Water, and Other Things More Likely to Kill You

The next time you want to go somewhere, just book a plane ticket.

If there's one piece of advice I can offer to the people who have asked me how I'm able to travel so much, it's this: the next time you want to go somewhere, just book a plane ticket. Don't overthink it. Don't ask yourself whether you can afford it. Don't ask yourself whether you can take that much time off, or who will cover for you while you're away. You can afford the cost of a plane ticket to most anywhere by cutting back on drinking and going out for a couple months. The organization you work for granted you personal time off so that you would take personal time off. Your company likely existed before you worked there; believe it or not, they'll find a way to get by for a few weeks without you, and they'll likely appreciate your contributions to the company more without you actually being there. Put simply, when you want to travel, just go do it. Don't get hung up on the details.

...although, depending on where you're going, after you've booked your plane ticket, a little planning may be prudent. For instance, if you're going backpacking in a desert wilderness area by yourself, you should definitely think about some of the particulars of your trip. In getting ready to apply for my campsite permits for an upcoming trip to Saguaro National Park, I came across some of these gems, directly from a brochure on Saguaro National Park, which I think reasonably depict the importance of pre-trip planning:


"Be cautious around all wildlife. Know what to do if you encounter Africanized honey bees, black bears, and mountain lions."


I'm going down there by myself...I was going to buy a knife anyways, I tell myself. I keep reading:


"If approached by a black bear:

  1. Make Yourself Look Large: Raise your shirt or jacket above your head to give the impression of size.
  2. Scream Loudly: Make sure the bear knows you are a human. Scream loudly.
  3. Fight Back: If a bear attacks, fight back vigorously."

Fight back vigorously, I say to myself, as opposed to what other way? I tell myself that I'll need a bigger knife than I originally planned. Not one of those little pocket knifes, I tell myself. I need something I can fight a bear with. I keep reading:


"If approached by a mountain lion:

  1. Make Yourself Look Large: Raise your shirt or jacket above your head to give the impression of size.
  2. Scream Loudly: Make sure the mountain lion knows you are a human. Scream loudly.
  3. Back Away Slowly: Do not turn your back on the animal. Back away slowly, and do not run. If you turn and run, instinct may trigger the animal to chase after you and attack."

Note to self: both mountain lions and black bears are afraid of tall shirts. I start wondering if what I scream loudly at the approaching mountain lion or black bear is important... Is there a safe word, or something? I notice that they don't have any advice for what to do if a mountain lion actually attacks... I keep reading, failing to anticipate that the worst potential wildlife encounter in Saguaro National Park is neither a bear nor a mountain lion, but an Africanized honey bee:


"If attacked by Africanized honey bees:

  1. Get Away Quickly: Run from attacking bees and seek shelter in an enclosed space such as a vehicle or building. If cover is not available, continue running until the bees stop chasing you. In some cases this distance may be as much as one-half mile.
  2. Cover Your Head: Africanized honey bees target the eyes, ears, nose and mouth when attacking. Use your shirt or jacket to cover your head while running away. Keep the hold you are looking out of as small as possible, without impairing your vision.
  3. Do Not Kill Attacking Bees: If you kill an attacking bee, it will release an alarm scent that will attract other bees from the colony.
  4. Do Not Flail Your Arms: Flailing your arms or swatting bees will only make the attack worse.
  5. Seek Medical Attention: If you are attacked by Africanized honey bees, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately."

I haven't even finished reading number five before I've said What the fuck? for the third time. The first thing I notice is that Africanized honey bees seem like they're really lacking manners. While the brochure I'm reading mentions that I will be approached by black bears and mountain lions, the Africanized honey bee gives no such courtesy; it just attacks. Rude.

My mind become wholly occupied with the question of Would you rather be approached by a black bear, a mountain lion, or a colony of Africanized honey bees? I'm intercepted from that thought by the unconfirmed realization that the honeybadger must have gotten its name by eating a colony of Africanized honey bees. While I find myself somewhat alarmed that the National Parks' brochure I'm doesn't offer any tips for actually preventing an attack from the Africanized honey bee, I do take solace in knowing that I was the second-fastest runner on my middle school cross country team...

Still, as far as the National Parks Service is concerned, my greatest threat in the Saguaro Wilderness is not a bear, a mountain lion, or an Africanized Honey bee. It's water:

Without question, water will be your most important concern while visiting the Saguaro Wilderness Area. Surface water is generally scarce during most of the year. At times, it is non-existent.
— Saguaro Wilderness Area Campsite Application, US Department of the Interior


Robert Koester is a Search and Rescue statistician with Virginia's Department of Emergency Management. He spent seven years reviewing more than 50,000 documented Search and Rescue incidents. He created the International Search and Rescue Database and is widely considered one of the leading analysts of backcountry risk. As he puts it, Most hikers fear the wrong things. People are terrified of spiders, rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions... [but] there are many bigger dangers out there: a dramatic change in the weather when you're not prepared for it, or water crossings when you can't swim, or don't have the skills and equipment to cross safely. And that seems to be the critical catalyst of danger in the backcountry: a lack of preparation.

