All posts by Karen Berger

FAQs on Long-Distance Hiking

So, imagine that you are 11, 12, or 13 years old and you have just completed a 10-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. Now you’re watching a slide show about long distance hiking. What would YOU want to know?

I spoke to a group of adventure-program campers at Lakeville, Connecticut-based Camp Sloane’s. The kids asked dozens of questions. Interestingly, they were much more concerned about the experience than the equipment. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of these awesome kids on the trails.

Q) Did you ever get into really bad trouble or think you were going to die?
A) No, but that’s mostly because I’m the kind of person who reads everything before doing anything, and if the book says take two quarts of water, I take three, and if it says be sure you know how to use a map and compass, I take a class or get someone to show me. Most backcountry emergencies can be prevented by planning ahead, following the “rules,” and using common sense.

Q) What were the most dangerous animals?
A) Besides mosquitoes? Rattlesnakes and bears are two animals you’ll often see, and many people fear, but while both can be dangerous, neither of them is usually a problem unless something weird happens — like stepping on a snake, so keep your eyes peeled!

Q) Who were some of the friends you made while hiking?
A) There’s a long list, but one example is that I met some Norwegian girls in Nepal, and we kept in touch, and I later visited one of them in New Zealand and the other visited me in Massachusetts. We still keep in touch. I have many other hiking friends scattered around the world.

Q) How long is the longest you ever went without a shower? (meaning a real indoor shower with hot water).
A) About 20 days. But there were lots of cold showers and lakes and streams during that hike. The longest without washing up at all was an eight-day winter trip.

Q) How much water did you carry?
A) Anywhere from none (in the snow-covered High Sierra, where water was everywhere) to almost two gallons in the southern California desert. Of course, as soon as you start drinking, you are carrying less.

Q) Who did you hike with?
A) My husband (now ex-husband). We invited friends to join us for short (and sometimes long) sections along the way, and we also met people while hiking with whom we hung out for a while.

Q) When did you first feel like you were a successful hiker?
A) Well, I was pretty proud of my first really long hike, which was 200 miles in California’s High Sierra. But I think success in hiking really means enjoying all the days you’re out there… You don’t want to have 180 miserable days and then call it a “success” because you finally got somewhere. So I would say that really feeling like I was enjoying every day on the trail made the hikes feel successful.

Q) How did you adjust back to regular life after you stopped?
A) I tried not to. I don’t live in or near a city anymore; I live here in the mountains. I work at home, and I travel about six times a year.


These Are Days You’ll Remember….

Long distance hiking days.

I’m listening to the song by the same title.  “These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs seems the perfect soundtrack to thru-hiking memories, and I’m using it to introduce a slide show on long-distance backpacking to about 70 kids at my old summer camp later today.

Remember slides? Those film things with the cardboard edges, and you have to put them all in the carousel one at a time (backwards and upside down) and if you put a slide in the wrong way, it’ll show up with the writing reading back-to-front and inside out.

There’s another song I like to use in my slide shows: “What a Wonderful World.” The reasons should be obvious.

It can be overwhelming to look at hundreds of slides of the Triple Crown Trails (The Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide national scenic trails) all at once. Plus, I admit that a few spectacular slides from other places around the world have snuck in because really, when you have put a hat, a pair of sun glasses, and a tie on a giant lobelia near the summit of Mt. Kenya, how can you NOT use that picture to show the goofy fun of hiking? (I’ll post that picture here as soon as I can scan it…. another project on the “to do” list).

Two things strike me in this trip down memory lane:

First, the incomparable variety of landscapes on our long-distance hiking trails. The Triple Crown trails add up to some 7,500 miles of some of the most glorious terrain on the planet. There’s the “long green tunnel” (aka the Appalachian Trail), which turns blazing orange in autumn, and then brown followed by white, and has plenty of above treeline grandeur, as well. Or take the wild and harsh drylands of southern California and New Mexico, and the very different mountain landscapes of the Great Smoky Mountains, the White Mountains, the Colorado Rockies, the High Sierra, the North Cascades, the northern Rockies. I’m always asked if I have a favorite place. How could I possibly? How could you ever choose?

