Cleveland National Forest Backcountry Safety Tips

June 8, 2004

Visiting your National Forest backcountry can be the experience of a lifetime. The beauty and tranquility of these areas may bring you back again and again. But whether you're an experienced user or a novice, a few simple precautions can ensure a safe and pleasurable trip.

A Message About Fire

As you travel in the Cleveland National Forest, "Remember, Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" For more that 50 years, Smokey Bear has delivered a message of wildfire prevention. To protect public safety and forest health in this very flammable environment, wildfire prevention measures are necessary. The greatest fire danger occurs in the summer and fall, but large fires have burned in every month of the year. Hot, easterly winds, known as Santa Anas, blow with great intensity each year, usually in the fall, but sometimes during the winter and spring months as well. These winds create extremely dangerous fire conditions.

Because of the potential danger from human-caused fires, fire regulations are in effect in the forest all year long. Campfires are permitted only within grills and fire rings provided in developed campgrounds and picnic areas. All wood and charcoal fires are forbidden outside of these sites. With a permit, liquid fuel stoves may be used in the center of a 10-foot circle cleared to bare soil - contact any Forest Office for more information. Smoking is permitted only within areas cleared 3 feet in diameter to bare soil, and is never permitted while traveling on foot or horseback.

Please check our Current Conditions page for the current fire danger level.

Plan Your Trip

Plan your trip from start to finish at home. Use a forest recreation map, topographic maps and trail guides. Get advice from experienced backcountry travelers.

  • Allow plenty of time for driving mountain roads and hiking over rugged terrain.
  • Before leaving home, leave your itinerary with a relative or friend. Write a full account of who is going, where you are going, when you will be back, and where you plan to stay each night.
  • A good rule of thumb is: a hiker walks 2 miles per hour on level ground, 3 miles per hour downhill, and 1 mile per hour uphill.
  • Buddy Up. If you are hiking, backpacking, or exploring at any time of year, take someone with you and make sure someone else knows your travel plans.

Abandoned Mine Safety

The Forest Service manages a large part of the Federal lands across the United States. Much of this land, especially that of the western states, was used historically for mining of metals such as gold, copper, lead, and zinc. Abandoned mines pose a safety risk to the public, increasing the need to make all aware of the dangers of entrance into these areas. Abandoned mines are hazardous and should be left alone. For your own safety and the safety of other, do not try to enter abandoned mines. Protect yourself and your loved ones - stay out of abandoned mines.

Please follow this link for more information. >>>

Check Local Conditions

Sudden storms are common in the summer, especially in the afternoon and evening. During lightening storms, stay off ridges, and away from open meadows and isolated trees. To find out about known hazards such as flash flood warnings, slippery roads or high fire danger please visit our Current Conditions page or call/stop by the Ranger Station (Open 8:00am to 4:30pm - Monday through Friday) for the area you plan to visit. Sudden weather changes are common in the backcountry. Be prepared! Consider taking raingear, a hat, and wearing sturdy shoes or hiking boots.

Think Before You Drink

It may be tempting to drink water from a cold stream, but a microscopic organism called Giardia lamblia caused by human or animal feces may be present in the water and could cause an intestinal disorder called Giardiasis (gee-ar-dye-a-sis). All surface water on the Cleveland should be considered unsafe to drink without treatment. Chemical disinfectants are available, or carry bottled water. Always carry plenty of water.

Dehydration and Heat

High temperatures are common in the summer, but can occur throughout the year. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can result from continued exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Adults require two quarts of water per day and four quarts or more for strenuous activity at high elevations. To maintain a high energy level and avoid dehydration:

  • Drink 8 to 16 ounces of water before hiking.
  • Drink frequently when on the trail.
  • Drink as much water as possible during lunch and throughout the evening.
  • Limit caffeine drinks such as coffee or cola.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks.
  • Plan ahead for drinking water. Don't allow water to run out before resupplying.
  • Take breaks in the shade.

Prevent sunburn by wearing lightweight, light colored, and loose fitting clothing that allows air to circulate and sweat to evaporate while offering protection from direct sun. Bare skin absorbs the sun's radiant heat and raises body temperature. Understand the signs and symptoms of heat disorders including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.


Hypothermia is a potentially fatal condition caused by a progressive loss of body temperature. When a person experiences chilling at a rate greater than their body's ability to generate heat, their body functions will slow or diminish. Hypothermia can become a problem in relatively mild conditions. Any time wind chill temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) and especially if a person becomes wet from precipitation or perspiration, conditions are ripe for the development of hypothermia. Since prevention is more effective than any cure, the traveler should keep the following in mind:

  • Keep your skin and clothing dry and drink a lot of water.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking as they impair your body's ability to regulate blood flow.
  • Symptoms include fits of shivering, vague and slurred speech, memory lapses, fumbling hands, a lurching walk, drowsiness and exhaustion, and an apparent lack of concern about physical discomfort.

