Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue team members often encounter hikers ill-prepared for a wilderness emergency. The beautiful, moderate climate of Santa Barbara does not seem dangerous, but a hiker with less than a quart of water, wearing cotton shorts and a T-shirt is a recipe for disaster.
With this in mind, the Santa Barbara Search & Rescue team along with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department would like to remind all those venturing into the outdoors to keep in mind the following simple suggestions to help make outdoor backcountry activities safe and enjoyable.
Know Where You Are Going
Know the name of the trailhead and trail you will be hiking. To help orientate yourself, carry a map of the area you will be hiking along with a compass and GPS (with extra batteries). Stay on known marked trails to avoid getting disorientated and potentially lost.
Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back.
Hike with a Buddy
Hiking alone, while peaceful and solitary, can cause difficulties should you become lost or injured. Hiking companions can help determine where you are and provide aid should you get hurt, either by applying first aid and/or going for help.
Prepare appropriately for your hike — physically, mentally and with the right equipment. If this is your first hike of the year, start off with short hikes around your home working up to longer trail hikes.
Mental preparation is also very important. Remember if you are hiking trails anywhere in our county you will find yourself in a wilderness environment. Make sure you mentally condition yourself to deal with these conditions such as long steep climbs, temperature fluctuations, wildlife, darkness, and unexpected emergencies such as an injury or becoming lost. Studies have shown those that have a positive mental preparation will have a greater chance of dealing with difficult situations.
Taking the right equipment is also important. This means enough water, food, clothing and other equipment to deal with unforeseen situations. Equipment to include: a flash light (with extra batteries), first aid kit, toilet paper, emergency blanket, small knife, map, compass, water and food. You would be amazed at the number of hikers on an afternoon hike get caught by dark without lights — especially those on sunset hikes.
And don't forget two of the most used items that help rescuers to locate you — a whistle and a cell phone. Whistles are heard over greater distances than shouting and do not wear out your voice. SBCSAR has located many people just by hearing their whistle.
Over 75 percent of the search and rescue calls SBCSAR personnel respond to involved someone using a cell phone. While they can be extremely useful in the front country they have little or no coverage in the backcountry, so understand they are not the perfect communication tool that will bring rescue personnel immediately to your aid. If you are venturing into the backcountry consider looking into a Personal Location Beacon (PLB) or a SPOT device that can be activated in an emergency that will give SBCSAR your location coordinates. A satellite phone is another option.
Cell phones can also be used as a signaling device during the night. Should you find yourself lost and without a flashlight, use your lighted cell phone screen by turning it towards any ground search and rescue or helicopters you hear. With their night vision equipment you will be easier to locate.
If you find yourself in an unfamiliar area not knowing which direction to go, sit down for a few minutes and gather your thoughts. Think calmly through your situation. If you believe you can track yourself back to a location where you can absolutely identify where you are, then do so. However, it you cannot or you still are not finding the right trail, then immediately stop to prevent wandering further away on an unknown path. If you are somewhere along the front country and have a cell phone, then dial 9-1-1 and ask for the Santa Barbara County Dispatch Center.
Explain your situation and request search and rescue be activated to find you. If you do not have any reception and you believe you can safely climb to higher ground, then do so and try again as this may improve your ability to get a signal. Find an open area so you can be spotted easier from the ground and air.
Once you have contacted county dispatch, the important information to quickly give is your name, location, how many are with you and your reason for calling. Further details can be given if needed. Stay put after you hang up! If you move without telling anyone, then SBCSAR will have more difficulty in locating you. Stay off of your cell phone as much as possible to save battery power and to allow emergency personnel to call you back in order to locate you much more quickly.
Layering is the key. Stay away from cotton clothing, including socks, as it will absorb your sweat and stay wet longer. Synthetic materials that have "wicking" characteristics are a good choice for your base layer. After that, use light pile clothing for an insulating layer followed by a rain/wind shell jacket. Remove or add clothing as need depending on weather conditions and your body core temperature. Bright clothing is also recommended to provide greater visibility if you become lost or in need of assistance.
Be familiar with some of the natural hazards in the area such as rattlesnakes and poison oak. While potentially dangerous, rattlesnakes very rarely are deadly. Unless provoked, surprised or cornered, they will do everything they can to get away from you. The best way to avoid an unwanted encounter is to make noises why hiking and watch where you put your feet and hands. If you do encounter a rattlesnake give it room to escape. Do not poke it with a stick or throw rocks at it as it will only become defensive and strike out. If it doesn't move out of the way, you will want to walk carefully around it, giving it a lot of space.
Poison oak is out in abundance so learn what it looks like and avoid coming into contact with it. Poison oak is a woody shrub that is related to poison ivy and poison sumac. It is plentiful below 4,000 feet and is generally identified by its oily leaves in groups of three. The leaves can be green, yellow or red and fall off each year. The leaves and stems contain an oil (urushiol) that causes a nasty, itchy rash in 85 percent of the population. It's powerful stuff so treat this plant seriously.
This term is used frequently by those enjoying the outdoors. However, get ten hikers together in one room and you probably will get ten different "10 Essentials" lists. What you should take will depend on the trail and weather conditions you are hiking in. What you wear and carry will be different during a summer hiking trip in the desert verses a spring hike on the Cold Springs Trail in the front country of Santa Barbara.
Here's SBCSAR's "Essential" list of recommendations (note it is more than 10 items):
» water (enough for 1 quart per hour)
» map and compass
» hiking plan left with a friend or in your car
» waterproof matches
» fire starter
» extra clothing (not cotton!)
» cell phone (but do not rely on it for immediate rescue)
» sunhat, sunglasses and sunscreen, lip balm
» lightweight pack to comfortably carry everything
Hiking with Dogs
Dogs can be wonderful trail companions but remember they need just as much, if not more, attention than humans and they can overheat faster because they do not sweat. Take extra water for canine hiking companions, hike in the morning or evening and be sure to rest the dogs if they show signs of overheating.
Take advantage of shade and pools of water for cooling yourself and your dogs. Whenever possible, cool your dogs pads.
Be aware that the air temperature can dramatically increase (up to 20 degrees or more) as you hike up the trail due to the lack of shade or water. Dogs cool themselves by panting. If the air is hot, your dog is hot. Many dogs will go until they drop. You can find more on this subject by looking at our section on Hiking with Dogs.
— Kelly Hoover is a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.