And second: The people. It seems contradictory, but hiking in the wilderness is (as long distance hikers know) also about the people you meet along the way. I’ve hiked with college kids and grandparents, with doctors and police officers and students and the gainfully ,gleefully unemployed. And then there are people from the local communities: The purveyors of trail magic.  When everything in real life turns cranky, it’s comforting to remember the people who leave out a few gallons of water for hikers on a dry stretch, or who invite disgustingly odorous hikers into their homes for a shower, a meal, and a bed, or who volunteer to keep the trails passable. From the raucousness of the Trail Days festival in Damascus Virginia to pictures of hikers relaxing in camp, playing music, goofing off in the rain, or posing atop Katahdin, my pictures of people show the elements of a life lived on the trail.

I’ve been dreading going through my slides in order to organize them for scanning, Thousands of pictures makes for a massive filing job, and filing is not my best subject. But after spending the last couple of days pouring over photos of sunsets over the Maine ponds, above-tree huts in the Whites, snowfields at Muir Pass, sand dunes in the Great Divide Basin, the russet autumn willows of the Wind River mountains, the alpenglow on a Rocky Mountain ridgeline, the groves of quaking aspen turning into treasure troves of gold leaf coins… instead of dreading the project, I’m looking forward to it.

These WERE great days … and I remember.

I’ll be writing much more about them here.

Hypothermia Basics for Outdoorspeople

Yes, it’s summer. And it’s broiling n many parts of the country — but not everywhere. Several feet of snow is still piled on top of High Sierra trails. And In mountains throughout the country temperatures do what they always do at high elevations: They drop 3 – 5 degrees per thousand feet.   It may seem absurd to think about hypothermia when you leave a warm valley and start sweating your way uphill. But weather changes quickly in mountains, and on an exposed ridge in a sudden storm, you can be vulnerable in minutes.

I’ve seen too many people shivering in the high country because they didn’t bring enough clothing or rain gear. And I’m sick of reading about people dying in places like the White Mountains of New Hampshire. What a tragic, preventable waste. So here are some tips to keep you safe from the so-called “killer of the unprepared.”

Prevent Hypothermia With Good Hiking Equipment, Common Sense

Unfortunately, hypothermia can progress very quickly from a simple chill to a life-threatening emergency, and it is difficult to treat in the field. The good news is that prevention is almost always possible with some forethought and good outdoors equipment, including a rain jacket (Take a full set of rain gear in high or northern mountains; in summer, a simple rain jacket is usually enough for mountains in warmer climes, such as the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia or dryland mountains in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California.  and New Mexico).

Also take an extra insulating layer and a hat. Take more clothes — including gloves — in colder, higher mountains such as the Colorado Rockies, the North Cascades, or in New England and northern New York.  Remember that in some of these ranges, it can snow any day of the year. If the water is frozen, think what the temperature can do to you!

  • In typical summer conditions, a rain jacket may be all you need to break the wind or protect you from the rain. In colder mountains, add an insulating layer.
  • Wicking clothing draws moisture away from the skin.
  • Avoid wearing cotton, because it absorbs water and loses its insulating ability when wet.
  • Heed the saying “Cold feet? Put on a hat.” Most body heat is lost through the head, so wear a hat or your rain jacket’s hood.
  • When taking breaks, sit on an insulating pad or a backpack to prevent losing body heat to the cold ground.
  • Stay dry, inside and out. This means not overexerting so much that clothes are wet from sweat.
  • Bring extra warm dry clothes, and at the end of the day, change into dry clothes immediately.
  • Pay attention to chills and put on more clothes, a hat, or terminate exposure.
  • Realize that hypothermia can strike even on a mild-day, especially if it is damp or windy.
  • Drink and eat small quantities of high-calorie foods frequently.

Recognize Symptoms of Hypothermia and Terminate Exposure Immediately

Hypothermia often goes unrecognized because outdoorspeople mistake the symptoms for just being cold and figure they can tough it out.  Shivering alone is not a sign of hypothermia — but can lead to it. Never ignore being cold!Take a brisk walk uphill, put on an extra layer, drink a hot drink. And watch for these signs:

  • The “umbles” (The hiker stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, or grumbles).
  • Shivering stops, but the victim still feels cold.
  • Fatigue, forgetfulness and irrationality.
  • Staggering, lack of coordination, falling.
  • Finally, unconsciousness. (Obviously, this is an emergency, and can be life-threatening.) 

