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Backcountry Safety in Durango Colorado Durango has many wonderful outdoor activities that are readily available for the avid enthusiast to the novice wanting to expand and experience.  As with any sport or recreation, individuals need to be prepared and have some knowledge of what they are about to undertake. Personal safety is your own responsibility and with a little bit of education and planning your trip will be safer, relaxing and more fun. This write up is NOT the end all to be all for every situation and circumstance but is a basic guide to help visitors when planning a trip or help seasoned locals with tips and reminders.  "As a Durango local (born and raised) I have hiked trails and camped areas all over Colorado ever since I was a small child. It has become comfortable to me and I crave being out in the wilderness enjoying everything it has to offer. Being prepared was taught over and over by my family, friends, schools and training courses." We will be writing about a few of the essentials here.
Day Hike       Backpacking       Wildlife       Bugs       Altitude       Lightning       Cold       Avalanches       Lost
Let's begin with a local favorite which is the "Day hike". This is a hike along a trail or in the wilderness that you can get in and out within a day. A hiker should have a small backpack or fanny pack able to carry water, rain jacket, sunscreen, insect repellent, lighter, knife (multi tool uber cool), camera and munchies. How much food and water to bring? This depends on where you are going, what you will be doing and you as an individual. Durango has several climate zones which include semi arid deserts and cool high mountains. Activities in hot deserts may require you to pack at least a gallon of water (or more) while hiking in moderate temperatures of the mountains you could get away with just a 3000ml water pack. Having some extra water or juice waiting for you in the car when you get back is also a great idea. Coffee while giving you good boost is also a diuretic (makes you have to pee) which means if you enjoy a great cup of java before the hike be sure to drink water a bit more frequently to avoid dehydration. Another question that comes up quite often is about drinking water from lakes, streams or springs and the quick answer is, DON'T! A study was done on many of the streams in Colorado and not one of them was found free of Giardia. What is Giardia you say? Giardia Lamblia is a parasite that gets into the water system through the deposit of animal feces (poop) which can make you sick if ingested. (Beaver Fever) These little bad boys are not the only things floating in the water waiting to get into somebody's lower intestinal tract. Cryptosporidium is another icky parasite that has similar effects and can be tougher to get rid of so think twice before you imbibe right out of the stream. There are some good water filters and purifying agents that can be purchased which work quite well during longer pack trips but boiling your water is also very effective.  Durango has quite a few mines that are near streams and it is not advisable to drink water from those locations at all, filtered or not. Metals, minerals and toxic materials used during the era could be present which might make you sick.  Pet owners should be aware that your dog can also get Giardia Parasites and while many do not show any symptoms it can be fatal to older animals with weak immune systems. For the most part though dogs have a stronger constitution and you do not need to worry too much if Fido jumps into a stream for a swim.  Now for a few words about food. First, you should eat a good breakfast and try to avoid high sugar content items which can make you "bonk" by mid morning. Munchies to stick in the pack include the regular standbys like granola (gorp), nuts, dried fruit and jerky. You don't have to worry as much about pack weight so a sandwich is also good to throw in. The average adult will need to consume about 1500 k calories per day under moderate exercise but this amount can vary depending on the individuals size, weight and exertion levels. Pausing to eat a little bit at a time and continuous sipping of your water can help to avoid getting stomach cramps, fill your body's fuel tank and avoid dehydration.  There are some optional items to take on day hikes like maps, compass, GPS, binoculars, field guide books and loupes. If you need to bring a GPS or compass, it is important to know how to use them correctly.
