Avoiding Hypothermia in Yellowstone, Part 2: Stay Dry!

The Big Wild Adventures Clothing/Personal Gear List instructs our clients to utilize a time-proven layering system for warmth and safety in mountain environments, or, for that matter, in any area where cold wet conditions are possible. Begin with wool or synthetic long-johns (top and bottoms) that wick moisture away from your body. The next layer is a loose-fitting wool shirt or fleece pullover, followed by a warm insulated jacket and then a good quality breathable 2-piece rainsuit. Don’t forget the ski hat, gloves, and wool socks, either. Buy outdoor clothing that’s loose fitting, especially outer layers that will go over the inner layers. Tight cloths might be fashionable in town, but in the wilds tight layers compress and therefore don’t insulate well, while looser layers don’t compress and also form air pockets for extra warmth.

Note the sky. Pay attention to your guide’s warning that cold wet conditions are on the way. Remove your cotton T-shirt and get your additional layers and rain gear on before the storm! Cotton is great in hot weather, but it will sap your body heat if you are cold and wet, so put it in your pack until conditions change. It is also important to regulate your layers regardless of the weather, in order to minimize sweating. So wear appropriate layers, but don’t overdress. Being soaked with sweat is no way to enjoy a sudden storm! Wet is wet regardless of the source, and in cold weather wet is bad! Of course, getting out of the open and into the trees or maybe into some protected topography is also important, and our guides will always look for sheltered areas during storms. But sometimes there simply is no nearby shelter, and in such situations common sense and quality mountain clothing will do the job of keeping you warm and safe. With today’s modern outdoor fabrics, there is no excuse for getting hypothermia. But your clothing is only as good as your ability to use the layering system properly and to get the proper layers on before all meteorological hell breaks loose!

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Avoiding Hypothermia In Yellowstone, Part 1: The Basics

Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature below 98 degrees F (98.6 is considered “normal”). Feeling cold is the obvious first symptom, followed by shivering and then by a loss of coordination and eventually reductions in the victim’s “level of responsiveness”. When the shivering stops (unless it stops because the person has warmed up), that means the patient has declined into severe hypothermia and the situation is potentially life-threatening! There are various medical reasons why one’s body temperature might drop, but for our purposes as a wilderness backpacking guide/outfitting service, weather conditions and our response to them are primary. On our Yellowstone guided hiking tours, hypothermia is a serious concern because Yellowstone is known for sudden weather changes, including cold wet storms with rapid temperature drops.

Because we lead very few trips in true winter conditions, hypothermia situations such as that which Jack London depicted in “To Build A  Fire” are not really relevant. It will not be 40 below zero on a Big Wild trip, and it is unlikely that any of our treks would be exposed to really extreme temperatures. Nonetheless, overnight lows occasionally fall into the single digits on a September Yellowstone backpacking trip, and even in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, an April morning in the teens is not unusual. Both of these examples typically occur at altitude, in clear dry weather with little wind on days that rapidly warm once the sun is up. Yet despite Jack London and despite Yellowstone’s cool climate, severe cold is not usually a big worry, so long as you stay dry. That’s because subfreezing temperatures are obvious and folks tend to bundle up. Yes, I’ve seen clients emerge from their tents in shorts and t-shirts on 30-degree mornings, but they usually self-correct rather quickly. So clear, cold, dry weather is not hypothermia weather. But wet weather is. Particularly when the temperatures are in the 30’s to 50’s! That’s when most backpackers get into trouble. Add wind to the equation, especially in exposed open country, and a blowing rainstorm at 45-degrees F. is a recipe for hypothermia. The next installment will summarize some simple ways to avoid it.

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Guided Backpacking At Altitude, Part 2

In the previous installment, I discussed some of the basic principles of Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS for short (the medical field loves acronyms). I also mentioned that most of our clients on our Wyoming, Montana and Yellowstone backpacking trips come from near sea level, which means they need to acclimate. Fortunately, there are a number of relatively simple things folks can do to help assure a relatively painless transition into the realm of thin mountain air.

