Guide To Heading Off Trail

While Santa Barbara has some of the best canyon hiking and mountain trails in Southern California, the lure of the off-trail spots — whether a scramble up the creek to Seven Falls, the challenge of making it to the top of Cathedral Peak or working your way up the Middle Fork of Cold Spring Creek to the base of Tangerine Falls — leads thousands of hikers every year to get off the main trails and onto the routes that lead up to hidden jewels like those mentioned above.

While the rewards are numerous and the sense of accomplishment well worth seeking places like this out, it is important to remember that the off-trail routes increase the potential for getting lost, getting seriously injured or spending a chilly overnight in the mountains when you discover you’re stuck. Recently one hiker was killed near Tangerine Falls and his hiking companion badly injured while traversing a dangerous set of waterfalls.

No one ever plans on getting into trouble but every year the Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team is called out dozens of times to rescue people in distress on our local trails. Many of these incidents have happy endings; but not always.

Here are some things to keep in mind when thinking about heading off-trail for a hike:

  • Many emergencies occur off-trail. A large portion of the major incidents that occur in the Santa Barbara front country happen off-trail. Any time you are heading off trail use caution and think conservatively.
  • Spur-of-the-moment Decisions. The decision to go off-trail often made on the spur-of-the-moment — to explore a new route, get to a view point or some other attraction without the proper clothing, gear or water should a problem develop. Consider coming back another time when you are better prepared.
  • Beyond Capabilities. Continuing beyond either one’s capabilities or with sufficient time to get back before dark often occurs when the excitement of the adventure leads to making poor choices. Know your limts.
  • Lack of Familiarity. Those who do get in trouble are often unfamiliar with the area into which they are heading and do not have the skills necessary to deal with an emergency situation.
  • Understanding the Dangers. Social media provides lots of opportunities to learn about cool places to go without providing any understanding of the dangers involved.
  • Don't over value your cell phone. Having a cell phone in one’s pocket — while important to have with you — can lead to a false sense of security that often leads hikers to go well beyond their limits.
  • Off-trail Menas Just That. Off-trail routes are just that — off the maintained trail. They are not built to any standard, are often narrow, twisty paths through the chaparral that may be overgrown, steep, be located along treacherous terrain and have nasty drop-offs. A slip in the wrong place could be disastrous.
  • Route Finding can be Difficult. There are no trail signs or markers on the off-trail routes, and often include side paths that can make it difficult to find your way back on the return trip.
  • Always Carry a Flashlight or Headlamp. Without a flashlight, it is almost impossible to make your way down from many of the off-trail spots when darkness hits.

Thinking Ahead
The decision to head off trail should be a considered and thoughtful one, made with a thorough understanding of the risks, being prepared, knowing one’s limits and not extending beyond them. If in doubt, head off-trail another time when you are ready for the adventure.

Thursday, September 3, 2020