Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dehydration, Hypothermia, Death and the Darwin Awards

There have been some tragic hiking deaths this last week. Nine seniors died of hypothermia on a guided mountain climbing trip in Japan. The same week two hikers in separate incidents died of hypothermia while hiking in extreme heat near Palm Springs. There were the usual unthinking comments about candidates for the Darwin Awards.

I'm not as harsh on those commenters as some might be. Sometimes in serious situations, a joke helps one deal with it. Remember that line where Butch and Sundance are about to leap off this 100 foot high cliff into a river? "You can't swim? Hell, the fall will probably kill you!". What hiker hasn't thought, "there, but for the grace of God, go I". If they haven't, they are a candidate for the Darwin Awards.If you're going to live, you've got to take some chances. Just try to minimize the risk, and learn from your experiences.

When I first backpacked with Susan, I hadn't done it in a long time. We were going up Forester Pass on the JMT in the afternoon, cold wind blowing, a thunderstorm almost right on top of us, and I just keep pushing on, getting slower and slower, trying to get over the pass. Finally we just stopped and setup the tent right there on a slab of rock beside the trail - took me forever to get it setup, but we got in, warmed up and went over the pass the next day. Looking back now, I know I was hypothermic, but back then I didn't even know the word, didn't know that the loss of brain function creeps up on you, causing an accumulation of bad decisions. Ever since that time we've never come close to having a problem. We always carry enough clothing and emergency shelter material to handle unexpected cold. We have had to stop and make camp in midday, but to avoid hypothermia, not to recover from it.

We haven't come as close on dehydration. I didn't think we could do the PCT for a long time, because I didn't know how we could deal with the desert heat. When we finally did take it on, we were quite aware of the need for water, electrolytes, and sometimes shade and rest. One time early on, I miscalculated the miles and we ran out of water. There were other hikers around who had extra and shared with us, otherwise we would have had to wait till night and then continue to the water a couple of hours ahead. After that one incident, I made sure I always had more than enough to get to the next water source.

Some of the things we do now: We carry umbrellas. If temperature gets over 80F the umbrellas come out. If it goes over 100, we stop, wait in the shade for it to go down. On hot days we try to rest from 2 until 4. We routinely mix Tang and electrolytes with our water. We carry extra collapsible water containers, so we can tank up if needed.

Insert to slow down blog thieves: ©2009 - ok to quote if credit given.

Recently on a local hike by myself, I had plenty of water, but nothing else. The temperature climbed into the 90s, higher that I had expected. My planned hike was about three hours. I finally got home seven hours later, having spent the last few miles in a rest 10 minutes walk 10 minutes pattern. I had water, but was very weak and craving food, craving salt, and had nothing. I could have bailed out, but found that with enough rest I could go a little, so I kept on going till I finally reached my car. As a result of that experience, I modified my first aid kit, which is always in my backpack. It now contains a couple sweet/salty bars, and four packets of those gummy chewy electrolyte packs that they sell in REI or bike shops.

Last story. Earlier this week Susan aka backpack45 and I took a short hike to Joaquin Miller park, about three miles away. It was so close I just grabbed a day pack and put in a liter of water. Nice walk, again enough water, but temperature soared, and our planned two hour trip took six. This time we had a couple of bars, but nothing else. First aid kit was in my backpack. So, lesson learned. Take first aid kit.


  1. Love this post. I hike in the White Mountains of NH. Each year there are deaths on Mount
    Washington or somewhere else in the White Mts. Surprisingly, most of the time it is experienced hikers. I guess they take more chances than us ordinary folk.
    You are so right. Every time we go out on a hike, even if we know it well, it can be quite different. It makes sense to be over cautious and have everything with you that you could possibly need and to take rest stops when either body conditons or weather condtions require it.
    I like the electrolite and tang idea. good tip!! I will be sure to add that to my kit. Thanks

  2. Our Tang recipe - we premix enough Tang for 2 quarts with 1/4 teaspoon salt substitute, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon table salt. We don't guarantee this, deny all responsibility, but it works for us. Definitely should NOT be given to 12 year olds or below. Roughly based on a Kaiser Permanente recipe. See our backpack food page

  3. Actually, added to the heat factor (which we had forgotten could happen because it's been pretty foggy, as usual this time of year in the Bay Area)is the fact that the trip was also a longer distance than anticipated. As is not too unusual around here :-), Timecheck estimated 6 miles roundtrip and it turned out to be closer to 8 or 9.

  4. Timecheck
    Thanks for the recipe. I am using it and liking it much better than the eletrolyte drinks I have been buying AND it is so much cheaper!!
    I liked your post so much I linked to it in my blog, and wrote about your recipe.
    Thanks again

  5. You have some wonderful advice here. Thank you.