Dealing With Nature – Part 2: Staying Safe

We’ve all seen those glorious landscape photos on cards, in books, as screen savers, in galleries and museums.  And for the fine-art photographer, landscape and nature photographs are the most common of the fine art subjects.  We all want to take images that would make Ansel Adams jealous, and yet, we rarely venture out off the highway turn-out to find those incredible shots.  Why?


Fear is the biggest obstacle for many photographers when contemplating heading out into nature to photograph her on her own terms.  Of all the emotions, fear is the worst.  It is the most debilitating, the most paralyzing, the most likely to end up in hatred.  We don’t want you to end up hating nature but being comfortable in it, and that means you need to learn the skills to let you feel unthreatened and, as my uncle use to say, “Walk in balance and harmony” with nature.

But first let’s lay a bit of foundation for it all.  I talked in the last post about how nature will talk to you.  I don’t mean it will announce, with a sonorous voice from inside a bush (although I confess if it did it would have my complete and undivided attention…), what you should do; but it will present you with imagery that, metaphorically can bring out emotional responses you can share with your viewers. We are all descendants of dwellers in the bush and there is still a connection there though it has been dulled and shoved aside by modern living and needs.  Consequently, a lot of people, especially those raised in the city, are very uncomfortable heading out into the bush and, to be honest about it, are a little afraid since it is so unfamiliar, and so many stories abound about people running into big trouble once off the beaten path.  And yet… it is in those unfamiliar surroundings that some of the most stunning photographs can be found waiting for you.

It’s important to understand, therefore, that nature will not purposefully harm you.  Now, to be honest, it will blithely let you harm yourself and not get in your way if that is your desire; but it will also not trouble itself to target you for harm.  Indeed, it will not trouble itself caring about you one way or the other, so consequently, unlike humans, it does not lie.  I’ve heard people gush that “I just LOVE nature.”  Get over it.  It does not care.  It does not seek your love because it knows the most common lie among humans concerns love; it only expects you to respect it and learn the rules.  It does not give a hoot if you love it or not, that is meaningless.    But if you respect it and learn those rules, the rewards can be simply awesome for the artist.  If you truly respect it you will come to want to protect and preserve it for your future images hunts and for others as well.  And the more you respect it, the more it will reveal of itself to you, and the more imagery you will have to show for it.  And the more comfortable you will become and want to spend more time in it.  It really is a win-win.

So what are the rules for the photographer venturing off into nature in pursuit of the wily image?  Remember in the last post I said my friend held that an “adventure” was an event that resulted from a failure of planning.  Most of the time, my experience indicates that is true, but there are times when all the planning in the world cannot protect you from being blindsided by an accident.  So, let’s divide our discussion into two major parts.  The first part (this post) will be focused on avoiding that unfortunate adventure via pre-trek planning that will, well over 90% of the time, keep you out of trouble and bring you home safely and without adventure.  The next post(s) will deal with the issues that arise when even that planning fails to shield you from an adventure (or when it really IS an adventure due to bad planning).

Final note before we start.  Reading a few blog posts or books or even watching demos on video will not, repeat, WILL NOT, make you into a viable survivalist or prepper.  Dealing with a true survival type situation where you have to remain in place in the middle of nowhere for several days without the conveniences of civilization and are, worse yet, possibly hurt, IS NOT EASY!  It’s not easy on the emotions and it will demand a lot from you in terms of skills and just determination to make it. This is especially true if there are other folks in your group even less experienced than you.  They will instantly look to you for your skills and knowledge to keep them alive and if they lose confidence in that you will have a full blown panic on your hands which can turn deadly in an instant.  The most I can do here is show you some places to start.  So lets get with it…

Martial artists learn that the best way to deal with an incoming strike is not to be there when it arrives.  For our purposes it means doing whatever we can in advance to reduce or eliminate the chance of something going wrong.  The first item of business is trip planning.  Like a pilot, creating a “flight plan” that is reasonably doable, and then making sure that someone NOT going is aware of it, is critical.  The information should include your destinations, itinerary, and, perhaps most importantly, when you will be returning.  They will need to now within a reasonable “grace period” when they should hear from you that either you are home safe or there has been a change of plans, before they start sending out the cavalry to find and rescue you.  But it will make any survival situation more bearable if you know that before long, someone will be searching for you and have a good general idea where to look.