 Hypothermia Treatment

If you suspect you or a hiking partner may be on the way to hypothermia, it is critical to terminate exposure as soon as possible. Take a side trail out. (This means having a map with you that shows possible routes back to civilization.) If you have to stay in the backcountry:

  • Put on more clothes, especially hats and gloves.
  • Change (or help the victim change into warm dry clothes).
  • Put something between the victim and the cold ground: an insulating sleeping pad, a backpack, a bag of clothing.
  • Rest behind a wind-break, in a trail shelter, on the lee side of a bush or large rock, or in a tent or trail shelter.
  • Gently warm the victim by sharing a sleeping bag, starting a fire, or making a hot drink.
  • If necessary, go (or call) for help: If the victim cannot assist in his or her own rescue by following directions and walking out, a rescue may need to be arranged.

Mountain hiking can be fun and exhilarating, but rapidly changing weather and exertion can combine in dangerous ways. Preventing hypothermia is much easier than treating it. Bring adequate gear, including the so-called “10 Essentials” Drink and eat often, don’t over-exert, recognize the symptoms of hypothermia, and terminate exposure when necessary.

Staying Safe in Deserts and Drylands

First, some definitions: Desert hiking refers to hiking where annual rainfall is less than 9 inches. Dryland hiking refers to places where annual rain is more than that, perhaps 9 -15 inches, but where water scarcity and heat are dominant influences in the environment.

In the United States, this means most of Arizona and New Mexico, much of Nevada, Utah, and southern California, and parts of Colorado, Idaho, eastern Washington, and eastern Oregon. For backpacking and hiking in both deserts and drylands, the challenges and strategies are similar. Both require planning, acclimating while on the trip, assiduous attention to water, and a good dose of common sense.

pinon juniper
Hikers can walk for many miles without seeing water, as in these pinon-juniper drylands of northern Arizona.

Hiking in places like the Grand Canyon and Sonoran Desert can be beautiful, but surviving in and (even) enjoying the desert requires acclimating and preparation.

Preparation for Desert and Dryland Hiking Vacations

  • Check out seasonal weather patterns. Trails that may be sweltering in the summer can be comfortable (or even ice- covered) in the winter. For example, the Sorth Kaibab Trail descending from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, is frequently covered with ice in the winter at higher elevations.  Even trails at the bottom of the Grand Canyon are comfortably cool in winter.
  • Seasonal factors affect water availability. Drylands surrounded by mountains have more water after the spring snowmelt. Drylands subject to a monsoon season have more water just after seasonal rains. Guidebooks have this information, but check locally for current seasonal information, because the condition of seasonal water sources varies.
  • Get a trail map! To reliably find seasonal water sources such as springs requires a good map. 1:25,000 U.S.G.S. map, available from the U.S.G.S or local outfitters has the most detail. A G.P.S. alone is not enough. Nor is Google Maps! Maps of trails need to be detailed enough to show springs, windmills, water tanks, and buildings, all of which are potential water sources, and to note whether water sources are seasonal or perennial.
  • Realize that a cell phone may not work in a remote desert with no cell towers, so leave a hiking plan and expected time of return with family or friends. Portable satellite phones are also an option.
  • Get in shape. One of the biggest problems in desert and dryland hiking is acclimating to the heat and physical exertion. A body that is in shape will sweat less, a huge benefit in an arid environment.
  • Hiking and camping gear for deseerts should include a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, enough water containers, lightweight breathable clothing that covers your entire body (in case of blazing sun or sunburn), sunscreen, bug repellent, and a warm layer for cold desert nights.
  • Mark all known water sources on your map and calculate the mileage and hiking hours between them.

Hiking and Backpacking Gear and Strategies for Desert Travel and Safety

  • The heat-water relationship is paramount: The more extreme the heat, the more water required. Bring enough water (and containers to hold the water)! The amount will depend on exertion, your fitness, your metabolism, and the air temperature. Figure at least a quart per hiking hour; For more detailed recommendations, see the National Park Service recommendations for the Grand Canyon.
  • Never walk past a water source without drinking as much as possible and filling water bottles with enough water to get to the next water source.
  • Try to hike in the coolest parts of the day: Early morning and evening are best. During the heat of the day, walk slowly and take shade breaks whenever the opportunity presents itself. Try to find a comfortably steady pace and avoid over-exerting.
  • Be aware of desert fauna. Rattlesnakes are hard to spot (until they rattle). Shake out boots before putting them on in the morning, as scorpions may have decided to nest there. When rock scrambling, never put hands where you can’t see them.
  • Wear clothing that covers as much skin as practicable. Less water evaporates from covered skin than from exposed skin.
  • Eat continually to replace electrolytes lost to sweating. Light easy-to-digest snacks — GORP, crackers, cereal bars — with salts and sugars are best for hot weather hiking,

