Category Archives: Hiking Skills

Alpine Hiking: Skills for Scree and Talus

Rocky terrain in the Pyrenees is a challenge for hikers.

Mountain goats have special suction cup like hooves that grip onto rock and enable them to climb on ledges as precipitous as skyscrapers. We hikers do not.

So while the high mountains of legendary ranges such as the Alps, Rockies, and Cascades attract us with an almost palpable magenetic force, we need a little know-how to get around some of the obstacles we’ll encounter. Indeed, some high-mountain trails may be little more than cross-country routes, sometimes marked by cairns, and sometimes not marked at all. The rocky, rubbly high-country paths twist knees and ankles, challenge balance, and can make the distance of a mile seem to stretch for two or three.

This can be an important consideration when you’re planning your daily mileage and campsites, because travel times on boulders and rocks can drop to little more than a mile an hour.

Traveling on Scree

Scree is the fine, crumbly crushed and eroded rock that slides underfoot, making it seem that the hiker is going up the down elevator. Often, each step up the mountain is accompanied by a corresponding slide down.

When climbing on scree, look for a zigzag path and avoid facing the slope head-on. This helps eliminate the sliding problem typical of a direct assault up a steep scree slope. The mini-switchbacks are also easier on the legs, and require less brute force (to lift bodies and packs) and less stretching of the calves (caused by putting the foot down on a steeply angled slope).

On very steep and narrow slopes, making switchbacks may not be practical. In such cases, the hiker has two options:

  • Kick steps into the scree. This works if the scree is a few inches deep. Dig in with the front of the boot, test to be sure the footing is stable, then shift weight and repeat on the other foot.
  • Look for larger rocks that appear to have come to rest at a stable angle of repose (the place at which friction, angle, and gravity all come into balance and an object stops following gravity’s imperative to keep sliding downhill). If these rocks are stable enough, they may be able to hold a hiker’s weight. Test your footing before committing any weight.

Descending on scree is a bit faster -– sometimes too fast. The quickest technique down a scree slope is called screeing, which is a little like skiing on hiking boots. The deeper the scree, the better. Limit this technique to slopes with few obstacles, because big boulders can be difficult to steer around. The basic technique is to bend the knees, then launch into a sort of slow-motion combination jog and slide. Hopping from foot to foot helps with balance, as do trekking poles. Gaiters keep scree out of the boots. If you’re not wearing them, you’ll end up with a boot full of rock junk.

Alpine Trekking Through Talus

Talus comprises chunks of rock. It is the larger rubble that often is found on mountain slopes, especially at the base of cirques and bowls.

The biggest challenge in traveling on talus is to keep in balance. Often, boulders are irregularly shaped and pointy, and sometimes, they move underfoot. Walking on and around them can involve big steps up, down, and sideways. Keep knees bent and balance low, and, as with skiing moguls, always look several steps ahead. It is often easier to step down slightly sideways than straight down forward. Going straight forward puts more stress on the knees and forces your balance (sometimes too far) forward. The easiest progress involves a fluid but controlled movement from rock to rock.

Hikers picking their own route up or down a talus slope should look for cairns, small piles of stones that are made by trail planners or other hikers, and which often show the easiest way through the maze.

When cairns are not available, pick a diagonal route rather than going straight up and down. The straight-up route may be more direct, but it is more difficult to travel straight up or down on talus, The direct route is is harder on both knees and balance, takes more energy and concentration, and can put hikers below in danger of being hit by dislodged and falling rock.

Hiking sticks or trekking poles are the alpine traveler’s best friend (unless the landscape is covered in snow, in which case, that honor goes to the ice axe). Trekking poles can help a hiker maintain balance and take pressure off the knees, especially when hiking downhill, and particularly on talus.

My most sage advice: Trek slowly, rest often, and be sure to stop often enough to look up from your feet and take in the views.

Tips for Solo Hikers on Long Trails

We all know the benefits of the buddy system; they’ve been drilled into our heads since childhood. Virtually every instruction guide you’ll read on almost every activity — hiking, diving, swimming, caving, mountaineering — urges outdoorspeople to stay with at least one partner, and sometimes more.