Do you know your vehicle’s mileage?  Not just on the highway, but when you are off-highway and following a dirt road?  It will likely be much less so do you know when to top off the tank to be safe? (Answer: regardless of where the gauge is, top it off just before you leave the pavement.)

If you have a cell phone and coverage, then try to check in daily with your stay at home backup and give new data if you decide to alter your initial plan.  This alone could save a lot of people major problems every year and all over the country.

If you are not a good map reader, become one.  Learn the basics of navigation and orienteering especially including how to use a good compass and map. This may seem unneeded if you intend to simply do car travel and stay in motels or campgrounds and got yourself one of those fancy GPS thingies.  But if you plan on ANY amount of hiking or exploring, know that most of the survival situations each year start out as simple day or even hourly hikes and then something goes terribly wrong.   You get off trail and get lost; you trip and break a leg, there are any number of ways a simple hike in a National Park or Forest and turn serious and potentially deadly if you are not prepared for every eventuality you can think of.

Do not rely on your clever GPS device which may run out of battery or get broken or lost in the field.  When they work they make navigation incredibly easy, but when they fail to operate, you will be dependent on some more traditional skills.  They are like calculators.  I used to be good at math – until I got my first calculator.  Within a disgustingly short amount of time my ability to do math was severely diminished because I relied on the calculator.  Other electronic devices are the same.  They are wonderful when they work, but don’t let them take away your knowledge and skills of what to do when they are not available.

When walking through nature, slow down, literally, stop and smell the flowers.  Move slow enough to allow yourself to become totally aware of what is all around you: the beauty of it as well as the danger of it.  The glorious outcrop against an azure sky but also the root about to trip you or the low hanging branch about to lay you low.  Learn to see and laugh at the antics of the squirrels but also see the tracks and sign that let know you are not the only predator in the forest.  Having your map and plan in your head so you do not need to be glued to the GPS, will free you to look around and be part of this incredible environment.  Being worried about staying on trail will divert your attention from the often incredible detail all around you just waiting for you — YOU — to see while others go right on by.

And give a copy of your map and planned itinerary to your backup that will be staying at home.  Just as on your copy, it should pin point intended stops and campsites.  If something goes wrong that will give them the ability to better aim the folks coming to your rescue. Then YOU stick to the plan unless you can connect with them to alert them to your changes.

I know, I know… you have no plans for extensive exploration and, at most, intend a few hour, or at most a day trip from the trail head or parking lot hunting for an overlook or unique shot.  So why worry with about all that stuff; surely it is massive overkill… isn’t it?  Well the reason is mathematical.  By FAR AND AWAY, the greatest number of people needing extraction and rescue from the woods and who are in the worst condition when found, are the day hikers.  Why?  Because they are the ones who least expect a problem and therefore tend to be the worst equipped or prepared for emergencies.  Don’t become one of those statistics.

How?  Plan a day hike with the same care you would plan a week long survival hike.  More people are lost and injured wandering away from the official picnic site than whoever attempted serious survival treks into the woods.  Real explorers prepare for everything and rarely get in trouble.  It is the recreationist that uses cheap tools and survival gimmicks, if they have anything at all, and find themselves in trouble.  Ask any rescue service or group if you don’t believe me.

So, with a plan identified and provided to your “back up,” now it is time to make sure your equipment is in good shape.  We all know to charge batteries for our shooting gear, but do you know how to make sure your vehicle is REALLY up for the trip?  Your vehicle is your major transportation but it may also end up being your survival shelter.  If it is not in top condition, take it to your mechanic, tell him or her what you plan, and ask them to make sure the vehicle is mechanically as ready as possible: no leaks, good belts, no electrical drains, good tires and battery, fluids topped off, etc.  If you have an older vehicle, especially, start each day on the trek with a “walk around” check to include tires, fluids, etc.

