12 Things You Need to Know to Survive the Wild West
1. Pack Light
This is probably the toughest on the list, but it’s important to remember that everything is good in moderation, including your belongings. The last thing you want is to be stuck rummaging through hundreds of different items to find what you need. Loading, unloading, carrying and digging through hoards of unnecessary items while traveling is a pain, so think through what you’re going to need and choose your items wisely. Throwing in frivolities like an extra pair of cute boots or seven pairs of flip flops may seem okay if you’re traveling by car, but don’t be fooled. Car or no car, these unnecessary items that you may or may not wear once will only serve to get in your way during the day to day. To avoid having to move too much stuff around, pack and organize your items in chronological order of necessity. Accessibility is key. If you know you’re climbing in southern climates two weeks before you snowboard up north, place your cold weather gear in the back and leave the things you’ll actually use positioned where you can reach them. When in doubt, bring a pack animal.
2. Cotton kills (even organic cotton)
Avoiding cotton seems to be the fundamental principal of clothing yourself for wilderness survival. This is especially true during winter as well as in cold or wet climates. Although cotton absorbs perspiration it does not move it away from your body, leaving you feeling cold and wet any time you stop long enough for your clothes to settle. Cotton also takes forever to dry and it won’t keep you warm, increasing your chances of hypothermia or pulled muscles. If you have dogs, make sure their warm or wet weather gear is up for the task.
Choose quick dry and breathable, but insulating materials like wool, silk or synthetic fabrics. Light, thin, breathable, and sweat-wicking, silk makes a great base layer and will keep you comfortable even when you perspire. Wool is great for warmth and water resistance. In fact, while its exterior is water-repellant, the interior of a wool fiber can hold up to 30% of its weight in moisture before ever feeling wet or clammy. Wool is also full of nature’s most efficient insulators – air pockets – and creates additional warmth upon contact with moisture by releasing energy in the form of heat. Lastly, don’t be afraid to explore synthetic options such as polyester, acrylic, or fleece, which are being specifically engineered to be quick-drying, moisture-wicking, thermal, as well as wind and UV resistant.
3. Bring a shell (i.e. a rain jacket / wind breaker)
Quick-drying, water-resistant fabrics are great for hot days and sweaty people, but the American West is a land of unpredictable weather conditions, meaning that precipitation or increased wind speeds could roll in at any moment. To stay warm and dry always keep a shell handy. Shells come in a variety of insulation layers so be sure you’re familiar with the weather patterns of your intended adventure location and choose a jacket that will keep you warm, but won’t make you sweat.
You never know when the next Boulder flood is coming through, so be prepared to stay dry.
4. Orient yourself, carry a map, and use your compass
It’s essential to know where you are going. Anytime you’re venturing somewhere new, be sure to have a good look at Google maps and/or Google Earth prior to your departure. Get familiar with the lay of the land and develop a mental image of your route. Carrying an actual map and compass rather than just your iPhone on long adventures is critical. Depending on weather and your location, trail systems can become confusing (especially after sunset), potentially leaving you lost and alone in the woods with no way to orient yourself. When you’re deep in nature at dusk and the GPS on your mobile device is suffering from inadequate cell phone coverage or a dead battery, you’ll be glad to have an old school map and compass in your hands. On longer trips, be sure to keep track of where you are on the map as you go. Keeping an eye on the clock and knowing how long it takes you to hike one mile is a good way to maintain a mental approximation of how far you’ve gone.
5. Carry bear spray
Since bear mace is about 10 times stronger than your average can of pepper spray, bringing it along as a means of self-defense is typically a good idea anywhere you can expect a bear encounter. While having a dog is usually a good defense against cute little black bears, it’s especially important to carry bear mace in Grizzly country. The stuff comes in a handy holster and is available for purchase at most outdoor stores. It’s point is being able to use it at a moment’s notice, so know how it works and keep your spray in arm’s reach (not buried in your backpack).
Although sometimes unfortunately mistaken, bear spray is not to be confused with bug spray. Bear spray is not a form of bear repellant, so it should not be sprayed on either oneself or around one’s tent. Doing so would not only be painful, but would soon amount to the equivalent of coating oneself in huckleberry jam. As it turns out, bears are actually attracted to bear spray residue if it is sprayed on objects or the ground. Bear spray should thus only be used in defense of an attacking bear, in which case it is to be sprayed directly into the oncoming bear’s eyes or nose.
