Surviving the Santa Monica Mountains

Living in Santa Monica, with the busy beaches, consumerist congestion of the 3rd Street Promenade, hordes of tourists and terrible traffic that comes with them, it can be easy to forget that we live just miles away from some pretty rural landscape.

Just to the north of Santa Monica and Los Angeles proper runs the Santa Monica Mountains.  Unlike most of California’s mountain ranges, these run east-west. Their eastern end of the range is capped by Elysian Park, and Griffith Park, with its Dodger Stadium, the Greek Theatre, and the Hollywood Bowl.  But the western end is sparsely developed and overall much more rural, managed by a patchwork of agencies and organizations.

SM Mtns

Misty Morning in the western Santa Monica Mountains

On a sunny Saturday in November, Sylvie and I drove up to one of those more rural areas, Malibu Creek State Park, for our second REI class: Wilderness Survival.  Despite our requisite caffeine stop, we quickly made it up to the wilds of Malibu.  We were early, which gave us time to chat with our instructor, John, about what to expect for the day, and mingle a bit with the other participants as they rolled in.  At the next shelter over, there was a class on how to cook your Thanksgiving meal outside.  Sylvie mentioned that maybe we should have signed up for that one as it involved only eating and cooking, instead of any actual work.

When everyone arrived, we went through introductions and why we ere taking the class, and then dug into the plans for the day.  John had a very casual, laid-back manner that put everyone instantly at ease, and there was a nice mix of newbies and experienced hikers to keep the conversation interesting and questions lively.

John began with an acronym for when you find yourself in a situation where you might need some survival skills to get by: STOP – E.

Stop – stop what you’re doing and thinking and really give you attention to the moment/situation

Think – think about where you’re at, where you need to be, what your resources are, etc.

Observe – look around you, determine hazards and opportunities

Plan – Make a plan based on what you’ve got and what you need

Execute – Work the plan.

In a survival situation, there are two kinds of hazards:

  1. Objective – the environment around you that you cannot change
  2. Subjective – how you react and respond to the situation

The objective hazards are just how the cards are dealt, and really just what you have to deal with and respond to.  By following the STOP – E method, you can help to minimize the errors that can lead to major issues with the subjective hazards – those problems that arise from human error, fear, and just plain stupidity.

John then reminded us of the realities of human frailty: we can go only three minutes without oxygen, three days without water, and three weeks without food.  Most people stress about food when they get lost, but it’s better to make sure you’re sheltered from the elements that can cause you physical damage, and then ensure a source of water.  So, when creating a plan (the P in STOP – E), if you can’t get unlost or out of your situation easily, you need to prioritize shelter and water.

In the mediterranean chaparral* of the Santa Monica Mountains, water can be hard to come by.  It can be even harder to come by during a long-term drought like we’ve been in for the past few years.  John showed us how to use a plastic bag over a tree branch to gather water from the transpiration of the tree’s leaves. As long as the leaves are alive, you should be able to gather water.  John did caution that you should choose a different branch every day to do this or you will kill the branch due to water loss.  When we returned to drink the water in the afternoon, it was very refreshing with a mild herbal flavor to it.

For shelter, layer one is your clothes, layer two can be a sleeping bag or emergency bivy-sac (with or without a groundpad), and layer three your tent, tarp, or other shelter.  We talked briefly about the right clothes for the right conditions (no tank tops or speedos in the snow, and no heavy fleece in at 100 degrees), and the importance of layers.  We looked at his cool emergency blanket/tarp and bivy sac, and then he showed us how to put up a basic tarp tent.  We built up ground insulation with leaves and pine needles.  This part of things took me back to my Camp Fire days and Outdoor Leadership class in college.  I was really happy for those reminders as that part of my brain really is very rusty, as evidenced by all the mistakes I made on our Mt Wilson trip.

We also talked a lot about where to set up your tent/shelter.  Common errors in shelter location include setting up in poison oak, ivy, etc, on top of an ant hill, on a deer run or other animal trail, or in an area that becomes a wash or creek in the rain.  So, you know, we shouldn’t do that.

Before we delved too deeply into the shelter discussion though, we talked about gear and navigation.  We talked about how all your gear should be versatile – able to serve more than one purpose, and how your truly necessary gear should be redundant.  You should have more than one method for cutting things, starting fires, gathering and sterilizing water, staying warm and dry, lighting your way, and navigating – also backup contacts with glasses, if applicable.  The more your gear lends to improvisation in tight situations, the better.  Signaling mirrors and whistles along with some gorilla tape were also non-negotiables for his kit.  John also recommended a silk bandana (can be used to filter water in a pinch, but also for so many things), tiny bungee cords, many ziplock bags, and a wee little fishing kit as things he’s found very useful in a wide variety of situations.

A large chunk of the morning was spent making fire.  We reviewed the three things you need for a fire: 1) ignition, 2) fuel, and 3) oxygen, and discussed how different strategies for building fires and providing them their three necessities.  The different ignition sources we practiced with were ferro-rods, strike-anywhere matches, storm-proof matches, and a lighter.  We built up our fuel – little piles of tinder (tiny stuff that you light first) and kindling (small branches) and got our flames a-flaring.  I’d never used either the ferro rod or storm-proof matches (which are like a match-mini-sparkler hybrid), so it was really cool to play with those and get a feel for how they work.

Navigation was also covered, though not in detail.  He recommended that we take the map and compass class if we wanted more practice with navigation.  Though we did take the time to cover some non-map and compass strategies.  The one I liked the best was the sun-shadow method (AKA the sun tip method).

Overall, the class covered a lot, and by the end my brain was kinda full.  I was grateful for the day, which dusted off a lot of the old knowledge tucked into the corners of my brain, and added a great deal of new bits and pieces as well.  Sylvie and I felt like the class was both money well-spent and time well-spent, which you can’t really ask for more than that, can you?  We felt a lot more ready to tackle getting out there on the trail, away from it all.

*Most people say that LA is a desert, but technically it’s not.  The normal wet winters and coastal moisture known as the marine layer keep LA from being dry enough to be desert.  Those wet winters and hot dry summers characterize the area as a mediterranean climate.  The native landscape is chaparral from the Spanish word chaparro – for the short scrubby oaks that are usually the largest feature of this community of small plants, shrubs, and other short bush-like trees.  

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