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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Choosing A Tent Site On A Guided Backpack Trip

On any of our guided backpacking trips, your Big Wild guide will choose the campsite. On our Yellowstone backpacking treks, we will have reserved each campsite prior to the trip. But on most of our other treks, the guide can pick and choose as the trip unfolds, according to the groups’ progress, weather, animal sightings and other considerations — including our knowledge of great places to camp! In any event, once the guide proclaims “We camp here!”, it will be up to you to choose your tent site. The guide will point out general tenting areas, and of course he will make a specific recommendation if you ask, but the final decision for a good night’s rest is yours. Here are some things to consider:

  1. In bear country, set up your tent at least 50 yards from the cooking and food storage area. Your guide will provide guidance on this important consideration.
  2. Beware of snags, especially “leaners”. Standing dead trees, known as “snags” are more likely to fall or blow over than are live trees. And they generally fall in the direction in which they lean, usually, but not always, in stormy or windy weather. So don’t place your tent where a snag might fall and skewer you! On our guided Yellowstone backpack trips, many camps are loaded with snags, so care in tent placement is essential. In addition, Yellowstone is known for sudden storms, often with strong wind gusts, so consider this, too. If a snag is leaning with the prevailing wind, that is a double whammy. If you have any question as to whether you’ve chosen a safe tent site, please ask your guide. Although most beginning backpackers are primarily concerned about bears, we think that falling trees are under-rated as a source of potential danger.
  3. Level ground is not essential and is sometimes impossible to find in the mountains, anyway. No matter. The important thing is to make sure that if you are on a mild slope, you set up your tent so that your head is uphill and your feet directly down the fall line, so that you won’t slide sideways at night.
  4. Smooth ground is good. Pine needles are better than rock. Before you stake out your tent, lie down on the proposed sleeping area to make sure that it is comfortable, with no big lumps or sharp rocks or pine cones that might ruin both your tent and your night’s sleep. Remember, though, any “gardening” that you do to the ground to make it smoother for sleeping should be minimal; and you must completely naturalize the site when we break camp.
  5. A great view out your tent door is nice, but really, how much time do you spend looking out your tent door? If the choice is smooth comfortable ground or a site with a great view but with rocks stabbing at my ribs, I’ll choose the comfortable ground every time!
  6. Privacy: Sometimes, with limited tent space and a group of 6 to 8 hikers, privacy for your tent is not possible. But other camps have plenty of room to roam. If I can bed down near a stream so that the flowing water lulls me to sleep, I am a happy camper. And with any luck, the white noise will drown out anyone in the group who snores!
  7. Never set up your tent close to the trail and avoid the less obvious game trails, too. Humans are not the only critters that use trails. Especially at night, trails are used by many species, including some with fangs and sharp claws! Or sharp hooves! This is basic common sense!

In fact, most of this is common sense. And again, if you have any questions or concerns, just ask your Big Wild guide. After all, we want you to have a great wilderness experience, and that means that on any of our guided wilderness backpack adventures, we also want you to sleep safely and soundly.

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5 Backpacking Mistakes Many Beginners Make

Backpacking trips are undoubtedly growing more popular with each passing year. In fact, approximately 38.05 million people went on a hiking or backpacking trip between 2013 and 2014 in the United States. But if your interest in wilderness travel has just become piqued, you certainly aren’t alone. It’s never too late to try a national park or wilderness area backpacking trip! Whether you choose to go with a wilderness outfitting company on guided tours or opt for a family trip on your own, there are some typical mistakes novices tend to make. You’ll want to avoid these in order to remain safe and get the most out of your trip. Here are five of the most common mistakes:

  1. Not looking at gear before the trip
    Don’t make assumptions about your backpacking gear. Even if you thinkyou know how it works, you’ll want to test and inspect everything thoroughly before heading out. Be sure to read all instruction manuals carefully and ask questions if you aren’t certain about how to operate your gear. Waiting until you get into the wilderness to test out your camp stove or give the tent a trial run can make for a potentially dangerous situation. You could be left without shelter, water, heat, or food. Don’t take the chance! It won’t take long to familiarize yourself with everything — but do so from the comfort of your home.
  1. Overestimating how much you can carry
    Beginners have a tendency to over-pack. It’s understandable — you don’t want to forget something that could be very important. But even an extra five pounds of weight can make a huge difference. Leave the canned foods at home and opt for lightweight sustenance on your backpacking trips. You probably don’t need a big coffee mug, another pair of shoes, or that additional change of clothes. This is not the time to test your feats of strength. Pack only what is essential, and what you can feasibly carry.
  1. Underestimating Mother Nature
    Don’t discount the power of nature! If you’re caught in extreme weather, your main goal is to stay safe. In the event of a lightning storm, take shelter in the valley, preferably in continuous woods in flat terrain. Bring rain protection and beware of high winds. Exercise extreme caution when crossing rivers (or avoid doing so if at all possible). And above all, take the weather forecast into account. Do not plan backpacking travel when storms are predicted.
  1. Relying on technology for help
    In today’s world, many folks rely on our phones and navigation systems to know where they are and where they’re going. But when you’re in the wilderness, GPS and cell services can be unreliable, at best. In the event of an emergency, you may not be able to call for help or let anyone know where you are. Prepare for your trip as if you won’t be able to have a cell phone at all. Bring guidebooks, maps, compasses, as well as emergency and first-aid kits, to help you along the way. And know how to use them!
  1. Failing to refuel and hydrate
    When you’re hiking, you may not realize how much energy and water you’re losing. That’s why it’s so important to hydrate properly before, during, and after your excursions. When you arrive back at camp, make sure you eat a good meal and snack throughout the day. Though you may feel you’re too exhausted to cook, it’s imperative to refuel your body in order to make it through the rest of your trip.

