Saturday, 30 April 2011

Talking about clothes, equipment and practices for exploring natural areas

Let’s talk about the weather.

Trivial for a coffee break subject in the office, maybe. A trivial subject for those planning a hike outside? Never. Weather is always worth planning for, especially when you're in the mountains, where it can change very quickly.

Even before you take into account the season and today’s weather conditions, your physical comfort and safety outside depends on several things. These include what you’re wearing, whether you’re hydrated and properly fed and whether or not you’re tired.

Some wise people say ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather- only the wrong clothes.’

Those of you who are experienced outdoors people already know how important it is to be prepared for whatever conditions you may encounter outside, especially if you’re planning to be out the entire day, or for several days.

Those of you who’ve spent many days and perhaps nights in natural areas far from the usual shelter and amenities of our civilization know that temperatures can plunge as soon as the sun goes down. You also know that moisture and wind- or the lack of these -  can change everything when you’re out on the trail, even if you’re out for just a few hours.

It doesn’t take long to get hypothermia when a human body gets too cold, and hot summer weather can cause just as much trouble if a body gets heat stroke. Both conditions often have subtle symptoms at the outset, and both can kill you. Most of us are fortunate. Chattering teeth and the shivering of hypothermia or the deeply flushed face of heat stress are noticed by our companions, and we receive treatment before becoming seriously ill.

The fact that companions can observe and take care of one another is another of the reasons that my little book, Guide to the Wild Side of Your Neighbourhood in the Okanagan Valley, often advises readers to ‘TAF’-  take or tell a friend-  when you’re heading out on the trail. Many experienced people advise companionship to keep safe while hiking. A few times, I’ve ignored that advice and found myself alone, just out of cell phone range on a seldom-used trail, wondering what I’d do if I fell and sprained my ankle.

When I was a child, my family went to parks and beaches near our city, but we didn’t go hiking. I didn’t begin to truly explore natural areas until I was an adult. I was fortunate to marry a man who knew to prepare a rookie for overnight hikes as well as for cold, rain and snow. For our first expedition, Russ saw to it that I hiked in boots that were comfortable, carried extra socks, dressed in layers of insulating, wind and water-resistant fabrics, avoided cottons in the cold, and had a full tummy.

Later, I learned more simply by getting outside often. I also consulted experienced outdoors people and friends. I took an inspiring Wilderness First Aid course with Penticton’s Jim Ongena. Over and over again, lessons are absorbed.

Here are a few of my tips for the not-quite-initiated or the forgetful among us :

If you wear cotton clothing, know that once it gets wet it will be heavy and will remain wet in all but warm and windy conditions. Blue-jeans should be left at home if there’s a possibility you’ll get wet, even if you have an insulating layer underneath them.

Whatever you start out wearing, even spring and summer weather can catch hikers off guard. Long grasses can wet down your boots and pants and chill you as soon as the sun goes down or the wind comes up. Take along some water-resistant pants to slip over your first layer. If you don’t need them, at least they’re compact and lightweight to carry. Gaiters keep your lower legs dry and scratch-free in brushy areas. Take a rain hat, too.

Unless you’re absolutely positive there’s nothing wet in the weather forecast for the time you plan to be out, take along a little plastic poncho or other rain jacket, just in case. Remember the dew- moisture can come from below as well as above, and it’s nice to be able to sit down somewhere to rest or snack without getting wet.

Take along extra socks. It’s a great comfort to put on dry socks – made of wool or a synthetic knit – when your first pair is wet. Even if your hiking boots are soaked, fresh dry socks feel great. These little extras will fit nicely in a small waist or backpack, and the jacket can hang from your belt.

Take a snack and water. Even if you’re planning a short hike of an hour or two, take along some nuts, a chunk of bread or a snack bar, just in case. If you happen to take an unexpected detour, you’ll at least have a bit of food energy. And some people think I’m crazy, but there are days I’ve taken an umbrella along on a hike, more often for shelter from hot sun than rain.

That brings me to another, rather important lesson. It’s a good idea to know where you’re going.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but getting lost is remarkably easy, especially when there’s mist or fog. The nicest way to avoid being lost is to hike with someone who knows the trail you’re exploring.

In the absence of solid orientation skills, I have had to rely on patient guides, touring with a group, the occasional map, and a few tricks. To help keep on your intended route, make careful note of landmarks, and mark any turns you take with flagging tape (that you’ll collect back later) or a carefully placed stick or rock. Another is to remember to stop and look behind you every so often, to note the way the trail looks as you’ll be facing it on the way back.

My final bit of advice today is: almost every day of the year is a good one to go out. Of the year’s 360 days, I stay in maybe ten. The winds are usually gentle here. Rarely do winter temperatures get seriously cold, rarely does wet stuff come from the sky for a prolonged time. Thunder and lightning are novelties. The sometimes-dangerous summer heat can be avoided by hiking in the early morning or in the cool of the evening. Even if it’s raining when you start out, the sky usually brightens and your hike will be a pleasure.

Do a little planning before you go, and savour the wild side.      -30-

1 comment:

  1. Look at that - you're a natural (no pun intnded, otherwise I would have gone with "au naturel", you Wild Side Guide!!