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Safety & Other Wilderness or Open Space Tips

I know, I know...lions and tigers and bears, oh my!!!  But don't say we didn't warn ya!  Things we have to say...so here is a few tips, especially helpful for those new to the outdoors.  Enjoy!

Watch where you step...rattlesnakes are very active in the spring any time of the day.

Below, pics of a recent rattlesnake encounter I had at Santiago Oaks Regional Park in OC.  The snake is a red diamondback rattlesnake, very poisonous.  I was standing in the shadow seen closest to the snake in the first pic below.  I was looking thru my binoculars at a bird up the trail when it crawled out of the brush.  So what do you do when a 4 foot+ long rattlesnake is at your feet?  DON'T PANIC AND FREEZE, don't move and it will pass without coiling up and biting.  Of course I'm looking through binoculars and I didn't see it at first...as I put down my binoculars just that amount of movement spooked it a little and rather than strike the snake slightly changed direction crawling faster away from me.  The snake did not rattle it's tail at all.  Once it was a respectable distance I then carefully moved far away and started taking pictures with a zoom lens.  Never get close to one of these things to take a picture!  Click the pictures below to enlarge.

The snake suddenly appeared from the brush to the right of trail. Time was 1:22pm.

Red Diamond Back Rattlesnake, enlarged picture shows about 15 beads on it's rattle.

Notice the movement of the tail in this picture, leaving swirling tracks.


A park worker makes sure the snake is no longer near the trail. Notice the rattlesnake tracks.

Rattlesnake Tracks

Enhanced. Near the shadow notice the tracks seem "bunched up"-happened when I put down my binoculars


So, what do we learn from this?  If you are looking through binoculars, even if the trail was clear when you first put them up to your eyes hold still when looking thru them anyway (which I did) and when you do put them down take a peek around your binoculars first moving as little as possible (which I didn't do) and once you put down your binoculars look around before moving at all (it was too late, I already had a large, venomous spooked snake at my feet).  At first glance when in the shadow this snake blended very well with the trail.  Suggestion, if you are looking through binoculars and you are hiking with a friend you could have them "spot you".

Safety Tips and Rules:
  1. Carry in, carry out.  Don't leave litter behind, please "sweep" the area before leaving.  Practice Leave No Trace principles.
  2. Don't smoke in wilderness areas.  Don't even flick an ash out the car window.  Prevent fires--the smallest spark from literally anything can start a fire under the right weather conditions.  Check with the Forest Service for fire warning levels and conditions for the area you plan to visit.
  3. Stick to the trail.  If you do, #4, #5 and #6 below will be much less of a worry!
  4. Rattlesnakes:  Don't step over rocks or logs.  Often people mistake snakes for "sticks" and step on them, getting bitten.  I've seen rattlesnakes stretched out across a dirt path, blending with their surroundings appearing to look like a stick or root on the ground.  Rattlesnakes love to hide in rocks or sun themselves on paved paths and often on dirt paths too.  I've also seen them nestled down into piles of leaves, please think twice about leaving the trail and stepping through leaf covered terrain, even right on the sides of the trail.  Rattlesnakes are found in all open spaces, even those surrounded by cities or near beaches.  A common misbelief is that if a rattlesnake is around it will rattle.  Not true--unless you are very dangerously close.  I've been very close to rattlesnakes a number of times and they did not rattle except only once.  A rattlesnake can strike up to 1-1/2 times it's own length so that is how far at a minimum you want to stay away.  Move slow to avoid suddenly finding yourself way too close to one and be aware of your surroundings.  Please stick to the trail for your own safety.
  5. Watch out for Poison Oak.  General rule is "leaves of three, let it be".  Poison Oak may appear with red leaves, green leaves or just stems depending on the season.  Poison oak blends in very well with other plants and is sometimes hard to spot.  Also note that dogs do not get reactions to Poison Oak but they can transfer the oils from the plant to you.  Another equally hazardous plant is a wildflower called Poodle Dog Bush, which is prevalent after wildfires--the reaction caused by this wildflower is equal to Poison Oak.  Click here to see pictures of Poodle Dog Bush on the CalPhoto website or click here to read an article about Poodle Dog Bush on the Orange County Register website.  This is an excellent argument for not picking wildflowers.  Not only will you kill thousands of wildflowers for the next year by taking away seeds but you never know what you are getting either!  Don't pick, touch or walk thru the native plants along your way for your own safety if nothing else.
  6. If you encounter a mountain lion never run!  Mountain lions are found in almost all open spaces.  You rarely ever know they are there.  Don't look like prey (bending, crouching down) and be aware of your surroundings at all times.  General rule, where there is deer there is mountain lions.  See the Safety section below and the links page for more tips.
  7. In wilderness areas best not go alone.  In case of emergency then someone can go get help.  Join a sponsored hike, safety in numbers! 
  8. In foothill and mountain areas check with the forest rangers on current conditions and warnings before your trip.  See the end of this page for US Forest Service Contacts.
  9. Plan for your trip, bring plenty of water, snacks, trail maps, a Google map of the vicinity is also good to bring, wear proper shoes and dress for the weather (if you are not sure of the weather, layer clothing).  And a compass is a good idea.
  10. Many trails are muli-use, please practice Share the Trail principles.
  11. Don't bring your dog to wilderness areas unless that area specifically permits.  Click the picture above "why dogs are not allowed in this park", and read the explanation.  In areas that do allow dogs, leash your pet for it's own safety.
  12. Bees--I've come across whole swarms in wildflower fields.  According to a documentary on bees I watched on Animal Planet, if you are out hiking and bees start bouncing off you this is a warning you have entered their territory.  Leave, turning back the way you came to avoid being attacked.  500 bee stings are equivalent to one rattlesnake bite.  A swarm could sting as many as 1000 times or more.  If you are stung remove the stinger(s) as soon as possible and wash the sting area with soap and water.  Experts say you should get medical attention even if you are not allergic to bee stings.
Wildlife Safety (things I have to say):

Mountain lions are known to be in all California wilderness areas.  See the links below, suggestions about what to do if faced by mountain lion.  Many of the same principals apply to bear encounters.  Most importantly
stop, face the animal, never crouch down, never turn your back to walk away, don't suddenly move, never run, and make human noises.  Know how wildlife behaves so you can properly assess your situation.  You could check with the local ranger station or park if there have been any recent sightings in the area you plan to visit.  Report all mountain lion sightings to local rangers or park personnel.  Keep in mind mountain lion and other wildlife is always there even if you don't see it and it is very rare they threaten humans so don't let that scare you.  The only time I've ever encountered these animals is when I've hiked alone in the evening (I rarely hike early in the morning), so go with a friend-that is more fun anyway!  And better for other safety reasons too of course.  

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, click pic to enlarge
Photo by Phil Culshaw, June 28, 2008 in San Mateo Campground, San Onofre State Beach

Click picture for larger view.
Sign explaining for your dog's saftety and preservation of wilderness.

Poison Oak in the spring, click to enlarge
Poison Oak Picture.jpg
Poison Oak, picture taken on Laurel Canyon Trail, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park on 4/5/08

Poison Oak, early Fall season, click to enlarge
Poison Oak, stems, red and green leaves. Notice the leaves are in clusters of three.

Poison Oak among other plants, click to enlarge
Poison Oak Picture.jpg
Can you find the poison oak in this picture?

External Links:

Picture of a mountain lion track, lots of good info on other wildlife, California Dept of Fish & Game:

What to do if faced by Mountain Lion or other wildlife:

What to do if you see a mountain lion:

Know how a mountain lion behaves, assess your risk if you see one--mountain lion body language:
Forest Contacts:   

US Forest Service, Angeles National Forest Contact info

Cleveland National Forest Current Conditions

US Forest Service, Cleveland National Forest Contact Info

Los Padres National Forest Current Conditions

US Forest Service, Los Padres Contact Info