A desert environment can be both dangerous and beautiful. Following these basic strategies and staying aware will help hikers minimize the danger and enjoy the beauty

Major Grand Canyon Corridor Trails for Day-Hikers

Grand Canyon Views
There’s no such thing as a bad view in the Grand Canyon

There is, quite simply, nothing else like it on earth. And even though we think we know the canyon — from television specials, calendars, and movies like Thelma and Louise — hiking into it is a whole different level of experience. Astonishingly, most visitors say on the Rim, content to take photos without venturing more than a few minutes from their cars. But a whole new world awaits those who step off the edge, and start going downhill.

But first, a warning: Grand Canyon National Park’s glorious desert landscape can also be deadly. In the summer, the heat increases as you descend, with temperatures sometimes reaching well over 100 degrees. There is very little water and almost no shade. So rangers recommend the major “corridor” trails to beginning canyon and desert hikers.

The Grand Canyon National Park’s “corridor trails” are so named because they act as the major north-south corridors across the canyon. They are also the trails tourists are most familiar with. The South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails both depart from the South Rim and descend all the way to the Grand Canyon’s floor. The North Kaibab Trail descends to the floor from the North Rim. The trails merge at the bottom near Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch.

Tight switchbacks on the South Kaibab Tral
Tight switchbacks on the South Kaibab Tral

Rangers recommend the corridor trails to first time Grand Canyon visitors because these paths are wide, with relatively gentle switchbacks. (In fact, the corridor trails are used by mule trips into the Grand Canyon.) They are well-maintained and are the ones most patrolled by rangers. None-the-less, these trails can still pose a danger for inexperienced or ill-equipped visitors. Some desert hiking strategies can help keep beginning (and experienced) hikers safe.

 Grand Canyon Safety Tips for First-Time Hikers

  • Day hikers should not try to go all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in one day. People have (literally) died trying to do this.
  • When starting the hike down, notice that the National Park Service has placed signs telling hikers to turn back if they are out of water. Heed them!
  • Hiking the canyon is like climbing a mountain in reverse — and it is much easier to walk downhill than back up,  What seemed like a quick and easy hike when descending can turn into an arduous grind coming back.  Figure at least twice as much time (and at least twice as much water) to hike up as it took going down.
  • Wear reasonable footwear: Athletic shoes are fine. Flip flops are not.
  • Bring a blister kit. Blisters can turn a pleasant walk into sheer misery. The heat of the Grand Canyon means people sweat more than normal, which leads to blisters.
  • Bring clothing that provides protection against the sun, as well as plenty of sunscreen.
  • Bring lots of water — at least one quart for every hour of planned hiking time. (Some people may need more.)
  • Bring some easy-to eat snacks like GORP (a mixture of nuts, raisins, seeds, and sweets).
  • Mule trains have the right of way. Move off the trail as directed by the pack-train leader.
For a longer hike, a sunrise start is a good idea in the warmer months.
For a longer hike, a sunrise start is a good idea in the warmer months.

Stats and Facts About Grand Canyon Corridor Trails

  • The South Kaibab Trail is seven miles long and descends about 5,000 feet. Most hikers who are going to the Canyon floor, camping, then returning to the South Rim, use the Kaibab Trail for the descent. This trail has terrific views, but it’s a bit steeper than the Bright Angel.
  • The Bright Angel Trail descends 5,000 feet in 8 miles (and then continues another 2 miles to Phantom Ranch). It is most commonly used by hikers ascending from the Canyon Floor because it’s a little gentler and has a bit more shade. Hikers who have a permit can break the ascent into two days, and stop to camp at Indian Gardens Campsite, about half way up. There is water at Indian Gardens.
  • The North Kaibab Trail is 14 miles long and descends 6,0000 feet from the North Rim to the Canyon Floor. (The North Rim is about 1000 feet higher than the South Rim). Most hikers can descend in one day, but break the return trip into two days by camping at Cottonwood Creek at about the halfway point. Water is available at several places along the route.

Hikers should be sure that no matter whether they take the North Kaibab, South Kaibab, or Bright Angel Trail (or any others), they have enough water, and that someone knows where they plan to go – and when they plan to be back. Grand Canyon National Park is Arizona’s most popular tourist attraction, and an iconic America landscape, but it can also be dangerous. Some caution and common sense will ensure a safe and enjoyable visit.

