Yellowstone Backpacking Food Safety, Part Two

As previously discussed, a simple backpacking menu is best, and that’s our philosophy on Big Wild Adventures guided hiking treks. Yet, because Big Wild is a commercial operation, we do bring a few carefully packaged luxuries, such as fresh produce and desserts (all prepared by our guides). So our menu for our guided hiking tours in Yellowstone and elsewhere is a relatively simple but tasty mix of fresh and dried foods that’s filling and nutritious. It is dominated by complex carbs such as whole grain pastas and a mix of dried and fresh fruits, vegetables and protein. Also, our guides shop and plan each menu with the foremost consideration of avoiding really smelly items that might attract animals. This is especially important in bear country, because once a bear successfully pilfers food from human campers, that bear will habitually get into trouble — until somebody is injured or the bear is shot by rangers, or both. Remember, “A fed bear is a dead bear”. Do not foster the demise of Yogi!

Also, pack everything in Ziploc bags (and re-use and recycle the bags after the trip!). That’s an important line of defense against escaping food odors. And don’t forget to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer prior to food preparation. This will prevent the spread of disease-causing microorganisms, which could seriously mess with someone’s digestive tract. This will also minimize the unfair blaming of Giardia protozoans for digestive difficulties. That’s because research proves that many — if not most — cases of alleged “Giardia” are actually some other microbe spread by poor sanitation! So clean your hands after you poop and before you prepare chow for your fellow hikers or dig your hands into the communal trail mix.

A few words on spoilage: If you’re hiking in the Great Smokies in July, nearly any fresh food will quickly spoil in that warm, wet climate. In fact, it is so moist and mild in the southern Appalachians that you might actually begin to decompose on the trail! So maximize dried foods. On a guided hike in Yellowstone, though, or for that matter just about anywhere in the Rocky Mountains, the humidity is low, and even after a warm day, nights cool into the 40’s or lower. So items such as cheese, carrots, peanut butter, bread and salsa will usually keep just fine (in Ziplocs!), even on a week long trek in the big wilds. But don’t forget: just because foods don’t easily spoil is no reason to tempt fate and bring things that are likely to attract bears and other animals. Give the critters a break and be careful what you buy at the supermarket!

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Yellowstone Backpacking Food Safety, Part One

Food safety on a backpack trip, in Yellowstone and elsewhere, begins with the effort to ensure that the food ends up in your digestive tract, not in that of a bear. Or, for that matter, in that of a mouse or squirrel! And this effort begins in the grocery store.

When shopping for backpacking food, remember that some foods spoil easily and others do not. Also, remember that a bear’s sense of smell is over a thousand times better than that of us lowly humans, so please, forget the bacon and other forms of fresh meat. Please walk right past the grocery store meat department and spend your shopping time pondering different brands of oatmeal, rice, pasta and energy bars. Do you really have to have fresh eggs and pancakes on a backpack trip? Are we Americans really so spoiled that we can’t forgo culinary luxuries when out in the wilds for a while? Ask yourselves why your out in wild nature to begin with! Do you wish to spend huge amounts of camp time preparing fancy (and smelly) foods, or would you rather be watching wildlife or sniffing wildflowers ? Or maybe just sitting under a tree watching the clouds go by (my personal favorite activity). Or exploring the terrain near camp. So leave highly odoriferous foods that will attract bears in the grocery store. This will also keep you from working too hard once you reach camp.

While planning and preparing a wilderness backpacking menu is beyond the scope of this missive, in following the above advice, consider how much you’ll enjoy that first icy brew and hot bison burger on a toasted bun after you leave the wilderness! And stay tuned for part two of “Yellowstone Backpacking and Food Safety”.



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Guided Backpacking and Kitchen Safety, Part Two

In the previous post we discussed the need for clients to give our guides plenty of working space in the “kitchen area”, in order to avoid burns from either hot water or the campfire. This is important on our guided Yellowstone hikes as well as our guided backpacking treks throughout the Mountain West.

