Know Before You Go
In the West, we have a wide variety of activities available to us on public lands. Hiking, fishing, hunting, OHV travel, birding, photography, and rock hounding are just a few of the pleasant things we are able to enjoy in the outdoors. The rugged canyons and high deserts of eastern Oregon may be as familiar to you as your own backyard. For others, it may be a landscape unlike any other you have experienced. The following information is intended to provide some guidance to those who may not be familiar with preparing for backcountry travel in remote sections of eastern Oregon.
It is by no means an all inclusive “checklist,” but it does provide some practical suggestions. Regardless of the specific activity you are pursuing, the primary goal is to return home safely.
Most misadventures in the backcountry start at home. Inadequate or inappropriate planning and preparation are often root causes of a bad outdoor experience. There are many things you need to do before you ever leave home to ensure that your trip is more likely to be fulfilling and that you will return safely.
It is important to have a good idea of where you are going to be. If you do not have an intimate knowledge of the area, obtain maps and gather information about the area you intend to visit. After deciding where you are going to go, tell a responsible person the names of everyone in your party, your destination, and your expected return time. If you are heading to a particularly remote area, it might be best to have company to share the experience. There is safety in numbers.
If your destination includes public land, a quick call to the local field office can yield current information on road conditions, fire restrictions, closures, special management areas, and other important tips. Many recreation sites also contain bulletin boards with updated information for the specific area you are visiting. Be sure to familiarize yourself with any special information, such as the need to carry additional equipment in your vehicle during fire season.
Check the weather forecast carefully before you go. The average temperature in eastern Oregon during December and January is 18° F and in July and August the average temperature is 93° F; however, mid-day temperatures can far exceed the average at times, and you should be prepared. Although you cannot anticipate all of the situations you are going to encounter, you should provide yourself with the skills and equipment to cope with a wide variety of climatic conditions.
Having the right clothing and footwear can go a long way toward making your outdoor experience safe and comfortable. You can best accommodate the widely varied conditions encountered outdoors by providing yourself with clothing that can be layered.
Though comfortable, cotton is not the first pick of experienced backcountry travelers. Once wet, it is slow and difficult to dry. Also, cotton is not particularly warm for its weight. Many modern fibers are available which perform much better in hot, cold, or wet conditions. Though shorts are comfortable, long pants are generally the better bet. Here, cotton is not inappropriate in warm weather, so long as you have some lightweight waterproof wind pants to layer over them. In cold weather, wool or synthetics still have the edge.
An often overlooked accessory is a bandana or handkerchief. A cotton bandana or kerchief worn around the neck can help prevent sunburn and will help keep you warm when dry and cool when wet. The silk or synthetic bandanas sported by our western ranchers are particularly warm. They can also be used as a field expedient head covering, bandage, or sling. They can be used to tie your hat on in windy conditions, cover your ears when cold, tie a splint to an injured limb, or tie your cuffs tightly closed to ward off icy breezes. Don't let fashion dictate your outdoor apparel; it's too important.
Perhaps the most important items to your comfort and safety are at opposite ends. Your head and feet require particular attention. Your feet will generally be shod in some sort of boots; street shoes and sneakers have no place in the backcountry. You should break in new boots before your trip to avoid any unpleasantness.
Socks are a critical component of your footwear, with wool or wool blends still having an edge over most synthetics. They should fit your foot snugly to avoid bunching or riding down. You should also have another pair in a Ziploc bag in your pack at all times. Alcohol or alcohol wipes are useful for wiping down your feet to remove salt and perspiration when you are changing socks, and it helps your feet to dry quickly. Change socks when they are wet or sweaty, or as soon as you feel hot spots developing. Dry them on the outside of your pack on the go. If you are not 100 percent confident of your footwear, make sure your first aid kit contains some moleskin, and cut toenails straight across well above the nail bed to prevent ingrown toenails.
