We're continually puzzled by those who make backpacking sound like some kind of survival adventure, particularly when it's in the Sierra Nevada. And no, we're not talking about those idiot survival shows that take a star and a helicopter and camera crew somewhere and then act like everyone's life is in danger. Give us a break.* Very pleasant seventy year-old couples regularly hike the John Muir Trail from one end to the other. It's not life or death. It's not even exciting. It's beautiful. it's relaxing. It's not a survival show.
Survival is pretty simple. In terms of basic needs, you need water, shelter, and food, more or less in that order. You can die after three days without water---but you are never more than an hour or two from water in the Sierra. Shelter? That's what you have in your pack, unless you are really trying to be stupid. A tent and a sleeping bag will get you through anything that can happen to you in the summer in the Sierra. And food? You can live for a couple of weeks without food. By that time, you will have hiked out. It's hard to get to somewhere in the Sierra that is three days from a trailhead.
Of course, you can die in the mountains, but it's far more likely that you'll die driving on the highway to the trailhead.
If you do die in the Sierra, chances are it is because you have drowned--that's the leading cause. Swimming in ice cold water, particularly in roaring springtime rivers, is not smart. And you can become hypothermic if you don't pay attention. Or lost.
We try (successfully) to avoid those things.
That's not to say that we always know exactly where we are and what we're doing. We hike off-trail often, and sometimes we don't know exactly where we are, or how to get to where we want to go. Fair enough.
But here's the important fact: we've never been in a situation where we didn't know how to go back the way we came, and get out and get home safely. That's pretty darn key.
Because whatever we do in the mountains, we never take a risk that says: OK...that was so difficult and dangerous that we have to keep going forward, because going back is not an option.
Common sense. Not something found on some of those TV shows.
When we get to one of those kinds of places, we look it over carefully and think it through. And if we're not convinced that it's safe for us to proceed, and will be safe on the way back, we find another route.
Which means that we sometimes find ourselves making decisions based on what would be nicest, easiest, or more comfortable. Backpacking is recreation, not a life and death struggle.
We like nice, easy, and comfortable. And we hiked to amazing places. Staying alive.
*The new Dual Survival show with Grady Powell, an American Green Beret, and Josh James, a Kiwi outdoorsman is much better--primarily because they don't try stupid stuff, they don't act like the are about to die at every moment...and they use pretty good common sense to solve the usual problems of water, shelter, food, and getting found.