First, adjust your travel schedule! Plan to arrive in Wyoming or Montana the day before the day of the evening pre-trip safety/orientation meeting. So if the first day of the trip is the 4th, plan to arrive on the 2nd, if you can. We often meet our groups in Jackson, Wyoming (elevation 6,200 feet) or Bozeman, Montana (elevation 4,600 feet), so by arriving early you can begin to put a dent in that initial 48 hour period when your body rapidly acclimates. Of course, on the trail you’ll still be higher than in town, but arriving an extra day early will help!

Out in the wilds, your best defense against AMS is to drink lots of water. Hydrate! Good hydration speeds the physiological adaptation to thin air. Carry as much water as you can — in your belly, not on your back. In addition, it is a good idea to “hike high and sleep low” at least for the first 2 or 3 days, though that is not always possible, depending upon the route and the trip plan. Sometimes camp is at the high point of the day, so again, your best defense is to drink lots of water. If you have a headache, a normal dose of ibuprofen will usually do the trick. Medical tests have also proven the value of “Pursed Lips Breathing” (PLB) to improve oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange at altitude. You simply purse your lips and breathe in, then you quickly “blow out the candle at arm’s length”. And repeat. Of course the simple common sense act of slowing down your hiking pace early in the trip, is an obvious no-brainer.

For those who know that they have a severe susceptibility to AMS, there is always the pharmacist. After all, this is America and people expect a drug for every malady! And in the case of AMS, there is at least one. It is called Diamox, and it is a prescription drug that can be taken prophylactically in order to speed up the acclimation process. And it works. Possible side effects include increased urination, so of course, this means that you’ll have to drink up even more to avoid dehydration, but again, the stuff works. There may also be other such products available about which I am unaware. But if you know from past experience that you have trouble at altitude, please consult your physician.

See you in the high country!

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Guided Backpacking At Altitude, Part 1

Most of our Yellowstone backpacking treks are at altitudes of 6,000 to 9,000 feet, where the air is thin. Some of our Montana backpacking and Wyoming backpacking trips are at even higher elevations, beginning at trailheads of 8,000 to 9,000 feet with some hiking routes even topping out around or above the 11,000 foot level! Which means that because most of our clients live at or near sea level, we typically expect them to experience some shortness of breath for the first couple of days. Sometimes there are additional symptoms. There are ways for folks to minimize the effects of backpacking at high altitudes, but first, let’s look at a bit of background information.

The bad news is that it takes the human body a couple of months to fully acclimate to thin air. The good news is that you acclimate rapidly for the first 48 hours — about 50% of full acclimation — and then at a slower rate for the next few weeks. The body acclimates in a number of ways, but the big one is quite simple: your blood develops more red corpuscles for better efficiency at transporting oxygen. In other words, your blood thickens. And again, it does a lot of thickening during the first 48 hours at altitude.

People vary greatly in their ability to acclimate to high elevations; some develop physical problems while others do not. It is also interesting to note that individual responses to altitude are independent of one’s physical conditioning. Some folks are just genetically more susceptible than others to altitude-related problems. These problems/symptoms used to be called “Altitude Sickness” but nowadays the correct term is “Acute Mountain Sickness” or just AMS. The typical signs and symptoms of AMS include shortness of breath during exertion, dizziness and/or headache, nausea, loss of appetite and insomnia. In severe situations, AMS can progress to High altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which mean fluid collects in the brain and lungs respectively. Both of these afflictions are life-threatening, and the only cure is to rapidly descend to lower elevations! In 38 years of guiding, we’ve never dealt with either one of these dire problems, as they are both quite rare and essentially unheard of below 8,000 feet (and usually occur at much higher elevations than that).

So for our guided backpacking treks in the western United States, we are primarily concerned with making sure that our clients are safe and relatively comfortable, especially during that critical first couple of days on the trail. The next installment will discuss some proven ways to ensure safety and comfort while backpacking in Yellowstone or anywhere else at altitude.