The advent and development of the smartphone, while wonderful for modern life in many ways, actually poses a significant risk to amateur outdoorsmen. A 2012 study from Humboldt State University's Department of Environment Science and Management found that people venturing into the wilderness today subconsciously view a smartphone as a valid substitute for the skills, knowledge, experience, and preparation necessary to safely navigate situations that arise in the wilderness. The thinking goes: Why take a course on something like using a compass or navigation when I have the Google Maps application on my cell phone? Or, Why give up a whole weekend to take classes on something like wilderness first aid when, if I get hurt, I can just call for help? 

Unfortunately, many people fail to anticipate that a cell phone battery dying in the backcountry is not just possible, but likely. For someone with the proper equipment and knowledge, a dead cell phone battery can be a non-event. However, for someone without a map, compass, or the appropriate gear necessary to navigate unexpected events in the wilderness, a dead cell phone battery can become catastrophic. In my research ahead of the backpacking trips I have planned for this summer, I've grown dishearteningly numb to the number of stories who have died on the Appalachian Trail because of their reliance on technology and inability to navigate the trail. Perhaps the most representative quote on this issue comes from a group of hikers rescued in Arches National Park in 2011:

When rescuers asked the men [they saved] what they would have done had they not possessed a personal locator beacon, they said: “We would have never attempted this hike.”
— The Influence of Hand-Held Information and Communication Technology on Visitor Perceptions of Risk and Risk-Related Behavior, by Martin & Pope

I raise the issue of preparedness for wilderness adventures because Robert Koester's research on Search and Rescue incidents seems to suggest that the most likely things to kill you in the backcountry are also the easiest ones to prepare for. I love nothing more than spending time in the backcountry - but the right to venture into the wilderness comes the responsibility to develop the skills of self-reliance that are necessary for facing the inevitable challenges that may arise in a backcountry environment. As Tim Smith, founder of the Jack Mountain Buschraft School put it in an interview with Outside Magazine, If you're waiting for something bad to happen to then come up with a way to get yourself out of that situation, [then] you're relying on rational problem-solving, which probably isn't available to you under extreme stress.

With that said, here's my list of things to do (and not do) before your first trip into the wilderness to help make sure things go smoothly:

  1. DO: Research where you're going. Before you're embarking on any trip into the backcountry, do some research on how to get to where you're going; know what type of gear you need; know what the weather conditions will be like; find out if you need any special permits to park or stay in the area you plan on visiting. How long is the hike or trek you're planning? What's the elevation gain? Are there any special considerations, like avalanche warnings, that you need to factor in? The time to use Google is before you're on your trip, not while you're in the thick of it.
  2. DO: Make sure you pack the right gear. Don't know what the ten essentials are? Look it up. They don't call them essentials for nothing, and there's a reason why that list of items hasn't changed much since its debut in 1974. That list of ten items, or systems (if you're taking a more modern approach), should be with you on every trip into the wilderness. Beyond the ten essentials, know what other gear you should take with you. Do you need trekking poles or crampons? Will  you need an extra layer of warm clothes? Do you need water shoes? Try to anticipate the situations that your adventure will put you in and pack accordingly.
  3. DO: USE your gear before your trip. A water filter can't give you drinkable water if you don't know how to use it; you can't cook dinner over a stove you can't light, and setting up a tent for the first time after a full day of hiking in the rain can be miserable. More seriously: a map is only good for starting a fire if you don't know how to orient yourself on it, and a first aid kit in an emergency isn't very useful if you don't know what's in yours. Practicing using your gear in your living room, at a local park, or on a shorter day-hike before a bigger trip will help you figure out what works well and what doesn't, and it'll help make sure you have the right fuel for your stove on your first night out in the wilderness.
  4. DO: Take a course on basic navigation (ie - using a map and compass). Your local REI store likely offers multiple map and compass classes every month. They're less than $20. I've taken one. They're not sexy skills, but they can save your life. A surprising number of people wind up in distress every year because they don't know how to orient themselves with a map and compass (or, worse, they don't bring one with them). 
  5. DO: Take a course on Wilderness First Aid. If you're truly in the backcountry, medical assistance can often be hours away - and that's assuming that you're able to let someone know you need it. Taking a course on Wilderness First Aid can not only help keep you safe, but it can also help make sure that the people you're traveling with make it home in one piece. Two organizations that are well-respected for their trainings on Wilderness First Aid are Remote Medical International (RMI) and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I got certified through RMI a few weeks ago, and I can't say enough good things about how much I learned in that class and how practical the content we covered was.
  6. DO: Tell someone where you're going. Whether you expect to be gone for three hours or for three weeks, let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. It can be as simple as shooting someone a text message with the name of the trail you're headed for and what time you plan to be back to be back to civilization. I generally don't go with my mother for this one (moms are wonderful creatures, but they tend to get anxious when their children wander into the woods, and I'd hate to give my mother a heart attack because I told her I thought I'd be done with a hike at 5pm but didn't finish until 5:07).

The list above isn't exhaustive, but if you do those six things before your next trip into the wilderness, you'll be in pretty good shape. After all, adventures are more fun when you can come back alive to tell your friends about them. If you have any questions about the content above, feel free to shoot me a note.