But what happens when partners aren’t available? On a long-distance hike, it’s not always possible to find a compatible partner who has the same several-month time-frame off. A hiker may start with a partner, but become separated by injury or incompatibility. And some people simply prefer to experience the solitude and personal growth of a solo long-distance hike, and the independence of not having to negotiate every decision of daily mileage, how long to stop for lunch, or where to camp.

Solitude on a Long-Distance Trail

Even hikers who choose to hike alone sometimes get lonely. But being independent on a trail doesn’t mean being alone all the time.

One possibility is to choose a trail where there’s a social scene. Trails with a hut, shelter, or lodging system are found throughout Europe, New Zealand, Nepal, and (less commonly) in North America. Trails with permit systems that require hikers to stay in designated camping areas are also good places to meet others — or at least, to have the security of camping with other people around. On the popular Appalachian Trail, for example, sociable hikers can find companionship almost whenever they want. Solitary types can hike alone and camp alone, but they can also drop into trail towns, hostels, or trail shelters if the silence becomes too deafening.

Another advantage of the Appalachian Trail (and increasingly, this is happening on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well) is that it is relatively easy to find a partner en route. Hikers who start solo might join up with informal groups of others for a while, or may form partnerships that last for the duration of your hike. On less traveled trails, there are fewer opportunities to form such partnerships.

Hikers who remain solo might experience occasional bouts of loneliness. Some simple strategies can help.

  • Bring a book. A long trail is a great time to read one of those heavy-weight classics that real life so seldom makes time for.
  • Bring music. Not everyone likes listening to music in the woods, but for hikers who do, an Ipod provides entertainment.
  • Write in a journal. Some hikers get even more creative, by composing haiku poems, drawing what they see, or writing songs.
  • Bring a project. Some hikers use the time on a long-distance hike to reevaluate their lives. A project book (an example would be Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which includes many pages of creative exercises) may be a great way to use some of the time in camp in a productive and creative way.

Safety Strategies for Solo Hikers

  • Choose a trail with a fair amount of traffic.
  • Sign in at permit stations at the entrance to wildernesses. Permits tell rangers where and when hikers arrived, and can help them search for a lost hiker.
  • Sign trail registers. These are informal notebooks left on some trails in shelters, at trailheads, and even in hiker-friendly businesses and hostels. They are another way to know when a hiker was last seen.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks. This means avoiding the temptation to tale shortcuts, waiting out extremely bad weather, and being vigilant about environmental ailments such as altitude sickness, hypothermia, and dehydration.
  • Make sure someone at home knows the itinerary.
  • Bring a cell phone or a satellite phone. International travelers should make sure they have international cell service on their phones, or a dedicated international moblie phone.
  • Know standard ways of signaling, such as using a mirror, lighting a fire, using the color orange, and sending out signals in bursts of threes.
  • Solo women travelers should be especially vigilant about who they tell their plans to.
  • Carry an emergency kit with the “10 essentials” in it.

Solo hiking isn’t for everyone. But with some experience, the right gear for the conditions, and the common sense to stay safe, it can be an intense and rewarding experience.

How Wilderness Stories Become Wilderness Skills

When I was nine, my father, my sister, and I went on a family vacation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was the first time I stayed in a hotel. I saw the “Old Man of the Mountains,” which was then the state symbol and is now a pile of rubble and rock dust. I rode the cog railway. I crawled around the boulders of the Lost River, shivered in the frigid waters of Echo Lake, and marveled at the dank, mossy canyons of the Flume. And in the summit house atop Mt. Washington, I saw, for the first time, the list of names of all the people who had died in the Presidential Range.

Fall in the White Mountains

The tour guide told us the story of Lizzie Bourne, who in 1885 died of exposure only a few hundred feet from safety at the summit house. Standing outside by the memorial plaque, near a giant cairn marked with the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, I wondered, how could you stand and die HERE, when safety was just over THERE?

And then clouds swirled round and the fog drifted in, a blue day turned gray and cold and damp, and in the sting of a bitter wind, I suddenly caught a glimmer of understanding.

