Respecting Wilderness

Many of the excursions in this guide lead off the beaten paths and into untracked wilderness. All of them visit the high country, frequently ending up above tree line. Anyone intending to travel in these environments must be aware of the inherent risks, in particular the potential dangers due to unpredictable weather. Storms can appear unexpectedly and quickly and a snowstorm in June is not unheard of.


The usual admonitions about being prepared, hiking with a companion, wearing sun protection, and staying hydrated are certainly valid. However, hiking with a GPS receiver significantly reduces the probability of getting lost or delayed. So, seeking solitude in the high country and leaving the chatter of crowds behind may be a reasonable choice when using GPS navigation.

In any case, the Ten Essentials, items on a list developed by the experienced hikers from the Sierra Club, should accompany every hiker. Of course, a GPS receiver and batteries now replace the first two items in the list. Many GPS receivers have a built-in compass, topo map, and altimeter.



The Ten Essentials

  • Map
  • Compass
  • Flashlight (with spare batteries & bulb)
  • Extra food and water
  • Extra clothing
  • Pocket knife
  • Fire starter
  • Matches (in waterproof container)
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • First aid kit

REI recommends an updated list HERE.



Carrying map and compass without having acquired the neccessary skills to use them may lead to a false sense of security. Whiteout conditions, sudden storms, or other situations where a hiker feels the need to rely on map and compass tend to be stressful and require orienteering skills to be readily available.


Storms, and the associated and dangerous lightning strikes, tend to develop around noon, in particular during the Monsoon season. Clouds, lightning, rain, and even snow can move into an area with surprising speed and threaten anyone who is exposed above tree line. Getting an early start and retreating from the high country by noon is a prudent approach to planning a hike.












wspicWetshoes are as anachronistic as map and compass. They are usually recommended for trails that cross creeks, but add weight and are cumbersome to use. Kitchen bags don’t add any noticeable weight, take seconds to deploy, and are so inexpensive that replacing a damaged bag is not an issue.

If a swollen creek should require contractor style bags, it’s probably not a good idea to proceed.



Hiking time:


You can estimate the time it takes for a given hike (adjusted for your condition, of course!), based on the distance and elevation gain. A common rule uses this simple formula:


Time in hours = (distance hiked in miles / 2 mph) + (elevation gain in feet / 1000 feet per hour).


Time (hr.) = Dist. (mi.) / 2 (mi./hr.) + Gain (ft.) / 1000 (ft./hr.)


The Sierra Club suggests:

Naismith's Rule: T= R/3 + 2C/3 + H/2,

where T = time in hours, R = road or trail distance in miles, C = cross-country distance in miles, and H = elevation gain in thousands of feet.



The Trespassing issue:


The San Juan Mountains are littered with mining claims and most mine sites are dangerous due to collapsed tunnels, shafts, or deteriorating buildings. Many of the mining claims may have been passed down through generations to heirs who may not know or care about the location of those claims and who would not care if anyone happens to be wandering around on the land.

Certain landowners find it necessary to stake out their property for their own exclusive use and resent anyone approaching the claim. In contrast, many generous landowners invite the public to visit and enjoy their land. It is worth recalling the fact that the original mining claims, based on the mining law of 1872, were obtained from the government simply by staking out an area and paying a fee as low as $2.50 per acre.


Clearly, the argument that landowners have to protect themselves from liability claims is specious, as explained below in the Colorado Recreational Use Statute:

Many states (including most of the states here in the Rocky Mountain west, which have large, influential, outdoor recreation industries), have "Recreational Use" statutes on the books, which shield private rural landowners from most tort liability for damages suffered by those who come onto their land, free of charge, to pursue recreational activities.

The effects of a Recreational Use statute can be wide ranging. Here in Colorado, for example, the Colorado Recreational Use Statute (C.R.S. § 33-41-103) provides that an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits, without charge, any person to use such property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

a) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

b) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed;

c) Assume responsibility or incur liability for any injury to person or property or for the death of any person caused by an act or omission of such person.



Sometimes, new signs appear where there may have been none before. Therefore, visitors to the San Juans have to take responsibility for dealing with the trespassing issue.