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Water Consumption In Yellowstone National Park

In today’s America, water is almost out of fashion. Go into any convenience store and you find a mind boggling array of excuses to drink anything but water. Soft drinks, booze and beer, coffee, fruit juices, high caffeine energy drinks, Gatorade and more have all replaced the healthiest liquid of all, good old water. Water has no calories, is free from the tap (and in some areas from the creek), and is more quickly absorbed into the system than anything that the drink industry produces. And our bodies are 70% water, not Coca Cola!

Which is important to remember for backpacking in Yellowstone or, for that matter, backpacking anywhere. Water is the best way to hydrate! Cold water is most quickly absorbed by your body. Leave the powdered flavoring mix at home. Minimize coffee consumption, especially in hot weather. And drink heartily when you stop for a break at a water source. Most folks, either on the trail or at home, don’t drink enough water. A good rule of thumb is for an average-sized man to drink a gallon/day while backpacking, and for an average-sized woman to down at least 3 quarts. More for both in hot weather. A bit less for the kids. But remember this: your sense of thirst does not adequately indicate your water needs. You need more. So drink. Carry it in your belly, not on your back. And keep an eye on the color of your urine. It should be light yellow to clear. If it is dark, then you are dehydrated. Dehydration will rob you of energy and you’ll feel bad. In severe cases it is life-threatening. And there’s just one good cure: drink up! A well-hydrated hiker will simply out-perform she/he who is on the dry side. And the cold high elevation waters of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are some of the purest on Earth!


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Yellowstone Thermal Features: Backcountry Safety

Most Yellowstone backpackers, particularly novices, focus their fears mainly upon bears, though driving to the trailhead is the biggest hazard of backpacking in Yellowstone. Yet one of the most underrated dangers is the park’s thermal areas. Yellowstone National Park has the greatest concentration of hot springs, geysers, boiling mud pots and other related manifestations of the crustal hot spot that fuels this underground cauldron. In the developed parts of the park, safety is simple: stay on the designated routes and boardwalks. Or risk either a citation or breaking through the mineral crust to your par-boiled demise!

However, in the wilds, away from the roads and tourists, you are on your own to exhibit common sense. There are no boardwalks and no park rangers regularly patrolling to keep the humans in line. And there have been a surprising number of fatalities, including some in which bathers simply misjudged the water temperature and plunged in to their death. Not a pleasant way to go, I’m sure. And worthy of a “Darwin Award”. Keep in mind that it is illegal to bathe in hot springs that aren’t at least partially diluted by another water source. And the best way to stay safe is to simply limit your bathing to known hot pools that receive regular use and carefully test the water temperature anyway, because many thermal features have big temperature fluctuations.

When exploring thermal areas while hiking on a Yellowstone backpack trip, be extra observant. Geysers expel dangerously hot water, so keep your distance. In order to avoid an inadvertent fatal dunking, simply stay on the trails and do not wonder onto the crust! I cannot over-emphasize the danger of thermal crusts. Just stay off of them, period, no exceptions! So now you are prepared to enjoy this marvel of nature. Go for it; the backcountry thermals await. But explore these Yellowstone wonders with safety in mind, so that park rangers never have to retrieve any more human remains from the boiling waters of the world’s first national park.

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How to Avoid Drowning in the Yellowstone Wilderness

Wait a minute. You’re going backpacking, not canoeing with the Boy Scouts. And it’s not a whitewater rafting trip, either. So why worry about drowning? Well, for good reason!

Although water is an important landscape feature on nearly all of our trips, guided Yellowstone backpack trips are particularly well-endowed with rivers, streams and lakes. Sometimes, we must cross rivers, and occasionally the crossings are challenging. Nearly always, even in summer, the waters are cold. And one slip in a fast-moving creek or river can get you submerged! Or swept downstream. In fact, while most folks, particularly on their first Yellowstone backpack trip, are understandably concerned about bears, statistics show that falling and drowning are much more likely to help alleviate the human overpopulation problem.

