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August 23, 2014

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Five basics for safely hiking and camping in the desert Southwest

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Aaron Thompson / Special to the Home News

A group of Summerlin residents and hikers look at the beautiful colors in the Red Rock recreational area during a hike at the Calico Basin Trail.

Tony Nester is a wilderness survival instructor who has called the outdoors his office for more than two decades. He has written books on survival training, worked with movie stars, and offered advice in Outside Magazine and on the Discovery Channel. Yet, even someone with his experience and knowledge can make a boneheaded mistake hiking in the Southwest.

A few years back, he and a friend were hiking in a canyon in Arizona when they took what they thought would be a shortcut. “That was a grand mistake,” Nester said. “We turned what should’ve been a two-hour hike into an eight-hour rock-climbing affair. We were running low on water, we barely got out before nightfall, and the whole thing was totally unnecessary.”

Such a miscalculation or failure to prepare properly could have been fatal. A Henderson man was found dead June 7 after leaving for a hike, reportedly with insufficient food and water.

WATER TIP

If you find a grove of trees, it’s likely there will be a spring beneath them or nearby, and there may even be pools of water by their roots. Dig a hole about a foot deep near the trees’ root system.

Nester, the head instructor at Ancient Pathways, a desert survival and wilderness training school in Flagstaff, Ariz., said avoiding disaster in the wilderness, and specifically the desert, means being prepared for unexpected overnight stays.

“Desert survival is all about preparing for a 24- to 72-hour unexpected stay in the wild,” he said. “In all likelihood, you won’t be living for six weeks in the woods making traps, bows and arrows, and candles. People are typically lost for one to three days.”

Hikers and campers also need to avoid the “I’m just” mentality, Nester said. It’s the attitude that they don’t need to take precautions because they are doing familiar activities. Maybe they decide to go for a hike in the Valley of Fire. Because it is “just” a short hike they have done before, they don’t tell anyone where they are going and don’t bring a full complement of supplies. That’s a big mistake.

Nester always tells friends and family where he is going, carries a specific set of supplies in his backpack and keeps a more robust kit in his car.

FIRST AID

HEAT EXHAUSTION AND HEAT STROKE

Desert hikers and campers should always be aware of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and remember to take regular breaks.

HEAT EXHAUSTION is the precursor to heat stroke and is characterized by cool, clammy skin and the “umbles.” If you feel like you may be experiencing heat exhaustion, rest in the shade and drink water.

HEAT STROKE is far more dangerous and involves the opposite symptoms. The body is in panic mode and wants to flush heat. Symptoms include red, hot and dry skin and loss of consciousness. The person will need emergency medical care to lower his or her core temperature quickly. Heat stroke can result in permanent organ and brain damage. It also can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature in the future. “Heat stress is insidious and builds up slowly over the day,” Nester said. “It’s very important to take regular breaks.”

Start with a standard camping first aid kit, which typically includes bandages, antiseptic, burn cream, tape, scissors and a few painkillers. Nester recommends adding electrolyte tablets or powder, Imodium, fast-melt Benadryl and extra painkillers such as ibuprofen.

The fast-melt Benadryl is essential in the Southwest for treating insect stings. The greatest danger is a sting from an Africanized bee, which is more common than scorpion stings and rattlesnake bites.

Suction devices, which withdraw venom from your body, are not recommended. They can draw venom into muscle mass, making the situation worse.

Be on the lookout for the “umbles”: when you or a hiking companion start stumbling, fumbling, mumbling and bumbling. These are telltale signs of a health problem, whether it’s dehydration, an insect sting, snake bite or heat stress.

The first thing to do with an open wound or animal bite is to flush the wound with water, limiting the chance for infection. Check if victims are experiencing the “umbles,” keep them hydrated and hike them out. Try not to waste time building a stretcher, if possible. As soon as possible, call a hospital, which will have a protocol and will be waiting with anti-venom when you arrive.

If it is a bite, try to identify the responsible snake or insect because there are different treatment methods depending on the animal involved.

SHELTER

WATER TIP

Look for water in shady areas at the base of cliffs, rock pockets and depressions in dry riverbeds. Also, where insect life abounds.

SOLAR STILL MYTH

Digging a hole, covering it with plastic and waiting for condensation to produce water is called a solar still. It does not work well in the desert. It’s a lot of work for maybe a half cup of water. It works better in wetter places.

Shade and shelter can be crucial to survival. It’s important to stay cool and prevent losing liquids and nutrients through sweat. In the summer, the shade of a north-facing boulder is the best place to hole up, and in the winter look for a south-facing boulder.

Always carry a poncho or tarp, and do not underestimate the importance of wearing the proper clothing. Shirts and pants made of a synthetic blend are best because 100 percent cotton does not keep you warm when it is wet. Always carry a rain jacket, hat and sunglasses, and pack a survival or emergency blanket. Avoid the mylar kind because they have a shelf life of six months in the packaging and may not work when you need them. The Heat Sheet, a thin, reflective emergency blanket, works as a quick shelter and also can catch the eye of rescue personnel.

When finding shelter for the night, avoid fallen trees, rock and wood piles, decaying plants and animal matter that would attract bugs, and other places where poisonous animals lie in wait for prey.

If you choose to carry a tarp, use one that is 2 feet longer than your height. A square shape can be used in a diamond shelter configuration, with one corner tied to a tree about 7 feet up and the other ends staked to the ground. If you don’t have bedding, gather pine needles, leaves or moss to use as insulation.

WATER

WATER TIP

DO NOT cut open a barrel cactus and expect to find water. The fluid inside them is high in alkaloids and will make you sick. Getting sick will only stress your kidneys and exacerbate heat exhaustion.

How long you survive without water depends on the time of year, elevation, whether you are injured and other conditions. You cannot condition the body to go without water; consume water as you need it and don’t ration it. Hikers should carry two to six quarts of water in their packs depending on time of year and have as many as 30 gallons in their vehicle depending on where they are going and the duration of the trip. Carry iodine tablets to purify water on the fly.

FIRE

EDIBLE PLANTS

• Pinyon pine nuts: In the fall, the pinyon pine yields protein-rich nuts.

• Prickly pear: Collect spineless pads in the spring.

• Yucca: The large fruits from banana yuccas ripen in late summer.

• Pine needle tea: High in vitamin C. Simmer, don’t boil.

Bring three fire starters: a lighter, a spark rod and storm-proof matches.

Lighters do not work well above 10,000 feet, so it’s important to carry matches or a spark rod for those situations.

Carry cotton balls smeared with Vaseline stored in a film canister for an excellent wet-weather fire starter.

SIGNALING

When you are lost or stranded, you need to be able to draw searchers to you. Always leave a travel plan at home and tell someone where you are going. That way, they know where to send search and rescue teams.

Hikers can do their part by hanging up colorful clothing, digging a big “X” into the dirt, and not straying too far from the original hiking plan.

Carry a small glass signaling mirror, which is more effective and safer than building a signal fire. Always carry a whistle and a smartphone. While it may be hard to get a signal, turning on the phone periodically each day can help search and rescue teams.

Also make sure to bring a headlamp, knife, rope and trail mix on every excursion.

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