That list on Mt. Washington keeps growing, and so do the stories. Hikers and skiers: Dead from falls, hypothermia, avalanches. Killed by the unrelenting chill of winter. Killed by a summer storm. Killed by a simple misstep, or a whole mountain of snow collapsing on top of them. Killed, sometimes, by ignorance or hubris or the simple inability to understand or imagine the brutal, stark finality when Nature runs amok.

They are stories we need to hear.

I was reminded of that just recently, when I read a blog post about a hiker dying in Glacier National Park. It’s called “You Just Never Know,” and it’s true: You just don’t. A fine day, a photogenic view, a fatal fall. Final.

Fog on Mt. Kenya

For the most part, adventure travelers go in and out of the mountains without incident. For all the potential dangers that are out there (and there are plenty of them)  the mountains rarely release their fury. And even when they do, good preparation or dumb luck, or both, intervene: You run out of water, but you stumble on a working windmill. You get lost, but someone appears and points you in the right direction. You suffer headaches and nausea on an ascent, and you run into more experienced climbers who tell you to camp with them because you’re showing symptoms of altitude sickness.

You could have become dehydrated. You could have been lost for days. You could have died of acute mountain sickness. But you didn’t.

Did you learn anything?

I gave a talk to a bunch of teenage adventure campers a couple of weeks ago, and one of the questions I was asked was “Did you you ever almost die out there.” The kids all leaned forward: NOW, finally, we were getting to the good stuff.

And then, I had to disappoint them.

Because the truth is that I’m a wimp. I always have an extra Band-aid, the right map, and the 10 Essentials on hand. You could spoof me in a satire, and you wouldn’t even come close. I think it comes from having read too many “Drama in Real Life” stories in the old Reader’s Digest when I was a kid. Or maybe it was tales like Jack London’s To Build a Fire.

Storytelling, I think, serves a purpose beyond recreation. Imagine early humans back in cave-dwelling times, sitting around their fires, telling tales of the hunt. Bragging rights?  Undoubtedly. Entertainment? Sure. But also education, warnings, advice. I wonder if perhaps storytelling might be genetically bred into us — an evolutionary strategy for education and survival. Groups that told stories learned and lived. Those that didn’t… didn’t.

I imagine the stories haven’t changed that much, despite the millions of intervening years. Our cave sisters and brothers might recognize those grizzly stories that were a staple of my childhood. They might have told the same stories of people getting stuck in mountains,  trapped in blizzards, lost in impenetrable forests. I liked to read those stories; I didn’t want to be the star of one. Perhaps that same thought occurred to some great-great-grandmother-times-a-thousand-generations as she sat around the campfire, cozy and warm, safe and hoping to stay that way. Perhaps we both survived because we both listened to the stories.

Several years ago, I was hiking the Arizona Trail. I had just finished reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, in which Abbey describes being stuck in a slot canyon: no way to go up, no way to go down. He thought he was going to die before he managed to haul himself out, and, being Edward Abbey, he wrote about it in a way that put me right in that canyon with him. The scorching sun reflected hot against the cliff and the air grew thick as furnace heat. As Abbey’s water supply ran down and what he had left got so hot it barely slaked the brittle claws of thirst that raked the back of his throat, I found myself reaching for my own water bottle. As I recall, Ed hauled himself up by the grace of a quarter-inch rope of vine that had the decency to hold his weight as he scrambled to salvation.

So, when I encountered a slot canyon traveling on a secondary, seldom-used trail, I remembered old Cactus Ed stuck on that ledge, convinced he was going to die. I was short on water. It was getting dark. Because Ed had gone down his slot canyon, I didn’t  go down mine. I turned around and back-tracked two miles before I even found a spot flat enough to camp. I’d tackle the canyon in the morning, when I could see. Be sure. Be safe. Be boring.

The unexpected: A yucca in a surprise spring snow.

So no, I don’t have any great stories about near death experiences. I’ve been cold, and thirsty, and I’ve had a touch of altitude sickness. I’ve been rattled at by rattlesnakes and I’ve argued with bears over the rightful ownership of my food bags. And I’ve been scared silly in grizzly country by the mere thought of what was lurking behind the next clump of huckleberry bushes. But I put on extra clothes, found some water, rested an extra day before continuing a climb, stepped around the rattlesnake, won the argument with the bear, and got over my fear of what crouches in the shadow of a huckleberry bush.

