How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

trip planning

The summer solstice is just a few weeks away! There’s so much I love about this time of year: the warmth, hiking in a skirt again, and feeling the sun on my skin. The days feel endless, the plants and trees are greening up and budding out, and most of the snow has finally melted from the high country, opening it up for alpine foot travel. I can’t help but get excited by the possibilities, and I know, like every year, that there won’t be enough time for all the places I wish to explore. 

I manage this conundrum by creating a list of everything that strikes my fancy. Then I estimate how long the hike will take (if it’s a multi-day, -week, or -month event) and when the ideal time to hike it would be. I see what fits into my calendar and go from there. 

This is all part of my trip planning process, which involves:

  • Defining the trip parameters – Where? When? With whom?
  • Researching the likely conditions -Temps, precip, weather patterns.
  • Creating an itinerary – Dates, expected daily mileage, potential campsites.
  • Selecting gear – What do I need for the expected conditions?
  • Planning food and resupply strategy – Plan, purchase, and packaging food.
  • Creating a safety plan – What risks will I encounter and how will I mitigate them?
  • Preparing physically and mentally – Training for the rigors of the trail.
  • Doing the final check – Use the checklist below!

Download a free trip planning checklist

This full process is outlined in Chapter 1 of Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

Related Resource

Watch this video on my condensed planning template and process to get out on quick weekend adventures feeling fully prepared.

A Guide to Mental Preparation for Backpacking

An excerpt from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency by Katie Gerber and Heather Anderson

In preparation for my upcoming book launch on June 1, I want to share an excerpt from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

The following passage is from Chapter 8: Mental and Emotional Preparation. It was one of the most fun chapters for me to write because I love the “inner game” of long distance hiking (and endurance, in general). It’s also one of the topics we cover that sets our guidebook apart from others in the same genre.

If you’re preparing for your first (or second or third or…) long walk and you’d like to learn the process co-author Heather Anderson and I use to get ourselves mentally and physically ready for our backcountry adventures, order here to receive a copy signed by me.

Enjoy this sneak peak!

Adventure Ready excerpt:

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

A long-distance hike—or any situation that puts you under pressure—will unearth dormant attributes and highlight both your strengths and weaknesses. Preparing your mind for a long backpacking trip before you step foot on trail goes a long way toward overcoming obstacles and achieving success with your backpacking goals. This mental preparation involves setting realistic expectations, having a rock-solid sense of purpose, and practicing specific techniques that prepare you to overcome psychological hurdles.

Strong Mind, Strong Body

I (Katie) had been hiking as fast as I possibly could for over four hours in an attempt to keep my body heat up in the freezing rain. I alternated between a hunched over, eyes-toward-the-ground posture and occasionally lifting my gaze to scan either side of the trail for suitable spots to pitch my tarp. I was worried, however, that if I stopped moving even for the seven minutes that it would take to set up shelter, my core body temperature might drop to a point from which it would be difficult to recover. My rain jacket and all my layers had soaked through hours prior, and I was chilled to the bone. I was also acutely aware that my hands were cold beyond the point of being functional. I couldn’t even grasp the draw cord to tighten my hood.

I could sense the panic beginning to well up in my chest. Nighttime was quickly approaching. What if the rain doesn’t let up? What if I can’t warm up to at least regain function in my hands so I can set up a shelter? I imagined myself walking through the night until I simply became too exhausted to go on and collapsed into a shivering pile on the ground. I hadn’t eaten in hours because my hands were too numb to open the nutrition bar stored in my hip pocket. I tore at it with my teeth and still couldn’t get to the bar. I wanted to cry. My mind fought to stay rational and focused. It was hard to remember that the day had begun with a leisurely walk around the rim of Crater Lake, snacking on trail mix while photographing Wizard Island, one of the most picturesque landmarks on the PCT.

Circumstances can shift quickly on trail. To say my morale was low in that moment is an understatement. Yet as miserable and fearful as I was, I still wasn’t thinking about quitting the trail (assuming I survived the day). I had mentally prepared for the PCT to be hard. I had imagined myself walking through day after day of cold rain as I had on previous long-distance hikes. I had visualized how I would keep walking toward Canada even in those moments when everything felt awful and the idea of hiking this trail seemed inane. Honestly, compared to what I had mentally prepared myself for, the PCT had been surprisingly pleasant up until that moment. Fortunately, the rain subsided just before nightfall. I was able to dry out, warm up, and regain function of my body. Slowly the panic melted away. After a night of rest, I continued my journey northward.

