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Opinion What qualifies as "outdoor experience"?

Often, when hikers go missing, friends and family described them as having outdoor experience or being "very experienced in the outdoors". Do you generally agree? What does "outdoor experience" mean to you? Examples or illustrations?

The most popular response will win you a.....
 

Kaboom!

Charter Member
This is an opinion.

I’ve been thinking about this exact question for maybe the last 3 years. It seems like all of a sudden we have many more cases of people going missing in wild areas. I guess that’s because more people are hiking, etc. The National Park Service numbers show visits well into the 300 millions from 2015 onwards. There was a drop for the pandemic, but now the numbers are big-time breaking records. A similar thing is going on in Europe, so now Mont Blanc is getting restricted.

With all these new people out in the wilderness, I notice the idea of “outdoor experience” got redefined. It seems like now a person can do a few hikes of 5 miles or so, and if they go missing, friends and family say they’re “experienced”. Then you go sleuth the reality, and it doesn’t look like that to you at all.

The problem is: what is inexperience, and what is ill-advised.

I guess I started to really think about this when a Canadian went missing in Joshua Tree in 2018. Friends and family said he was very experienced, but it was mid-July in the desert, as hot as it could possibly be. There was a Park Service sign at the trailhead warning against hiking the trail because it was too dangerous due to the heat. It was predicted to be maybe 120 degrees that day. There was no shade. But the man went out anyway. That, to me, is inexperience right there. Experience tells you there’s usually something behind Rangers’ directives, especially with stuff like weather warnings.

The NPS (and others) says it’s a 2-3 hour hike, even though it’s only 3 miles. The heat was going to hang you up, even if you were in good shape, and even if in cool conditions you could make it a quickie. Whatever time you left your car, it was going to be too hot in JNP to make the hike and be safe. Fortynine Palms Oasis (U.S. National Park Service)

It was blazing and exposed. See the volunteers here: Search continues for Joshua Tree hiker missing since July

This hiker wore dark shorts and a dark T-shirt. This is not what an experienced outdoor person (ha! like me) would wear in blazing 120 degree sunshine! You wear UV-protecting long sleeve shirt and long pants, so you don’t get sunburnt and to keep you cool by wicking ot your sweat and making it evaporate (which cools you down). And everyone knows you don’t wear black in sunshine because it absorbs heat and makes you super hot.

Then there was the thing with the water. It looked like he only had 3 liters of water with him (and maybe no Gatorade or other electrolytes?). I would drink way more in 2 hours roundtrip in that heat. But his family says he was well-prepared because there was water left over in his Camelbak, and this shows how experienced he was. To me, it shows the opposite: if he still had water, he didn’t drink enough for the distance he had hiked. I don’t care how many hikes he’d been on!

I can’t imagine the heat didn’t get to him. IMO he was in a problematic state from heatstroke that maybe made him disoriented and caused him to wander off. And he was likely dehydrated to boot.

So, yeah, I think we have to go sleuthing when people say their missing loved one is “experienced”. In the last few years, to me, it seems to be the opposite.

Good summary of this case: 'It has been a tough journey,' widow of Canadian Paul Miller says after remains found in Joshua Tree ID'd
 
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She Made Me Do It

Charter Member
I find physical fitness often gets confused with backcountry experience.

It is my belief that the "experience" of a missing person ought to be evaluated in context. What is the character of the trip where they've gone missing and the conditions in which the trip is made? Have they experienced something similar? It's quite meaningless if they've gone on a bunch of day hikes and this is their first overnighter. It's also meaningless if they generally hike in summer in busy areas and now are out there alone in a very chilly fall.

I also like to see "experience" gained by taking trips with folks who are substantially more experienced. For this, I favor going along on local hikes organized by local hiking and mountaineering clubs. This kind of experience can expand your knowledge-base to situations you never thought you'd get into. It can also lead to discussions about solutions. A good example might be how to handle sudden snowstorms when you're not near the trailhead. Also, you learn what to take with you for just-in-case situations.

The recent case that illustrates this for me is the case of Esther Dingley who went missing in the Pyrenees in 2020 at the onset of winter. She was clearly very fit, but seemed to be completely out of touch with the conditions she would be hiking in and was taking a huge risk in hiking solo. Her boyfriend insisted ad nauseam that she was "very experienced", that the trip was "well within her capabilities". I think he'd confused fitness with experience. And the significant hiking she'd done was during the summer on busy Alpine paths; she didn't do those trips alone.

So, in my book, though fit, she was inexperienced. There were other aspects to this, too, like not taking nearly enough food for the trip, not having a warm enough sleeping bag, no first aid, no pants (just yoga tights in winter!!!!), not knowing how to make a bivvy, etc. etc., all signs of little experience, despite what the boyfriend wants everyone to believe.

Moreover, Spanish and French law enforcement (or SAR, I forget which) on several occasions cast shade on the boyfriend's pronouncements and mentioned that Dingley did the kind of things inexperienced hikers do. For example, she didn't stay on the trail and her shoes were not only worn down, but were not a match for the kind of hiking she was doing. You don't see mountain law enforcement doing this often, in my experience, suggesting that a hiker had a mishap because they were inexperienced. But there you are.