Now how about you and your party?  We’ll talk about specific skills and techniques in later posts, but first, do you have with you the tools and gear with which to easily apply those skills?  Don’t be misled by movies or TV shows where people get lost or in trouble and have no trouble making a shelter or starting a fire with a couple of sticks, or hunting, fishing, and trapping small game, and whose canteens seem to never run dry like the old westerns where no one ever had to reload.  Hiking out down the mountain side with a broken leg and a tree branch crutch may seem reasonable in a movie… until you have to try it with someone (maybe yourself) with a low pain tolerance and gripped with fear and agony.  I assure you, the reality will be very different… very quickly.

You should never venture into the woods alone unless you are a true and experienced wilderness explorer (and most individuals with those qualifications do not venture off the trail alone either…  And every one in your party should be prepare to take care of the others if something happens.  Don’t designate a single person to carry survival gear.  If THAT is the person who slips on the cliff trail and takes the gear with them you are now ALL in trouble.

No one thinks it will happen to them, and for most of them that is likely to be true.  But not one of the people who gets lost or seriously injured… or die… each year out in the woods thought it would happen to them either.   So what should you really prepare for?  Here is a breakdown of your greatest threats to survival:

  1. You can live for about 3 weeks without food if you seriously conserve energy.
  2. You can live for about 3 days without water if you conserve hydration
  3. You can live for from about 3 minutes to about 30 minutes if your core temperature rises or lowers below normal.

Now put that data into perspective. So what is clear is that in most “normal” survival events (as if any true survival event is normal) the statistics are you will be found (if they know to look for you) within 3-5 days.  Yes there are occurrences that can go on longer but that is the typical duration.  So for most individuals, food is the least of your problems in terms of survival.  However, that figure can be a little misleading.  When you are hungry in such a situation it is easy to let that hunger trigger panic so you will have to keep that from happening just because your stomach thinks your throat has been cut.  A fistful of energy bars you can ration will go a long way toward eliminating this issue.  If your ordeal went a full week, a dozen energy bars will leave you hungry but far from starving.

Then we have the question of water.  In the woods with lots of cover and shadow you can perhaps go for over that 3 day limit if you minimize movement and energy loss.  If you are in the desert where it is hot then that 3 days may be incredibly optimistic.  So make no mistake: water is critically important.  Ideally you would have a gallon per day but unless perspiration is depleting your hydration rapidly, even ½ gallon per day will keep you going.  So make sure your car has plenty of water for you (and for it) plus if you take off on a hike take a canteen or water bottle in your backpack.  Don’t waste it but don’t wait until you are thirsty and dehydrated to take a mouthful of water.  But on the trek “out” from camp, do ration it as best you can without risking dehydration so you’ll have plenty if for some reason you are delayed.  In the next segments we’ll talk about getting water naturally.  But the best bet is always to take it with you.

Aren’t we making a big deal out of nothing here?  You decide for yourself but consider this.  All it takes is a minor slip to seriously injure yourself against a broken tree limb: a trip over a hidden stump to demonstrate that a typical rock is tougher than a typical skull, a hunk of ledge shoulder crumbling under your feet, a braced grip on a wet tree fails, a falling branch, backing unexpectedly into a cholla —  these incidences can be just mildly irritating or potentially deadly.

So do you at least have a good first aid kit with you with first aid cream plus bandages – even band aids???  Do you have some aspirin or acetaminophen to help with pain.  Can you dress a wound if necessary? Can you remove a splinter or cacus spine?  Can you at least splint an arm or leg if necessary?  If you have to spend a night and day in the woods do you have any necessary meds you must take daily with you?