When it’s time for a stream crossing, the most important advice we can give you is to follow the guide’s instructions. No two crossings are alike, and it is beyond the scope of this brief essay to cover all of the nuances and techniques for fording rivers and streams in the wilderness. Again, and we can’t emphasize this enough: follow the guide’s instructions! When the group approaches a stream, don’t begin to look for a place to cross on a rock or a log in order to keep your feet dry. Let the guide analyze the situation; that is, let him do his job. If there is a safe place to cross with dry feet, he’ll find it. But remember, wet feet are preferable to a broken leg! The guide may appear to be doing nothing, simply standing at water’s edge, when in fact he is considering many different factors and options. Please don’t interfere, because our guides are good at this, and their primary consideration is safety!

Even when you’re not actually fording a frigid rocky stream, drowning is still possible. I love the book Death in Yellowstone. It describes a number of instances in which people simply fell into rivers from the shoreline and were swept away. So if our group is camped next to a river (or a lake), be careful! Don’t fall in. Be particularly cautious when filling your water bottle. And if your children are along, be especially vigilant and never allow them to even approach a river shoreline without holding the hand of a parent.

OK, it’s a hot summer afternoon. You just hiked 8 miles and are sweaty, covered with trail dust. And Shoshone Lake sure looks inviting! I completely understand. Consider, though, that even in mid to late summer the water temperature of this and other high altitude lakes remains very cold. So plan for your swim or dunk to be brief, because you could begin to get hypothermic before you realize what’s happening! Always go to the water with another person. The “buddy system” is mandatory. Never go swimming alone! Never go out into deep water that’s over your head; wear your crocks/water shoes and have warm dry cloths to put on as soon as you are out.

One more thing. Mountain lakes often include big rocks along the shore. These are rocks, not diving boards. Do not jump off them. Even if the water looks deep, there might be hidden rocks in the water that will radically hasten your demise if you jump or dive.

Again, we do not mean to belittle hazards such as bears or lightning. But water is more dangerous. Yes, our bodies are 70% water. We must have it regularly to sustain life. Water is beautiful. Wilderness water is delicious. It produces fish, otters and bald eagles. But unless you are exceedingly careful around water in the wilderness, the stuff of life can quickly become the facilitator of death.



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Four Ways to Avoid Getting Lost on a Guided Backpack Trip

It is almost counter-intuitive to consider the possibility of getting lost when you are on a guided backpack trip! After all, guides don’t get “lost”, though sometimes, in new territory, it may take them a few minutes to figure things out. Nonetheless, although we have a 100% success rate in never having lost a client, there have been a couple of clients who managed to get themselves “temporarily misplaced” (we found them). That’s because we are a guide service, not babysitters. Which means that when we have time in and around camp, our guests are free to wonder off on their own or with other members of the group. After all, solitude and personal discovery are two of the many wonderful facets of the wilderness experience, and occasionally being on your own can really enrich the experience of a guided group backpack trip. Keep in mind that our Yellowstone backpacking trips include some areas of densely wooded gentle terrain without obvious landmarks, but really, any chunk of wilderness can present navigational challenges. So, for the sake of safety, we do require our clients to follow a few simple rules:

  1. Never leave camp without your daypack. Inside it should be water, matches or a lighter, an extra layer of warm clothing plus rain-gear (no matter how warm and sunny it is when you leave camp). In grizzly country, have your pepper spray accessible on your body at all times.
  2. Always tell the guide when you are leaving camp and when you’ll return. Also, tell him where or in which direction you are going, and how far — and stay with the plan!
  3. As you are hiking, note landmarks near camp such as stream drainages, rock outcrops or distinctive hills or ridges. And turn around periodically so you’ll see what the terrain will look like on the way back.
  4. If you follow all of these rules, it is difficult to get lost. Difficult, that is, but not impossible. So, if you have left camp and find yourself confused, calm down. Stop. Take a deep breath. Take a 360-degree survey of the terrain. If the way back to camp remains elusive, find a comfortable place to sit and wait. Yes, this is a time when the best thing to do is to do nothing at all! Remember, you are prepared for sudden weather changes (see #1 above). And you’ve told your guide about where you’ll be and when to expect your return (see #2 above). He’ll find you! The worst thing you can do is to panic and begin to wander around until you are no longer on the trajectory where your guide will be searching. So again, and we can’t emphasize this enough, if you are temporarily misplaced, stay put!