Still, part of what I take with me when I travel in the backcountry are the stories that keep me just slightly on edge, a little more alert. They are no guarantee: Things can still go wrong. But people who study such things come to the same conclusion time and again: Most wilderness disasters are at least in part caused by operator error. Conditions may factor in. Bad luck may factor in. Panic may factor in. But lack of preparation or poor decision-making can, and often is, the difference between life and death. So I listen to the bell in the back of my head that said “don’t go down that canyon tonight.” I look at a steep slab of ice or some gnarly rock on a slope and think of the hikers in Glacier who didn’t make it across. I remember Lizzie Bourne, out there in the cold clenching fog, minutes from safety. Then dead.

It’s usually a benign place, the wilderness. But not always, and therein lies the danger. If it were ALWAYS dangerous, we’d know enough to respect it. But there it sits with its crystal blue skies and gorgeous views, beckoning us, seducing, giving no sign of its evil twin.

Writing in National Geographic Adventure about Mt. Washington’s legacy of fatalities, backcountry safety expert Laurence Gonzales says, “We come from the relatively safe environments of the city, where our mistakes are mostly forgiven, and we bring with us the careless ways we’ve learned there. Worse still, we travel to these danger zones and have a benign experience — like mine on Mount Washington on that beautiful sunny day. And that gives us a false sense of security.”

Without the direct experience, it is the stories that may save us when Mother Nature changes her mind.

Lessons From A Walk in the Woods, at Night

This is a story in which nothing happens. but much could have… and that’s what I want to share.

A couple of weeks ago, you would have found me hiking up the Jug End on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail at 8:30 in the evening, in the quickly falling dark. I carried a stick I had found on the forest floor to which I had jerry-rigged a battery-operated musician’s light. (Reason: I hadn’t been able to quickly find a headlamp, and I needed to be quick). I was not carrying raingear (it wasn’t going to rain) and I wasn’t carrying warm clothes (it wasn’t cold — yet, although that would change as the night wore on). I did have an orange and a pint of water in a shoulder pack slung across my back. I had not left a note on my car, and I had left no word at home where I was going. And, if you know the Jug End hike: It’s steep and rocky, and here in Massachusetts in August, it’s getting dark earlier every day.
So right about now, you are (I hope) wondering: What did she think she was doing, and why the heck am I taking advice on hiking from THIS woman?

The Phone Call:

Here’s what happened: At about 8 p.m., I got a call from an AT thru-hiker who had been planning to stay the night at my house. I had been expecting to pick her up at the trail, oh, about two hours earlier, so I was concerned, and very relieved to hear from her. But then she told me she was feeling ill, and she was still up high on the Taconic Ridge. The trail up there is one of those boulder-strewn ups-and-downs that makes for slow going, even for a fit thru-hiker 1,500 or so miles into the hike.  She was calling from her cell; she didn’t know exactly where she was or when she would be down and dusk was falling. I, on the other hand, knew what lay between the top and the bottom on that section of trail: A couple of miles of steep rocky scramble. And I was worried.

First of all, she was hiking alone. And second, she was “slackpacking” and didn’t  have much (or really, anything) in the way of gear. I had met her earlier that morning at the trailhead and I’d taken her pack to my house so she could hike unencumbered for a day. She had a rain jacket, but no flashlight. And she certainly didn’t have what she needed  to spend the night. With dark falling so quickly, she might not have enough light to get out.

When you’re exhausted and it’s dark, the descent off Jug End is about the last place on the entire Massachusetts AT you want to be. So I told her I’d drive over to the trail (It’s about five minutes from my house) and start hiking up to meet her.

Well, my hiking stuff was in total disarray at the moment: I knew where my boots were, and that was about it. I’m not the most organized of people at the best of times, but my hiking stuff had been displaced by a home renovation project; in the current disarray, no way was I going to be able to find a headlamp quickly (let alone a working one with the right sized batteries). And as luck would have it, our house emergency flashlights — the ones we keep around for power outages — all seemed to have come down with some type of flashlight illness… dead batteries, rusty contact points, etc. So I grabbed the one light I did have handy: a four-LED-bulb musician’s light — the kind orchestra players use to light their music stands. And I headed out.

