Officials recommend precautions for trailblazers
Paramedics in Santa Barbara County are familiar with its picturesque trails — as they are often called to assist distressed hikers.
In recent days, hikers have dialed 911 for leg injuries and dehydration. Historically, officials have sent warnings about assaults, heat-related illness and even the death of a dog.
Incidences can happen during any season and in both the backcountry of Los Padres National Forest and city trailheads.
“People can get injured in the backcountry in the winter time just as easy as the summer time,” Capt. Daniel Bertucelli, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, told the News-Press. “A lot of people think you can go hiking in the summertime and just have a bicycle bottle full of water, and it doesn’t work.”
Preparedness was emphasized by first responders and hiking enthusiasts alike, water being notable especially as it heats up outside.
The rule spread across most hiking websites is this: bring a half liter of water for every hour of hiking.
And those hiking with dogs should bring extra water, Capt. Bertucelli said.
Dogs that are drooling, weak or having trouble breathing are liable to collapse. Dogs’ fitness is just as important as humans’.
“You can have somebody older and in really good shape and is a knowledgeable experienced hiker and is hydrated, and that person has a better chance of having an injury-free hike than a younger person who comes unprepared,” Capt. Bertucelli said.
He most frequently sees rescues in the frontcountry trails, as they are accessible to new hikers and most heavily trafficked.
Many of Santa Barbara’s trails start inside the city and extend into the Los Padres National Forest as hikers ascend.
The national forest contains 1.75 million acres, some wilderness and some popular trails like Lizard’s Mouth and Inspiration Point.
Andrew Madsen, a Los Padres National Forest spokesperson, recommends hikers contact the forest service for trail recommendations based on skill level and amount of activity.
As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, he expects many out-of-towners to join locals on popular frontcountry trails.
“If you’re looking for solitude, call us,” Mr. Madsen said. “We got a huge forest here; not everyone needs to hike Rattlesnake Canyon.”
But he also acknowledges the potential danger of the wilderness.
“When people go out there, they’re taking on an inherent risk. It’s part of the excitement and the draw of it,” he said.
Mr. Madsen described Los Padres as “America’s No. 1 fire forest,” so hikers should be aware of changing conditions after wildfires, like rocks that have tumbled downslope.
“The trail is ready to start moving. To the best of your ability, stay on the trail,” he said. “Do not go off the trail.”
Too much traffic in recently burned land impedes vegetation growth.
“We don’t want to trample on the areas,” he said. “With a little bit of precipitation, hopefully, we’ll get a new chaparral in the next 15 years.”
The chaparral is like a blanket of shrubs coating the mountains, which gets stripped away in fire.
“Once we get out of the rainy season and the grasses begin to dry out, you need to be very aware of any fire risk,” Capt. Bertucelli said. “And that carries through until we get our first significant rainfall of at least two inches of rain.”
Mr. Madsen expects the forest to impose stricter fire restrictions as the weather heats up, which includes prohibiting smoking unless in an enclosed vehicle or designated campfire use site.
Cars traveling through the forest’s roads should be careful not to park on vegetation, and trailer-hauling vehicles should not have chains dragging and sparking along the roadway, he said.
Recently, residents of Painted Cave Road contacted officials at Los Padres about gatherings along the roadway.
“There’s a growing concern because they’re seeing people going up there and not being good stewards of the land,” Mr. Madsen said.
He’s glad people are enjoying the views and said the forest is there to serve both people who want to drive up and enjoy a glass of wine while watching the sunset as well as the trailblazers.
“That’s well and good, and that’s what we’re here for — but you’re not going to find restrooms or trash cans up there,” he said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he noticed “a huge uptick in visitation,” resulting in litter and fire risks.
In 2019, to respond to the risk for fire, community members formed the Mountain Ember Team. Other groups, like the Sierra Club, encourage people to be courteous to the land.
Sierra Club member Robert Bernstein has been leading group hikes for over 20 years. His biggest grievance? Cell phones.
“People used to prepare for a hike knowing they are going where they have to be able to take care of themselves. After cell phones became widely available, rescues greatly increased,” he said.
While Santa Barbara County has a search and rescue team and helicopter ambulances available day and night, Mr. Bernstein is frustrated with the number of hikers who become ambitious in the comfort of emergency services.
“This is a problem for multiple reasons. Primarily, it is very selfish,” he said. “Why should others have to waste their time and money to rescue you, just because you failed to prepare properly?”
He encourages people to know their limits. Another Sierra Club hike leader Kristi Kirkpatrick emphasized this as well.
“Hike descriptions can be deceptive and often people interpret them wrong,” she said. “Many people may read about a one-mile hike and overlook the part about it having 1,000 feet of gain,” she said. “Just walking on flat streets isn’t really going to give you a very good indication of your cardiovascular conditioning.”
She recommends walking up a long set of stairs, as many of Santa Barbara’s trails start with a steep incline.
The amount of shade is also important, Mr. Bernstein said. He leads hikes at the Gaviota Caves, which has worn out group members.
“This area is very deceptive. It seems like it is not strenuous, but the area is mostly exposed rock. Even if it does not seem hot, you are losing water and it is easy to get dehydrated,” he said.
When hikers become dehydrated, he moves them into the shade and slowly gives them water. He puts a nylon jacket on them — a hiking essential, he says.
“When a person gets dehydrated they often do not feel thirsty or have any idea anything is wrong. Instead, they can become irrational and even combative. I have seen this enough times to know it when I see it,” Mr. Bernstein said.
Officials and advocates strongly encouraged hiking with a partner. The Sierra Club holds group hikes, and a group of women called HikerBabes formed a community of hiking buddies.
In the fall, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office warned residents of a series of sexual assaults on trails. Authorities encouraged hiking as a group and heading back before dark.
“We’ve all recognized that there’s nothing quite like watching a sunset from a high vantage point. But if you watch the sun go down, the clock starts ticking,” Mr. Madsen said. “Soon you have no earthly idea where you’re at.”
Those out at night should have a clear understanding of the trail, as he says it’s easy to get lost.
There are a myriad of safety concerns to tackle, but he acknowledges the value of the view.