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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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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