Speaking of campfires, we will often ask our clients to collect and break up firewood. This activity, while fun for most folks, presents a unique set of hazards. First and foremost is the danger of flying projectiles of small wood chips. Look away when breaking a branch, wear your glasses or sunglasses, and break wood in a direction where a flying wood chip will not hit another person! It is also quite possible to break a foot or sprain an ankle in the effort (jumping or stomping on a branch) to break a chunk of wood into shorter lengths. Don’t. It’s not worth it. If the tree branch won’t break without herculean effort, forget about it! It’s probably either still green or is too big for use in a cooking fire, anyway.

Other kitchen hazards: accidentally kicking dirt or moose poop into the cook pot or into the bowl of diced carrots sitting on the ground that the guide just finished cutting. All the more reason to give the guiding (cooking) staff lots of room to work! Providing a meal for a group of hungry backpackers in nearly every kind of weather imaginable is tough enough without folks traipsing through the kitchen and messing things up!

Here’s my favorite kitchen advice and story. Do not drool into the cook pot! I am serious. I am not making this up. We once had a client who was poorly socialized in a number of ways not appropriate to describe in this post. Except for the drooling part. I had measured out the water for dinner and it was nearly boiling when “The Drooling Physicist” (yes, he was a learned man of science) for some reason decided to lift the lid off the cook pot — obviously when I wasn’t looking — to see what was inside (hot water). At that exact moment, I turned around and to my utter dismay watched this fellow accidentally unleash a long filament of drool, which for a brief moment connected the inside of his mouth with the contents of the cooking pot! And yes, for this and numerous other reasons, this fellow is blacklisted.

Of course, I had to clean out the pot and start from scratch. Be assured, though, that such behavior is the exception, not the rule. But it is yet another reason to stay out of the kitchen and give us plenty of space to safely work!

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Guided Backpacking and Kitchen Safety, Part One

One of the most under-appreciated hazards of wilderness backpacking, including on our guided Yellowstone backpacking trips, is the food preparation area, or the back-country “Kitchen”. This kitchen is a mobile one, consisting of pots and pans plus a grill or camp stove or both, carried by the guide in order to make sure that his pack isn’t too light and comfortable.

On most of our treks, campfires are allowed, and we at Big Wild do most of our cooking on fires, where the guide sets up a grill for efficient cooking over the flames. However, at some of the Yellowstone campsites, fires are prohibited, and that is also the case with most of our desert trip routes in the colorful canyon country of southern Utah. In these situations, our guides do the cooking on lightweight stoves that run on “white gas”. Regardless of the cooking method, though, the kitchen area is hazardous, and we need our clients to stay out of it until the guide calls you for chow!

Why is the kitchen area hazardous, you might ask? Simply put, fire and boiling water provide plenty of opportunities for accidental burns. Remember, you’re out in the wilderness and the ground is uneven. There are rocks and tree roots poking up out of the ground. At the end of the day most folks are tired, and therefore their sense of balance is sub-par. It definitely is a detriment to the guide’s disposition if a client kicks over the carefully measured pot of water, dousing the fire and perhaps burning oneself. We also realize that the possibility of a client falling into the fire is real, though that’s never happened on one of our treks! So again, give the guide plenty of working space! Here at Big Wild it is company policy to avoid severely burned clients. Please help us to maintain that portion of our overall very clean safety record! In the next installment, we will discuss a few less obvious hazards of the wilderness kitchen.


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Guided Backpacking and Venomous Snakes, Part 2

First and foremost, do not handle rattlesnakes! What seems like common sense obviously isn’t,  judging by the behavior of some young males (see previous blog post for more on this) who skew the statistics upward in the annual tally of snakebite victims in the United States. In the previous post, I discussed the Darwinian implications of mixing young male humans with rattlesnakes and beer.