Your head covering should provide protection from the elements in all types of weather. A broad brimmed hat is much better than a ball cap in warm weather, and a knit cap should always be in your pack for those cool nights out. You can gain and lose a lot of heat through your head if it is not appropriately covered. For year-round comfort and utility, a pair of light goatskin gloves is invaluable. They provide protection when doing camp chores, and are fairly warm even when wet. When they dry, they remain flexible.
What to Pack
It is a good idea if heading into the backcountry to have a pack of some sort. The contents may vary from season to season, but they will almost always have some contents in common. A first aid kit with any personal medication you might need should always be included. Insect repellent, sunscreen, and lip balm are necessities. A spare handkerchief (or three) and spare socks should be included. Any additional layers of clothing should be in here, along with a space blanket and a lightweight waterproof poncho.
Depending on the type of activity you plan on engaging in the following are optional items: a knife (or knives), a Leatherman style tool, a pack saw, fire starting materials in a waterproof container, a flashlight or headlamp, batteries, a compass to complement your maps, a signal mirror, whistle, spare eyeglasses, personal hygiene items, and toilet paper, again in a Ziploc bag. It's a good idea to keep liquid potions and ointments in a Ziploc bag as well. Some other popular options are a portable water filter, GPS, and small family band radios. A fully charged cell phone is a potentially lifesaving addition; however, you should be aware that coverage does not necessarily include some of the remote locations you will find on public land.
Even on short hikes you should have enough food and water to stay out overnight, even if you don’t intend to. Things happen that are beyond your control, and the trick is to be prepared for the unexpected. Typically, adults performing moderate exercise need at least one gallon of drinking water per day. This might double with strenuous exercise or hot weather. In hot or cold weather, thirst is not an adequate indicator of your body's needs. Dehydration can be avoided by drinking adequate amounts of water and avoiding alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.
Physical Considerations and Experience Level
Are you physically capable of the activities you anticipate or have sufficient knowledge of the activity to head out safely? A little honesty goes a long way here; an objective look at your physical condition and your outdoor skills can go far in preventing a potentially dangerous situation. Not everyone is capable of safe and competent off-road travel.
Backcountry travel generally starts with your motor vehicle. As you leave the pavement to enjoy a little solitude, this of course implies that you will be farther away from convenient help. Even on paved highways in eastern Oregon, gas stations may be few and far between. What might be a minor inconvenience traveling from home or work can take on an entirely new dimension if you’ve driven for hours since leaving the blacktop. Many of the roads you will encounter in the backcountry are intended for high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. If in doubt, check with the local field office or consult a map.
Breaking down in the backcountry will generally be dealt with differently than in town. If you have planned ahead by telling a responsible party of your plans, you are almost always better of staying with your disabled vehicle. It is easier to find a vehicle than a person. It provides shelter, and the lights, mirrors, and horn provide means of signaling for assistance.
Another all-too-common problem is flat tires. Before leaving home, check the condition of all of your tires, including the spare(s). Check the tire inflation pressures against the manufacturer’s recommended values. Do you know where your jack is and how to use it? It would benefit you to practice at home if you have never had occasion to use it before. The field is no place to learn of deficiencies in your equipment or your skills. It is not unusual for experienced backcountry travelers to carry more than one spare tire. Should you have to change a tire en route, you have a difficult decision to make of whether or not to turn back at that point. A second flat when you have but one spare is one of the ingredients of a bad day.
Travel more slowly on dirt or gravel roads to help preserve your tires and suspension. Road hazards pop up unexpectedly, and your stopping distances increase due to less traction. Less traction also makes evasive maneuvers less effective.
Be prepared for wet roads. A sudden summer thunder shower in the desert can leave the road you just came in on impassible. By staying put an hour or two, and giving the road a chance to firm back up, you can avoid damaging the route for others and possibly stranding yourself.