Altitude Sickness: A Basic Primer for High-Elevation Mountain Hiking

Summer is the best time of year for tackling high trails in high mountains. In June, snow starts melting, in July, trails are mostly passable, in August, mosquitoes are less of a problem. But one issue can rear its head — and potentially knock you off yours: Altitude sickness.
Also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), altitude sickness is a risk on alpine adventures, particularly for people who live at low elevations.. It is easily prevented by acclimating and responding to early symptoms.

Altitude sickness is caused by the fact that the higher the elevation, the lower the air pressure; hence, the less oxygen you take in with every breath. Early symptoms include shortness of breath, even when only lightly exerting, as well as headaches and nausea. Ignoring these symptoms or continuing despite them can lead to more symptoms — dizziness, confusion, lack of coordination, and staggering — followed by full-blown AMS.  In the late stages, potentially fatal pulmonary and cerebral edemas can occur.

Danger Zones for Altitude Sickness

Hikers and climbers on adventure travel trips frequently ascend high above sea level. Examples of popular high altitude treks include trekking the Inca Trail in Peru, climbing any of East Africa’s volcanoes, trekking in Nepal and Bhutan, glacier skiing in Europe, hiking in much of Colorado, California, and Wyoming, and climbing the Pacific Northwest and Mexican volcanoes. It is also a possibility when ascending via car, train, or even ski lift.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

The first rule of high elevations is to “Blame it on the altitude.” This means that travelers to alpine areas above 8,000 feet should assume any maladies or irregularities they are experiencing are due to altitude. If something is wrong up high, don’t pass it off as “allergies,” “jetlag,.” or”something you ate.” It’s probably altitude related, and if it is, it needs to be dealt with.

Common early symptoms of altitude sickness are headaches and nausea. These are warnings that the body is not getting enough oxygen. With mild symptoms, sometimes all that is needed is a rest day, which gives the body a chance to acclimate. Most people can acclimate to the kinds of elevations common on alpine adventure travel vacations (10,000 to 16,000 feet; sometimes more) if given enough time. In fact, time to acclimate is the number one way to prevent altitude sickness -– and lack of time to acclimate is the number one cause of it.

Often,  simply taking a rest day is enough to solve the problem. The body adjusts and the traveler moves onwards and upwards. But if symptoms persist or increase, afflicted travelers should go downhill until they feel better.

Who is at Risk of Altitude Sickness?

The short answer is that anyone can be at risk, even people who have successfully climbed to high elevations in the past. People who live at sea level are especially vulnerable when they change altitudes too quickly, for example, when flying from sea level to a high-altitude town or ski area. In addition, people who are elderly, frail, chronically ill, or who have breathing problems are especially at risk.

It is impossible to say at precisely what elevation a trekker may feel the effects of altitude. Many factors influence travelers’ responses to altitude, including overall fitness, the length of time travelers have been at altitude, whether the travelers are adequately hydrated, and how slowly (or quickly) they have been ascending. Further confusing the picture is the fact that the same hiker may do the exact same trip twice in a row – and might respond differently each time.

The Continental Divide Trail in Colorado averages more than 11,000 feet.

Many travelers who live at sea-level feel some shortness of breath at higher elevation ski areas (around 8,000 feet), such as those in Colorado or the Alps, or while driving scenic mountain roads over high passes. Most healthy adults adjust easily to altitudes of less than 10,000 feet, although it may take a few days to get up to full speed.

Minimizing the Risk of Altitude Sickness

Above 10,000 feet, the standard recommendation is that trekkers try to gain no more than 1,000 feet of net elevation per day. Following the mountaineer’s dictum of “Climb high, sleep low,” climbers often hiker higher during the day, which helps acclimatization, then return lower to sleep.  If you fly to a high altitude town from which you plan to start your trek, take a couple of rest days to get used to the elevation. This is not always possible, in which case, take rest days en route. Time is the most effective defense against altitude sickness: It allows the body to catch up with the altitude.

The second most important defense is adequate hydration: “A happy mountaineer pees clear.” Drink even when not thirsty; in cold dry weather, hikers are often unaware of incipient dehydration

Finally, there are medical drugs. If time is a problem (as it often is on guided adventure trips), talk to a doctor about the drug Diamox, which is used as a prophylactic. Be aware that it is a preventative, not a treatment: It must be taken before any symptoms arise.

With adequate planning, plenty of time and water, and an understanding of the symptoms and danger of AMS, altitude sickness is easily preventable.