Here's an article on the inadequate footwear: Esther Dingley: Hiker's Pyrenees death an accident, police say
 

Cabin Fever

Hangin' Out
Then there was the thing with the water. It looked like he only had 3 liters of water with him (and maybe no Gatorade or other electrolytes?). I would drink way more in 2 hours roundtrip in that heat.

Snipped by me
This is my opinion

I guess you're referring to Paul Miller (=PM)?

I don't know that I'd put so much weight on the water thing. He might have just read the standard rule of thumb of 1 liter per hour. And you can get hyponatremia if you drink too much; that's a potentially fatal condition. If PM had read those guidelines, he would have been okay with his water supply. He should have had >2liters if he was near the oasis, though.

CDC Water Guidelines

That being said, I don't know if there are available hydration guidelines for a strenous-ish hike in blazing sun at about 100°.

If it were me, I'd have definitely included Gatorade in my hydration plan for that temperature.
 

Hates Ramen

For Real
I also like to see "experience" gained by taking trips with folks who are substantially more experienced. For this, I favor going along on local hikes organized by local hiking and mountaineering clubs. This kind of experience can expand your knowledge-base to situations you never thought you'd get into. It can also lead to discussions about solutions. A good example might be how to handle sudden snowstorms when you're not near the trailhead. Also, you learn what to take with you for just-in-case situations.
This ^^^^^
I got so much from going out with VERY experienced (translate: a bunch older) hikers from a local mountaineering club and listening to their stories. They talked about situations that weren't in my "guess" range, like how you could get hypothermia in summer and creative uses for the piece of closed cell foam they made you carry. I also learned from how they did things—like, they always had a "sweep" at the end of the line of hikers making sure no one dropped off—and when they screwed up—like, neglecting to communicate with the sweep.
That group was the Obsidians in Eugene OR. I must have gone on 100+ hikes with them.
 

Spike

Far Out
When I hear "experienced" in a context where the "experienced missing" is on a quest for SM publicity, I automatically go for: "they aren't".

Also, I think it takes a certain amount of humility to acquire experience that's helpful in wild areas. For instance, if you think nature is something to "conquer", and you think nature can be "conquered", you surely don't know you are wrong. This reminds me of that heart-breaking Mount Hood expedition the children of the Episcopal School in Portland OR were encouraged into as a kind of bonding, "stretch your limits", step on the way to graduation, having a meaningful education, exercise. It was part of a required program for sophomores.

The kids evidently prepared by learning technical things, like how to use crampons, and getting fit. None of it—neither the planning nor the trip AFAIK—involved figuring out what your limits are and respecting them, or acknowledging that nature is bigger than humans and you don't get to fight it successfully. And though they might have known how to put on crampons, evidently no one taught them about emergency supplies, 10 essentials, hypothermia symptoms, decision-making...

The horror as the events unrolled.... I can't get it out of my mind, all these years.

This one may be behind a paywall, but may be the most digestible write up:

The principal of the school was evidently incensed that this story in Outside would be published, and tried to stop it. Here is a story about that little outrage:


All these years later, I'm so upset this happened. It shaped my approach to wilderness and preparation, but I could also never let go my empathy for those children who were placed in such a terrible position.
 

Grok

Diggin' It
The article in Outside says that in the report, the Father who was the leader was “hypothermic and therefore wasn’t making good decisions”.

It seems to me this skirted an important point. Weren’t they all taught to recognize hypothermia? And how do you recognize it in yourself? It’s a leader’s job to self-assess?

I shudder every time I read about this event. And, yes, there weren’t enough safeguards in place that would signal this was an “experienced” leader.
 

Twiglets

For Real
When I hear "experienced" in a context where the "experienced missing" is on a quest for SM publicity, I automatically go for: "they aren't".

Also, I think it takes a certain amount of humility to acquire experience that's helpful in wild areas. For instance, if you think nature is something to "conquer", and you think nature can be "conquered", you surely don't know you are wrong. This reminds me of that heart-breaking Mount Hood expedition the children of the Episcopal School in Portland OR were encouraged into as a kind of bonding, "stretch your limits", step on the way to graduation, having a meaningful education, exercise. It was part of a required program for sophomores.

The kids evidently prepared by learning technical things, like how to use crampons, and getting fit. None of it—neither the planning nor the trip AFAIK—involved figuring out what your limits are and respecting them, or acknowledging that nature is bigger than humans and you don't get to fight it successfully. And though they might have known how to put on crampons, evidently no one taught them about emergency supplies, 10 essentials, hypothermia symptoms, decision-making...

The horror as the events unrolled.... I can't get it out of my mind, all these years.

This one may be behind a paywall, but may be the most digestible write up:

The principal of the school was evidently incensed that this story in Outside would be published, and tried to stop it. Here is a story about that little outrage:


All these years later, I'm so upset this happened. It shaped my approach to wilderness and preparation, but I could also never let go my empathy for those children who were placed in such a terrible position.
There's a separate thread for this disaster.
 
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