Minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I sat around a fire with friends, discussing plans for 2015. I told them mine: to hike over 200 miles on the John Muir Trail through the High Sierras, by myself.
They told me that I’m nuts.
“I might do it if I brought my gun,” one of them retorted while laughing, leaving absolutely no doubt that he would never hike 200 miles alone — with or without a firearm.
Among avid hikers and backpackers, trekking 200 miles is seen as a perfectly plausible idea. Outside that community, it’s viewed as dangerous and more than a little bit crazy.
Since I began backpacking, I’ve wondered why so many Americans believe nature is so foreboding and scary.
Then I noticed the signs posted at many trailheads, warning about poison oak, bears, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions. No wonder people are scared.
Yes, deadly animals and poisonous plants exist, but you’re far more likely to encounter beautiful wildflowers, songbirds, and bunnies than a snarling mountain lion.
On the flipside, when I hike popular trails, I meet far too many people who have too little fear of nature. On a recent hike to a waterfall over utterly treacherous terrain, I passed hikers wearing flip-flops and carrying tiny bottles of water.
This is a trail where hikers have died of heatstroke. Recently.
The day I went, the entire local search and rescue team was there for training, since they’re called to the area so frequently.
Sadly, underestimating nature is common.
I’ve run into people in shorts who had no idea it might be cold and snowing at 14,000 feet, a man who insisted on continuing despite obviously suffering altitude sickness and carrying nowhere near enough water, and even women in high heels and skirts.
This past summer, I hiked part of the way up Longs Peak in Colorado. I never planned to reach the summit, knowing that the last bit required skills and equipment I don’t have. This mountain has claimed far too many lives, and even the experienced and well-prepared have fallen victim.
The day I went, storm clouds were gathering, and rangers warned of icy, dangerous conditions at the top. I hiked up with a group that planned to reach the summit.
“You brought crampons?” I asked a fellow hiker, referring to equipment that helps prevent slipping off the ice.
“What are those?” came the reply. Uh-oh.
Nature is big and beautiful and wild and wonderful. It feeds the soul. Most of us don’t get enough nature in our lives. And maybe that’s why too many people either overestimate or underestimate nature’s power to kill you.
In many cases, even a cursory Internet search can provide everything you need to know.
Be mindful of snow at 14,000 feet, even in the summer. Bring three liters of water to attempt the summit of Mount Whitney. Don’t hike alone in grizzly country. And if you see a rattlesnake, just step around it, because it’s not a big deal.
This year, get out there and experience life at its fullest. But do so safely. An extra 15 minutes of reading can reassure you about everything that isn’t dangerous — and help you avoid or prepare for what is.