Travel health gift guide: what to get the incessant wanderer on your list

Travel junkies are a special breed. Only a very distinct personality type gets a rush from being on the road as much as possible, or relishes the discomforts and situations most people go to lengths to avoid. Homesickness is a foreign concept.

I know, because I too suffer from this malady. It started early, because I have a vivid memory of bursting into tears when I was six or seven, after we dropped a friend off at the airport.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked. “I’m sad because we’re not getting on an airplane,” was my reply (ironic given my aviophobia, which had its onset about 12 years later).

A paralyzing fear of air travel hasn’t stopped me from roaming, however. So, whether you have a loved one who practically lives at Club Med or one actually enjoys sleeping on the ground or in janky Third World hostels rife with cockroaches…lucky you. You have a travel addict in the family or as a friend.

One experience incessant wanderers don’t go looking for? Illness or injury. While not inevitable, the more time you spend abroad, the greater the likelihood of suffering from anything from an infected bug bite or Bali Belly to…worse. But as I’ve always said, you can get hit by a bus crossing the street.

Of course travel isn’t inherently unsafe, but there are precautionary measures that minimize the odds of having health issues on the road. Below, my road-tested gift picks for frequent travelers (especially those who visit sub-tropical or tropical climes) and outdoor enthusiasts.

SteriPEN or LifeStraw portable water filter
Reasons why one of these is a worthwhile investment:

  • Saves money on purchasing bottled water in developing nations/places without potable water
  • Better for the environment (see above)
  • You can contract giardia or other nasties from improperly “bottled” water (trust me)
  • You don’t have to be out in the backcountry to have a potable water shortage; owning a filtration system is good insurance you stay hydrated and healthy, even in the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fauxrealphotos]Travel first aid kit
Even infrequent travelers should carry basic first-aid supplies: band-aids, gauze pads, Neosporin, OTC meds, etc.. Personalize your gift by tailoring a pre-purchased kit (REI is a great place to find different types and sizes) to suit the interests and needs of your recipient.

Wilderness first aid class
CPR or a general first aid class is a good idea for anyone, but if any of your loved ones live for backcountry pursuits or traveling off the beaten path, a WFA course can be a lifesaver–literally. Look one up in your area through the American Red Cross.

Controlled-release DEET and/or Insect Shield apparel
There was a time, several years ago, when I shunned DEET unless I was in a malarial region. Why, I asked myself, would I willingly douse myself in a pesticide? Why would I inflict said poison upon the environment?

That philosophy is all well and good until you get bitten by something harboring an infectious evil (in my case, it was sandflies carrying the Bartonella bacilliformis bacterium) that anti-malarials can’t prevent. Also note that malaria prophylaxis is not without considerable side-effects and may not protect you against certain strains of the disease. Be sure to talk to an infectious disease, tropical medicine, or travel physician experienced with actual working experience in these regions.

These days, I’m all about DEET if I’m traveling somewhere with potentially harmful biting insects, especially now that there are controlled-release versions on the market (there are various brands on the market; Sawyer Products is highly recommended). One application is good for up to 12 hours.

As for clothes, I love my Insect Shield long sleeve button-up shirt from ExOfficio. Good for up to 70 washings (after which you still have a good-looking, lightweight travel top), bug-repelling garments are treated with permethrin, EPA-registered, and free of toxic-smelling fumes.

Sun protective clothing
As you likely know, heat exhaustion or heat stroke can be serious; even fatal. In addition to a good sunblock, sunglasses, and a hat, sun protective clothing is a seriously smart idea for outdoor types. Once again, I recommend ExOfficio, or REI own brand, which will save you a few dollars.

Bear bell or spray
Google “2011 grizzly attacks.” ‘Nuff said.

What they say in the military is true: you gotta take care of your feet. Once your dogs go, you’re SOL in the backcountry or tropics. Keeping feet clean and dry (and warm, if applicable) is of utmost importance (at the very least, fellow travelers will appreciate your hygiene efforts). These moisture-wicking, stench-resistant socks are invaluable even if you’re just planning an extended trip.

Ibex woolies
Getting chilled can quickly become serious or fatal, and hypothermia prevention in the form of extra layers is key. These 100% merino wool underlayers from Vermont-based outfitter Ibex are the bomb. Comfortable, warm, moisture-wicking, and seriously odor-proof (anything that remains fit to wear in public after a month-long backpacking trip from the Andes to the Amazon–sans laundry–is a product I heartily endorse). Plus, they come in cute stripey designs as well as solids.

[Photo credit: Band-aids, Flickr user m.gifford, feet, Flickr user Cin]

Accidental bear spray discharge clears Utah hotel

A housekeeper working in a hotel in Utah cleared the entire building this past weekend, when she accidentally discharged a can of bear spray. The woman was pushing her cart down a hall in the Marriott Hotel in Salt Lake City and didn’t notice that someone and dropped the can on the floor. When she rolled the cart over bear spray, it began discharging its contents, which is not unlike pepper spray, but much more powerful.

The smell from the spray was so strong, that all the guests had to be evacuated from the hotel. It took about a half-hour for the staff to ventilate the building enough to allow the patrons back inside. The hapless housekeeper was also taken to the hospital, as the pepper spray irritated her eyes to the point that she couldn’t open them.

