[Cdt-l] Run, SPOT, run---hiking alone and the culture of connectivity

Rick Ostheimer rick.ostheimer at sbcglobal.net
Fri Dec 3 10:35:27 CST 2010

The exchange about solo hiking is very appropriate on this CDT forum, as 
it's quite likely anyone on a CDT thru hike will be spending a lot of 
time hiking alone.  I couldn't agree more that there are times when I 
really need and/or want to be totally alone in the backcountry.  It 
gives me a sense of just how insignificant I am compared to the awesome 
creation I'm immersed in that can morph into a zen-like trance where one 
feels at one with nature.  It's just something you don't get when hiking 
with others.  But, there is a "quid pro quo" of hiking alone----and that 
is that there's no one but me to deal with the "what if" factor.

On the AT I carried a cell phone in order to stay in touch with my wife 
back home.  I am glad that there's someone "back home" who cares about 
me and appreciate that, not having years of backcountry hiking 
experience both in groups and solo, they would worry about all the "what 
if" situations that might arise.  The cell phone was only "on" when I 
wanted to try to call out and talk to my wife or one of my daughters.  
On the AT, it rarely worked.   AT&T service is not very good there--not 
enough people (i.e. profit) to put a cell tower on every hilltop.  I 
wasn't worried about an accident because I knew that during nobo 
thru-hiker season there'd be a lot of people passing by over the course 
of a day.  The phone was handy for one-way communications.  I'd instruct 
people to leave a voice mail and when I got cell service I could hear 
what they had to say.  That's how I got the message from my doctor that 
the test showed I had Lyme, for example.

Even if I were working, I wouldn't have used the cell phone to stay in 
touch with work.  If I hadn't groomed someone to step in for me at work, 
then I wasn't being a very good manager.  Plus if the company for which 
I worked couldn't deal with my absence, then they didn't have sufficient 
depth of staff or a reasonable succession plan.  My friends knew I'd be 
off the grid and that they could find out what was going on with me 
through my trail journal.

When I decided to hike the PCT, I was concerned that there would be far 
fewer folks out on the trail, particularly because I had an unorthodox 
flip-flop hike plan  that took me away from the "herd" (sobo from Walker 
Pass to Cajon Pass starting April 4).  With my experience of poor cell 
connectivity on the AT, I needed something more releiable:  enter the 
SPOT device.  I bought a SPOT device for three reasons: 1) to send my 
wife and kids an OK message with the location of where I was at the end 
of each day;  2) to avoid having to predict where I'd be and how long it 
would take me to do a certain section (the "let someone responsible know 
where you'll be and when you'll be checking in" appproach); and 3) in 
case of a genuine emergency where self-rescue was out of the question.  
I didn't want to be faced with a choice between death and cutting off my 
lower arm.  I sent an OK message each day, and I instructed my wife that 
once in a while I'd possibly forget to do so and that she should not be 
alarmed if I missed a day now and then.  It worked well; every OK 
message I sent made it through to my wife.  Thankfully, I had only one 
dicey situation that resulted in a self rescue of sorts, plunging down a 
snow-filled stream valley off the summit of Mt. Baden Powell as the sun 
was setting when I couldn't locate the PCT buried and hidden under 10 or 
12 feet of snow.  I made it down to the Angeles Crest Highway just as it 
was getting full dark, but not without some souvenir road rash on my 
butt from an "unscheduled" glissade.

When I set out on the CDT this past spring, I expected to be hiking 
alone most of the way and that's what happened for all but a few weeks 
of my hike (I only got as far at Steamboat Springs, but will finish in 
'11).  I switched to a smart phone that I used to type my journals each 
night and otherwise kept off unless I was on a mountain top relatively 
close to civilization and felt I might have cell signal.  The smart 
phone allowed me to dump the 3/4 lb Pocketmail that I'd used for 
journalling and replace the weight with an equally heavy GPS.  The GPS 
helped me when I "misplaced the trail", though maps, compass, and 
knowing how to use them were more important.   I hate to think how many 
times SAR might have been called out if the "responsible person" relied 
on my predictions of when I'd finish a section of trail.  There was no 
way to predict that I'd have a day in the S San Juans when I'd make only 
1 mph while kicking in steps and navigating across snow nearly the whole 

I read Mags' essay on the culture of connectivity.  I agree there's an 
expectation on the part of others that they can reach you and on one's 
part that he/she can reach out to someone else if needed.  My whole 
career was in IT and much of it was before cell phones existed.  I 
remember support strategies for computer jobs running overnight varying 
from "you have to stay home" to "carry the company cell phone".  I never 
thought it was reasonable to expect someone to submit to these 
strictures during his/her private time.  If I was home, I'd answer the 
phone, but I would never "stay home" just in case.  If they couldn't get 
me, there were plenty of other employees who could step in.  Sadly, I 
believe my attitude on this subject represents a minority opinion.

On the trail, I carry and use electronics at my convenience.  (I know of 
only one trail where carrying a 150g VHF Telemetry Unit is required 
(Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland) and this is for two 
"off-trail" bushwhack routes.)  I expect to be responsible for my own 
safety and security.  Nonetheless, should the need arise to contact 
help, I want to be able to do so and I want to make it as easy and safe 
as possible for those who might come to my aid.  That's my backup plan.  
My main plan is to not need to call for help by being prepared and 
taking only reasonable risks.  YMMV and HYOH.


More information about the Cdt-l mailing list