Second, don’t be paranoid, but do be vigilant. Be aware of weather conditions. Rattlesnakes are cold blooded reptiles, so in the morning after a cold night, expect them to be out soaking up the sun like it’s spring break at Fort Lauderdale (Unlike humans, though, snakes don’t get skin cancer). On a hot afternoon, expect them anywhere, but especially in the shade, behind rocks or in the brush. And you can even find them in the water! Which leads me to rule number three: Don’t step where you cannot see. Sure, you’re in the desert and much of the ground is open with sparse vegetation. But canyon bottoms along desert streams can be jungle-like, so sometimes you need to seriously concentrate on where you step.

Rule number four is also common sense. We upright hominids love to climb around on rocks (be careful!), especially in the colorful sandstone wilds of Utah’s canyon country. Simply put, do not reach and put your hands where you cannot see! A disproportionate number of snakebites occur on the hands and arms. So look before you reach!

By the way, in the United States fatal snakebites are extremely rare. Small children and the elderly are at particular risk of succumbing to snake venom. But overall death-rates are under 2% (which is little consolation if you happen to be in that 2%). More often than not, though it won’t kill you, a snakebite will earn you a new nickname, such as “lefty” or “goofy” or “six fingers”. It may not kill you, but it sure can mess you up.  So be alert. Don’t be paranoid, be observant. Leave the snake alone and it will in all likelihood leave you alone. Wondering through the desert on a guided backpack trip is a wonderful way to spend a week — and with just a bit of care, it’s also a remarkably safe way to enrich your life in a beautiful wilderness environment.

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Guided Backpacking and Venomous Snakes, Part 1

Arizona is the cradle of rattlesnake evolution, with more species of this pit viper than anywhere else. The southeastern U.S. is also rich venomous snake country, because you can add water moccasins, copperheads and eastern coral snakes to the rich rattlesnake mix. We’ve never encountered a rattler on any of our guided Yellowstone hikes, mainly because rattlesnakes inhabit just a tiny portion of the park along the lower Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, near the small town of Gardiner, at Yellowstone’s North Entrance. Yet there are rattlers on our guided backpacking trips in Utah and New Mexico. Compared with Arizona, though, venomous snake species diversity in these areas is relatively low. And we rarely encounter them. Most of our trip routes in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, by the way, are too high in elevation for most rattlesnakes, and we usually run these Gila treks too early in the season for there to be much snake activity of any kind.

That said, even in the Utah canyon country, rattlesnakes are rarely a problem. In 40 years of guiding, we’ve never had a snakebite. A couple of close calls, sure, but really, if you give the snake half a chance, it will back off, not wanting to waste its venom on the likes of you. After all, there might be a nice juicy cottontail hoppin’ down the bunny trail, just around the bend! That’s why snakebites are rare. Humans are too big to digest. They probably taste bad, too, oozing chemical essences emanating from a diet that primarily consists of Big Macs, ding dongs, Cheetos and corn dogs. Of course, I cannot cite scientific studies that would back up this theory, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. What is indisputable is this: millions upon millions of two-legged hominids inhabit rattlesnake country, many of them not too bright (the humans, not the snakes), and yet snakebites remain remarkably rare.

With this exception: the incidence of snakebite is disproportionately high among young male humans under the age of 30. “Hey guys, watch this!” or “Hold my beer” are often the final words one hears immediately preceding snakebite. That’s because — and this is proven science — the frontal lobe (the part of the brain that is in charge of risk assessment) of the male human brain (such as it is) is not fully developed until nearly three decades of life have passed. That provides plenty of time for natural selection to work its magic, and handling rattlesnakes is a great way for Darwinian truths to prevail. On the other hand, for those with better functioning craniums (ie. females and some older males), there are some simple common sense precautions that will in all likelihood keep you safe from rattlesnakes on our guided wilderness backpacking trips. Stay tuned!