We know that the mind and body are inextricably linked. This is why elite performers like Navy SEALs and Olympic athletes train their minds as much as they train their muscles. The ability to accomplish impressive feats requires strength inside and out. This is as true on a long-distance hike as it is for any challenging physical endeavor. A resilient mindset is one of the most valuable pieces of gear you can carry and it doesn’t weigh an ounce.

The Psychology of Thru-Hiking Success

It’s commonly estimated that 75 to 85 percent of aspiring thru-hikers on the Triple Crown trails quit before reaching their goal. That’s a staggering number. So, what’s the difference between those who get to the opposite terminus and those who don’t? It’s generally not athletic ability. People of all different demographics and athletic abilities successfully complete long-distance trails.

Backpacking is not a particularly technical sport, though it does require you to learn a particular set of skills. The primary physical component involves walking over natural surfaces with a load on your back. And though good physical fitness reduces the likelihood of injury and can make the experience more enjoyable, a backpacker always has the option to slow down or reduce mileage to ease the physical demand. The challenges unique to a multi-month backpacking trip are exposing yourself to the elements day after day and continuing to move forward when you’re tired of sleeping on a thin foam pad, sick of eating dehydrated foods, and missing your family and friends. Thru-hiking success comes down to the ability to endure when things get hard. There are certainly legitimate circumstances that force hikers off trail, like illness, injury, and finances, but many quit because the going gets difficult and they don’t have a strong reason for being out there. They’re still physically capable, but mentally they’re over it.

“Thru-hiking success is 90 percent mental.” This is a common phrase among experienced hikers. I didn’t fully understand it until I was thirty days into my first long hike, which entailed putting on frozen shoes and soggy clothes each morning and walking through intermittent 40-degree rain. Many of my hiking companions were struggling, but surprisingly, I didn’t find it all that miserable. Not that I was loving every moment of it, but to some degree, I had expected the challenge.

My background of long-distance running provided a strong foundation for a resilient mindset many years before I discovered backpacking. During multi-hour cross-country runs in Ohio’s sweltering August afternoons, I learned that I could be uncomfortable and it wouldn’t kill me. Memories of those challenging twice-a-day practices were fodder I would later draw upon when my body was ready to give up and I needed to rely on my mind to persevere. Like many new backpackers, I went into my first long-distance hike believing that my gear, physical fitness, and backcountry skills were the factors that mattered most. I learned that those things are valuable, but they will not get you to the end of a multi-month journey without the mental mastery to also endure difficult circumstances. So if “thru-hiking success is 90 percent mental,” how does one cultivate the proper mental preparedness?

Setting Realistic Expectations

The foundation of mental preparation for a difficult endeavor is to set realistic expectations. Having a grounded understanding of what accomplishing your goal entails is essential to preventing you from being thrown off course when things get difficult, as they inevitably will.

Consider what makes the idea of a long-distance hike enticing to you. Perhaps it’s the stunning landscape vistas, being on your own schedule, and experiencing a deeper connection with yourself via immersion in nature. Whatever it is, it’s likely that those are the elements that are top of mind as you prepare for your hike. And while you’ll likely experience those rewards and more, it’s important to keep in mind the range of experiences and emotions you’re signing up for when you embark on a long-distance hike. At one end of the spectrum, you will have days where everything feels right—your body feels strong, you make new friends, and you discover your own strength as you hike through incredible landscapes. At the other end of the spectrum, you will have days where you walk through cold rain from sunrise to sunset, feet blistered, lonely, with only a packet of tuna to get you the remaining 50 miles to town.

Mentally preparing for optimal performance doesn’t mean you expect to be at your peak the entire time; it means that you set yourself up to do the best you can in whatever circumstances you encounter. Mental preparation begins with the expectation that your hike won’t all go smoothly. Whether you are able to endure depends on how you respond. Will you let an obstacle ruin your day (or your entire hike), or will you find your way through the situation, recover quickly, learn the lesson, and keep moving forward? Essentially, it’s expected that you will “fall off the horse.” How quickly can you get back on? This is largely influenced by your mental resilience. This section covers mental preparation techniques to enhance fortitude, but first, let’s explore potential challenges you might encounter—because expecting adversity is half the battle in overcoming it.

