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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How to Avoid Hypothermia on Yellowstone Hiking Trips, Part Two

First and foremost, do not skimp on clothing! Follow the Big Wild Clothing/Personal Gear List that we send to all of our clients. Yes, you do need to bring the long underwear and the ski hat that’s on the list! Even in July! And don’t forget the insulated jacket, the fleece pullover or wool shirt plus gloves and a breathable two-piece rain suit. We are not kidding! Just about any experienced mountain traveler in Yellowstone or in any of the surrounding mountain ranges has learned to carry all of these high country essentials on multi-day backpack trips. In the previous post I noted just a couple examples of “winter” weather during the calendar summer. As previously stated, be prepared! Remember the “Five P’s”: Proper planning prevents piss poor performance! And proper planning begins with proper clothing that will keep you warm and dry in any weather.

OK, you’ve followed our instructions. You are well prepared with every clothing item that we’ve listed. But the mild sunny August morning has quickly devolved into a cold rainstorm with howling winds blowing horizontal sheets of rain in 45-degree temperatures. And we are part way up the mountain on the way to the next camp with another thousand feet of elevation to gain. Obviously, if you didn’t stop at the outset of the storm to layer up with synthetic or wool long-johns to wick moisture away from your skin, a fleece or wool layer, and rain-gear, you’d have a problem. But on this guided Yellowstone backpack trip, your guide saw the weather coming, stopped the hike, and made sure that folks dressed for the storm– before it hit! Part of that preparation, by the way, was his instructions for folks to throw their cotton T-shirts into their backpacks, and keep them there until the return of warm, dry weather. Remember, wet cotton saps warmth from your body and wet down is worthless. Thus the saying: “Down is deadly and cotton kills”. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, since both materials are great so long as they remain dry. But spend a night shivering in wet down or hiking up a trail in cold wet cotton and you’ll know what we mean!

In the final installment of this series we’ll discuss in a bit more detail, how to utilize your mountain layering system to keep you safe in all weather conditions. Stay tuned.

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How to Avoid Hypothermia on Yellowstone Hiking Trips, Part One

Most of our Big Wild Adventures guided Yellowstone backpack trips are during the “summer season”, from June through September. So hypothermia should not be a problem. Right? Wrong! In fact, in Yellowstone and in all of the areas in the Rocky Mountain region where we guide, cold wet weather can occur any day of the year. True, most of these trips experience wonderful weather with cool mornings and warm sunny days with low humidity broken by occasional, usually short-lived afternoon thunderstorms.  Yet every so often, the weather goddess throws us a curve ball of cold wet conditions for which we must be prepared.

But before I note a couple of examples, what exactly is hypothermia, anyway? Simply put, it is a condition in which your core body temperature drops from the normal range, which is about 98-99 degrees Fahrenheit. Mild hypothermia is manifested by simple discomfort and shivering. But severe hypothermia, when shivering stops, is serious and life-threatening! Hypothermia most commonly occurs when temperatures are above freezing, usually in the 30’s and 40’s, when back-country campers and hikers allow themselves to become damp or wet or are just inadequately clothed in some combination of cold/wet/windy weather. The best way to deal with hypothermia? Prevention, prevention and prevention! More on this in parts two and three of this series.

I mentioned that in the high country anything can happen any day of the year. For example, many years ago high in the Montana Absarokas, just north of Yellowstone, I guided a father and two teen-aged sons from southern California to a wilderness camp near treeline. It was July 4th weekend, and when the snowstorm began to break up it had dumped about sixteen inches of wet snow on our camp! Although the two boys loved it and wanted to stay out and finish the trip, Dad (the guy who paid for the trip) couldn’t get off the mountain and back to the Bozeman Comfort Inn fast enough! And realize: June is not summer and neither is most of September in the high country. Last September on the Northern Yellowstone Autumn trip, we got over a foot of wet snow — which made for some spectacular photo opportunities of fresh snow draped over conifers and green and gold quaking aspen. Fortunately, the group was well-prepared and we had a great time! Again, usually the mountain weather is great. But we believe in preparation. The next two installments will discuss specific ways in which folks can avoid hypothermia, regardless of the weather.

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Poison Ivy in Yellowstone and the Tetons

While backpacking in Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, you can pretty much forget worrying about poison ivy. It is extremely rare in both of these national parks.

Yet “rare” is not the same as “absent”! Poison ivy is a deciduous shrub with a skin-irritating oil with which most folks are familiar. It grows in temperate climates with adequate moisture, which excludes much of the arid and high altitude West. Since most of the Yellowstone and Tetons region is above 7,000 feet, and those areas that are lower are mostly semi-arid, this region is not conducive to robust populations of poison ivy (“poison oak” is a variety that grows mostly along the Pacific coast).