Driving to the trail, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly night was falling, and how very dark the woods looked. I parked at the trail head, and as soon as I started into the woods, I immediately realized that heading onto a dark trail in the fast-falling night was with no gear and a tiny music light was not an ideal situation. I especially missed my walking sticks, which I’d simply forgotten — they live right by the front door, so there’s no excuse for that. But trail magic is pretty reliable, and an obliging hiker had left a perfect stick right on the trail.  I clipped the base of the musician’s light to the stick.

But I didn’t turn it on: There was a full moon, and I’ve found with night-hiking that your eyes can often adjust. Until you really need artificial light, you can be better off without it. Although it was dark, I could pretty much feel the trail underfoot; every once in a while I caught a glimpse of white blazes, which seemed to briefly catch the moonlight through the pines. I made sure I always noted where the blazes were, because it’s easy to wander off on an animal trail. However, luck was with me again, as this part of the trail is frequently marked. Plus it’s on a pretty steep ridge: There isn’t really anywhere else to go.


It was actually a nice walk: Perfect temperature, clear night, no bugs, quiet and peaceful. I settled into a moderate rest step, and climbed about half an hour before it got too dark to pick out the blazes anymore. All the while I was wondering just what exactly I thought I was doing: If the hiker had been injured, I wasn’t carrying anything useful except for water and an orange. The most I’d be able to do would be go back down for help. Or, I could get myself into trouble in the dark and become a second problem for someone else to solve. I walked carefully, and slowed down on the rocky bits.  I had deliberately not left a note at home because I didn’t want to worry my partner. That was (very) arguably a dumb move, but my partner isn’t a hiker, and I didn’t want him freaking out and calling the  volunteer fire brigade just because it was dark. It seemed like a good reason at the time, but as I continued uphill, it started sounding dumber and dumber, even in my own mind.

Finally, after I’d been walking close to a half an hour, It was fully dark. When I could no longer see any hint of a blaze, I turned the light on, and shone it up the mountain, hoping it could be seen from above. Sure enough, I heard a yell, from quite a ways up. I resisted the temptation to call out “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” and continued the climb.

When we met, my friend was relieved; she’d been thinking of simply sitting down and waiting for me, but she didn’t know how far she still had to go, or how long it would take me to get to her, or how cold it would be by then. We walked back down together, me carrying the light above both of us like a camera man’s lighting assistant. We looked ridiculous.

And that was that: No drama, no real problems. It may have been another 20 minutes till we got back to the truck. We drove home, ate a lot of food, and slept.

Lessons From a Non-Event

But I thought this little story of a non-disaster worth sharing because it has an alternate ending. Rain, which would have made the descent frankly dangerous. A fall. One, or both of us, getting lost off trail. It did get cold later that night, cold enough that the tree frogs stopped yammering. Cold enough that a stranded hiker might have become hypothermic.

Bad luck can happen, even to a thru-hiker with thousands of miles of experience. I wasn’t exactly being Ms. Brilliant Outdoors Educator by choosing to head up the mountain quickly, rather than stopping to try to find some gear. It seemed like the right thing to do — to try and get myself and my light up the mountain as far and fast as possible. It turned out to be the right choice… but it might not have been.

It takes smarts to learn from your own experiences. It takes real brilliance to learn from other people’s disasters. But it takes something else — perhaps imagination — to learn from what could have happened to someone else — and didn’t. Not to say “Well, everything worked out and was great” but “What can I learn from what didn’t happen.”

Please imagine.

As for us: I’m pretty sure next time my friend slackpacks, there’s going to be a headlamp in her daypack. For my part, it wouldn’t hurt to have a first aid kit and a little daypack containing the ten essentials on hand. Plus fresh batteries.

As it turned out, we had a power outage in the house that night …. and the piano light, still tied to the make-shift walking stick, was pressed into service again.

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