Planning and Preparing for your waterfall excursion in California
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WHAT TO BRINGIn order to ensure a relatively safe and hassle-free trip (especially considering that nature can be a pretty unforgiving place), here are a few things you might want to consider packing for your outing.
- Hiking Shoes/Boots - much of the state's outdoor pursuits involves lots of walking and hiking on trails. This allows you to confidently walk through rugged uneven terrain where footing can be uneven or steep. It will also limit your likelihood of twisting an ankle or knee, which can be especially dangerous if you're deep in nature and help is far away.
- Hat - don't take for granted the dangers of UV radiation. A hat will at least keep your scalp from getting severely burned (especially considering how easy it is to get sunburned in California's sunny weather). If you're wearing a broad-rimmed hiking hat, it could also help protect your neck, ears, and face.
- Sunscreen - again, given the sun's harmful UV rays, it's a good idea to protect other exposed parts of your skin from sunburn.
- Sunglasses - prevents cataracts or other harmful effects of prolonged exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays on your eyes
- Layered Clothing - given the state's varied climates, this can mean the difference between life and death. For example, temperatures swings (whether it's mountains, deserts, or even the coast), can swing from the 80s to near freezing. Don't underestimate the dangers of hypothermia and/or heat stroke. Preparing yourself with multiple layers that you can peel or add on as needed is a must.
- Rain Coat - this will keep you and your equipment dry for the most part (with a rain poncho covering the pack in addition to the body). This can happen if you're hiking and it's stormy or you're caught in a downpour from an afternoon thunderstorm. Rain gear will at least keep you sane under such conditions (not to mention prevent your camera or other valuable electronics from getting waterlogged).
Some other things worth bringing to enhance your experience include...
- Water Sandals - given the state's mostly developed condition, it's not often that you have to cross an unbridged river or stream (though it is possible way out in the backcountry), but if you know you're going into such a hike, then watershoes will keep your hiking boots from getting waterlogged (a recipe for fungus and blisters). Of course, carrying around these shoes means carrying extra weight, but it might be worth it depending on your hike.
- Hiking Sticks/Trekking Poles - this is useful for longer and more involved hiking excursions. They provide you at 1 or 2 extra "legs" to maintain your balance on stream crossings or alleviate shock to your knees if you're carrying a pack
- Lots of Memory or Film or Portable Hard Drive - the first and third items are for digital photographers. In any case, you'll be taking heaps of photos and you'll want to make sure you can bring all your photos home
- Bear Cannister - believe it or not, California black bears are smart and they've figured out that people are sources of food. So if you don't want a bear breaking into your car or running away with your pack, you may need to store anything with a scent (not just food, but also toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in one of these bulky cannisters if you're out on a backpacking trip.
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SAFETYThere are two different types of dangers I'm categorizing for your California-based outing. The first involves crime. The second involves natural hazards.
First, let's address crime. There are good and bad areas of California. That's due to the presence of gangs, high disparity between rich and poor, and just plain thugs. Obviously, there are bad areas in urban centers (like in any city), but there are also seedy areas closer to our treasured National Parks, deserts, forests, etc. throughout California. For example, there are some notorious gang areas as you drive through parts of Central Valley en route to Central California from Southern California. Therefore, you'll want to be careful of car break-ins and run-ins with unsavory people. Remember, even out in nature (and even on the way to nature), there are people out there ready to do harm at the slightest provocation. You'd do well to avoid confrontations as much as possible and try not to let thugs get to you.
Finally, let's address nature. Nature is inherently dangerous and unforgiving. But in order to enjoy the best of what California has to offer, you have to get out there and lose yourself. As long as you're aware of the dangers, you're adequately prepared for your outing, and you respect nature, you can minimize the chances of getting hurt or killed. Below is a list of things you need to be aware of to stay safe in the outdoors...
- Hypothermia - as mentioned earlier, this is a silent killer that can catch those who got lost, debilitated, or were unprepared. Given the fact that waterfalls tend to be located in forests and mountains, you can bet night time temperatures can easily dip close to freezing. If you don't have adequate clothing, you will indeed freeze to death. So come prepared with layers of clothing, check the weather, and study where you're going so you don't get lost. Do that and you'll be fine.
