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Local experts discuss how to navigate trails safely

Santa Barbara News-Press 21 August 2005

Charlotte Boechler

NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

Willard Thompson is an experienced hiker.

He always makes sure he brings enough water, carries a compass and slathers himself with sunscreen -- SPF 30 -- when necessary. Although less experienced hikers might not have, he made it home safely from the chest-high chaparral-infested trails on Santa Cruz Island.

It just took a Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team and a boat to get him there.

"When I got off the boat on Santa Cruz Island, I was 100 percent prepared," he said. "When I started the hike, I was totally unprepared for what happened."

This summer, many hikers will stuff their backpacks with digital cameras, binoculars and maybe even a PowerBar or two. But many of them will forget to bring one essential item: their common sense.

A few months ago, Mr. Thompson, 65, of Montecito, decided at the last minute to take one last hike before returning home. It should have taken him about an hour, round-trip, to go up the trail from Scorpion campground and down.

It took 17.

He saw another trail head along the way and decided to take it. Consulting his map, he determined that if he climbed the steep trail, it would connect with another trail at the top that would take him back down to the campground.

"When I got up there, I made a wrong turn," said Mr. Thompson. "I turned to the right instead of the left -- even though I had the map and understood the map."

As he followed the steep trail down, he hyperextended his knee. He was now in pain and, even worse, late. Trying to make up time to catch the boat back to the mainland, he decided to abandon the path and go cross-country through the thick chaparral.

"It was tough going. You couldn't see the ground," recalled Mr. Thompson. "It was tiring me."

He went for about 15 yards, then had to stop and rest; 15 more yards, then had to stop and rest.

"I actually saw the last Island Packers boat leaving," he said.

Figuring he was there at least for the night, Mr. Thompson finally settled in.

"They searched with helicopters for a while. I saw them," he said. "At one point, I was standing in front of their searchlight beam waving like mad, but they didn't see me."

He could have blown his whistle. But he didn't have it with him. He could have blinked his flashlight. But he didn't have that, either. He could have used his matches.

You get the picture.

It wouldn't be until the next morning, when he made it back to the campground, that he was rescued.

Mr. Thompson did have his backpack with him before he started the hike.

"The National Park Service people and the search and rescue people both said it was properly stocked with things a person would need," he said.

Too bad he decided to leave it behind.

As of Aug. 13, 2005, Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue responded to 26 calls within the last year involving hikers who were injured, late coming home or lost. Many such incidents could have been avoided had the hikers been familiar with the area. At the very least, they should have had a good map, which can often be obtained at ranger stations.

"Always tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back," said Nelson Trichler, president of the Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team.

Chuck Maunz, 65, and his sister, Marilynn Prins, 62, did just that a little more than a month ago before leaving on a six-day hike along the Sisquoc Loop in the San Rafael Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.

"We had a very detailed itinerary we left with my wife, my office, my sister's family . . .," said Mr. Maunz, of Santa Barbara.

That's exactly what led the Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team to them when the hikers failed to show up on time on the sixth day. With Ms. Prins overcome by heat exhaustion, the two had only gone 28 of the 45 miles by the seventh day.

"It took us about 12 hours, but we found them," said Mr. Trichler, adding that they were flown out by helicopter. "They were on that loop that they said they were going to follow."

He recommends hikers draw out the route they're going to take and leave it behind -- either with someone or in a place where it will be discovered.

"We often find a map on the seat of the car with the route highlighted of where they wanted to go," said Mr. Trichler. "That helps us immensely in initiating a search in the probable area where they might be."

While maps are essential, not even a Thomas Guide will tell hikers everything they need to know about a trail.

"If they're interested in a trail, the best thing to do is call a ranger station in the area of the trail and ask for specific information," said Jeff Bensen, district recreation officer for the Santa Barbara Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest.

Hikers can find out how long the trail is, how strenuous it is and its condition.

"After this winter, we have a number of trails in really poor condition," said Mr. Bensen. Due to the heavy rains, some have had slides, trees down across them or been completely washed out.

He recommends calling ahead to find out the conditions of a trail each time before hiking on it. Depending on the time of year, conditions can change rapidly: "A trail can be good one day and washed out two days later."

Once your internal compass directs you to a hike that's right for you, consider what to wear.

"The general concept is to dress in layers," said Jim Balsitis, a National Outings leader for the Sierra Club.

He recommends starting with a T-shirt made of a synthetic material like polypropylene. The fabric will help wick away moisture from your skin; if moisture is held close to your body and it becomes cool, you could go into hypothermia, he explained.

A long-sleeved shirt should go over the T-shirt, followed by a wind-resistant jacket. Any of the layers (bright colors are spotted best) can be peeled off if necessary.

"The whole idea is to moderate your body temperature. You don't want to get too hot and you don't want to get too cold," said Mr. Balsitis, who is also a local program chair of the Los Padres chapter of Sierra Club. "If you get too hot, you could go into heat exhaustion and, in severe conditions, heat stroke."