If you want to start taking backpacking trips, make sure you’re prepared! Our guided tours through our national parks and Wilderness areas can allow you to see our country in a while new way while remaining safe and gaining knowledge. Contact us today to find out more.

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The Little Ones

Perhaps more than any other nature preserve in North America, Yellowstone National Park is known for its large mammals. On any of our guided hiking tours in the world’s first national park, our clients might see elk, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn or mountain goats. We occasionally view predators, too, including black and grizzly bear, gray wolf and coyote, plus red fox, bobcat, lynx and mountain lion, though I am aware of just two lynx sightings and one mountain lion sighting on Big Wild treks, these two cats being extremely secretive. Big avifauna includes sand-hill cranes, white pelicans, trumpeter swans, ravens, bald and golden eagles, great gray owls plus many other birds of prey. If you love big animals in big numbers, our Yellowstone hiking trips can’t be beat!

Nonetheless, in my opinion the little creatures define Yellowstone every bit as much as the mega-fauna. The noisy red squirrel is ubiquitous throughout the coniferous woods. Yellow Pine, Least and Uinta Chipmunks abound as do their Uinta and golden-mantled ground squirrel cousins. The aquatic mink and its terrestrial relative the American marten are two of my favorite members of the weasel family. I love bald eagles as much as anyone, sure. They are spectacular. But my favorite bird is the gray jay, formerly called the Canada jay and affectionately known as the “camp robber”. So graceful and silent are these robin-sized Corvids, as they swoosh through northern conifers from Alaska to Maine and across the northern tier, extending their range southward in the Rocky Mountains to Colorado. And they’ve earned their nickname around northern and high country campsites. In fact, I once had a gray jay snatch half a tortilla from right under my nose!

Then there are the crickets in the grassy meadows, the water voles along our sub-alpine streams, the northern pocket gophers churning up the sub-alpine meadows and all of the varied waterfowl that graces the lakes, ponds and wetlands. Not to mention the spring and summer symphony of songbirds. Indeed, Yellowstone is a land of many wonders and our guided hikes do provide an opportunity to see big animals, sometimes in great abundance. But don’t forget the little ones, for in many ways they also define the character of this magnificent landscape!

 

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Three Reasons To Choose Yellowstone

Of all the national parks in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone is my favorite. There are many reasons, but here are three of my top ones.

First, Yellowstone has the biggest, wildest backcountry. Sure, Death Valley National Park is larger, but numerous paved and dirt roads carve its backcountry into a couple of dozen separate units. Yellowstone also has roads, to which millions of tourists can attest, though fewer than Death Valley. But Yellowstone National Park is bordered on much of its north, east and south sides by some of the biggest national forest Wilderness Areas in the country, with no intervening roads or fences dividing the park backcountry from the Wilderness Areas. Which means that Yellowstone’s backcountry is effectively far bigger and wilder than what you might surmise by just viewing a map of the park. In fact, the farthest distance from a road in the lower 48 states is along the far southeastern border of Yellowstone, a fact first discovered by Dave Foreman and myself when we were researching our book, The Big Outside, A Descriptive Inventory of the Big Wilderness Areas of the United States.

Reason number two is wildlife. There is probably no place in the temperate regions of the Earth that compares with Yellowstone — and indeed the entire the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — for wildlife. It is one of the only places left where all vertebrates known to have historically existed still do. And the number of large mammals is amazing! Yes, in the backcountry the animals are typically more secretive than along the roadsides. Nonetheless, if you want a backpack trip with a good chance to see lots of animals in their native wilderness habitats, don’t look any further than Yellowstone. Think elk, bison, wolf and griz, pronghorn, beaver, sandhill cranes, eagles……and so much more.