- Drop-offs - waterfalls tend to be located where there are canyons, ravines, cliffs, gorges, etc. That means, drop-offs are real hazards, and a fall from great heights can not only break bones, but they'll kill (which is usually the case). Your best defence against this is to stay away from cliff edges (especially if there are no railings) as you don't know how stable the ground beneath you can be. Also be wary of off-trail scrambles down cliffs as you may find yourself unable to get back up! Be prepared to ask yourself whether that better photograph is worth it and walk away.
- Flash Floods - this can be a problem in narrow canyons though it's not nearly as common as say Hawaii or slot canyons in Utah/Arizona. Try to inform yourself with the latest weather reports and limit your exposure to the flash flood risk by not lingering too long in streams or gorges without higher ground.
- Rock Falls/Landslides - this is something to watch for when you're around cliffs and waterfalls. Getting hit by a chunk of rock on the noggin can easily take you out. Also, getting buried in a mudslide or landslide is sure to suffocate you. Preparation and not lingering too long beneath waterfalls is your best defense against this.
- Altitude Sickness - this is a problem in the mountainous parts of the state. If you know you're going to do a hike in high elevations, keep in mind the air is thinner and you'll be taking in less oxygen (that's why it's easier to be short of breath). You can try to counteract this by acclimating to higher altitudes by spending a night before your long hike or backpack. But succumbing to altitude sickness is not pleasant as you typically get nauseated, light-headed, or disoriented.
- Getting lost - always stay on the trails and heed the signs - for both your safety and even for trespassing reasons. Bring a topo map as well as a compass with you if you're on a more involved hike where it's easier to lose the trail.
- Heat Stroke - the state can easily get hot (especially in the desert regions) and not having enough water to drink is typically the number one way for you to overheat. In fact, getting a heat stroke can often lead to deaths so don't underestimate this threat. Preparation and lots of water is your best defense against this.
- Predators - the state is home to mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and even California black bears. Mountain lions can be a threat especially since their domains have been shrinking with the advent of the housing and development boom; thus making them desperate for food. Rattlesnakes are actually quite common especially in the central and southern parts of the state. Thankfully, they normally warn you with their rattle before they strike. However, if you do get bit, they're poisonous venom is toxic enough to kill you without getting treated with antivenin in time. Finally, black bears can be scary (especially if they're acclimated to human food to the point where they'll attack you), but they're normally more scared of you than you are of them. But feeding them is sure to send them down a path that is detrimental to both humans and bears.
- Insects - last but not least, there can be insects that can be harmful. There are indeed black widow spiders who have amongst the most toxic bites of any organism in the animal kingdom. But perhaps a greater threat is that of ticks. This can especially occur in the forests of Northern and Central California. Many of them can carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease, and other bacteria-based diseases. I personally had a tick plunge itself right into my thigh and fortunately didn't contract an illness. If you do happen to find a tick, try to carefully remove it with tweezers from its head. If the tick breaks with its head still in your body, you can easily get an infection. It's under these circumstances where a first-aid kit is handy to bring with you.
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LENGTH OF VISITThis question isn't really answerable because it completely depends on what type of excursion you're looking for. Since the possibilities are endless, we'll just focus on waterfalling.
You can go on hiking trips that can be as little as a day (even just a few hours in a local outing) or as long as several days (a backpacking trip). Heck, even some people walk the entire John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, which are both hundreds of miles long requiring some serious self-sufficiency (and coordination with pack stations). In any case, there is no right answer for length of stay in California
as even just the activity of waterfalling has endless possibilities.
To give you an idea of how we managed to do our excursions, we've done relatively local weekend trips to Central California and Northern California lasting a weekend (typically 3 days to 5 days; making long weekends out of those lasting longer than 3 days 2 nights). Of course, those we do around Southern California typically last for a half day or full day on a Saturday or Sunday. The greatest difficulty is typically the amount of time it takes to drive to get to a waterfall (plan on spending a minimum of an hour or more to drive to one).
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