Once you step away from the pavement, all the things civilization allows us to take for granted will fade away and be out of reach.  Are you prepared for at least the little common issues?  Unattended, those common problems can turn serious very, very quickly.

And then we have the part that will kill you fastest: “exposure” which is a rise or lowering of your core temperature.  That means that your number one consideration should be shelter either from the heat or from the cold.  Let’s deal with heat first since here in San Diego we are so close to the desert.

Overview of Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley NP

Overview of the Mesquite Dunes near stovepipe wells, Death Valley NP

HEAT.  Once you have spent any amount of time in the desert, especially in the summer, you will know clearly that “warmer is not always better.”  Excessive heat will deplete your hydration at a very accelerated rate, and as water is lost, lethargy will set in as your muscles fail to work normally until the most critical muscles, your brain and your heart, fail.  As you approach terminal hyperthermia your skin will get pale and clammy, your tongue swells, you will get a brutal headache, and as your body literally dries out, you become less and less coherent, and then you die.

You can only take off so many clothes and then you risk burning your skin and it is worse.  The solution is to reduce the heat; get in or create shade, get in a place with some breeze if possible, stay hydrated if you can.  If you absolutely must travel and can do so safely, rest in the day out of the sun and travel at night.  During the day plan your route and then follow it at night.

By the way, do you have a good broad brimmed hat or at least a modern Keffiyeh or Shemagh style scarf from which you can make a good head covering to protect not only from sun but from blowing dust and sand.  Cowboys used neckerchiefs and bandannas but they were not the little pocket hanky style, they were much larger like… well… lie a shemagh.  (Go ahead and look it up…)

Joshua Trees and Rocks 01

Late afternoon light on Joshua Trees and rock piles in Joshua Tree National Park

But do you know where to head? Do you actually know exactly where you are?  And from that, do you know where your car is or, from your map studies, where the nearest Ranger Station of other help might be?  Can you actually backtrack yourself back to safety?  Did you pay attention to your route, looking behind you frequently to see what THAT view looks like?  Do you know your trail well enough to know if it is faster to go back or keep going or try to cut across country and if that is your best option, can you navigate your way across desert flats to that safe haven?

If you can find water or even moist soil by digging in the eddies of the now dry stream beds and old water flows, remember, it is probably not safe to drink, but it can help cool you down by evaporation. Soak a handkerchief or shirt in it and place it on your head and neck. If all you can get is moist sand, use it in a scarf.    Also keep your wrists cool the same way.

Do you have with you the tools to make whatever you need to survive?  Do you have a way to hack bushes and materials for a shelter, to cut open certain cacti for liquid (and of course a guide to tell you which ones are safe) or dig for water?  Do you have a way to deal with a scrape or wound or snakebite?  Although we’ll go into more detail in later posts let me insert here that cutting desert ironwood or succulents or making digging sticks with your Swiss Army knife as your only tool will leave you incredibly frustrated.

If you are headed into the desert for longer treks (anything more than short hikes from the vehicle – meaning anything that takes you out of shouting distance from the parking lot) read everything you can on desert survival and practice it where you are safe.  Just never forget that in that type of terrain, water is life so make sure you set out with plenty on hand and in reserve.  Better to come home with a few still-full jugs than to have someone find your carcass somewhere with an empty canteen nearby.  And remember that most rescues are for people NOT expecting (and not equipped for) anything more than a few hours hike — if they are prepared for anything at all.

One last quick note, in the winter, even thought the desert is still warm during the day, the temperature can drop suddenly when the sun goes down and the enormous temperature differential will make it seem a LOT colder.  Are you prepared for that too?

tree in ridge 02 for blog

Bristlecone Pine high on a ridge in the White Mountains of California.

COLD.  The heat issue noted above is not normally given much thought since we think “warm is good” and often think it is only cold that will do us in… as indeed it will.  If your core body temperature drops below body normal (98.6° F for most of us) then the brain re-routes blood away from the extremities to protect core organs.  That can happen from more than a drop in the air temperature; it also can come from being wet (evaporative cooling) and wind.  Always – ALWAYS – have a dry change of clothes available.