OK, there you have it: the Big Wild Way to avoid getting lost in the woods. Or on the tundra. Or in the desert. Again, though we’ve has a couple of close calls, we’ve never lost a client and as we head into our 39th year, we would like to keep that record intact!

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Backpacking Hazards: Driving to the Trailhead

Unless you are lucky enough to live literally on the border of a big wilderness area, nearly every backpack trip requires a drive to the trailhead. And while it is natural for folks to worry about bears or rattlesnakes or even falling off a cliff, the truth is that if you are careful in the backcountry, the most dangerous aspect of nearly any backpack trip is the drive to the trailhead. Witness the annual carnage on America’s highways. This is especially true for our Yellowstone backpacking trips due to the nature of driving in Yellowstone National Park.

In Yellowstone, the roads are narrow and winding with limited passing opportunities, and severe weather can make driving even more difficult. But the real problem in the world’s first national park is that most of the drivers on the road are distracted, gawking at the scenery or at the wildlife as they drive, instead of watching the road with two hands on the wheel. Plus some of them drive rented motor homes, and they are not used to driving large vehicles on narrow roads. Sometimes, to view scenery or wildlife, people stop their vehicles in the middle of the road, including on blind curves, maybe even with the car doors doors swung wide open! So the only way to avoid disaster is for you to jam on the brakes or be content to take their car doors off! Sometimes the motorists just drift across the center line as they gawk at the roadside bison. In other words, many visitors seem to leave their brains back home in Peoria! OK, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit. I’ve never taken anyone’s doors off. But I’ve had close calls. Fortunately, a requirement of Big Wild guides is that they be good drivers. We do put safety first. But please, when you get into our vehicle, buckle up. Statistics prove that human drivers are much more dangerous than grizzly bears. Don’t take the chance that one of them will cause your ultimate demise!

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Backpacking Hazards: Falling

On most of our guided backpacking trips, you would have to really work at it to fall off a cliff! That’s partly because we avoid climbing anything that requires technical skills. It is also because we choose routes where exposure to steep dangerous drop-offs are limited or non-existent. This is particularly true on our guided Yellowstone backpacking treks because much of the Yellowstone terrain is a rolling plateau, and even the mountainous parts of the park are generally not too steep, with plenty of safe terrain where trails do not flirt with cliffs or steep, loose rocky slopes.

These are generalizations, of course, and there are exceptions. Some of our walks in the Utah canyon country are unavoidably atop sandstone cliffs, and of course on most of our trips there are opportunities to day-hike and explore without the full backpack — and if you seek them out, you can easily find big vistas with big drop-offs. Nonetheless, I still maintain that you’d have to work at it in order to tumble to your deathly demise, simply because most folks have a healthy innate fear of shear drop-offs. And they have the common sense to avoid curling one’s toes over the edge of a cliff! In addition, we two-legged hominids actually evolved to walk over uneven terrain. So even if we are proximate to steep ground, a bit of care and concentration will get you past the danger safely.

Nonetheless, few summers go by in which at least one careless hominid (of the 3 million or so annual park visitors) plummets to her or his death in Yellowstone. So it is possible. Rest assured, though, that we at Big Wild are appropriately leery of cliff edges, and as we enter our 39th year of operation, every client that we have ever guided has returned to town very much alive and kicking. So worry not; for if you bring along some healthy caution of high exposed places and use your common sense, you simply will not be naturally selected out of the human population by the force of unmitigated gravity!


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