What to know before you go

If you’re like many of us who love these mountains, it’s not enough for you to admire their billowing waves of fall color from the detached safety of a pullout on the Parkway. You want to plunge in and crunch through those rolling miles of rainbow leaves on your own two feet.

But longtime mountaineers know it doesn’t pay to let exhilaration override preparation. The last thing you want is to find yourself panicking because it’s starting to snow and you’re on the wrong trail and you have no idea how to get back to your car. Or because your “Hey, lookit this!” idiot boyfriend has fallen off a waterfall and you don’t know how to stop the bleeding.

These three books will help you avoid becoming the subject of a tragedy-in-the-mountains story on the nightly news. You can use them to plan for the weather, find your way around the wilderness, and give first aid if an accident does occur.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac

There are plenty of modern knockoffs out there, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac really is old: It’s been forecasting America’s weather every year since 1792.

The almanac’s secret formula involves correlating sunspot cycles with historical weather conditions. True, our recent record-busting floods slipped under its radar — the 2004 edition predicted normal rainfall levels for our region in September — but the almanac does get it right 80 percent of the time. A quick Web search shows this is about as good as forecasting gets, leastwise without the aid of woolly worms or bear fat.

No, the problem with the almanac is that it’s hard to simply open it, look up a forecast, and go cram another sweater into your backpack. It is just too full of fascinating little articles and factoids that catch your eye and make you want to sit down on the couch and read them. (Here are some titles from the 2005 edition: “Buried Alive”; “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Walking”; and “Don’t Throw That Away! Unusual Ways to Reuse, Refresh, Recycle.”)

Wilderness navigation

A good compass isn’t just a needle that always points north. It’s a mystic instrument whose dials, arrows and scales can — when applied to the Gods’-eye view of the landscape a topographical map provides — guide you in, around, over and through the ruggedest mountain terrain. Even the fanciest GPS receiver can’t substitute for the map and compass.

There’s one crucial catch, though — you have to know how to use them. Not just think you know, like a certain “experienced backpacker” who recently got himself and five other people hopelessly lost on a “familiar” path in a local national forest.

Needless to say, I am now avidly studying this most informative handbook. Its clear and abundantly illustrated explanations and exercises are teaching me the essentials of determining a point position, finding a bearing, following a base line, and many other key navigational skills. They’re also unveiling the mysteries of clinometers and altimeters, and the basics of how to use a Global Positioning System effectively rather than dependently.

On almost every page, there are practical, voice-of-experience tips on how not to get lost. “Know your bootprints,” for example, “and know the bootprints of other members of your party.” If you get separated, or have trouble finding your way out, you’ll know you’re on the right track when you recognize the distinctive pattern of your prints, even if they’re mixed in with those of other hikers.

Mountaineering first aid

My wife and fellow mountain-lover, Dixie Deerman, a registered nurse, had high praise for this book after reading it.

“It guides you through step-by-step procedures that would give most the willies, but in a crisis, would mean the difference between life and death,” she told me, and it does so in a “clear, no-nonsense, no-medical-jargon style that emphasizes the most important issues to consider.”

“Everything’s covered — from bites, stings, burns, breaks, bleeds to exposure, avalanche, evacuations and how to set up a safe helicopter rescue.”

The Injury Quick Reference Guide would be very helpful during those critical initial minutes after an accident. The book also contains numerous easy-to-follow cutouts that can be laminated and stuck in a backpack for quick reference — though they could be hard to read at night or in bad weather, because they’re printed in black on a dark-gray background.

Mountaineering First Aid even has consent-to-treat forms that first-aiders can fill out to help avoid after-the-fact legal entanglements.

Dixie has already slipped this handbook into a plastic storage bag and packed it with our hiking supplies. I plan to fit the other two snugly alongside it.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2005 (Southern Edition), Yankee Publishing Inc., www.almanac.com.

Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter, & GPS (second edition), by Bob Burns and Mike Burns, The Mountaineers Books, www.mountaineersbooks.org.

Mountaineering First Aid: A Guide to Accident Response and First Aid Care, fifth edition, by Jan D. Carline, Martha J. Lentz and Steven C. Macdonald, The Mountaineers Books, www.mountaineersbooks.org.

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