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Venomous Creatures On Our Guided Backpacking Trips, Part 2

In the previous post, I mentioned that so far, poisonous spiders, centipedes and scorpions are  found on most of our routes in the desert Southwest. New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness is included, though most of the miles on our Gila Wilderness trips  are too high in elevation for much worry about “creepy crawlies”. Nonetheless, on our guided wilderness hikes where these creatures do exist, a few simple precautions will keep you safe.

First though, realize that on any given trip, you are unlikely to encounter venomous creatures unless you look for them. Which I sometimes do. Just for fun.  Over the years, though, we’ve seen them all, except for the brown recluse, which I don’t recall ever having encountered. Also, although a bite or sting could certainly ruin your day or even your trip (black widow bites are cause for evacuation), except in unusual circumstances these bites and stings are rarely, if ever, fatal.

And again, a bit of caution goes a long way. For example, don’t put your hands where you can’t see, either in rocky areas or in and around dead wood. Black widows and scorpions tend to inhabit cracks in the rock walls, underneath bark on dead trees and piles of dead wood. Be aware. Back in the ’80’s, a park ranger in Canyonlands took his shirt off and set it on a rock on a hot day. When he put it back on, the black widow that had taken shelter in the shirt bit him. Day ruined. Check your clothing, always! Also, sleeping out under the stars in the desert is one of life’s great pleasures; but check your shoes before you put them on the the morning. Turn them upside down and shake them! Although I’ve followed this ritual hundreds of times, never once has a scorpion or centipede fallen out of my shaken hiking shoes. Otherwise, I might have been quite shaken. By the way, this also pertains to that 2 AM answering of nature’s call: shake those shoes. And this, too: If you lay your sleeping bag out on the ground before bed-time, shake it out before you climb in. Otherwise, you sleeping situation will be a bit shaky. Of course, sleeping in a tent reduces the likelihood of unwanted creatures in your shoes, sleeping bag or clothing, but as I said, sleeping under the stars in the desert is one of life’s great experiences. I’ve been doing it for decades, and am no worse for the wear!

By the way, it is worth mentioning that our Yellowstone backpacking trips as well as our other Wyoming backpacking and Montana backpacking treks are all pretty much lacking in the venomous critter department! So are our treks in the biggest wild, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

So there you have it. Don’t worry about creepy crawlies; just take a few precautions and your desert trek in the wild and colorful Utah backcountry will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life!

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Venomous Creatures on our Guided Backpacking Trips, Part 1

Our trips in the high country of Wyoming and Montana are, for the most part, free of venomous creatures. This includes the various routes we utilize on our guided Yellowstone backpacking trips. The climate is simply too cold to support these cold-blooded animals. So far. Of course, the climate is changing, and future Rocky Mountain landscapes may well include hazards that today’s hikers do not have to consider. Such as poisonous centipedes, black widow and brown recluse spiders, and even scorpions. So far, though, in the world of Big Wild Adventures, such concerns are restricted to a few of the routes we run on our guided multi-day hikes in the desert Southwest. Unfortunately, too many of our political representatives do not believe in human-caused climate change. Science be damned, and so for now, the United States remains an outlaw of the global community’s consensus that fossil fuels are the greatest threat to life on Earth since the late Cretaceous. That was when a meteor crashed into the western Gulf of Mexico, about 60 million years ago. But I digress. This post is supposed to discuss venomous creatures, affectionately known as “creepy crawlies”. Venomous politicians are another subject.

Not including venomous snakes (which I’ll discuss separately in an upcoming post), or bee-stings — which can happen nearly anywhere — scorpions, black widow spiders, brown recluse spiders and centipedes can be found on our Utah backpacking routes in Canyonlands National Park, the Escalante Canyons and the Grand Staircase back country. Does this mean that you should avoid these areas or lose any sleep if you choose to go on one of these amazing treks? Absolutely not! These are great trips in a unique and magnificent Colorado Plateau landscape! With just a bit of care and vigilance, there is no reason to worry. You are way more likely to get killed while attempting to negotiate twelve lanes of freeway traffic along Utah’s Wasatch Front (the Greater Salt Lake City megalopolis) than by any natural feature of Utah’s back country. My next post will discuss some simple common sense precautions that we incorporate into our guided Utah hikes, precautions that will keep you safe, at least until you are out of the wilderness and subject to the many and more serious hazards of “civilized” life in the paved, polluted and populated human-scapes of urban Utah and beyond.

