Survival Guide - Top Tips From A Veteran Ranger
Backpacker|October 2015
Survival Guide - Top Tips From A Veteran Ranger
On the eve of his retirement, Bil Vandergraff, Grand Canyon's most experienced search-and-rescue ranger, sits down for a career debriefing and explains why you should absolutely hike in wet cotton and never leave home without cold pizza.
Annette McGivney

Bil Vandergraff walked into the Grand Canyon backcountry in 1990 and never left. That’s good news for you. In his 25 years as a SAR ranger, he logged 3,600 missions in the busiest national park for rescues, 10,000 backcountry patrol miles, and more than a few opinions on what’s wrong with hikers today. “Bil became the go-to person when a complex or rapidly developing incident required the best SAR expertise and decision-making,” says Ken Phillips, Branch Chief of Search and Rescue for the National Park Service and former SAR program director at Grand Canyon. Phillips adds that Grand Canyon has the “busiest and most complex” SAR operation of any national park, with 324 SAR incidents in 2014 that involved 267 injured or ill patients. Coming in a distant second was Yosemite, with 181 incidents and 71 patients. In June, Vandergraff retired, having helped develop the park system’s SAR manual and been awarded the Harry Yount Award, the highest honor given to rangers by the NPS. We caught up with him the day after he finished his last wilderness patrol. He shared his wisdom on searching for the missing, saving the injured, finding the dead, and not pampering the whiners. Consider these 7 rules to live by, no matter what terrain you’re in.


“What we deal with more than anything is people who say they can’t,” Vandergraff says.“They can’t hike out. They can’t keep going. But their legs and arms still work. Their lungs still work. Their brain has shut down.” While physical training and wilderness skills are important for backpacking in difficult terrain, Vandergraff places equal importance on “having the psychology to get yourself out of the canyon.” Anticipate possible difficulty and have confidence in your ability to solve your own problems. “Many people think it should be easy to hike downhill so they are just overwhelmed by the realization that their body is thrashed after the 5,000-foot descent from rim to river,” notes Vandergraff.Instead of simply resting, nursing their blisters, and adjusting their trip itinerary to fit a new reality, many of these shaken hikers immediately call for rescue. But, Vandergraff says, “We are not babysitters.”

Takeaway tips


Wear the right clothes. Choose apparel made of breathable, moisture-retaining fabrics (like cotton) for your hike. And don’t forget a hat that shades your face. 

Embrace the sweat. Sweating cools your body through evaporation. On hot days, you should worry if you’re not sweating. 

Go slow. It takes 8 to 10 days to acclimatize to a hot environment. Plan A: Acclimate by training in the heat for 60 minutes per day. Plan B: Modify your itinerary to allow adjusting on the trail. 

Stick to mornings and evenings. While the sun is most intense between noon and 2 p.m., temperatures usually don’t peak until between 3 and 4:30 p.m. Plan afternoon siestas, and in the hottest weather, hike at night. 

Know when to stop. Heat exhaustion (symptoms: confusion, nausea, vomiting) can lead to heatstroke, which can be deadly. If you or a partner exhibit these signs, seek shade,hydrate, put your feet up, dump water on your clothes. If you suspect heatstroke, sub merge the victim in a body of cool water, or apply wet rags to neck, underarms, and groin (where major arteries flow). This is a life-threatening emergency. Call for help.



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October 2015