My third major reason is solitude. Compared with many other parks such as Yosemite, the Great Smokies or even Glacier, the Yellowstone backcountry is uncrowded! Plus, in many national parks such as Glacier, for example, backcountry campsites are allotted on the basis of carrying capacity. This means that if the official capacity for a particular backcountry camp is 12 people at one time, there might be 4 groups of 3 people, all camping within a stone’s throw of one another. By contrast, in Yellowstone, campsites are exclusive. When we reserve a camp, that campsite is ours alone. Even if the camp capacity is twelve and we have just six Big Wild Adventurers, we will not be camping with any other groups. Solitude is an important wilderness value, and the unsurpassed Yellowstone backcountry provides plenty!

 

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Take a Hike! 3 Important Health Benefits of Hiking

Whether you belong to a group of experienced wilderness adventurers or you’re a newbie to the world of national park backpacking, now is the perfect time to take a hike. The fall foliage, lack of insects, and cooler temperatures can make an autumn hiking trip ideal. But regardless of the time of year, backpacking trips can be highly beneficial to your health — maybe in ways you would have never realized.

Here are three of the best health-related reasons to take a hike at any time of year:

  1. Hiking burns calories
    This one is probably the most obvious benefit, but it’s an important one. Hiking and backpacking are fantastic workouts. Exercising on a machine in the gym can get boring, which means you’re not working out to your full potential. Switching up your routine in uneven terrain with new challenges will keep your muscles guessing and get your heart pumping. Although hiking alone is excellent exercise, carrying backpacking gear can give your workout that extra edge. If you weigh 155 pounds and carry just 10 to 20 pounds of backpacking gear (though you’d be carrying at least 30 pounds on a 5-6-day backpack trip, so you’ll be burning even more calories!), you’ll burn around 528 calories an hour while climbing those hills. That’s way more than you can achieve on the treadmill, and your hiking workout will definitely keep your interest!

 

  1. National park backpacking can help soothe existing conditions
    If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, regular hiking can help you considerably. The fresh air and muscular workouts can reduce blood sugar levels and can increase your stamina. You’ll therefore lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. This can be especially important for those who are genetically predisposed to these conditions. Prevention is by far the best medicine, and you’ll have fun doing it!

 

  1. Wilderness travel can boost your mood
    If you’re in a foul mood or are even suffering from depression, fitting in an outdoor workout can do wonders for your state of mind. Because it’s a social activity and you’ll release endorphins, you’ll probably notice you’re in a much happier state after your hike. These activities have also been shown to increase creativity and a sense of peace by connecting with nature. The idea of being healthy in both body and mind has never been more applicable than it is to hiking and backpacking.

Want to find out more about the wilderness adventure tours we offer? Get in touch with us today!

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Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights 2016, Part Two: Of Bears and Snow

What a year for our guided Yellowstone hikes: wildfire, snow, the great bear and much, much more! Really, who is to say what constitutes an actual “highlight”? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while in these two blogs I focus on wildfire, bears, snow and autumn foliage, perhaps to some of our guests an equally valid highlight might simply be a great view from a high vantage point, or a beautiful sunset. Or perhaps the sighting of a weasel or the primordial calls of sandhill cranes. There is just so much magic out there in the incomparable wilds of the Yellowstone backcountry!

One grizzly gave us a brief but good look in the Hellroaring Creek drainage on our June Northern Yellowstone trek. And on our layover day in the wild Wyoming Absarokas a few miles to the southeast of the park, our entire group of eight watched two grizzlies foraging at treeline all day long on our layover day. The bears were about a mile away, and binoculars were  helpful. But the “best” griz sighting of the season (in terms of the clearest, closest view) was at the last camp of our Central Yellowstone Wild Off-Trail Trek in early September. Camped at a small pond surrounded by grassy wetland and lodgepole pine, shortly after dinner I walked to the edge of the lake to view some ducks, when I spotted a large male grizzly directly across the water. I called over to the two women in the cooking area and we all watched the big bruin circle the lake along its grassy shore, gradually changing direction until he was heading straight toward our camp, still unaware of our presence! At about 70 or 80 yards, that was close enough. “Hey Bear!”, I called out. He stopped immediately, turned his head to see three upright two-legged hominids standing together with aimed pepper sprays, and immediately galloped away, into the adjacent lodgepoles. Adios. That was the last we saw of this big silver-gray griz, but what a sighting it was!

The September Southwest Yellowstone Bechler Waterfall Wonderland trek was another highlight for me, as it produced an early autumn snowstorm and some of the best autumn foliage colors (in the Bechler Canyon) that I’ve ever seen in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem! There is nothing I love more than autumn colors and fall snows in the backcountry.

 

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“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”– John Muir

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