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Insect & Spider Stings and Bites in the Yellowstone Wilderness

There’s not too much to worry about here. However, after a few more decades of humanity doing little to arrest climate change, dangerous arthropods will probably become commonplace in Yellowstone. For now though, there are just a few things to keep in mind.

First, Yellowstone is not known to harbor populations of either black widow or brown recluse spiders. Yet we have black widows around our home, just a few miles from the park. So it is likely that there are black widows in the lowest elevations of Yellowstone, mainly in the lower Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, above the town of Gardiner. Old timers, by the way, tell me that black widows are relatively new to this region, either having arrived here due to human travel or climate warming or some combination of both. Also, note that with our annual influx of tourists from warmer climates, it would not be impossible for poisonous spiders or for that matter even scorpions to “hitch” a ride into the Greater Yellowstone area and survive, at least for a while. So don’t assume that Yellowstone’s altitude automatically protects you from “creepy crawlies”. It does not. But again, especially in the higher terrain, stings and bites are a minimal concern.

On our guided Yellowstone backpack treks we are usually in relatively high country, so aside from the common annoyance of mosquitoes and horse-flies, bee-stings are our primary concern. Our guides carry “epi-pens” in case of an anaphylactic reaction, but fortunately, we’ve never had to use one.  And especially in the mid-summer wildflower season try not to dress, for example, in bright yellow and pink clothing so that bees won’t view you as a giant walking wildflower! Also, watch where you put your hands and watch where you sit. The last thing you want to do is to sit on a yellow-jacket nest, and they do nest in the ground. Common sense. Please use it.


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How to Avoid Hypothermia on Yellowstone Hiking Trips, Part Three

Essential to staying warm and dry is our basic Big Wild mountain layering system: synthetic or wool long johns first, then a fleece or wool layer, an insulated jacket, a two-piece rainsuit and a ski hat. For warm sunny weather, cotton shirts are great. They keep you cool and protect you from sun and bugs. But when the weather turns cold and wet — which can happen suddenly while backpacking in Yellowstone or any of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem mountain ranges — lose the cotton! Wool or synthetic long-johns wick moisture away from your skin and therefore are your first layer. Put them on directly over bare skin. If it isn’t too cold, you may be fine simply donning your rain-suite over your long john top and trousers. But as  conditions deteriorate, plan to add layers: a wool shirt or fleece pullover is next to go over the long-johns and under the rain suit. And if it is really cold, add your insulated puffy jacket and/or your long-john bottoms. Beware, though: don’t over-dress! Too many clothes can turn you into a walking steam bath, and wet from sweat is as likely to cause hypothermia as is rain or wet snow. That’s because when you stop humping up the hill, your body temperature will rapidly cool and now you are cold and wet in a cold rainstorm, the perfect prescription for hypothermia. Wet is wet. Protect yourself from both rain and sweat.

So use your layering system wisely. Don’t be shy about asking us to stop to either add or remove a layer. Each hiking route and each day’s weather and each person’s metabolism is different. There are no hard fast rules here; one size does not fit all. But one thing is always paramount: it is your responsibility to stay reasonably warm and dry. Be aware of your body temperature and how much you are sweating and adjust accordingly. Remember, we’d rather our guide have to stop a few times on a long uphill so that folks can properly adjust their layering system than to have folks either get overheated or under-layered. Although medical treatments for varying levels of hypothermia are beyond the scope of this missive, as I’ve noted in  previous posts, when it comes to hypothermia, there is nothing as effective as prevention.

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