Excerpted from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency by Katie Gerber and Heather Anderson (June 2022) with permission from the publisher Mountaineers Books.

Order a signed copy here. In addition to mental preparation, we discuss trip planning, trail nutrition, physical preparation, safety, navigation, gear selection, and more.

How to create a healthy backpacking meal plan in < 1 hour

backpacking meal planning

I put together a few trip planning resources to share with you as I’m wrapping up preparations for my first trip of the season in Escalante, Utah this spring. 

Last month, I broke down my gear list for this trip and how the location specific conditions are influencing my selections. 

Today I want to share my process for creating a fast, healthy backpacking meal plan. This process is essentially the same whether I’m planning for a trip that’s 5 days or 5 months. It allows me to know that I’m meeting my calorie goals and macronutrient goals so that I feel my best on trail. It also ensures I’m fueling my body with the right foods for optimal energy and recovery.

Plus it allows me to know I’m carrying enough food, but not way too much. On a 5+ day trip, my food bag is often the heaviest single item in my pack, so it’s worth the time to do some planning to make sure I’m packing efficiently.

I breakdown my process step by step here:

Hope this helps you create a healthy backpacking meal plan for your own backcountry trips this spring!

If you’d like to replicate this process for yourself, this is all laid out step by step in my performance nutrition and meal planning for backpackers course. This template, along with several others, are included. 

The course walks you through figuring out your calories needs, macro targets, choosing a cooking style, how to create a balanced meal, how to create your own easy, healthy recipes, where to shop, and how to put it all together in a meal plan. And much more.

Learn more and enroll here.

Questions? Do you have a process for meal planning for your backpacking trips? Share below.

Escalante, Utah Gear List & Reason for Selections

Later this month, I’ll be guiding three week-long trips in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area as part of Andrew Skurka’s guided trip program.

For me, preparations for these trips began months ago, working with clients on conditions assessments, gear lists, food planning, mapping exercises and more. My own preparations began in earnest earlier this month with inventorying and repairing gear and creating a gear list.

The beginning stages of getting organized… pull everything out and put it in a pile

Below I’m sharing my gear list and a brief rationale for my selections, which is primarily correlated with the conditions we expect to encounter.

  • Temperature & Precipitation: Historical climate data from nearby weather stations indicate that we’re expecting mid/high-60’s during the day and mid/high-30’s at night.  The average precipitation in April is 0.55 inches; for May, 0.61. Average snowfall for April is 1.0 inches; in May, it’s zero. Expected temperature ranges impact my choice of clothing, including a mid-layer and insulated jacket, as well as my decision to opt for a 20-degree sleeping bag and 3-season sleeping pad. Since we don’t expect much precipitation, I’m bringing an UL rain shell rather than a heavy duty jacket.
  • Sun Exposure: We’ll be traveling at 5,000-6,000′ of elevation through areas with little shade and the sun will be intense. Sun protection, including long sleeves and pants, a hat, and sunglasses will be critical.
  • Footing: Slickrock and sand. Shoes that are sand-resistant and have sticky soles are a must.
  • Vegetation: Canyon bottoms will be likely be brushy, including willows, tamarisk, cottonwood saplings, and poison ivy. Long pants will be appreciated.
  • Water Availability: We’ll be near several perennial waterways, so 3-4 liters of carrying capacity is sufficient. Cattle graze nearby and some sources may be stagnant, so I’ll definitely be treating my water.
  • Wildlife and Insects: Bears are not common in this area and we’ll be camping in low-use areas where mini-bear activity should be minimal, so I’ll be using a Loksak Opsak for food storage. Bug pressure is expected to be low, so I won’t be carrying a headnet or bug spray. My shelter does have a built-in bug net, but I’ll probably cowboy camp since setting it up in sand or on slickrock is fussy.

See my Escalante gear list here

Questions? Thoughts?

The Adventure Ready book is here! (PreOrder)

In August of 2020, Mountaineers Books reached out to Heather and I with the idea of writing a holistic guidebook to long distance hiking.

Today, after many hours of writing, editing, and waiting, it’s awesome to finally hold the finished physical book in my hands (see happy photo above) – AND for it to be ready to go out into the world.

Adventure Ready is a prescriptive guidebook to long distance hiking. It’s designed to maximize your enjoyment of your hike whether you’re a beginner who’s aspiring to complete your first long trail or a seasoned thru hiker who wants to improve your preparation, health, and overall experience on your next long walk.