Full on back pack trips can include many of the essential items for the day hike but with extended stays there are a few more things to take into consideration. What kind of pack to use? There are a myriad of types and styles to choose from including internal frame, external frame, aluminum and composite. It all depends on what you intend to do and carry. There is not one truly perfect pack for everything but a very important thing to do with any of your packs is to have them properly fitted. It will help immensely in the comfort department while you are hoofing it up the trail. Women need to be fitted differently than men and in many cases packs are gender specific.  Pack sizes to consider are 55 liters for small to medium trips and the larger 80 liter for extended trips or winter camping where more gear is required.  Boots are very important for backpacking as they help support the ankles, cushion, keep your feet dryer, and increase traction in slippery conditions. As with backpacks there are many brands and types of boots to choose from and this is one piece of kit not to skimp out on. A good pair of fitted boots will last many seasons and keep the feet (and you) happy on the trail.  Choosing a sleeping bag for summer camping in Durango is fairly easy and having an extreme weather bag is bit overkill in most situations here. It is a good idea to bring a bag that is rated to 40 degrees or maybe a bit lower as it is easier to flop open when you are too warm and will still be okay if it cools off during the night. Always choose a bag that is seasonally appropriate and expect temperatures below freezing at night in the spring and fall. Many winter sleeping bags are preparatory to very cold and wet situations which makes them the bag of choice for camping when there is snow.   Back country pack trips are a good place to take a GPS device, map and compass as many of the trails intersect or may dwindle into nothing at all.  When setting up camp always stay at least 300 feet away from water sources. Aside from the impact reasons there is also a risk of flash floods if you are camped next to a stream. There can be big rain storms miles away from you up in the mountains which can come rushing down all at once and without warning.  Another thing often overlooked but is important and simple is to let somebody know where you are going and when to expect a return. Nobody ever plans to have an accident but it is a good idea to have a plan in case you do and having some follow up support can save a life. If you are going with a group, have a plan and stick to it. Make sure everybody is aware of what they are getting into and that no one is going to be in over their head. Never force individuals to take risks beyond their skill or comfort levels.  "Food for backpack trips has come a long LONG way from the funky bland (and strange) packaged things we used to have in the 1980's". Now you can get great tasting nutritious meals that are light and easy to prepare. They are not as cost effective but mixing some in with other dried foods and snacks is a good way to adequately stock your supplies. The "average" amount of food you will need to bring on a backpack trip is between 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per individual per day. (N.O.L.S.)  It is always advisable to pack enough food to last a couple of days longer than your intended trip, just in case.
Wild animals are not much of a concern in this area and conflicts between people and animals are few.  Durango has LOTS of wildlife, some of which can be seen walking down the streets or eating the grass off the golf courses. We have deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, foxes and coyotes all in or close to town.  The simple safety procedure is to just leave them alone. Do not try to approach too closely, feed, throw things or touch them.  Black Bears can be a problem for campers if YOU give them a reason to come over for a midnight snack.  Always store food in containers away from where you are sleeping and never ever keep food in the tent with you.  Food containers should be hung between two trees at least ten feet from the ground and five feet away from the tree trunk which will help discourage camp robbing.  If you are chased by a Black Bear (very uncommon) do not climb a tree because unlike their larger cousin the grizzly they can shimmy right up after you.  The best thing to do is back away slowly and put some distance between you and the animal while keeping an eye on it.  Mountain Lions  are an all together different story and while they are living in the Durango area they are seldom seen. They like it that way. Mountain Lions are an ambush predator that likes to hide in trees or rocks and cliff ledges where they can pounce on the things they like to eat. Luckily humans are not normal prey items and attacks on people are extremely rare but if it does happen there are some things you can do.  First, do not run and do not turn your back on the animal. Get as big, noisy and mean as you can and if the cat has decided to make a move fight with everything you got. Use your mountain bike, water bottles, fists, rocks, sticks (anything available) and aim for the face or eyes.  There are no real guarantees or perfect solutions when it comes to humans interacting with animals in their environment but fortunately "trouble" is very seldom. Count yourself fortunate to see a wild animal and enjoy the beauty of where you are.
