What I take when I hike in the backcountry

I just came back from what should have been a 6 mile, low-key hike with the pups. Instead, we are cold, exhausted, drenched and a little freaked out because Mother Nature wanted to show us who was boss.

I’m vacationing in Montana and when I learned I had a free day (The Boy had an unexpected work meeting), I packed up the pups in the Jeep and headed off to Gallatin National Forest to hike Cascade Creek to Lava Lake. I told The Boy where I was going, and when to anticipate my return in the event that something went sideways.

Lava Lake in the Gallatin National Forest in Montana

Even though I would be no further than three miles from the car, I wore wool socks, good layers, tons of sunscreen and packed the following in my day pack for me:

  • Bear Mace
  • Water
  • Steri-pen and extra battery
  • First-Aid Kit (including, but not limited to an Ace wrap, bandages, tweezers, moleskin for blisters, and emergency meds (i.e., Benadryl, aspirin, anti-diarrheal, anti-nausea, and some prescription pain meds in the event of a bad injury))
  • Headlamp
  • Compass
  • Waterproof matches
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Calorie-dense food
  • Duct tape (a few feet wrapped around itself) and fishing line
  • Goretex shell
  • Sunscreen wipes
  • Camera

With the exception of the bear mace, water, food, shell, and camera, I keep these items in an “emergency kit” that is always packed and ready to go (and checked before and after each adventure).

I also packed a few things for the dogs:

In the car I happened to also have the following:

  • Goretex pants
  • Change of shoes
  • Change of wool socks
  • Wool baselayers
  • Wool hat and gloves
  • I also have a snowboard, pair of skis, 65 liter pack, msr reactor, tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, but that’s less relevant and pretty coincidental because I was too lazy to unload the car last night.

The hike started uneventfully and we enjoyed the beautiful Cascade Creek. I noticed the creek was running pretty fast and as we hiked the sky began to get dark. The adage in Montana is that if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes, but I had a bit of a gut feeling that things were going to get nasty*. The boys are skilled trail dogs and love to adventure but they seemed a bit hesitant about going up the trail. Being in Montana, I thought their hesitation may have been related to wildlife, so I kept my head on a swivel for moose, bears and elk, focusing less on the weather. It started to rain, and I put on my shell and told myself I’d go for 5 more minutes to see if the storm would blow over before turning around. A few minutes later it began to hail and the lightening became close and frequent. The thunder was so loud it scared my imperturbable Bernese Mountain dog and my more sensitive lab/retriever began to wail in a primitive way that I’ve never heard before. It was clear that the time to turn around was a long time before.

We hustled down the mountain and passed far less experienced groups huddled under trees in cotton shirts. The temperature had plummeted from about 75 degrees to the low 50s, if not colder. The further down the mountain we went, the more washed out the trails became- nearly knee deep in some spots**. A small creek crossing had risen a few feet and was impassable but my brilliant super dogs found a safe space for us to cross. We got to the car and were wet, cold, emotionally drained, but safe and very thankful. I dried us all off, put myself into some warm, dry clothes and shoes, and headed home.

I’m tired and pretty bummed that our hike didn’t turn out the way it was intended, but I am very thankful we are all safe. This hike was a great reminder that Mother Nature is a woman of fury and that while I cannot prepare for everything she throws at me, it pays to be well-prepared when playing in the backcountry.

*Thing 1 that I would have done differently: Followed my gut and cut back instead of pushing ahead and testing my luck

**Thing 2 that I would have done differently: Wear hiking shoes and not tennis shoes. Tennis shoes were fine for a dry trail but with slippery rocks hidden under running water, the risk of injuring an ankle became much higher.

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