Back Country Safety Tips

The back country is beautiful, but also primitive.  You will be on your own.  Check with the local Ranger District, Ranger Station, or Supervisor's office for the latest weather conditions before starting your hike.  The rangers can give you information on possible hazards such as swollen creeks and snow conditions.  They can generally issue you any permits that may be required.

  • Giardia.  An intestinal disorder called Giardiasis (gee-ar-dye-a-sis) is a disease that may be contracted from drinking untreated "natural" water.  The disease is caused by a microscopic organism, Giardia lamblia, the cystic form of which is often found in mountain streams and lakes.  Such waters may be clear, cold, and free-running, and look, smell, and taste good, but you should be aware of possible danger.

    Although Giardiasis can be incapacitating, it is not usually life-threatening.  Symptoms usually include diarrhea, increased gas, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps and bloating.  These discomforts may appear a few days to a few weeks after ingestion of Giardia, and may last up to six weeks.

    Most people are unaware that they have been infected and have often returned home before the onset of symptoms.  Other diseases can have similar symptoms, but if you drank untreated water you should suspect Giardiasis and inform your doctor, who can prescribe medicine to cure Giardia.
  • Water Treatment.  The most certain means of destroying Giardia and other organisms is to boil your water.  Water should be boiled at least five minutes at sea level.  Add one minute for each additional thousand feet of elevation.

    Chemical treatment with iodine or chlorine effectively kills bacterial organisms, but the same treatment will not reliably kill Giardia, a protozoan.  Filters designed to eliminate Giardia are available but exercise care in storing the filter to prevent the contaminated parts from contact with the clean water outlet.  Containers can also be contaminated by rinsing prior to holding filtered water.
  • Sanitation.  Giardiasis and other diseases can be readily transmitted between humans and animals.  Human or animal feces can contain the organism, and good sanitary practices should be followed to prevent spreading disease through food handling.  Waste should be buried 6 inches deep and 200 feet away from water sources and any water course.
  • Hypothermia.  Hypothermia, which is caused by a rapid loss of body heat, is the most dangerous illness of backcountry travel.  It can strike even when temperatures are well above freezing, under unexpected conditions.  Drastic lowering of the inner body temperature causes rapid, progressive mental and physical collapse.

    Victims often don't recognize the symptoms, and don't suspect hypothermia under mild conditions.  All back country travelers should be aware and alert to the symptoms of hypothermia, and be able to act to ensure recovery.  Symptoms include fits of shivering, vague and slurred speech, memory lapses, fumbling hands, a lurching walk, drowsiness and exhaustion, and apparent unconcern about physical discomfort.

    Hypothermia victims must be removed from wind and wetness. Remove all wet clothing articles, and place the person in a dry sleeping bag to restore body heat.  If the victim is conscious, he should be given warm drinks, but not coffee or other stimulants.  Victims of hypothermia should be carried out of the back country in windproof and waterproof coverings.

    To prevent hypothermia, choose clothing and equipment carefully. Rain clothes should protect against wind-driven rain and cover all body parts.  Wool and some synthetic fabrics will retain heat when wet; cotton does not retain heat when wet, and can contribute to body chill.
  • Altitude Sickness.  Altitude sickness occurs at high altitudes, where the air contains less oxygen than at sea level.  Victims of altitude sickness should stop and rest, breathe deeply and slowly return to lower elevations.  The chance of being affected by altitude sickness can be reduced by spending a day at altitude to become acclimated before performing any strenuous activity.  All persons should be aware of the need to drink additional fluids at high elevations, to avoid becoming dehydrated.
  • Hyperventilation.  Hyperventilation is caused by breathing too rapidly and a decrease of the carbon dioxide level in the blood.  This causes lightheadedness and a cold feeling.  The victim should be calmed, and should breathe into a bag, hat, or glove until normal breathing is restored.

    Exhaustion may occur when a member of a group is trying too hard, but is embarrassed to ask the group to move more slowly.  A good principle of back country travel is to move slowly, rest often, and drink and snack frequently to restore energy.
  • Emergencies.  If you become lost, stay calm and don't panic.  Try to figure out where you are: use your head and not your legs!  Carry a police whistle and small mirror for emergency use.  Three of anything (shouts, whistle blasts, flashes of reflected light from a mirror) are a sign of distress.
  • Rodent Burrows.  Avoid setting up camp near rodent burrows.  Fleas from rodents, if they bite you, can transmit the bubonic plague.
  • Pack Stock.  When encountering travelers with horses or pack stock, move off the trail on the uphill side and allow them to pass.  Horses are easily frightened and have the right-of-way on trails.
  • Campfire Safety.  If you plan to use a portable stove or build a campfire, you must either obtain a wilderness permit for the wilderness area, or in areas where wilderness permits are not required, obtain a California Campfire Permit.  Some areas restrict use of campfires and portable stoves during periods of high fire danger.  Campfires are never allowed in Desolation Wilderness.

    In areas where campfires are allowed, use the following guidelines:  use Only dead and down wood, never breaking branches from standing trees, even if they appear dead.  By using only a small amount of wood, campers who come after you will be able to enjoy a campfire, too.  Select a level spot away from overhanging trees, bushes, or dry grass.  Avoid the base of steep hills, as fire travels uphill quickly.  Clear a circle 10 feet across down to bare dirt. Hollow out a firehole two feet across, and five or six inches deep.  Pile the soil around the edge of the firehole.  Keep the fire small, and do not start fires in windy weather.

    Put your fire out at least 1/2 hour before you start to break camp. Let the fire die down, then pour water over the wood and ashes, and spread soil over them.  Mix the soil, water, and ashes until the fire and any embers are completely out.
  • Leave No Trace Camping.  Wilderness areas can provide breathtaking vistas and quiet solitude.  They are special places that require special behavior from each of us.  Regulations alone will never guarantee protection of these special places, that will come only with your understanding of what not to do when visiting.  Please learn more about Wilderness Ethics.