In addition to providing our take on the traditional topics of trip planning, safety, navigation, and gear, we dive deep into the lesser explored areas of trail nutrition, physical training, and mental preparation. We also talk about how to take care of your body and mind during the challenge of transitioning back home after the trail.

The Adventure Ready book will be released in June 2022.

When you pre order using the below links, you’ll receive a SIGNED COPY from me as well as a DISCOUNT CODE to use on the more in depth Adventure Ready online curriculum so that you can get started learning today!

PreOrder Here.

Access the online curriculum at KatieGerber.teachable.com.

Backcountry Water Basics: How to find it, assess it, and treat it

odt water

I was recently interviewed for a project with a popular outdoor magazine about my favorite methods for purifying water, how to find water in the backcountry, how to stay on top of hydration, and the effects of dehydration. I ended up not moving forward with the project after seeing the contract, but the interview had already been done and we covered some important topics, so I wanted to recreate it for this post. 

For context, this is based on my experience backpacking the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, Oregon Desert, Colorado, and Great Basin Trails, in addition to dozens of shorter trips. I’m not a water expert, but I do have a lot of personal experience with this topic, and that’s what I’m sharing here.

Water is essential for survival and finding it and treating it can be a concern for many backpackers. Learning this information gets you one step closer to feeling more confident on your next backpacking trip. 

How do you find water on a backpacking trip?

Above all, I believe that knowing how to read and interpret a topographic map is an invaluable backcountry skill. You can learn the basics by reading articles online or taking a course, and best of all, practicing in the field.

Before heading out for a trip, use a paper or digital map to locate water sources, such as lakes, rivers, creeks, etc. However, keep in mind that just seeing a blue line on the map is not enough. It’s important to think about when the map was created, how reliable the water source is, and whether it is likely to be flowing at the time of year you’ll be there. For example, sources are generally more likely to be flowing in the spring versus the fall. Satellite imagery, such as Google Earth and specific layers on mapping apps, such as the US Hydrography layer on Gaia GPS, can also be helpful for locating sources. Contacting locals and/or land managers can provide further insight into whether sources are flowing when you plan to go on your trip. 

In addition to the above research, when you’re hiking a more established trail, such as the PCT, you can reference crowd-sourced water reports, such as sites like pctwater.com and on apps like the FarOut app (formerly Guthook). Be sure to note the date of any information you’re reading and take that into consideration.

How do you assess water quality in the backcountry?

I’ve hiked in a lot of dry places, such as eastern Oregon, the Great Basin, the Mojave and other parts of Southern California, southern Utah, the Red Desert in Wyoming, and southern New Mexico. Water sources are often questionable and it’s not uncommon to need to collect water from cow tanks, potholes, and other less-than-ideal sources. That said, I always assess water quality, and choose the least disgusting source possible. 

Some factors I use to assess water quality include: 

  • Considering how far I am to the source – the closer to the source I can collect, the better.
  • Considering what’s upstream, such as livestock, wildlife, and other hikers.
  • The turbidity of the water – the clearer the better since sediment can reduce the effectiveness of certain purification methods, such as UV and chemicals.
  • Is there a chemical film and/or dead animals, such as cows, mice, or birds in the water? Dead animal water and chemical water is a no-go for me.
  • Does the source smell bad?
oregon desert trail water
After pushing aside a layer of green, this source was clear and cold, but we avoided floaties all together by collecting right at the spout.

What is your favorite method for treating water?

There are several methods for treating water, including boiling, chemical, filtration, and UV light. My personal method of choice is an inline squeeze filter, such as a Sawyer Squeeze, which is compatible with a variety of water containers including hard-sided bottles and collapsible pouches. 

I also use chemical filtration, such as Aquamira (aka chlorine dioxide) drops or tablets when it’s below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. 

If I’m drinking from a particularly gross source, I might use multiple methods, such as filtering through a bandana or shirt to remove sediment, then treating chemically, then filtering through an a water filter.

When selecting your filtration option, it’s valuable to know the likely water contaminants in the area you’re traveling and what your chosen treatment method is, and is not, effective against. For example, most filters don’t filter out viruses, though viruses aren’t that common of a contaminant in most backcountry water sources in the U.S.

What do you look for in a water filter?