Now about bugs. The mountains around Durango have some wonderful and beautiful insects like butterflies and moths. And we also have some of the "not so wonderful varieties" that are not too common but can be a nuisance. Mosquitoes in the shaded wet areas, deer flies, wood ticks and brown recluse spiders are a few of them.  Mosquitoes like swampy or wet areas and if your trip is to take you through these kinds of environments a good insect repellent is advisable. Wood Ticks (rocky mountain and dog ticks) are more frequently seen in the spring and they hang out on grass and branches where they hitch a ride on passersby. Insect repellent with "deet" is fairly effective at repelling them but it is a good idea to check yourself after you get home or back to camp. Brown Recluse Spiders like to live in dry dead wood, like logs and piled up tree limbs which are also what people like to sit on or bring into the camp for firewood.  There are many websites with further identification information should you desire to research specifics but to be on the safe side always check gear and clothing before putting them on. Sitting on logs can invite all kinds of creepy crawlies like ants, spiders and ticks into areas you do not want them so check your resting spot before you take a break.
Altitude Sickness
We have touched a little on the subject of altitude sickness in other areas of the website and it is worth mentioning again. Contrary to popular belief, being a physically fit and active individual has nothing to do with being more or less susceptible to altitude sickness and it can affect anybody. The generally accepted lowest altitude threshold is 5000 feet above sea level and is most common to occur at altitudes of 8000 feet or above. Durango sits at 6,512 feet so if you are visiting from a home area that is at sea level, give yourself a couple or few days to acclimate and take it easy. Some of the minor symptoms of altitude sickness are: Headache, Fatigue, Nausea, Rapid Heart Rate, Loss of Appetite, Dizziness, and Difficulty Sleeping. Some of the more serious symptoms to look out for are: Severe Shortness of Breath, Confusion, Clumsiness and even Loss of Consciousness. The number one treatment for Mountain / Altitude sickness is to get to a lower elevation and if symptoms persist or get worse, seek medical attention. A good way to help prevent symptoms is to drink plenty of water, eat steadily to maintain energy and blood sugar levels and take frequent rest breaks. A good website to visit for information is the Web MD http://firstaid.webmd.com/mountain-sickness-treatment and if you have questions as to whether or not you should be attempting activities at high elevations see a doctor prior to planning your trip.
Lightning is everywhere you get storms and the Durango Mountains get some interesting electrical events. "I have been climbing along a trail and the rocks around me were buzzing, clicking and popping with static electricity which was a warning to get the hell out of dodge." During a lightning storm you need to move to lower elevations and if you are seeking shelter do not use single trees or high rocky points. Look for bunches of lower bushes, trees or forested areas where you are less likely to be singled out. Hair standing on end, ground and objects making noises like described above is a good sign that a strike near you could be imminent and you need to get away quickly. If you are on a day hike and storms have begun to intensify it may be a good idea to postpone the trip until another time which is safer than trying to tough it out.  Keep in mind the lighting storms above timberline can be MUCH more dangerous than those observed at lower elevations,  where storms often roll in quickly many afternoons in the summer months. 
Summer is not the only time we like to get out and enjoy the outdoors and there are many wonderful things to enjoy in Durango during the snowy winter months.  With these kinds of activities come some winter safety suggestions that visitors should be aware of.  This may sound strange but in the winter it's COLD. Visitors may not realize just how cold it can get in the mountains and "I personally have seen a digital thermometer hit -30F before it stopped working and this did not include wind chill as the wind was pushing close to 40mph. An approximate wind chill was about       -60F" Any exposed skin was at risk of frostbite within five minutes so I was very thankful (and quite comfortable) having good gear and prepared for the event. Winter clothing for the enthusiast is a MUST have and some of which is quite preparatory so getting into details about EVERY activity is not going to be covered. It is worth mentioning the importance of layering clothing and keeping yourself dry during winter activities and always bring extra clothes during winter pack trips. The topic of good gear and staying dry brings up the subject of "Hypothermia" which can be a risk to individuals in any cold environment. Symptoms can include: Shivering (sometimes uncontrollable), Clumsiness, loss of focus, weakness or low energy levels, slurred speech, poor decision making, confusion, painful or inhibited movement in extremities and when the core body temperature drops to 86 degrees (or lower) the heart rate drops, consciousness is lost and then death can occur. Keeping an eye on your buddy is a good idea and watch for symptoms in others as they may not be aware (poor decision making) that they are in danger. If you see any symptoms get them to a warmer environment or shelter as soon as possible. If the situation becomes serious use a cell phone (if available) to call for assistance and make all efforts possible to keep the victim warm. Shelter, dry clothes and even physical contact can help. There are resources available for Hypothermia online and many first aid courses will cover more in depth on its treatment.  
