No, you won’t have an epiphany and find yourself. You’ll die.

Image credit: the author

One of the great joys in my life is accepting the weight of a well-packed Bergen on my back and setting off into the wilderness. I’ve hiked the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, the Alps, and the Drakensberg Range, not to mention the Flinders Range down under. More prosaically I’ve tabbed the Fan Dance over the Brecon Beacons.

I love being out-of-doors and alone in the silence and the majesty of mountains.

My childhood was chaotic and unsafe and the adults in my life were incompetent and untrustworthy. Not surprisingly this means that I’m the opposite. I’ve spent my life acquiring skills and honing them to adequacy. So when I set off into the wilderness I’m modestly confident that I’m bringing with me the things I’ll need to enjoy my time plus the things I’ll need if things go pear-shaped. Not for me the ultralight approach to hiking that presumes civilization is always within cellphone reach.

Sure, I did once spend five days in the Sierra Nevadas with only a hunting knife and a magnesium flint just to see if all the survival skills I’d learned over the years would really work. They did, but it was a pretty miserable experience all the same.

And here’s the thing: I rarely encounter anyone else out in the wilderness. When I do, chances are they’re lost and disoriented and thirsty and exhausted. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to administer first aid and water to people who seemed to believe that the wilderness is a Disney cartoon. One time, in the Ventana mountains south of Carmel I came across a mother, father, and ten-year-old son who were seriously suffering from heat stroke. They’d set out in July without a map, wearing flip-flops, and with a single 33cl bottle of water between the three of them.

When I found them their feet were bloody, they all had severe sunburn, and they were dehydrated. The mother was weeping softly and three-quarters incoherent. Because I always carry a full medkit and plenty of water I was able to patch them up, rehydrate them slowly, and then point them in the direction of safety.

As for that meme about getting lost in the wilderness and finding yourself… Well, in a way it’s true. If you get lost in the wilderness and you are clueless, you will find yourself. You’ll find you are at the end of your personal journey through this life.

I love being in the wilderness because it gives me time to think, to breath, and to feel how truly small and insignificant my life is. The rocks and trees around me were there long before I was born and will be there long after I’ve turned to dust. I like the solitude and the fact that I rely on myself 100% for the most basic elements of survival.

Hence my well-stocked Bergen.

Bergen with gollock (better than an ax or a machete)

When I’m in the wilderness I adapt to its exigencies. I poop into a plastic sack and carry it out along with any other waste materials I amass during my journey. I use a JetBoil to heat water so I don’t need to hurt the environment with a camp fire. I tread lightly and try to leave no sign because that’s how I feel the wilderness should be respected. I’m a guest, not a conquering hero.

I use modern technologies like my activated carbon water filter in order to reduce the impact my presence will have on the landscape I’m passing through. And I use a Petzl headlamp with a red light in order to be able to cover ground after last light without disrupting my night vision.

But always I’m aware that the wilderness is not a theme park. Break a leg thirty kilometers from the nearest road and it’s going to hurt to get back to civilization. Get dysentery in the middle of the Rockies and hydration is going to be Job One for quite a while.

Nature doesn’t fuck about, so nor do I.

No one should wander out without being physically and mentally prepared and with the necessary equipment. Even a day hike requires fitness and preparation. Your daysack should contain a first aid kit, plenty of water, a water filter, a survival bag, a hunting knife, wet-wipes, at least two different ways to make fire, plenty of high-calorie food, and two different kinds of light (head torch and hand torch). Plus a map, compass (and the ability to use it…) and a GPS unit with spare batteries. US maps are rubbish, so finding maps with Lat/Long or UTM coordinates is essential.

If you’re going to spend one or more nights out of doors, you’ll need to add a proper sleeping bag (ideally with a Gore-Tex shell and a lightweight inflatable mattress pad to stop your body heat draining into the ground below) and more food and water, plus a change of socks at the minimum. I always carry paracord and duct tape because it’s amazing what you can improvise with these two bits of kit. A good hat is essential in sunny climes and a warm hat essential in cold climates. Gore-Tex jacket & pants are pretty much mandatory if there’s a chance of serious rain, and broken-in sturdy hiking boots are probably the most important item in anyone’s kit list.

Some people find it comforting to bring a whistle in the hope of attracting attention if they get into trouble. Personally, I think the idea of anyone coming along when you need them is wishful thinking. I’d rather be prepared to cope on my own.

Hiking in the wilderness is like any other skill: you need to learn how to do it and you need the right equipment. Otherwise your life will be miserable.

For me, military kit does the job. I know it will survive anything nature throws at it and thereby increase my own chances of survival. But it’s heavier than modern kit and there’s no shoulder-saving hip belt to take the bulk of the weight. Often, I finish the trip with things in my Bergen I’ve not needed. But I’d rather have them there and not need them than not have them there and need them. Even at 61 years of age I’m happy enough accepting a little extra weight to gain a lot more peace of mind — and to have a much greater ability to help others who didn’t bother to plan ahead.

Being in the wilderness is a great privilege. I’m confident many people can benefit from a few days out in the wild. But if you decide you’d like to try it, please get into shape first and please take proper equipment with you. Because there’s nothing romantic about getting lost in the wilderness.

The only thing you’ll find if you get lost is how quickly your life can slip through your fingers.

And that won’t make for a good fireside story at all.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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