When selecting a water filter, I look for one which removes bacteria, parasites, and most chemicals and microplastics. I also want something lightweight, ideally less than 4-5 ounces including the bottle or pouch. The higher the flow rate the better as the time really adds up when you’re filtering 4-6 liters per day for months on end. I also want something compact so it doesn’t take up much space in my pack, and I want something that’s durable and made from high quality material so that I don’t have to constantly replace it and I can avoid creating more waste that will go into a landfill.

I spy water!

How do you stay on top of hydration during long days in the backcountry? What is the effect of dehydration? How do you avoid overhydration? 

Staying hydrated is important for optimal functioning of your mind and body. As little as 2% dehydration can have impacts on your performance, including increased fatigue, muscle cramping, and a decline in cognitive function. I make sure to balance my water intake with electrolytes, such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium to avoid hyponatremia. 

To ensure I stay hydrated, I know where my water sources are and I make sure I carry enough water with me to get from one source to the next. That amount varies based on the temperature, sun exposure, wind, and intensity of the section, but generally I carry enough to drink about 1 liter per 5 miles. I carry more if my next source is questionable, especially on a route where I have no one hiking ahead of me to provide beta. In addition to carrying enough, I make sure to keep water in an easy to access location, such as my side pockets, so that I can drink on the go without needing to take off my pack. 

Any hydration or water tips you’d add to this? Share them below.

Healthy Hiker Gift Guide 2021

Today I’m featuring 8 of my favorite healthy hiker foods and trail supplements (and one book!) which enhance my energy, immunity, and performance in the backcountry. These products increase my enjoyment of my time outdoors and my intention with sharing is that they’ll do the same for you. Every one of these products are ones that I’ve used for hundreds of miles of backpacking trips and they’ve allowed me to stay strong and healthy on trail. Each makes a great gift for yourself or a health-minded outdoor enthusiast in your life.

Collagen powder and collagen bars

After a few years of research and experimentation, collagen is now an essential component of my nutrition program, both on trail and at home. I have it every morning on trail as part of my daily trail smoothie. At home, I blend it into green smoothies, coffee, and even soups for added protein and joint support. In addition to using the powder, collagen bars are a great snack as well that I know are full of healthy protein. Collagen is the main structural protein in the various connective tissues in the body. Having enough collagen in the body is essential to good health, specifically stronger bones, pain-free joints, and a more secure gut lining.

Supplements from Fullscript

Supplements are how I take my nutrition–and health–in the backcountry to the next level. They’re one of the factors I credit with being able to maintain consistent 30+ mile days on the CDT with an autoimmune condition. Even with good nutrition, it’s hard to get everything my body needs on trail exclusively from food. This is particularly true since vitamin and mineral stores are depleted more quickly with heavy exercise. Supplements help me fill in the gaps. This post shares the supplements I carried on the CDT. The standard disclaimer applies: I’m not a doctor and this is not a prescription. It’s just my experience. To ensure that I’m getting professional-grade supplements that haven’t been tampered with and aren’t full of sawdust, I order through Fullscript.

By setting up a free account here, you can receive 15% off of any supplements you order from November 28-December 2. If you already have an account, you’ll automatically receive an email for the promotion!

LMNT Electrolytes

I discovered LMNT electrolytes last winter and used them on all of my hikes this past summer, including the Great Basin Trail, and while guiding as part of Andrew Skurka’s team. I’m hooked. Many electrolyte powders are high in sugar and low in actual electrolytes. No so with LMNT. They contain a good amount of the key electrolytes I’m looking for: Sodium, Potassium, and Magnesium, plus they’re sugar-free, gluten-free, and void of any other weird fillers. And the best part is their flavors are incredible. My favorites are chocolate salt and lemon habanero.

Amazing Grass Greens Blend

Access to fresh fruits and veggies is limited on trail, which is unfortunate because they’re powerhouses of antioxidants, which combat the exercise-induced oxidative damage caused by hiking for 10+ hours daily. To make up for micronutrient deficiencies on trail and support better energy and immunity, a serving of greens powder is another key ingredient in my daily trail smoothie. In addition to getting in more than a full serving of fruits and veggies, this product adds 1 billion+ CFU of probiotics to my trail diet to support better digestion and overall gut health.

Host Defense Cordyceps Mushroom Powder

This is another ingredient in my daily trail smoothie. Cordyceps increases oxygen uptake and has been shown to increase energy, endurance, and muscle recovery.

