Surviving Your Next Hike
Neil Wiley

Iíve been hiking for more than forty years, and, boy, are my feet tired. But in all that time, Iíve never had a serious problem. As someone said, most adventures start with poor planning. Perhaps I am too careful, but adventure often means discomfort and trouble. Before every hike, I learn about where Iím going (maps, guides, reviews), make sure Iím bringing the right stuff (survival gear, water, and especially food), and share the plan with my wife. Well, usually.

One time I didnít plan. I was visiting the Presentation Center above Bear Creek Open Space. On a whim, I asked for a tour of property the Center had recently sold to Mid-Peninsula Open Space. Sister Toni was volunteered. She was wearing culottes, a lightweight shirt, and thin shoes.

Sister Toni did not appear to be a seasoned hiker. She is shorter than my wife, and spent most her life as a nun. It seemed obvious that our hike would be short. I didnít bother to bring my pack, water bottle, or even my cap. I would take a few pictures to capture how the park looked, but nothing more.

Starting from the intersection of Summit and Bear Creek roads, we walked deeper and deeper into the canyon. The trail became steeper, narrower, and finally faded out in a jungle of brush and fallen trees. Although we talked about going back, going up the steep hills was daunting, and we were still curious. What was beyond? Where would we come out?

Although we wanted to go west, the trail took us east until we emerged from the forest into a large meadow. It wasnít long before we could see the Presentation Center, several miles and several canyons to the west.

Sister Toni said that she remembered a trail a little west of a now-abandoned Jesuit vineyard. We found the vineyard, but the grapevines had given way to six-foot-high greasewood. We plunged through the thick, high brush for half an hour. Where is a machete when you need one? When we stopped to rest, we shared our snackóa few pieces of sugarless gum.

We finally came out of our little jungle, only to find our way blocked by a deep ravine. Then we found a faint trail headed south. Sister Toni said that she remembered this trail, and in a mile or so, we were back at the Presentation Center, cold drinks in hand. It was then she told me that she had last walked this trail over thirty years ago.

Yes, it was a little adventure, but it shows the value of planning. Water, a map, and perhaps a little food would have made us far more comfortable.

Even after this lesson, I knew that I didnít know that much about survival training. Hiking solo is a great experience, but what if? What if I fell, was attacked, or got lost? What if I ran out of light, trails, or worse, food? Thatís why I signed up to go on a survival hike with Greg Meyer, sponsored by Los Gatos-Saratoga Recreation.

Greg Meyer has adventured on seven continents, survived glaciers and rainforests, and been marooned for days on a desert island. He saved his child after a rattlesnake bite out in the middle of nowhere. He has led nature tours around the world, and even in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He led our survival class, including once-neighbors Tony and Ann Andrews, through Castle Rock State Park, and down to the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River. It was chilly, which was good, because we talked a lot about the need to keep warm. 

According to Greg, if you were lost overnight in the Santa Cruz Mountains, especially in winter rain, you would need shelter within three hours, water in three days, and food within three weeks. So while a water bottle and sandwiches are helpful, they arenít as important as the tools and materials necessary for shelter.

How do you keep warm? Greg says begin with the right clothesóan inner layer of long underwear or tights, an outer layer of a polyester shirt, an insulated layer in the form of a poly-filled jacket, a windproof nylon jacket, a stocking cap, sunhat, and gloves. You might not wear all this, but it would be safer to bring them.

How about a poncho or a reflective emergency bag? Youíll look like aluminum foil but will feel warm. Greg cautions against wearing cotton. Polyester and wool are much better on a rainy night.

Walking sticks improve your balance, especially in rough terrain or when crossing streams. They also give you protection against critters. We are lucky that there are few dangerous predators in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Greg says that you are more likely to be hurt by a deer than a mountain lion.)

As a non-smoker, I often forget matches or a lighter. Either one is faster than rubbing two Boy Scouts together, and they take up less room. A ball of cotton lint from the dryer around a core of petroleum jelly makes a good firestick. A small knife and some light rope will help you create a shelter.

Getting lost is probably the most frequent problem. If that happens to you, Greg suggests remembering STOP. S stands for stop and sit. T stands for think. O stands for observe. And P stands for plan. The main idea is not to panic.  In many cases, it may be better to wait for help, especially if you have told people where you are and when you will return. In other situations, you may have to walk yourself out, but avoid bush-whacking cross-country. According to Greg, you can walk faster and longer on trails than through the brush. Also, be sure to consider topography. A long walk by trail may be better than a short but difficult battle up hills or through undergrowth. When hiking, a straight line isnít necessarily the fastest way between two points.

Youíll be easier to find in an open space on a higher slope. A whistle, signaling mirror, and flashlight could help you signal searchers.

Smaller emergencies happen more often. Be ready with map, compass, duct tape, moleskin, anti-itch cream, a topical antibiotic, pain reliever, sun protection, and medicated towelettes. Toilet paper and resealable bags enable responsible hikers to carry out used paper. (Greg says that animals will dig up used paper.)

Things you probably wonít need: big knives and guns (too dangerous to you), snake-bite kits (not effective), cell phones (unreliable), computers (too heavy), radios (too annoying), and Xbox games (unnecessary unless you are a pre-teen boy).

In fact, you may never need to plan, think, or carry all this stuff, but when you do, it will be worth it.

See you on the trail.


For more information about Greg Meyerís nature tours, visit


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