Another subject of major importance to the winter backcountry adventurer is Avalanches (snow slides). The mountains around Durango Colorado get a lot snow and are highly prone to them and the risks should NOT be taken lightly.  The intent here is safety, not to scare people. "I have enjoyed skiing and snowboarding in the San Juan Mountains for most of my life and still love to partake in winter activities to this day." With that being said, enthusiasts should take the time to learn how to be safe and the best way is to get the training. There are several companies that offer courses like the "Silverton Avalanche School" or "The Silverton Snowmobile Club for Snowmobiling" that are well worth the time. The CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) is an incredibly useful website for avalanche updates here and can help you plan an adventure safer than without.  People unfamiliar with winter conditions in the mountains may ask "what an "avalanche" is and why can snow be so dangerous?" The study of avalanches is very in depth (no pun intended) and there is extensive research, formulas and tests that professionals undertake to understand more about all the dynamics that take place during a slide. We will only be covering a few of the basics here to try and convey the importance of personal responsibility and getting the proper training.  Most people think that ANY loose snow sliding down the mountain is "an avalanche" and while this is partially true, the loose surface slides are referred to as "sluffs". The bad boys that cause lots of damage are "slab avalanches" which are what most professionals refer to.  There are a few other types of slides like full depth and wet snow (slush) avalanches but for the most part we will be talking about slabs. Here are some interesting details. Almost 90 percent of the victims caught in avalanches were the ones to cause the slide in the first place. Worth more mentioning here. In almost every case the victim of the avalanche caused the avalanche!   True or False? Noise will trigger an avalanche? FALSE!  That just happens in the movies. True or False? If you get buried you should "spit" so you can tell which way is up or down? FALSE! It does not much matter which is up or down is to an avalanche victim as they still cannot "dig" to free themselves. True or False? You have to be ON the slope to trigger the avalanche. FALSE! Big time false! And this is why so many people get caught on cross country skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles! You can be at the bottom of a slope along the edge where it looks fairly safe and your activity can still be the trigger that brings it all down on top of you. Funny how gravity works eh? Why are avalanches so dangerous? Well for one thing the snow is heavy and can come down the mountain at astonishing speeds some exceeding 80mph! About 25 percent of the victims are killed by hitting debris (rocks, trees, ice, etc.) during their descent and most others succumb to "asphyxia" after being buried too long. If you can be found and dug out within the first fifteen minutes victims stand about a 90 percent chance of survival. After the first fifteen minutes though the survivability rate drops catastrophically to only about 27 percent surviving after 35 minutes. Time is critical and a person that is buried needs to be found fast! This is why proper training is so important for back country enthusiasts and having equipment like beacons, probes, shovels and cell phones can help save a life. Knowing more about snow / avalanche conditions and making decisions based            on facts rather than emotions is also an important and safer way to approach your recreational activities. Slopes that can have an avalanche are between 25 and 50 degrees (approximate) which also happens to be some of the best steepness for skiing or snowboarding which is partly why most victims are recreationists.  Why can't you just dig yourself out of the snow? The motion of the snow combined with weight and moisture can make it pack around you like concrete and literally no movement is available to some victims. So self rescue by digging is almost impossible and is why the fatality rate is so high. Some warning signs to look out for when in the back country are: Recent avalanche activity in the area you are in. If you happen to notice that the slopes have slid recently near you, this is a pretty good indicator that snow conditions may still be bad. 95 percent of the slides occur within the first 24 hours of a heavy snowfall and if the temperatures remain cold after the storm the time frame can extend well past 48 hours. High winds during a storm can also create dangerous conditions so use extreme caution during any of these time periods. Overhangs, also called a cornice, of snow are also bad news. They can break off under your feet if you try to stand on them which can also be a trigger for the rest of the slope to release. If you are on a slope and it makes a noise commonly referred to as a "WHUMPH", lookout! This is an indicator that the snow pack could be unstable and about to release. If you are cutting across a slope and you see visible cracks opening up around you. This could be bad news and an indicator that the snowpack is unstable. We stated at the beginning of this topic that our intention was not to scare people so bad that they never go into the back country at all. Under the right conditions the mountains around Durango are absolutely glorious to be playing on! Wonderful! Spectacular! It just takes a bit of training, testing, planning and good judgment to keep you safer. "It's kind of like scuba diving. You do not just don a B.C.D. and mask and just jump into the ocean without knowing what you are doing, right?" Same thing here. Get some training and THEN hit the steeps. Remember, there is NO such thing as a completely safe slope and even the most seasoned experts can get caught off guard by conditions or situations beyond their control so if things look "kind of sketchy". Don't chance it.  