Wild Zora meat and veggie packs

Protein is essential on trail for many reasons including minimizing muscle breakdown, supporting muscle synthesis during recovery, improving endurance, and enhancing glycogen storage in muscles, which is essential when you want to push your body. It also supports balanced blood sugar, and therefore, steady energy levels. I find it’s the most overlooked macronutrients in most hikers’ diets. When I found Wild Zora meat and veggie bars at Outdoor Retailer a few years ago, I was stoked. Not just a good source of protein, but with veggies included as well! Plus they’re paleo-friendly and offer a variety of tasty flavors. They’re a great alternative to the abundance of sweet bars out there.

Supernola Clusters

Another good find at Outdoor Retailer. These granola-like clusters are the type of whole food snack I look for. They’re rich in antioxidants so they support good energy, immunity, and muscle recovery. They’re gluten free, dairy free, paleo and keto friendly. My favorites are the dark chocolate nut crunch and triple berry vanilla crunch.

Boulder Canyon Avocado Oil Potato Chips

I like these chips because 1) they’re salty and crunchy and 2) they contain only 3-4 real, recognizable ingredients rather than the 40+ ultra-processed ingredients found in other brands. They’re high calories per ounce, so they keep pack weight low, and they’re void of the inflammatory industrial seed oils found in most brands. These are something I tend to only indulge in on trail, but if I’m going to eat chips, this is what I look for.

The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self

After hearing the author, Michael Easter, interviewed on several podcasts and jiving with what he had to say, I recently decided to pick up his book and I’m so glad that I did. He weaves together personal stories, wisdom from traditional cultures, and science on why our modern lives often leave us tired and unfulfilled and how doing hard physical challenges in nature (e.g. backpacking) can refresh us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. A lot of it hits home for me and if you’re into the outdoors, it might for you too.

I hope these products add to your time in the outdoors as much as they have to mine.

To a lifetime of healthy adventures,
Katie

Post Trail Depression: How to Ease the Transition Home

post trail depression

In this video I share the mindset and health strategies that have helped me navigate post trail depression during the reintegration period after a thru-hike or other long adventure. My intention in sharing it is that it will help you navigate this seasonal transition as well.

Keep in mind that the scope of this video is limited. If you’re experiencing mental health struggles, please reach out to a licensed mental health practitioner.

For more support on the strategies discussed in this video or if you’re planning an upcoming backpacking trip, check out the Adventure Ready online course. It’s a complete roadmap to increased energy, optimal strength and health resilience on your next long distance hike.

Find the full curriculum, including mindset, physical training, nutrition, gut health, sleep optimization and more here!

Find more free resource here!

How to Plan a Weekend Backpacking Trip: My Checklist

backpacking

In this video, I share the planning template I’ve been using short backpacking trips and for 14ers adventures this summer. Having a template or checklist helps me go from adventure idea to getting out the door faster without forgetting anything.

Feel free to use this template and customize it for your own adventures!

Related Backpacking Trip Planning Posts:

Plan Your Backpacking Trip Without the Common Mistakes

Backpacking Trip Resources mentioned in the video:

Backcountry Safety Course: https://katiegerber.teachable.com/p/b…

Backcountry Navigation Course: https://katiegerber.teachable.com/p/b…

Adventure Ready Course: https://katiegerber.teachable.com/p/a…

How to Protect Your Health During Wildfire Season

trip planning

We’re in the thick of the wildfire season in the Western United States. There are currently 86 active large fires, which have burned 2,678,196 acres in 11 states. To date in 2021, there have been 43,017 fires that have burned 4,946,000 acres. Over 25,000 wildland firefighters across the country are working on these fires and thousands of residents have been evacuated. National Forests are being closed and many backpackers’ trips, including a large group that I was supposed to guide, are getting cancelled or re-routed.

Due to drought conditions, climate change, poor forest management, and an increasing urban-wildland interface, wildfires are an increasingly common and challenging part of living in the West. While wildfires play a critical role in ecological health, they also cause a lot of damage, destruction, and difficulty for humans.  Aside from property damage, lost lives, and evacuations, the smoke from wildfires has the potential to negatively affect our health.

As wildfires are now a part of living life in the American West, what can we do to prevent or mitigate damage to our health, especially for those of us who love to spend time outdoors or during times when inhalation of smoke is inevitable?

