Recently, on a four-day backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest, we had to do something that we’ve never done before. We bailed. We were about 18 miles into our 50-mile journey, It had been raining relentlessly since we broke camp that morning. We’re fairly comfortable outside in bad weather so when it started raining we thought nothing of it. A few hours later the rain had not stopped. In fact, it had picked up along with the wind. The temperature had dropped well into the thirties and as we hiked through a six-mile wide burn area where dead fall became a very real danger. It was the only time we’ve been able to stand still and literally watch trees fall down around us. By mid-afternoon, we were soaked through and very cold. Realizing that we were too wet and cold to keep moving we made the decision to shelter. We set up our tent, quickly stripped off our wet clothes, boiled some water, and climbed into our sleeping bag. It took what felt like an eternity for our hands and feet to warm up. We stayed there, sheltered in the safest place we could find for a few hours. Once we were warm enough to think clearly, we had to make a decision. Keep going even though all of our gear was completely soaked through, hike seven miles to the next trailhead and hope that we could hitch a ride an hour or so back to our van, or take advantage of the break in the weather and hike 18 miles out back to safety. We hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail so the prospects of finding a ride back to the van seemed dim.
We chose to hike out. We didn’t reach the trailhead until 10:00 pm that night. By then, it was dark and cold but the rain had stopped for the moment. We felt defeated. Maybe we made the wrong call and we were just being dramatic. We agonized over our decision for days. The trip had taken so much planning that we didn’t want to believe that bailing was the right choice. Now that we’ve had a few weeks to reflect, it’s clear that we made the right choice for our safety.
After drying out all of our gear, we headed back into the backcountry safely and got some more miles under us.
The best thing you can do in the backcountry is to be prepared and also be prepared to call it off. Here is a quick list of things that we do to stay safe when traveling in the backcountry.
- Tell someone (or better yet, two people) where you are going. Also tell them when you will be there, and when you will be out to safety. It seems obvious. This is especially important in areas without cell service.
- Carry a personal locator beacon. There are several models on the market and some work better than others. We carry the inReach Explorer+. This allows us to send an SOS signal to search and rescue, send text and tracking data to loved ones and acts as a fully functional GPS.
- Check the weather and pack accordingly. Before leaving for our trip all signs pointed to nice weather. Knowing the area we were hiking in was notorious for unpredictable weather, we packed full rain gear and winter gear just in case.
- Take all of the necessary precautions with wildlife and food storage. Know the area you are in and keep yourself safe. We almost always carry bear spray in the backcountry and depending on where we are we either use bear canisters or an ursack. Never cook in or near your tent and don’t eat in the clothes you plan on sleeping in.
- Use an appropriate tent, sleeping mat, and sleeping bag. This seems obvious, but making sure you can stay warm in an emergency is crucial.
- Have a map and compass, or GPS (or better yet, all three). If you can’t navigate yourself around the wilderness, you shouldn’t be out there.
- If you are not comfortable flying solo, bring a friend.
- Plan and expect to be out there longer than you think. If the weather didn’t break, we would have been behind schedule and needed to add a day to our trip. We planned for that by bringing some extra food.
- When all else fails, remember food, water, and shelter. When we’re packing, this is the first thing we say. These three things will keep you safe and comfortable.
- Bring coffee, whiskey, or wine. This won’t keep you safe but if you’re like us it can be a serious morale booster.
There is one way for this tour to be a reality– our sponsors! Sending a thank you shout out to all of our awesome sponsors that make this tour happen: Sea to Summit, Mountain House, Lowe Alpine, Leki, Big Agnes, Stio, Roofnest, and Franklin County, VA. For more info on our sponsors, check out the post, “Live Outside and Play is Back!”