Real life isn’t Disney, and it’s important to know this.

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Image credit: The Wilderness Society

There’s a silly meme that floats around the Internet and resurfaces on a regular basis. You’ve probably seen it: a beautiful picture of some wilderness scene over which is superimposed a cliché such as Get Lost In Nature And Find Yourself.

Here’s the reality: get lost in nature and chances are you’ll die. Because nature isn’t a Disney movie backdrop and reality can be very unforgiving.

Fortunately most people remain content to keep their wilderness explorations confined to watching shows on TV or playing videogames with nature as a backdrop.

Unfortunately a few people do occasionally imagine they can just wander out into nature with as little forethought and preparation as a stroll down to the end of the driveway to check the mailbox.

I spent twenty-seven years in the USA and during that time I avidly explored as much wilderness as time and money would permit. And while most people rarely stray more than half a mile from the trailhead, far too often I’d find myself rescuing people who’d set out in the morning without any comprehension of the kinds of trouble they could get themselves into.

Such as the wife, husband, and eleven-year-old boy who went out into the Ventana mountains one July morning wearing t-shirts and flip-flops and carrying a single 33cl bottle of water between the three of them. When I came upon them at 13.20 they were all disoriented, sunburned, and seriously dehydrated. They had no idea where they were, nor where they needed to get to. If I hadn’t turned up the chances are they’d all have suffered serious injury or worse. As it was, I was able to bandage their feet, apply Aloe Vera to their burns, rehydrate them carefully, and then lead them slowly back to the nearest trailhead from which they could catch a bus back to their hotel.

Then there was the Asian woman who inexplicably thought she could hike down the White Angel Trail from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon wearing high heels and a little white evening dress. She set out just before sunset. I found her by the side of the trail as I ascended an hour later, the heels snapped from her shoes and her knees bloody from having fallen in the darkness. Perhaps a Ranger would have found her later, or a late-returning mule team. But I was alone on the trail and so I was the one who led her back to the safety of the Rim.

And neither of these examples were even in real wilderness.

Then there are the Macho Men, the guys who dress up in camo and carry their weapons as a symbol of faux virility. These guys stick to trails, smash beer bottles, scatter candy bar wrappers, and leave their poop for others to step into. They love to wear plaid shirts and become bellicose should anyone object to their “manly” desecration of the wilderness. Oh, and their weapons-handling is abysmal so the risk of a negligent discharge is always far too high.

Yet despite all of this human folly, nature is astonishing and we can learn a great deal by exposing ourselves to environments that offer far greater riches than the local movie theatre or the nearest McSlop franchise. The trick is to be prepared.

The first preparation is personal. Can we undertake a walk of at least five miles without suffering fatigue and muscle cramps? Can we scramble up hills and descend in a controlled manner? Can we carry a 25lb pack for that distance without our backs and shoulders protesting and our knees screaming for mercy? If not, we should start by building up slowly. Because frankly five miles is nothing at all, and if we can’t hack this short distance we’ve no business imagining we can stroll into the wilderness like some legendary explorer.

Staying with the personal, can we navigate? Remember: Google Maps may not be available when we’re out of cellular range. Basic map & compass skills are essential, and it’s always nice to have a GPS unit as well. But that means our map needs to have coordinates along the sides, which sadly very few US maps possess. Without coordinates, we won’t know where we are. And forget, absolutely forget, those funny little trail diagrams you see in far too many “Great Trails of the Wilderness” books. They are worse than useless.

Next preparation is what we take with us. At a bare minimum we need the following:

· Water (lots and lots and lots)

· High-calorie food such as Mainstay 3600 or some sort of sweet bar product

· First Aid Kit (and knowledge of what’s inside it and how to use it, and supplement it with what you’ll need that didn’t come with it when you unwrapped it)

· Survival bag

· Two different types of torch (head torch, hand torch, loads of spare batteries)

· Compass, map, GPS unit, spare batteries

· Hunting knife

· Paracord

· Duct tape

· Rainproof jacket

· Warm hat (yes, even in summer)

· At least two different ways to make fire (magnesium flint & cotton wool balls smeared with petroleum jelly, storm-proof matches, hexamine fuel tablets, manually operated lighter)

If you’re thinking, “I don’t need all that just to go out on a day hike” then you don’t really understand nature at all. I’ve started out in the morning under clear blue skies that, by mid-afternoon, have turned dark and cold and thundery. I’ve ascended mountains that at the base were benign and pleasant yet near the top had treacherous gusts of high wind. And I’ve seen people trip and fall and injure themselves and thus become unable to complete even a relatively modest return to the trailhead.

Which is why I hike, in addition to the aforementioned list, with more equipment that will keep me or others alive and well even when things go badly wrong. This is the antithesis of the ultralight hiker concept, because ultralight hikers depend on everything going perfectly and in my experience that’s a great recipe for one day running into trouble we can’t get out of unless we’re lucky enough to have someone like me, carrying “too much and too heavy” equipment, to save the day.

In addition I prefer to tread as lightly as possible, which means I take odor-proof poop bags with me so I can pack out my waste matter. It means I don’t make fires but instead use a JetBoil to heat water and rehydrate freeze-dried sachets of food. It means I don’t cut down wood unless someone’s life depends on making a shelter for the night or a fire to keep them from hypothermia. And it means I don’t go around blasting away at wildlife in an attempt to compensate for deep-seated personal inadequacies or to give life to immature ideas of what it means to be a “real man.” I will kill something if that will keep me or someone else alive, but I’ll do it quickly and efficiently.

Nature deserves our respect. And that means being wary, because the wilderness doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee.

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