Over the years, I have hiked much of the Teton Range and have never seen poison ivy there. I have, however, read that it does occur at the foot of the mountains along the western shore of Jackson lake, a relatively low elevation area with plenty of moisture. By contrast, in Yellowstone I have seen poison ivy — but only in one location: a low-elevation south facing slope with spring-fed moisture near the confluence of Hellroaring Creek and the Yellowstone River. And that’s it. Nowhere else. Yet I have read that poison ivy is absent from Yellowstone, which obviously isn’t true. But that small patch of Toxicodendron radicans may be the only population in Yellowstone, though it probably is not.

Anyway, again, don’t worry about it while backpacking in Yellowstone. Keep your eyes open, sure, but be much more vigilant about drowning, falling, lightening, bison, bears, falling trees, and most important, the always dangerous drive to the trail-head!

 

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Swimming and Water Safety on Guided Yellowstone Hikes

Yellowstone’s greatest danger for humans is driving through the park. Beyond that, the biggest statistical chance for your ultimate demise while visiting Yellowstone is not bears. Not by a long shot. No, the most likely thing to earn you a premature entry into the nitrogen cycle while backpacking in Yellowstone is water, the stuff that makes up about 70% of the human body and that covers three quarters of the planet (though that figure is increasing with climate change)! In Yellowstone, drownings are legendary.

Here is some simple advice: Don’t slip and fall into an icy raging torrent! And don’t stay in the lake so long that you succumb to hypothermia. Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature usually to some combination of cold and wet. Hypothermia, which will be discussed in a future post, can reduce your brain function to the the level exhibited nowadays by the U.S. Congress! And in deep water, that can be deadly! Here is some more salient advice: don’t go canoeing with the Boy Scouts. If you must canoe on one of Yellowstone’s icy lakes, hug the shoreline and eschew the temptation to take that shortcut to camp by crossing the icy open waters of Shoshone Lake! Again, hug the shoreline!

On a guided Yellowstone backpack trip, though, stream crossings pose a particular hazard, especially early in the season when runoff is high. I have dealt with stream crossings in a previous post, so for now, I’ll simply repeat that folks should follow the instructions of the backpacking guide.

Yet many drownings have occurred simply by folks falling into rivers or drowning in a lake, either with or without a canoe. If swim you must, avoid deep water and always swim with a buddy, never alone! The rich, high altitude Yellowstone landscape is as much about water as it is about the land and wildlife. Shoshone Lake is the largest completely back-country lake (not accessible by road) in the lower 48 states. You will camp along its shore on our Southwest Yellowstone Bechler Waterfall Wonderland treks. Yellowstone Lake is our largest high altitude lake. Heart Lake is magnificent. And the Yellowstone, Snake, Gibbon, Firehole and Gardiner Rivers plus many more constitute the lifeblood of this magnificent land. Don’t reach for a Darwin award; don’t let these beautiful waters naturally select you out of our albeit excessive human population!

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How to Avoid Getting Lost on a Guided Wilderness Trek, Part 2

There are plenty of reasons to go for a walk on the wild side without your guide. Some folks might wish to meditate. Or to have a spiritual experience one way or another. Some head off by themselves away from camp to do photography or to go fishing. Again, as noted in my previous post, we are guides, not babysitters!

Another important reason to head off by yourself is the simple quest for solitude, because solitude is an important wilderness value, one of the defining characteristics of a true wilderness experience. To be alone or nearly alone in wild nature is a  necessary antithesis of the lifestyle that most folks live in their generally urban and hectic and crowded daily existence. One enters the wilds first and foremost to experience primordial nature, sure, but being alone or nearly so in the wilds provides another rich layer of wild experience that is difficult to attain while chatting with others around the campfire. Alone in the wilds, time slows down. Your senses become heightened. Self-awareness increases. So does your closeness to the friend or family member with whom you are sharing the peace and quiet. And those moments of solitude, away from the group, allow you to notice things that might otherwise slip your attention.

Even the Wilderness Act specifies solitude as an important wilderness value by including “an opportunity for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation” as part of the definition of a Wilderness area. Here at Big Wild, we want you to have a real wilderness experience, and we do not discourage folks from seeking heightened levels of solitude. But remember, tell the guide where you’re going and when you’ll be back, stick with the plan, and bring your daypack containing water, fire, warm cloths and rain-gear. And pepper spray in griz country. Always!

Anyway, although we’ve had a couple of close calls, in 40 years of guiding we’ve never lost anyone without quickly finding them. And we plan to keep that record intact.

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How to Avoid Getting Lost on a Guided Wilderness Trek, Part One

Why is getting lost even a consideration on a guided backpack trip? After all, our guides are professionals, experts in wilderness navigation. But they are wilderness guide/naturalists, not babysitters. Which means that there will probably be times while backpacking in Yellowstone or in any other wild area, that our clients are off by themselves for various reasons, which I will discuss shortly. But first, hear this: Never leave camp to go on a walk without the guide, unless you first tell him where you are going and when you plan to return. This is important, and non-negotiable! And stay with the plan. That way, if something happens such as you don’t remember how to get back to camp or if you break your ankle, our guide will know where to find you.

