East of Portland, Oregon, in the Columbia Gorge there is a 13.5 mile trail along Eagle Creek. Built in 1919, it’s the oldest purpose-built recreational backpacking trail in the country. And it was built to be spectacular. Dynamite charges blasted the Basalt from the mountains to afford grand views of waterfalls and canyons, and the dense temperate rain forest in the summer provides a balmy wonderland of shade and clear pools of water, fed by the falls.

Hikers on this trail pass half a dozen major waterfalls. In order to maintain an easy grade through this rugged canyon, the builders blasted ledges out of sheer cliffs, spanned a bridge across a massive gorge and tunneled through solid rock behind the aptly named Tunnel Falls, which cascades 120 feet down. The trail starts along the creek and then climbs along a slope covered with cedars. Just before the mile marker you’ll traverse a cliff with cables as handrails. At the 1.5-mile mark you can opt for side trails to the right lead down to a viewpoint of 100-foot Metlako Falls in the distance.

Hikes like this one are great, not to mention relatively close to civilization. In fact, this one can get crowded, but don’t let that lull you into complacency. Like any backcountry adventure, things can go wrong very quickly. Being prepared out here means more than a cell phone and some trail mix. Anyone venturing into the backcountry should also be prepared: sudden falls, freak weather changes and disorientation, not to mention straight fatigue, can all conspire to make an otherwise fun trip a nightmare. But don’t despair, just be ready. It’ll be fun.

One of the essentials I take on a backcountry tip is a survival can. This is a durable container no bigger than a soda can, packed with “what if” survival gear. Mine contains a whistle and a compass, a space blanket and a pocket knife, a proper signal mirror, and when I say proper I mean the kind with the mesh sight in the center that allows for pinpoint accuracy when signaling aircraft. I also carry fish hooks and 50 feet of test line. I’ll also make sure to have at least 20 feet of cord, which can be used to build shelters or snare traps to catch game. To start fires, I bring storm proof matches, which are basically little road flares that will light in any weather. For tinder I’ll pack loose paper and wood shavings, as well as tea light candles. The canister in which I put all these supplies is metal, and so I can use it for cooking or boiling water.

Such a kit might seem a bit extreme, and of course the goal is to never need to break it out, but knowing it’s in your pack is important. And if you ever find yourself lost in the backcountry with no compass, forget that nonsense about moss on trees, just know that you can find north with a stick and two rocks. Here’s how: Drive a stick into the ground and mark the tip of its cast shadow with a rock. After a few minutes, place a second rock of the new tip of the shadow. Place your left foot on the first rock and your right foot on the second and you will be facing north.

It may seem extreme, but being genuinely prepared could not only save you and your companions, but it could make the rescue party’s job easier as well.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons