Trail Map Won’t Cut It

I enjoyed your two stories about being lost and found in the Los Padres National Forest. Our local Santa Barbara and Ventura County search and rescue squads are indeed very valuable assets—assets that I hope I never have to call upon. However, I respectfully disagree with Martha Sadler’s conclusion that she would have been better off with a front country trail map.

I have done quite a bit of exploring on my mountain bike and on foot in some of the exact places she mentions, and my experience is that the maps are often highly misleading. Many trails that look solid on the map turn out to be almost completely impassable—overgrown with poison oak and other vegetation or damaged by land slides. They are mostly unmarked, and rudimentary even in their best sections, resembling other, game trails in the area. Therefore, it is often extremely hard to relocate the “official” trail after bushwhacking around a blocked section.

I therefore recommend that hikers and bikers check in with the Forest Service or other reliable sources on current trail conditions before exploring much beyond the most well-known and well-used trails. Based on some hard lessons, I am much more circumspect about exploring these so-called “trails.” When I do, I extensively survey possible routes and alternate escape routes using Google Earth imagery and topo maps, I wait for cooler weather, and I bring a water filtration system and backup iodine pills just in case I’m stuck out there for much longer than I originally expected. I dress myself for wading through thickets of poison oak and tick-infested chaparral.

Finally, I know that I will mostly have to orienteer the old fashioned way, using topo map, altimeter, compass, and landmarks: GPS units and cell phones are expensive paperweights once you’re down in the canyons.