The Backpacker’s Quiz

Ah summer, when folks inspired by Wild or A Walk In The Woods or, heaven forbid, John Muir or Thoreau go to the big REI sale, buy everything in sight, and head for the backcountry.  And GG has noticed, well, that some of these folks might benefit from some training.  So before you go into the wilderness, try the little quiz below…

  1. Can you tell the difference between a waterbar and a log blocking a closed trail?
  2. Is the only wild land blaze you know about one with smoke and heat?
  3. Is your dog’s poop a fine natural fertilizer?
  4. Are the ten essentials a full set of toes?
  5. Is the only kind of stock you know the kind on the NYSE?
  6. Do you greet stock on the trail with loud yee-haws while giving the cowboys high fives?
  7. Do you hike with a boom box?
  8. Do you plan to sleep with your food in bear country?
  9. Did you buy a search and rescue card?
  10. Do you burn TP?
  11. Do you hike using a state road map for orientation purposes?
  12. Are your preferred hiking shoes flip-flops?
  13. Is your safety backup a cell phone?
  14. Can you tell the difference between a switchback, a cornerback, and a hunchback?

BONUS: What is the difference between a duck and a cairn?

Answers after the jump

OK, here we go.Score one for each correct answer. Short: 1: Y, 2: N, 3: N, 4: N, 5: N, 6: N, 7: N, 8: N, 9: Y, 10: N*, 11: N, 12: N, 13: N. Score under 5: please stay home.  Venturing off sidewalks might be a high risk. 5-9: there is hope but you’ll be best off finding a more experienced partner. 10-13: GG bets you’d argue with the wrong answers, and who knows, maybe you have a case.  We’ll argue somewhere in the backcountry. 14: Feel free to dispense wisdom to the, um, washed (you, of course, will be unwashed) on the trail.

  1. Waterbars are logs placed across a trail to guide running water off the trail and keep the trail from being eroded, so you do walk across waterbars. Loose logs laid across a tread indicate a closed trail (unless by accident a tree dropped a limb recently); you do NOT cross those without knowing what you are doing. GG is amazed at how many souls blithely walk straight off the trail.
  2. Blazes are used to mark trails; they are much more common these days in the eastern U.S. than out west.  Old style blazes were shapes cut into a tree (the U.S. Army used a “T” blaze in Yosemite, the Forest Service has often used a short rectangle over a square), but these days blazes are more often colored markers placed on trees or rocks to mark a path.  On less used paths, or if snow still covers the trails, blazes might be your only clue.
  3. Unless your dog is truly special, his or her poop needs to come out from the backcountry.  And, increasingly, yours does too (ick).
  4. The ten essentials are items you are supposed to have when you hike for safety. REI has both the classic list and a more modern list with explanation.
  5. “Stock” are four-legged beasts of burden, most typically horses and mules and the rare donkey, but increasing numbers of llamas are found on the trail.
  6. No. You give them all the right of way, moving quietly off trail on the downhill side.
  7. Not in my Wilderness you don’t!
  8. Do this only if you also plan to be consumed with your food.
  9. Hope so.  Link is for Colorado version.  Idea is to make search and rescues less of a burden on the volunteers and professionals who help out.  Some places are inclined to charge you if you hadn’t bought one.
  10. OK, grumpy old guys with lots of experience who know you can get away with this in certain situations get a pass (hence the asterisk), but in general the answer these days is no.  A few large fires started from backpackers burning TP, and you become liable for the costs of starting that fire. Some areas are requiring TP to be packed out.
  11. That road map will sure come in handy if you make it back out to a highway.  Seriously, GG has seen people hiking without even the simplest map, having no idea that they missed their turn four miles before and carrying just enough water to dampen a stamp. Get and carry a topo map.  These days, if you know how to manage your cell phone power well, a great addition are smartphone apps that will store maps offline for use in the wild.
  12. Flip flops? Sheesh.  If you love having rocks and small pinecones under your feet and stubbing your toes feels good, go for it.  If you are carrying a 40 lb pack, best of luck as you foot slide out of the flip flop as you climb the stupid rock in the trail.
  13. Seriously? It may be amazing to hear, but there are lots of places with no cell coverage, and many of them are just perfect places to get lost and hurt. Even if you have coverage, making your main line of defense a call to the search and rescue guys is presumptuous. While you can keep your phone, first try and learn a few things (like navigation, how to ford a stream, carrying the 10 essentials).  Second, let somebody know where you are going and when they should hear from you again. Having a hiking companion or two or three can help.  And if you really really really think that communication with the outside world is the most essential tool, then get a satellite phone or communicator.
  14. Switchback is when a trail nearly turns back 180 degrees as you go up a steep ascent. Cornerbacks are pass defenders in (American) football and hunchbacks are found in bell towers in France. But really, a lot of folks simply don’t recognize these for what they are and shoot straight off the end of one, often walking over the big dead log in the way (see #1) and marching sometimes for hundreds of feet, before they realize they are no longer on the trail.  This is how some subset of lost hikers gets lost.

Bonus: Both ducks and cairns are used to mark routes in the wilderness.  Ducks, in Sierran parlance at least, were one or two or three rocks balanced in a way that made it obvious they were artificial.  Stand at one and you would either see the next or the route would be pretty obvious. These are typically created by individuals in an ad hoc manner. In some places in the Sierra, Boy Scouts seemingly decided to place ducks everywhere, making them all both useless and unsightly at the same time. Feel free to knock over ducks in such situations. Cairns are piles of lots of rocks and generally are found above timberline along actual trails. These are often deliberate devices made by trail crews to help navigating in fog or early season.

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