Health Dangers of Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke is composed of a mixture of fine and coarse particulate matter (PM), and gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. This mixture varies based on fuel, fire intensity, moisture, and other factors. One of the dangers of wildfire smoke is due to the ability of the particulates to become lodged in the lung tissue and other sensitive mucosal membranes and to create inflammation. Systematic reviews have revealed associated between wildfire smoke and all-cause mortality, as well as exacerbation of asthma, COPD, and respiratory infection. Evidence also suggests links between wildfire smoke and adverse reproductive, developmental and neurodegenerative diseases. Potential health risks depend on the sensitivity of the individual and  the severity of the smoke.

The severity of wildfire smoke is quantified via a value called Air Quality Index (AQI). AQI is the EPA’s measurement for reporting air quality. AQI is reported on a scale from 0-500+ with higher numbers indicating worse air quality and higher health concerns. An AQI below 100 indicates that air quality levels are generally safe for everyone. See chart below. Real time air quality index map.

Image from lung.org

Exposure to wildfire smoke may cause coughing, trouble breathing, runny nose, and in some cases symptoms similar to sinus infection, such as headaches, sore throat, and tiredness. Groups particularly at risk for health risks from wildfire smoke include children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with heart and lung diseases. As one would expect, conditions such as asthma and COPD, may be exacerbated by smoke. The main concern for all individuals is damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

While inhaling wildfire smoke can certainly be unpleasant and potentially dangerous, in many cases damage does not appear to be long term, though more wildfire-specific studies are needed. Regarding the respiratory system, the lungs of most healthy adults can recover from smoke damage, according to John Balmes, MD, a pulmonologist and an expert on the effects of air pollutants. In terms of the cardiovascular system, short and long-term risks includes inflammation in the lungs which can become systemic and affect the whole body’s vascular function; increased risk of blood clots, which may lead to heart attack or stroke; and autonomic nervous system stimulation, which can lead to heart arrhythmia. As with respiratory damage, these effects seem to be temporary and subside when the smoke does. 

How to Monitor Fires and Smoke Levels

An essential component of preventing health damage from wildfires and being aware of where large, active fires are burning, how large they are, wind direction and speed, expected precipitation, etc. If you plan to spend time outdoors, it also helps to read up on best practices during wildfire season.

Many excellent resources exist, including:

InciWeb

AirNow Interactive Map of Air Quality

CalTopo Fire Activity and Fire History Map Overlays

Gaia GPS Current Wildfire Overlay

Andrew Skurka Tutorial: Wildfire and Smoke Management

Andrew Skurka Tutorial: Smoke-forecasting in the Sierra

Mitigating the Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

Most public health recommendations for avoiding exposure to wildfire smoke include staying indoors, limiting the outdoor air that is brought indoors, and filtering indoor air. But what if you plan to be outside near an area where active fires are burning or what if you’re in a situation where some amount of smoke inhalation is inevitable? If you’ll be exposed to ongoing wildfire smoke and you’re concerned about potential health risks, and particularly if you’re sensitive to the effects, public health officials advise that the best form of individual protection is a well-fitting N95 or P100 respirator, which filters out PM2.5.

How to Take Care of Yourself After Wildfire Smoke Exposure

As mentioned, the respiratory and cardiovascular systems of most healthy adults will naturally recover from exposure to wildfire smoke in most cases. After you’ve been exposed to wildfire smoke, there are also actions you can take to support your body’s natural detoxification pathways and enhance the excretion of airborne pollutants.

The body detoxifies itself through the skin (sweat), the lungs (breath), the colon (bowel movements), and the liver and kidneys (urine). Engaging in practices that support the body’s natural detoxification processes and support healthy immune function include:

  • Drinking a lot of water
  • Choosing high quality whole foods which are rich in antioxidants
  • Using a sauna
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Using a saline nasal spray or rinsing sinuses with a Neti Pot
  • Consuming specific foods, which enhance detoxification and support a healthy immune system:
    • Broccoli sprouts 
    • Beets
    • Chlorella
    • Spirulina
    • Ginger
    • Matcha
    • Olive Oil
    • Wild Caught Fatty Fish 
    • Teas with bitter herbs, such as dandelion, yellow dock, turmeric, burdock

Find more healthy hiking resources here.

What would you add to this list? How else do you protect your health during wildfire season?