Hypothermia will set in with unexpected speed and your cognitive abilities will suffer first, then fine motor skills.  Then you’ll start to shiver, a little at first then more energetically then uncontrollably.  And then your brain shuts down, commiting suicide by routing blood to the heart, and as blood to the brain is lost you lose consciousness, and then you die.

If your trek takes you anywhere where the air temperature is at or below the 60° – 70° range (which is well below your body’s core temperature) without proper clothing or shelter and especially if you get wet, you can get and succumb to hypothermia.  Do not play with this or ignore it!

Can you start a fire with what you have carried with you?  That doesn’t mean just making a spark, it means getting fuel, tinder, kindling together, laying a fire that will actually burn but in a way that will not set the forest around you on fire, and which will provide heat to you and your shelter.   We’ll talk in a later post about some easier techniques to learn and practice first around the barbeque before you head out into the bush. But the time to acquire that skill is in your back yard not when your life or the lives of others depends on it.

But what if it is not all that cold?  Fire also has a major impact on morale even where it is really not needed for the heat.  Humans seem to have an atavistic love of fire; it calms them and makes them feel safe.  It lets you see into the darkness and wards off those scary things we just know are lurking out there just beyond the light.   So there will be times when, as the leader, you will need to get a campfire going just to help keep up group morale.

You may also need to know how to make some hurried and makeshift shelter from rain or snow.  Made correctly it can keep you warm in the worst blizzards and can, like fire, help make an improvement in morale.  Can you do it?  Can everyone in your party do it if you should be injured or taken out?

losing the Light, Salt River Canyon

Late afternoon light accents outcrops in the Salt River Canyon, Arizona, near Globe, AZ. Canon 5D MkII

Navigation in the woods and mountains is quite different from the flatter terrain of the typical desert.  Your view is obstructed and there are a gazillion trees to confuse you; light is filtered and harder to detect directions especially when the wind is blowing the trees.  Although counter-intuitive, it has been shown in study after study that without external guidance, humans cannot walk in a straight line even if they know what general direction they should be headed.  The moment you think you might be lost or at least a little bewildered as to your exact location, STOP.  (Now is time for the 30-second stare.)

Get out your map, look for recognizable landmarks, and try to determine where – at least generally – you are and where you need to be.  If your GPS is working and can “see” the satellites it needs, great.  But if not, you will need to rely on some pre-GPS orienteering skills.  Knowing where you need to go is useless unless you know where you are.  And knowing the target is due east is not all that helpful if between you and the target is an unscalable cliff that you can’t see from where you are.  Can you read a map and understand what all those contour lines bunched together mean?  Can you then plan the best route around the obstacle?  This is not a rhetorical exercise; people get in big trouble and some die every year because they cannot solve this simple problem.  It is easy to solve when you know how… so learn how long before you really need it.

If you are headed into the mountains, especially if you are someone from low altitude and expecting to be spending time above about 5,000 ft in elevation, then also read up on altitude sickness and plan to deal with it.  It is not a small issue so take it very seriously.  I include handout material on it with materials for all of my workshops into the high country.  It can be completely debilitating and, in some cases, deadly, and the only cure is getting to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen.

I hope I’ve gotten your attention with this post and made you aware that although most photo treks go smoothly resulting with the capture of great memories and gorgeous imagery, when they DO go off the rails, things can get serious – deadly serious – in a moment.  The best approach is planning that will keep them on the rails.  The more you plan and prepare, the more unlikely an “adventure” will occur and that is the result to be hoped for.  Preparing for the worst makes you more aware, more careful, more attentive, and that alone can keep your photo train on the rails.

The next post(s), however, will deal with some issues when, despite your planning, things go awry.  And with that discussion we’ll talk about some items you ought to have with you, either on you or perhaps in your camera gear, when you trek out of shouting distance from the parking lot.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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