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Wits. Gear. Grit. When everything goes wrong, surviving a wilderness trek takes all three
Paths According to Pav
John A. Pavoncello is a photographer for The York Dispatch who also loves the outdoors. Read about more treks at ydtalk.com/pavpaths.
The hikers, soaked to the core from a sudden, unexpected downpour, shook uncontrollably as the temperature fell. On the verge of hypothermia, the hiking buddies huddled under a quickly strung rainfly struggled to survive the night ...
Growing up, I loved to read the survival stories printed in Outdoor Life magazine. Stories of hikers getting lost, hunters being attacked by bears, and poisonous snakes jumping into fishing boats captured me and led me to a decades-long interest in learning how to survive. Little did I know some of that knowledge was going to be helpful during a recent backpacking trip.
I prepped for the upcoming hike as I usually do. I laid out all my essential gear on the back porch, making sure I had the ropes, cords, stakes, utensils, tools, etc. I would need for four days on the trail in South Carolina. Knowing the nights get cool in the mountains (yes, there are mountains in South Carolina), I tossed a pair of lightweight long underwear into my clothing bag. On a whim, I added a cheap, lightweight space blanket and an equally cheap and lightweight rain poncho to my pack, just in case.
My trip was what has become an annual long-weekend getaway with my longtime friend Scott, who moved to South Carolina about 10 years ago. Each year we get together and go backpacking for a few days, sharing our love of hiking and the outdoors and catching up. We've hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains, northern Pennsylvania, and most recently started hiking the Foothills Trail in northwestern South Carolina. Located near the borders of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the Foothills Trail is 77 miles of beautifully maintained trail along wild trout-filled streams and crossing expansive, bald vistas. It offers true back-country hiking, just an hour or so from Clemson University. We started hiking the trail back in 2013, covering 30-plus miles in three days, meandering along the creeks and rivers, often with fly rod in hand. I stood on a rock that marks the intersection of three states and caught a wild rainbow trout that I hooked in Georgia, fought through South Carolina and landed in North Carolina. The trail was smooth, mostly flat and easy going.
Our task for our recent trip was not going to be as easy. Starting where we left off two years ago, the trail was pretty much all up-hill from there. We parked one car at Table Rock State Park, where we would end, and traveled about an hour to where we would pick up the trail. The skies were blue and clear, and the weatherman on the radio announced partly to mostly cloudy skies and a 20 to 40 percent chance of rain for the next four days, with possible showers overnight Thursday.
After a quick, beginning-of-the-trail photo, Scott and I started heading north, and up. 10 a.m. and beautiful blue skies. Ahead, we had 44 miles of up and down several mountains, and one area called the Jocassee Steps where we had to traverse 300-plus wooden steps up the mountain and an equal number down the other side. Did I ever mention I hate steps?
We made quick work of the first 4 miles or so and took a break sitting in the sun on big rocks in the middle of a creek. Our planned destination was a campsite 4-5 miles away and we set off on our way. Around 3:30 p.m. we came to the campsite and met the only other hiker we saw all day. He was heading out, trying to finish where we started and so we would have had the campsite to ourselves.
I like setting up camp early. I've had too many experiences in my years of trying to set up tents or hammocks in the dark, eating by headlamp and crawling into the sleeping bag in pure exhaustion. So when I can do it, I prefer to get our shelters set, food cooked and have time to chill and talk before dark. All that said, this is not what we decided to do. We pushed on, with our sights set for another campsite 2.5 miles away. When hiking multi-day trips, we've learned to try and make each day's hike about the same length. By putting in the extra 2.5 miles on the first day, it would set us up to actually have a really short hike, maybe 6-7 miles, the last day instead of the 10 or so we originally planned.
About 6 p.m. we arrived at the targeted campsite. It was a disaster. No, really. It looked like a tornado had passed through the area. Someone had started clearing the fallen trees, but the site was really not appealing. For one things, we were both using hammocks instead of tents, and the vast majority of usable trees were now firewood.Widow-makers, large limbs and dead trees, hung over the few standing trees. At this point a light drizzle started. So much for rain not arriving until overnight. We decided to push on and see if we could find a safer place to camp for the night.
Leaving the campsite, we started on a long climb up the mountain. We were already pretty beat from the 10-11 miles we had done, and about a mile after we left the campsite, the heavy rain hit. Neither of us even had a chance to put rain gear on or cover our bags. Within minutes we were both absolutely soaked. It was near 7 p.m., and between the clouds and the woods, getting dark. We made the decision to turn around and head back to the campsite we'd passed through. We had to get shelter and get dry.
Going back down the mountain was faster than going up, mostly because of the urgency of being wet. By the time we reached the camp area, the rain was at a downpour and the temperature had dropped by nearly 20 degrees. We quickly found two trees so I could set my rainfly up, not an easy task with numb fingers and shaking hands. It was at this point I realized we were in bad shape.
Hypothermia is defined as a "potentially dangerous" drop in body temperature. During exposure to a sudden drop in temperature, up to 90 percent of body heat is lost through the skin (some goes from the air we exhale). When we're wet, that heat loss can be 25 times faster. Most people think of hypothermia as something that happens in the winter, when there are cold winds and snow involved. But hypothermia can happen anywhere there is a sudden, rapid temperature change. The air can be 85 degrees, but if you fall in a 50 degree spring-fed creek, you can quickly experience hypothermia.
