Once submerged beneath an in-land sea, Big Bend National Park is in a far-flung corner of Texas and is the result of volcanic activity and the up-thrusting of colliding fault lines. There are flat deserts, rolling hills, mountains, basins and building-sized boulders cast about as though the Almighty has been shooting marbles. A few early American structures are still standing here and Indian rock art, as well as tools, are prevalent in select areas. Under sunny skies and indigo nights of glittering starlight, Big Bend is well-described by the official Texas tourism slogan that boasted, “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.”
There is a “main,” two-lane paved road that runs east and west for almost the entire width of Big Bend and four two-lane paved roads that connect to it. At any point alongside these thoroughfares a person can park a car, walk a mere mile into the desert or mountains, become disoriented and die.
Exposure to extreme temperature swings can lead to a death by hypothermia or dehydration. In one moment there isn't a drop of water and in the moment, flash floods. A hiker can cross paths with a bear or lion and make the mistake of fleeing—thus becoming prey.
There are 801,163 acres—about 1,251 square miles—in which to become easily lost and perish. And that’s just within the boundaries of the National Park. Beyond this and to all points of the compass Big Bend National Park is surrounded by an inhospitable and deadly panorama of beauty extending for hundreds of square miles more.
So dress for rugged environments and extreme conditions. Short sleeves may seem fine in the heat of the day, but if blistering in the sun you want your arms covered. Likewise, short-sleeves are valueless in nightly dropping temperatures and amidst brush, thorns, thistles and underbrush. The same is true for wearing shorts.
I wear khakis of military design. They are durable, cool in the heat and good enough in the cold. I recommend long sleeves as they can be rolled-up if needed.
Even in summer I wear a light leather jacket for protection against back-country plant life, occasional unexpected slips down abrasive terrain and cool night temperatures. I have a larger leather jacket that fits over the lighter jacket when additional warmth is needed.
My boots have prevented ankle injury and saved my life numerous times so do not underestimate sturdy footwear. To get an idea of what I recommend see this review of Red Wing Beckman Style 9010 boots. (After only one trip to Big Bend my shoe cobbler of many years replaced the ate-up leather sole with Neoprene.) Socks should be breathable but prevent foot movement in your footgear. Again, I turn to Red Wing and their cotton, medium-weight extended length (over the calf) socks. With 15% stretch nylon these are durable and stay-up over the smallest and most muscular calves.
Headwear: After several felt hats, I had a hat custom made to weather wear-and-tear. It is a 100% beaver fedora made by Joe Peters (who has since passed away) of Peter Brothers Hats in Fort Worth, Texas. The fedora provides shade, ensures I retain body heat, handles the rain well and can take a beating. I recommend ear muffs and a toboggan, too. A toboggan is great for staying warm while sleeping.
Hiking supplies: I carry an 18-foot whip as a sound deterrent to wild animals in regions far from trails and posted attractions (it’s either that or you’re left with the advice of chunking rocks—a defense in which I don’t have a lot of faith). Carry a supply of water and trail mix that can be stretched-out for a few days, if need be. I carry two sets of leather gloves, a backup compass, a high-intensity Mag flashlight, a couple of small flashlights, a lighter, matches in a waterproof container, extra batteries and a park map. (My map is a 1980s era topo map with trails illustrated, weatherproofed and tear-proof). Except for the whip and water all of this is in my shoulder bag. Attached to the outside of that shoulder bag are various clips, nylon cord, a GPS (designed for hiking into the unknown), my main compass and a collapsible walking cane.
In-Camp supplies: Have a sturdy tent with floor protection; water; a small stove (I use a Fold & Go that I’ve modified); plenty of fuel for your stove; a sub-zero rated sleeping bag; plenty of food (prepackaged freeze dried food is probably the best as it doesn’t emit an odor until cooked). Cook, eat and dispose of your food away from your camp—so as not to invite unwanted guests (e.g. bears); a medical kit (I even have a lower-leg Aircast Boot for immobilizing the toes-to-calf region) and crutches.
My point here is to illustrate the preparation necessary to comfortably survive adverse events and conditions. Never assume you are taking just a little day trip by foot. That may be your intention, but you might find yourself in a struggle for survival.
Do not wave-off all this as excessive preparation. In 2012 a couple of, “experienced,” Big Bend National Park visitors had to leave the park due to the government shut-down. With vacation time remaining, they visited the nearby Big Bend State Park. They parked their car and while wearing shorts and T-shirts struck out on a short day hike. It was days later when the husband managed to find help and was able to get his lost wife rescued. Where did they find her? Within a mile of their car and suffering from extreme exposure. They survived only because God protects children and fools—and they were not children.
In 2010 I was several miles into the desert when sundown left me unable to discern the surrounding landmarks. I then turned on my GPS—so that I wouldn’t walk in circles—and used my compass. After about four hours I walked out of the desert and onto that main two-lane road I mentioned at the outset above. At that point, using a combination of the GPS and map revealed my exact location.
The beauty of Big Bend can be brutal if you aren’t prepared and in the silence of the desert, no one will hear a plea for help.
So, as I learned in Scouting: Always be prepared.
The Photographs of this gallery are from a visit to Big Bend in mid-to-late October of 2011.