps paint a picture of how much a struggle life was, and how hard the miners worked, and under what conditions they toiled.

What about the pictographs drawn on rock by Native Americans? Those should certainly be saved since they’re part of our history.

What about new items such as beer cans? They certainty fit the description of trash.

But what about older beer cans? Recently I found a can from the 60s with the pull off tab. It’s not as old as the cans from the railroad workers but certainly a good 40 years old. It looks like a modern can so I called it trash, and pack it out.

So, what makes it trash? Is it the age of the can? Would your answer about the miners can be different if the rusty can were located 200 yards from the mine site instead of directly at the mining site where it helps paint a picture of the mining settlement?

Should we be actively seeking out and packing out items, or just those items close to the trail?

What’s your opinion?

Land Use Classifications

Quick, what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? If there is a Wilderness Area in a National Park, what does that mean?

There is a continuous spectrum of land use classification from urban areas all the way to wilderness areas in terms of protection and preservation of the wild character of the land and animals. As a hiker or backpacker you’ll frequently encounter the following classifications. Importantly, within each type there is often a different process to apply for a use permit.

Wilderness areas are the most preserved and protected areas. This designation is an overlay on National Parks, National Forests and BLM land. In other words, a National park can have a wilderness area within it or adjacent to it. No motorized or mechanized vehicles are allowed so you’ll sometimes see work crews maintaining trails using picks and shovels. Some of the most desirable areas to backpack are located within wilderness areas. Go to the web site listed below and check out the Wilderness Links on the right pane for a good description of wilderness.


National Parks are the most visited areas. They attract many international visitors who believe that national parks represent the crown jewels of American’s lands. National parks require the approval of Congress, which can be a lengthy process. National Parks get a big chunk of funding. The first NP was Yellowstone.

National Monuments are created by an executive order of the President of the United States. This has been done when Congress has moved too slowly and the land would be ruined by the time that it’s declared a national park. National Monuments get less funding and less protection than a National Park. Examples of National Monuments include Cabrillo NM in the Point Loma community of San Diego, Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM in Utah. Most people expect the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM to be the next NM to be promoted to NP status. Death Valley NP was a NM for many years before becoming a NP.

National Forests allow for some diversity of uses though not as diverse as BLM land. There are significant national forests surrounding California’s NPs. For example, National Forests connect and surround Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon NPs. National Forests are popular with hikers because they are largely wooded or forested areas.

BLM land represents about 13% of the total land surface of the United States. BLM land is managed for multiple uses such as energy, livestock grazing, recreation, and more. BLM manages the Wild Horse and Burro program, and other programs you might not think of.

It can be complex when traveling by foot. For example, starting out in the Inyo National Forest at Whitney Portal, you quickly enter the John Muir Wilderness, which contains Mount Whitney. Upon hiking to Trail Crest you can hike north to Mount Whitney, or continue to hike west and descend into Sequoia NP. So, nine miles after Whitney Portal you have travelled in three different land use classifications, each of which has its own set of rules.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The "Ten Essentials"

Whenever venturing into the wilderness it’s important to carry the “ten essentials”. It’s a mostly standard list but some people like to add a few items. I think that it’s important to carry what some called the “11th essential”, which is toilet paper (TP) and plastic bag, and a 12th essential, which is sunscreen and lip balm.

I adjust some of the essentials depending on the hike. For example, for short suburban hikes a lightweight wind jacket or rain jacket is my extra clothing. But for 12 hour hikes in remote areas, especially off-trail hikes, I’ll carry a down jacket, fleece hat, two pairs of gloves, rain pants and a rain jacket as my extra clothing since there is a real chance of injury or other factor that might force an unplanned night in the wilderness. The extra five pounds is a small price to pay for safety, piece of mind, and reasonable comfort.

1. Map. A map is critical since it’s your hiking guide to the area. It helps you stay on track and is one of the best tools for making sure that you come back safely.

2. Compass. I always carry one. Actually I carry two. It’s very useful for orienting the map in the proper direction, hiking in a constant direction, and it’s very lightweight. It helps assure that you won’t be hiking around in circles if you become disoriented. I also take a backcountry GPS (i.e. Garmin 60CSX with a map chip for California/Nevada installed) but only for the longer hikes.

3. Flashlight or headlight with spare batteries. I take two headlights since the weight of the 2nd empty headlight is small, and it’s difficult to put new batteries into a headlight in the dark.

4. Sunglasses and a sun hat. These are critical. Without sunglasses your eyes will tire quickly and you may develop a headache. A sun hat is especially important in the southwest or at high elevation.

5. Extra food and water. Two liters are fine for suburban hikes. More difficult hikes require 4 liters. Real strenuous hikes in hot weather may require 7-8 liters. If you’re sure you can find good water during the hike then you can take less, and carry Aqua Mira or a backcountry filter to purify the water you find. If you use a water bladder, place it in a clean garbage bag. That way you won’t lose the water, or soak your clothing if the bladder leaks. My goal is to always come back with an extra liter of water; I consider that my safety buffer. For my extra food, I always take at least 2-3 extra energy bars.

6. Extra clothing. See comment above. I always take more than I think I’ll need.

7. Waterproof matches. These are cheap insurance and light weight. I also carry a small butane lighter wrapped in plastic wrap. The lighter won’t work if it gets damp.