Also, with or without the guide, never leave camp without your pepper spray (in grizzly country) and day-pack. Inside your day-pack should always be a warm layer such as your fleece pullover, your rain suit, water and matches/lighter. No matter the weather! Even on a sunny day, mountain weather can and does change rapidly, so don’t take the fair skies for granted. Remember the 6 P’s: proper planning prevents piss poor performance! Be prepared! Don’t become a victim of natural selection on a Big Wild trek. Plan properly, even for short hikes away from camp.

OK, why go off on your own (or with a friend or family member) without the guide? Lots of reasons. First and foremost is to relieve yourself and I can promise you that none of our guides wish to witness this very basic mammalian act! OK, for this one there’s no need to bring your day pack — but don’t forget the pepper spray, as folks have had encounters with bears while in a compromised position! That said, it is not impossible to get lost while on a bowel mission. Really. It has happened. While backpacking in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness on a layover day, one fellow disappeared with the orange shovel shortly after breakfast and quite some time later he had not yet returned. In the open ponderosa forest, he had walked a long ways from camp in order to be completely hidden, so far that he couldn’t remember the way back to camp! Fortunately, he remembered my pre-trip instructions to stay put if you get lost. He did. And I easily found him by simply walking in the the direction in which he was seen sauntering off with the orange trowel to his private location. In the next installment, we’ll look at a couple of other scenarios that illustrate the potential to get lost on a guided wilderness backpack trip. Stay tuned….

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How to Avoid Blisters While Trekking in Yellowstone, Part 2

OK, we’ve covered the paramount importance of proper-fitting hiking shoes. Don’t buy them from a catalogue; go to a store and try them on! And when in doubt, get the bigger pair! We’ve also admitted that in the wilderness, even a pro can occasionally develop blisters under the right circumstance. But next to getting the proper fit, nothing is more important than breaking in your new boots prior to your guided backpacking tour in Yellowstone or elsewhere in the Mountain West. Or for that matter, anywhere that you might take a hike. “Break-in”, by the way, does not mean just wearing your new hikers around your living room. Or to your kid’s basketball game. Or to your monthly meeting with your parole officer. No, to break in a new pair of hiking shoes you need to wear them for miles, over uneven terrain, preferably on a real trail or bushwhack!

Of course, the heavier the boot, the more breaking-in you’ll need to do. Ultra-light hiking shoes or trail runners don’t need much, if any, break in. But leather and even most nylon or other fabric-type shoes usually do! Personally, I’ve had enough foot injuries over the years to require a sturdy pair of leather hikers. So when it’s time to replace the old with the new, I break them in for hours on backcountry trails before I even think about hoisting my guide pack. If you don’t have any back-country trails available, wear them dancing. Or running. Or running up and down a staircase. Use your imagination! Especially if you live in Kansas or Florida or anyplace with minimal topography, you’ll still need comfortable well-broken in boots when you hit the trail in Yellowstone. Don’t let sore feet ruin your wilderness experience!

And don’t let your experience be more about dealing with pain and discomfort that enjoying the fruits of being immersed in the magic of wild nature.

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How to Avoid Blisters While Trekking in Yellowstone

On any of our guided backpacking trips in Yellowstone — or for that matter in any of the other wondrous wildernesses that we explore — we want our clients to have fun! And few problems can rain on a great wilderness experience more than blisters. Usually caused by poor-fitting or stiff new boots, blisters can be dealt with with on the trail, but not easily, and the best treatment is to prevent their formation in the first place. Various circumstances can produce blisters, even for experienced hikers.  Such as a pack that’s too heavy, extremely uneven terrain, hot weather that exacerbates afternoon foot-expansion or wearing cotton socks (don’t). But in general terms, foot problems can usually be boiled down to two major considerations: fit and break-in.

Our clients often ask us what kind of hiking boots we recommend. Our reply: great fitting ones! That’s because every pair of feet are unique, and the brand or style or even the weight of a hiking boot is unimportant compared with fit. A model that is a great fit for me might not be for you. There are many quality brands out there. The choices are much greater than they were for Lewis and Clark. Just get a pair that fit.

Most folks in modern society buy cloths that fit snugly, because, after all, looking cool is paramount. For wilderness travel, though, loose fitting cloths breathe better and also insulate better due to trapped air pockets that don’t exist in skin-tight threads. But that’s another column. Back to boots. Like wilderness clothing, boots should not fit snugly, especially when you try them on at the store! Forget your street shoe size. Or remember it and then add at leas another half size for what you’ll try on. Remember, on a hot afternoon after a few miles with a 40 pound pack your feet will expand. In the store there should be plenty of toe room so that when going down a steep incline your toes won’t hit the front of the shoe. And your heel shouldn’t be too snug either! Above all, the boots should be very roomy and comfortable in the store. Try them on with the exact sock combo that you’ll wear while on your guided backpacking tour: preferably a medium weight wool sock worn over a thin synthetic or wool liner. But again, whatever you do, do not let the salesperson sell you hiking shoes that are too small or that don’t feel great in the store!

In the next installment, I’ll discuss importance of breaking in your hiking shoes.

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