If you’re wondering whether you might be better off bringing a gun, don’t. Not only is bear spray lighter than carrying a rifle, but research shows that when compared to the use of bear mace, a person’s chance of suffering grave injury from a charging Grizzly bear doubles if gun shots are fired. In fact, according to a report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the people who were injured defending themselves with bear mace incurred shorter attacks and less severe injuries than people who opted to use a firearm. Obviously, if you’ve had bear tags every season since you were ten, you are likely more than capable of using whatever bear attack prevention method you desire.
6. Don’t mistake wooks (or wookies) for hippies
Don’t be fooled by hemp clothing or the scent of patchouli. Despite their uncanny physical resemblance, wooks and hippies vary greatly. For instance, in contrast to the often opinionated idealism, weird healthy food preferences and earthiness that characterize hippies, wooks lack any ambition, drive, or motivation other than for copious amounts of mind-altering drugs. Usually traveling with packs and possessing a tendency to congregate in liberal areas with temperate climates (i.e. Arcata, California or Boulder, Colorado), wooks are dirty, smelly, dishonest creatures who can often be found “grooving” to music that only they can hear. Owning very few material possessions of their own, wooks have little concept of personal property, and are thus predisposed to taking anything within reach.
Image via Tao Pauly on Flickr
It is of great importance to be aware and to protect yourself from their likes. In the event that you find yourself in an area of high wook population density, exercise extreme caution, keep your valuables close to your person at all times and never leave food, drugs, or alcohol unattended. Despite a heightened level of alertness, coming into contact with a wook is sometimes unavoidable. In these instances it is important to proceed as you would with a grizzly bear: stay calm, avoid eye contact, and back away slowly. If all else fails, use your bear spray.
7. Don’t get lazy walking downhill
In anticipation of reaching the finish line, it becomes easy to start running or bum sliding when you’ve reached your decline. After the tough part you become prone to carelessness. This is how accidents happen. Never relax your vigilance or an unsuspecting rock protrusion might just be the end of you.
8. Make noise
Alert nearby wild animals of your presence so you don’t get charged. Learn to sing your favorite song, the German national anthem, or make up lyrics as they strike your fancy, but never sneak up on an unsuspecting beast because whether it’s a Grizzly bear or a mother moose, chances are you’re not going to like it. If you do happen to come upon a grizzly, be prepared to use your bear spray, but practice self-control and don’t panic (unless you have a dog who provokes the bear by barking, then panic a little bit and get your mace on). Bears are in the same boat as you are when it comes to avoiding altercations, so if you do happen upon one, stay calm, don’t look them in the eyes, and back away slowly. If you aren’t perceived as a threat, you’ll usually be fine to go on your way.
9. Look for cairns
Found all over the world and throughout human history, cairns are man-made stone piles (or stacks) erected for varying purposes in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Modern cairns are usually erected as landmarks on hiking, mountain biking, or cross-country trails, especially in mountainous regions and above the tree line, where few other points of orientation may exist. As you can imagine, cairns become especially useful when trekking through snow-covered land without visible trail.
10. Always carry a headlamp
Incase you ever need to climb into a dark hole, be prepared with a light source. Keep a headlamp in your car and always carry a headlamp if you are going on a long hike or into an area where you don’t get cell phone reception. You never know when the perfect opportunity for light photography will present itself, so be sure to keep your light writing utensil accessible. Incase you get injured, lost, or into some sort of pickle you won’t be left without light as the sun sets.
11. Keep candles and survival supplies in your car
If you are ever stranded in cold weather, burning a candle in your car can raise the room temperature by about 10 degrees. Incase you get a flat tire or slide off the road in bad weather, keep your vehicle stocked with some candles to avoid freezing. In addition to candles you should also keep items like a blanket, extra water, matches, and other survival items.
12. Don’t feed the animals
A fed bear is a dead bear, so don’t feed the bears or any other wild animals (not even squirrels like the one being fed by tourists at Crater Lake National Park above). Once you teach animals to associate humans with food, you’re putting yourself and everyone else who might possibly come into contact with said animals in danger. You’re also putting a target on those animals heads, because the closer wild animals get to humans the more likely they are to be shot. Also, it goes without saying that human foods are not part of wild animals’ natural diets, so despite the number of tourists I see feeding GoldFish crackers to mountain goats at Glacier National Park, I can’t help but think that not feeding wild animals is pure logic.