Another subject to cover is; how to avoid getting lost and what to do if you do lose your way. People get lost during all seasons and in all kinds of situations. Hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, Nordic skiers, just to name a few. You would think that in this modern day and       age with cell phones and GPS devices that it would be next to impossible for    someone to get truly LOST but it happens almost every year.  It's a great idea to have tools like a compass, maps and GPS devices but it is very important to know how to use them. "I have found videos online for my own particular GPS unit that was very helpful" and many retailers will also give some good tips. The old boy scouts motto of "be prepared" still holds true today and if you are out on an adventure in unfamiliar territory take the "extras" just in case. Things like extra food, water, lighter (waterproof matches), first aid kit, knife (multi tool is my favorite), jacket, whistle or signaling device and always tell others of your intended trip. Stick to your intended agenda because if you go to a different location than where you told your contacts a search for you would be in the wrong place. While you are hiking be sure to look     around you at particular landmarks and take note of your orientation. Being prepared during a trip is one of the most important things you can do. If you become lost think of this word: S.T.O.P. and to what it means for you: S. = Stop. Sit down, be calm and relax for a few minutes. Staying in one place (if it is safe) can make it easier for rescuers to find you. T. = Think. Take a look at how much daylight you have. Think about how you got to where you are and if you have a map or GPS take a look at where you are and where you may have lost track. O. = Observe. Check your landmarks. Are you in a safe area where you can remain? Do you have materials for shelter and fire? Are you in a visible area where somebody (anybody) can see you?  Is the weather going to remain favorable? Look in the pack and check your supplies and take quick inventory of your resources. Does your cell phone have signal? Are there any sources of water nearby? P. = Plan. Once you have had a chance to calm down its time to make some decisions. If you have plenty of daylight left and you are certain that you have found where you got confused (via map, GPS and landmarks etc.) begin your exit strategy. If your situation is not favorable to continue then make plans for a shelter and fire. A fire provides warmth, light, smoke (green branches work well for making smoke) and boosts morale. Plan for a cold night and gather your firewood while still daylight. You should try to gather more than you think you will need, it burns quick and staying busy will actually help you remain calmer. Shelter, fire, water, visibility and food will be some of your first short term priorities to help you survive before rescue. What about following streams or hiking downhill? Yes, this can be effective in some areas as houses and roads tend to follow lower valleys and streams but use caution if you are in the high mountains. Downhill can lead to cliffs and streams can lead to canyons so pay attention to the terrain in the distance and don't just blindly charge down the mountain. The point is NOT to make your situation worse. Fortunately for the Durango area there is so many visible landmarks, locations to orientate and well marked trails that getting lost for a long period of time is becoming much less likely. Being a "safer" outdoor enthusiast comes down to common sense, planning and maybe some training in activities specific to your interests and there are many local resources or guides to help the newcomer. Be safe and most of all have fun in the great DuranGO Outdoors!
Wild Animals logotype Black Widow Photographer:  James Hobby logotype Day hike up Engineer Mountain Day Hike