One mid-October day on my road trip, I was headed to Yosemite. It was getting to be late afternoon and I wanted to catch sunset at Glacier Point. I usually have my campsite set up by this time, but in order to catch the sunset, I decided to camp at a site just outside the park, even though it would mean getting in late.
Glacier Point was as incredible as I had imagined, pink and luminous, and by 7pm I had moved on. An hour later it was dark. After stopping to watch the rock climbers on El Capitan, I was making my way East on Tioga road when I saw two guys with their thumbs out. The look on their faces was pretty desperate. They weren’t the typical bearded, backwards hat, pants rolled at the ankles, Chacos and some kind of technical backpack climber dudes you see in Yosemite. No, these guys were pretty clean cut and didn’t have a whole lot of stuff with them. I very, very rarely pick up hitch-hikers when I travel solo, but this seemed like an exception. I pulled over.
When I picked Joe & Yo up, I was blasting Bon Iver eating peanut butter with a spoon. I explained that I didn’t have back seats because I slept in my car, so we’d all have to squeeze in the front. They probably thought I was crazy.
Exasperated, the guys expressed their thanks. Yo tried to give me $20. I laughed.
“Guys, you would have been picked up eventually,” I said.
Still, they responded, “You saved our lives!”
I asked where they were staying. Their campsite was a little bit out of the way, so I asked if they had room for another car. They said yes. Bingo, my campsite for the night.
When we got to camp, I took a better look at Joe and Yo, and of course, laughed about how their names happened to rhyme. They struck me as city boys, and when I asked, they confirmed that yes, they came from San Francisco for a quick camping trip. It was probably around 45 degrees at this point, about 9pm.
I felt a little guilty as I cooked a huge feast and they heated up their cans of soup on a brand-new-tags-still-on MSR Pocket Rocket, which I did assure them, is a great stove. Joe started making a fire. I somewhat resisted the urge to help.
I asked how they got themselves in a situation where they had to be picked up on the side of Tioga Road by some girl with a car bed. Joe pulled out the map they give you when you roll into the park.
“Well, last time I was here, I went this far,” he measured with his fingers. “And so I figured I could go this far.” He laughed a little, probably recognizing that he sounded a little ridiculous. I tried really hard to not to give him my “Holy Shit, That Was Dumb” face.
Joe wasn’t even sure if the whole path they took was on the map.
From what he could guess, it seemed like it had been a 16 mile day, including a summit. And they had done it with a liter of water each, no backcountry map, and definitely no headlamps.
Joe and Yo were lucky, but not only because I picked them up. There are just so many things that could have gone wrong on their hike that day that I was frankly amazed that having to hitch-hike was the worst thing that happened to them!
Here are some of the basics that the guys should have considered, and what you can learn from them.
Beautiful and humbling in many ways.
How long is the hike?
And is there elevation gain? Understand what 16 miles feels like. If you’ve never hiked before, that’s gonna be painful… and dangerous. The Visitor’s Center at any National Park will be an excellent resource, and Park Rangers can recommend great hikes. Make it a priority to check in with a Ranger at the Visitor’s Center to ask about conditions and get recommendations for your time in any National Park.
What do we pack?
Once you know what hike you are going on and have an estimate of how long that will take you, consider what you should bring. If this is going to be an all-day event, bring at least two liters of water… more (sometimes even double) if it’s hot. Bring food for the day. Bring synthetic or wool layers, a hat and sunscreen if it’s sunny, and a rain jacket if there is any precipitation whatsoever in the forecast. I was taught to always bring a rain jacket, but I know people that forego it if the weather forecasts a bluebird day. Bring a small first aid kit and a headlamp. You never know when you’ll need it.
Should we tell someone where we are going?
Yes, yes and yes. Let someone know what trail you are headed on, and when they can expect you back.
Overall, know the weather, the time the sun is setting, and your limits. Don’t push it or try to be a superhero– mother nature will always win.
I don’t know a single mountaineer, climber, or hiker who has never been in a situation where they felt underprepared… and often, they thought they had taken every precaution. The message is this: understand what you are getting yourself into and be prepared. Plan for the unexpected so that if and when it happens, you can get yourself out of trouble ASAP.
These are the basics. Obviously, they are important. If you’re interested in learning even more about the backcountry, I recommend taking a course– REI, NOLS, and the Sierra Club offer courses, events and outings, just to name a few organizations that offer them. There are also plenty of organizations at the local level that host outings, often free of charge– make it your business to find one. Fuel your passion by arming yourself with knowledge.
Thanks to Yo and Joe for insisting that I make an example of them!