If you get too cold, he added, you could go into hypothermia.

The lower part of the body can usually take extremes, so a pair of hiking pants (they're marketed that way at outdoor clothing stores) should be sufficient. You'll also need a pair of hiking boots, which have the appropriate traction.

Hikers should carry a properly fitted daypack or backpack with them, Mr. Balsitis added. Many manufacturers now design them to accommodate the differences in men's and women's bodies. In the pack, he said, you should include what hikers call the "Ten Essentials": map of the area, compass, rain gear, fire starter/matches, first aid kit, flashlight, knife, sun protection such as sunscreen and sunglasses, extra food (high-calorie like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and energy bars -- enough to get you through that day and the next) and extra water (at least two liters for that day and two liters for the next).

"There's something that's very popular these days. It's called a hydration bladder," said Mr. Balsitis. "What it is is a flexible bladder that's held in a backpack. It has a tube that comes out that you can drink from."

Hikers are therefore encouraged to drink water before they get thirsty.

"You can continuously take drinks as you hike," said Mr. Balsitis. "You don't wait until you're dehydrated."

Noticeably absent from the list of "10 Essentials" is a cell phone. Purists, explained Mr. Balsitis, don't like them because the whole point of hiking, to them, is to not be connected to the world. But there's no denying they can come in handy, especially some newer models.

"Many cell phones are being manufactured to include a GPS or Global Positioning System," said Mr. Balsitis. "Many GPS units have maps built into them, so the GPS is going to be able to locate your position and tell you on the display exactly where you're at."

If you do lose your way, stay where you are and wait for help, said Mr. Balsitis. If you're not visible, move to an open area where you will be.

"If you become lost in the evening, a search party will not go out until the next morning," informed Mr. Balsitis. "That's one of the reasons you should have the '10 Essentials.' You should always plan to stay the night."

Just ask Mr. Thompson.

THE 10 ESSENTIALS

* Map of the area

* Compass

* Rain gear

* Fire starter/matches

* First aid kit

* Flashlight

* Knife

* Sun protection such as sunscreen and sunglasses

* Extra food (high-calorie like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and energy bars -- enough to get you through that day and the next)

* Extra water (at least two liters for that day and two liters for the next)

ANOTHER ADVENTURE: PARKING

An Adventure Pass is required to park your car in some high recreation-use areas like Paradise Canyon. It is $5 per day or $30 for an annual pass and can be purchased at ranger stations or the Los Padres National Forest Headquarters, 6755 Hollister Ave., Suite 150, Goleta. Information: 967-3481.

FRONT COUNTRY HIKES

Cold Springs Trail and Montecito Peak

* Round-trip miles: 9

* Description: Hike begins in shade by a creek. After a gentle climb uphill for about -mile, there's a bench that's at the junction to the West Fork of Cold Springs. To stay on the main Cold Springs trail, continue from the bench without crossing the creek. The trail moves out of the shade to an Edison road with power lines and, if you're tall enough to see over the bushes, a view of Montecito. The trail continues up a steep, rocky climb in chaparral to East Camino Cielo Road. There's a turnoff to Montecito Peak before reaching the top. A box containing a log book is hidden at the summit.

Gaviota Peak

* Round-trip miles: 6 or 7 to peak; about 1 to the hot spring

* Description: Wide path that is uniformly and moderately steep most of the way, but slightly steeper at the end. Not much shade, so bring a hat. The top of the peak offers a view of the ocean. If your feet hurt by the time you get to the top, you can always soak in the hot spring on your way back down. Just watch out for the naked guy who's there most weekends.

Jesusita Trail

* Round-trip miles: 7

* Description: Starts at a water treatment plant at the end of San Roque Road. The hike, most of which is in shade, is moderately steep with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet. The overlook, called Inspiration Point, offers, apparently, inspiring views of Santa Barbara and the ocean, including the Channel Islands, which makes it a popular sunset hike.

Camino Cielo Hikes

Forbush Flats Trail

* Round-trip miles: 4

* Description: Forbush Flats is a campsite about two miles from the trail head. The trail starts out going downhill, which means you will be going uphill on the way back so don't get overconfident of your abilities. The trail goes into a canyon with lush vegetation and a creek. The campsite is in a meadow that is perfect for an overnight backpack trip or picnic (especially since there are apple trees leftover from an old homestead).

Knapp's Castle Trail

* Round-trip miles: about 1

* Description: From East Camino Cielo, take the short hike down a dirt road to the ruins of Knapp's Castle and enjoy the breathtaking sunset.

Lizard's Mouth Trail

* Round-trip miles: about 1/2

* Description: A popular destination for rock climbers. Once there, explore the rock formations to the left. They are riddled with interesting caves. Explore the rock formations to the right. You can climb up to the summit of them, which is considered the top of the lizard's head. Often a practice area for rock climbers. Watch out for glass as this is also a hangout for high school kids.