One of the first symptoms of hypothermia is uncontrolled shaking. As I tried to connect tie-downs to our rain fly, my hands shook like I suffered from advanced Parkinson's disease. Another symptom is confusion and fatigue. I watched Scott fumbling as he tried to set up my Jetboil stove. Yep, that's No. 2.
One thing I've noticed over the years is the amazing ability for stories to grow in scale in the outdoors. You know how it goes ... the buck we missed had an extra point or two and the fish we caught was 18 inches instead of 15. "Fish tales" are a huge part of fireside discussion among outdoorsmen, and it's easy to let the story grow the more times you tell it. By the same token, it's really easy to downplay something potentially serious. We don't want to admit we made a mistake, don't want our loved ones to worry the next time we go out, so we tend to minimize th e bad as we boast the good. I have to admit, this time I was scared — probably the most scared I've been since I nearly drowned while fishing as a teen. But I also knew fear could potentially make the situation we were in even more dangerous. I thought back to those adventure and survival stories in Outdoor Life and told myself we could get through this. And we did.
After much bumbling and stumbling, the shelter was up, the stove was lit, water was boiled and we were putting hot food in our stomachs. We had shed some of the wet clothing, and while not even remotely dry, we had on a warm layer along with our rain gear to cut the heat loss. After a bit, the shaking stopped and the fogginess cleared enough to set up Scott's hammock under my rainfly, and, once his shelter was up, moving my fly to a position where I could comfortably stretch out on the ground. There wasn't another suitable pair of trees in the vicinity that I could hang my hammock so I opted to lay my sleeping pad on the ground and pass out with the bugs.
The cheap rain poncho was pulled over the foot of my sleeping bag to keep it dry. The emergency space blanket was wrapped around the middle of my bag to shed water and send my body heat back where it belonged. And it rained. All night.
I have to admit it. Our hike this year was miserable. The absolute worst time I've ever had in the outdoors. The rain continued until we were in the last 3 miles or so of our trip. Friday it dropped 5 to 7 INCHES of rain on us during what would be the longest and most difficult day of the trip. Remember the Jocassee Steps I mentioned before? As we climbed those steps, water was flowing down the trail like a creek nearly a foot deep in places. When we stumbled off the trail Sunday afternoon, our packs weighed at least 10 pounds more than when we went in, all water weight from soaked clothing, sleeping bags and packs. While the weather was miserable, the company was great and I took away a few things to think about.
We had the knowledge, and the common sense, not to panic when things started going downhill. Having good gear makes coping easier, but knowledge is by far the most important "tool" to have. Several times a year I read about searches for lost hikers. Just recently a group of teens were rescued in the White Mountains of New Hampshire after getting lost using Google Maps on their phone as their only source of navigation. The knowledge of reading a map and using a compass is just as important in today's high-tech world as it was 100 years before smartphones and GPS. Bic lighters are awesome, but knowing how to use flint and steel to start a fire could save your life if the lighter gets lost or wet.Many outdoor stores and organizations provide training for almost all the skills you could need. REI Stores (I am not affiliated in any way) provide a wealth of information. They offer classes, some at no charge, in everything from basic hiking to wilderness survival.A quick search of the Internet will list hundreds of classes and programs that make the idea of being "naked and afraid" in the wilderness a joke.
Do not rely solely on your equipment. I am a gear-junkie and I love the high-tech clothes, watches, GPS, packs and tents available today. But sometimes tried-and-true wool beats those breathable synthetics and GoreTex (especially when wet), and there are times that a length of Paracord and a cheap plastic tarp will do more as a shelter than the most expensive tent. I'm not saying don't buy good gear. But make sure you know how to use it and have a simple, no-brain backup.All the gear my buddy and I were carrying and neither of us thought to bring a 8-by-10 tarp that could have kept our packs and gear dry, provided shelter while we cooked, and taken no extra space in our packs. The decision to bring the long underwear was a great one, providing me with one item of clothing that was warm, and thanks to a Ziploc bag, dry, to sleep in each night. My hiking pants were soaked the entire weekend, and I ended up hiking in the long underwear and a pair of shorts the last day. The shorts were lightweight and held little water and the underwear provided an extra layer of thermal protection and reduced heat loss.
Another thing I have learned is to keep your emergency gear on you at all times. Having to dig through your backpack to find a headlamp and poncho when it's pitch black and raining is not a good idea. In the past few years, I have been using a small, auxiliary chest pack made by Hill People Gear to carry all my first line survival gear. In it I carry light (Petzel headlamp and a single AA flashlight), fire (striker and ferro rod, tinder, and yes, a Bic lighter), shelter (emergency poncho, space blanket, Paracord) and water (Aquamira Frontier Straw water filter), along with a fixed-blade knife, small first aid kit, a small survival kit (signal mirror, compass, dock line and needle) and a snack or two. Any maps I have for the area we are hiking go into the HPG bag too. Depending on the situation, I even sleep with the HPG bag on, that way if I need to get out of camp in the middle of the night, I can and still have the basic emergency gear with me.In the end, while our experience ended up not being worthy of an article in Outdoor Life, it was a great reminder that Mother Nature still rules and basic skills from when we hunted our meals with spears can still play a role in this modern world.