Hypothermia victims must be removed from wind and wetness. Remove all wet clothing and place the person in a dry sleeping bag with another person to transfer and restore body heat. Give the victim warm drinks, but not coffee or alcohol. When you are ready to resume traveling, make sure no one becomes wet or chilled again.

If You Get Lost

If you get lost, stay calm and don't panic. Stop and try to figure out where you are. Look for peaks or landmarks. Use your head and not your legs! Three of anything such as shouts, whistle blasts, or reflected light from a mirror or a flash light is a sign of distress. Carry a rescue whistle for emergency use.


Rattlesnakes are frequently encountered on the Cleveland National Forest, especially during the warm summer months. Snakes are defensive and rarely attack unless provoked. When going through thick underbrush be alert, walk slowly and give snakes ample time to move out of the way. Use a hiking stick and wear high top hiking shoes. Stay on clear paths as much as possible. Be careful where you place your feet and hands at all times.


Mountain lions inhabit about half of California generally in areas where deer are plentiful. As their population recovers and increases, so have their contacts with humans who venture into their territory. Following are a few tips from the California Department of Fish and Game:

  • Always keep children close. Don't let them run off.
  • Never approach a lion.
  • Never run from a lion. It might chase you. Stand, face the animal, and make eye contact. Pick up small children without bending or turning away from the lion.
  • Try to look big. Raise your arms, open your jacket. Make noise.
  • For more information about mountain lions contact the California Department of Fish and Game.

Rodents and their Burrows

Avoid setting up camp near rodent burrows. (Look for holes in the ground, and near rocks and tree stumps.) Fleas from rodents can carry bubonic plague.

Leaves of Three--Let It Be

Poison oak is found up to 5,000 feet elevation. Learn to identify and avoid it. Poison oak has waxy-looking leaves that grow in lobes of three and change from green to red or maroon in fall.

Driving on Forest Roads

Passenger Cars - Improved surface roads, identified on the Forest visitor map, are suitable for passenger cars, but may not be as smooth or as well maintained as County Roads. Vehicles that are not licensed for use on the street and highways may not be operated on these roads except when specifically authorized.

High Clearance Vehicles & Pickup Trucks - Most national forest roads are one-lane dirt roads with turnouts for passing oncoming traffic and are not maintained for passenger cars. Unsurfaced or Native dirt roads receive only minimal maintenance but may be used by high clearance SUV’s and pickup trucks. These roads are not suited for passenger car travel. If you choose to travel minimally maintained roads, you may find rocks, downed trees, road washouts, and brush encroaching on the roadway. Drive slowly and carry equipment such as an axe, shovel, gloves, and fuel.

Many of these roads are closed during wet weather. Even where they are not closed, please DO NOT drive these roads in wet weather because you will leave tire ruts. Some route markers may be missing, so watch for changes in road conditions. Check with the local Forest Service Office for specific travel information

Closed Roads

  • Many roads are on private land and not available for public use. Please respect the rights of property owners.
  • Forest roads are sometimes closed for a variety of reasons:
    • during wet weather and in the winter to prevent the rutting of soft roadbeds
    • to reduce disturbances to wildlife during nesting season and other critical periods
    • to ensure public safety or because of high fire danger.
  • Road use may also be restricted because of maintenance work and other administrative tasks that are being done.

Rules of the Road - Safe driving requires alertness. The forest road system is different from streets and highways. Road conditions vary dramatically and roads are used by a variety of travelers. Licensed high clearance vehicles, recreational vehicles, horseback riders, mountain bikes and hikers are common sights on the back roads of the forest. Most national forest roads are one-lane dirt roads with turnouts for passing oncoming traffic and are not maintained for passenger cars. Use these descriptions to plan an enjoyable trip best suited for your vehicle and driving experience.

Winter Vehicle Travel  - Snow conditions result in closure of some Forest Service Roads and state highways over mountain passes. Tire chains may be required. Winter travelers should carry tire chains at all times and be prepared to spend long periods of time in the car. Carry blankets or sleeping bags, a shovel, water, food and other necessities, and travel with a full tank of gas.

Tread Lightly

Tread lightly is a practice that allows you to enjoy the National Forest without changing or damaging it. It is a willingness to assume responsibility to care for the land and respect the rights of those you meet along the way and those who follow you. The five basic principles of the "Tread Lightly" program are to:

  • Travel only where permitted
  • Respect the right s of others
  • Educate yourself
  • Avoid streams, meadows, and wildlife
  • Drive and travel responsibly