There are a few other potential hazards you should be aware of while traveling in the backcountry. Ticks carry several diseases, but use of insect repellent on cuffs and pant legs can go a long way toward preventing bites. If you have a tick attach itself to you, remove it with one of the tools made for that purpose. Do not use heat; you will probably kill it with the head still inside the skin. Don't use tweezers or pliers, as squeezing it can force blood possibly contaminated with pathogens back into your bloodstream. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are two of the most common diseases spread by infected ticks. Scorpions really will crawl into your boots at night, so shake them out before putting them on. Bee, wasp, and hornet nests should be avoided.
To reduce the chance of an unfortunate encounter with a creature which bites or stings, always look where you will be placing your hands and feet. The noise generated by the impact of a walking stick might reduce chance encounters.
The generally shy and reclusive bob cats and cougars can be aggressive on occasion. Should you encounter an aggressive cat, the accepted wisdom is to stand your ground; don't bend over to pick up a rock or stick, as this makes you appear smaller and more vulnerable and may trigger an attack.
The opposite tack is taken with bear encounters. Don't make eye contact; back away slowly. Some people have said that talking softly while retreating is effective. Bear repellent spray may be more effective at stopping bear attacks than firearms, and should be considered if you are traveling in bear country. Remember that a sow will always protect her cubs fiercely. Any predator will defend a kill. If you find one, give it a wide berth.
Other animals you may encounter which require some caution are cows and horses. Bulls and stallions should always be avoided, and cows and mares are defensive of their young. As with any creature many times your size and weight, use discretion and give them a wide berth.
Fishing and Hunting
If you are fishing, consider wearing a personal floatation device when wading. Some of the new inflatable life vests are scarcely more than a pair of suspenders before inflation and are very comfortable to use. Always wear your PFD when canoeing or kayaking, along with appropriate clothing and safety equipment. There is additional river-specific information under “Recreation” on this website.
Most of the other hazards in the outdoors can be avoided by your planning, preparation, and a little forethought. Falls can be prevented by taking your time and watching your footing. Stay away from unstable stream banks, slippery rocks, steep drop-offs, and cliffs. Falling rocks can only hit you if you are walking under them.
When hunting, remember to treat every firearm as if it were loaded, always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, and know your target and what is beyond it. These three rules will prevent nearly every type of hunting accident. Wearing hunter orange will cut the chance of being mistaken for game by 50 percent.
You will seldom find an honest hunter or hiker who will not admit to being lost at least once. Should you become lost, your best course is to be honest with yourself and admit it sooner than later. If you are not going to be able to return to your vehicle or trailhead before dark, stop.
S.T.O.P. Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. Stop where you are before you compound your problems. Think about the situation. Observe your surroundings. Plan your next course of action. Does anything look familiar? Can you identify any landmarks on your map? Have you been using your compass or GPS? Is it late in the day? If so, you should make preparations for spending the night out while it is light enough to do so. It is very important to keep a positive attitude when faced with the unexpected. Don't allow yourself to feel overwhelmed just because the circumstances are beyond your control. Prioritize your needs and concentrate on controlling what you can. You will soon find that things are not as bad as they seem.
A little preparation and forethought can enable you to overcome a potentially disastrous situation and turn it into an unplanned adventure you can recall with pride in future years.
If You Encounter Criminal Activity
Criminal activity can occur anywhere, even on pristine public lands. If you encounter suspicious activity during your backcountry adventure, do not be a “hero” and confront individuals or investigate on your own. Retrace your steps and back out of the area the way you came. When you are once again able to make telephone contact, immediately notify the local field office or sheriff’s department and give them the details you observed from a SAFE distance.
On the surface, all of this planning and preparation might appear to be a bit excessive. Please remember that you are exposing yourself (and possibly others) to an entirely different environment than most of us normally inhabit. Though many of the hazards that we have in everyday life are present in the backcountry, a remote location adds significantly to the challenge of dealing with them. Any user of the public lands needs to acquaint themselves with some of the other issues of concern, such as noxious and invasive weeds, off-highway vehicle impacts, sensitive species, and fire prevention.
This land is your land, and we should all practice "light on the land" camping. "Leave no trace" of your passage, and if you pack it in, pack it out.