8. Candle or fire starter. I take a small tea candle, a small Esbit fuel tablet, or similar. There are many creative, low-cost alternatives that hikers carry.

9. Pocket knife. I take the smallest Swiss army knife, which has a small knife and scissors.

10. First Aid kit. Take a small commercial kit or assemble your own to save money.

11. Toilet paper in a small heavy duty plastic bag. You never know when nature will call and it’s always a good idea to carry out your used “TP”. Heavy rains will wash away dirt and expose the used TP, which then gets blown around by the wind. I don’t like to hike and see used TP and you won’t either.

12. Sunscreen and lip balm. These are important for hikes in the southwest and high altitude. I have sun sensitive skin so these are especially critical for me, probably more so than for most individuals.

The Options
Some hikers like to take a whistle but I find that the sound doesn’t carry very far, especially in a windy area. Still I take one since they’re light. Better hiking packs have a whistle built into the sternum buckle so the weight penalty is zero.

I sometimes carry an extra trash bag or emergency bivy sack for really long hikes.

This post is based on handouts from the Wilderness Basics Course, plus my first hand experience.


After writing this post I also checked wikipedia. Their list and my list are almost identical. My list adds a sun hat to the top 10 list but keeps sunscreen as the 12th essential.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The end game

Another photo on the cross-country section.

We decided to hike in the dark since the route over the saddle was relatively simple, and once in Bow Willow canyon, the navigation was simple: just hike down canyon to the vehicle. The steep canyon walls prevented us from making any wrong turns.

Having escaped the possibility of spending a cold, winter night in the desert with relatively little clothing, we decided to get some training to become better informed and knowledgeable hikers. We didn’t want to rely on luck, or to limit ourselves to only following more experienced hikers.

So, we took a class offered by the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club called “Wilderness Basics Class”. This 10-week class has been successfully offered for over twenty years. Both Christine and I completed the 2004 class, and eventually became experienced outing leaders for the club. In fact, as outing leaders, we take groups of students on that same outing each year as part of the course. It’s such a simple route it’s hard to image how one could go wrong. Ha! Talk about coming around full circle.

The decision...

The photo is of the old cattleman's line shack, also known as a "rockhouse", which is why this canyon is called Rockhouse Canyon. Not very creative. Note the old stovepipe on the left side.

Winter days in the desert are mild but winter nights can dip down to 30-degrees. Plus, winter nights are long. Routes look relatively simple on topo maps once you understand what the contours mean, but associating physical features and judging distances between the map world and the real world is not easy, especially in the desert where colors are muted and land features are indistinguishable.

Ultimately I led us down a rocky gully that was far steeper than I recalled, and we popped out in Rockhouse canyon. Then we hiked up canyon for a mile or so in deep sand and eventually reached the cattleman’s line shack a little before dusk. After a quick bite of food it was time for a decision. Do we try and make it up and over the saddle in the dark, and back in Bow Willow canyon where we’re just a few miles from our vehicles? Or, is it safer to spend the night at the shack, in the cold, and start hiking the next morning?

At this point we were unaware that the hantavirus can be caught by inhailing the virus in contaminated dust. On subsequent hikes we noticed plenty of mouse droppings in the rockhouse so the possibility of exposure is real.

The day of the hike....

This photo from last year shows the correct route, and was taken about half-way into the cross-country part of the hike. Just aim for the center of the mountain on right side of the photo and you'll end up in Rockhouse Canyon.

The weather was cool, dry and sunny. It was a typical winter morning in the desert. We followed friends on this same route a few years earlier. They were seasoned hikers who could navigate difficult terrain with ease. I wasn’t as experienced but felt sure that I could recreate the route. It would be easy except for the off-trail route connecting the two canyons. Still, I could recall it clearly in my mind and I brought paper topo maps along just to be sure. How difficult could it be?? What could go wrong??

By late afternoon I was getting worried because we weren’t yet at the cattleman’s line shack, which is the half-way point of the loop hike. I got hung up in the tricky cross-country section trying to navigate my way over to Rockhouse canyon. My memory wasn’t matching up very well with the terrain. I was second guessing myself, retracing my steps, and trying again. This was consuming time. There were many footprints but they were all over the place and no established trail to follow. There were no other hikers to follow or to ask. My wife, Christine, was very patient.

The Starting Point

Six years ago (January 2004) my wife and I started hiking as a way to get in shape and to reduce stress from work. As an accomplished coach potato, we both needed to get in shape but knew we wouldn’t stay motivated in a traditional gym or by running. We decided to give hiking another try. We hiked some a few years earlier but never truly warmed up to it for one reason or another.

I decided to lead us on an intermediate hike in the local Anza-Borrego desert that started at the Bow Willow campground off S-2. After hiking up Bow Willow Canyon we would take an off-trail route up a rocky draw to connect with another parallel canyon called Rockhouse Canyon. We would then hike up Rockhouse canyon to an old cattleman’s line shack, have lunch, hike up over a saddle and then across into Bow Willow canyon, before following the canyon back to our waiting vehicles. Simple enough!

I’m writing this blog to share my experiences and knowledge about this exciting hobby. Living in the U.S., and especially in the southwest, we’re blessed with so many national parks, forests, national monuments, state parks, BLM land, and wilderness areas. Hiking has changed my life, enriching it with experiences and friends. I only wished that I picked up on it years earlier.