A similar incident occurred a month ago at the Grand Tetons National Park visitor center, where a ranger left a can of bear spray on a seat in the auditorium, and a visitor accidentally set it off by sitting on it. That building had to be cleared as well and afterwards, about 20 people suffered temporary side effects.

Bear spray is commonly carried by hikers visiting destinations where there is a real possibility of encountering the creatures. The potent pepper spray is designed to stop a bear in its tracks, without doing any lasting damage to the animal, and it is likely that this particular can was accidentally left behind by someone heading out on a day hike. Hopefully they didn’t need it where they were going.

Bear spray accidentally discharged inside Grand Tetons visitor center

Visitors to the Grand Tetons National Park visitor center got a very unpleasant surprise recently when a can of bear spray was inadvertently discharged inside the building. The incident prompted an immediate evacuation of the entire facility, as the potent pepper spray soon spread throughout the center.

Apparently, one of the park’s rangers was preparing for a morning program in the visitor center’s auditorium when a man entered the room and quickly grabbed a seat without first taking a look at the chair. In doing so, he sat down directly on the can of bear spray, releasing its contents throughout the room, and sending the occupants scrambling for the emergency exits.

The powerful chemical didn’t stay contained to the auditorium for long however, as the ventilation system soon pumped it throughout the rest of the building. By the time an emergency response team arrived on scene, more than 20 people were suffering side effects from exposure to the pepper spray.

Bear spray is an incredibly potent version of the same pepper spray that is commonly used by police or for self defense by individuals. In this case however, it has to be strong enough to take down a 500 pound bear rather than a 200 pound person. The spray is actually an oil that is blasted out via an aerosol, and when this particular can went off inside the visitor center, it not only spread throughout the facility, itended up contaminating merchandise in the gift shop, including t-shirts and stuffed animals.

Anyone who has done any hiking in the American west knows that bears are a potential danger, particularly in national parks such as the Grand Tetons or Yellowstone. In many places, bear spray is actually mandatory gear before heading into the backcountry, and the ranger in this story was likely preparing to instruct visitors on its use. Unfortunately, they received first hand experience in just how powerful the spray actually is in a way that is usually only reserved for the bears.

Safety tips for hiking and camping in bear country

Last Wednesday’s fatal bear attack on a 57-year-old man in Yellowstone National Park has made national headlines, and stirred up a lot of mixed opinions, despite the fact it’s the park’s first bear-related fatality since 1986. Fortunately, because the animal in question was a female grizzly defending her cubs, park rangers have decided not to take action.

Park ranger Kerry Gunther, who has studied Yellowstone’s bears for over 30 years, was quoted in a recent CNN article as saying there’s a difference between defensive and predatory attacks by bears. “If a bear shows signs of hunting and eating humans,” he says, “rangers will attempt to track down and euthanize the animal.” But rangers won’t usually kill a bear for defensive behavior.

Park visitors are understandably skittish; hiker Erin Prophet had a bear encounter while hiking in Yellowstone just two days after the attack. She opted to jump into a nearby lake, where she was towed to safety by two kayakers, rather than risk staying on the trail. Gunther later determined, based on video footage of the bear, that it was a juvenile black bear, and not much of a threat.

“Bears are really very tolerant of people,” he says. “I have had a few times where I was bluff charged but the bear always pulled up short. You don’t really know if you are a ‘runner’ or a ‘stander’ until that happens. People shouldn’t fear bears. They should respect them.”

So what should you do if you’re hiking or camping in bear country and you find yourself in close proximity to one? And how do you avoid an encounter in the first place? After the jump, tips on how to be “bear aware.”

[Photo credit: Flicker user]

Watch this short video for tips on how to keep bears out of your campsite at night

  • Educate yourself
  • It’s crucial to know if you’ll be in bear country on your trip, and what species live in the region. Grizzlies are much more aggressive and powerful than black bears, and your response to an encounter depends upon the species.
  • With black bears, you want to aggressively fight back if attacked; not so with grizzlies, as you’ll see below. Be able to identify the local species of bear in the event of a sighting. Most ski/mountain towns offer “Bear Aware” classes to teach locals and tourists how to co-exist peacefully with their ursine neighbors.
  • Pack away all food and store it out of reach of bears
  • Bears have been known to go to extreme measures when they get the munchies, and if they’re smelling the remains of your dinner or those candy bars stashed in your tent, you’ve got a problem. They also get into garbage, which is why you’ll always find bear-proof dumpsters and trash receptacles in areas populated by bears. Homeowners and holiday renters also need to be vigilant about keeping windows and doors closed when no one is around and at night, especially if there’s food out.
  • If you’re car camping, keep food in a cooler in your trunk after you’ve cleaned up. If you’re in the backcountry, hang all edibles in a “bear bag” from the branch of a tree or rig a line, as high up as possible. This is just as much for the bear’s safety as yours; human food is detrimental to their health, and once they learn they can get a free lunch by cruising a campground or neighborhood, it’s hard to get rid of them. For everyone’s safety, keep things clean and locked up tight.
  • Don’t be stupid.
  • “We can have hundreds of visitors alongside the road filming and viewing bears,” Gunther says. “When the bears want to cross the roads you’d think to a big, 200 pounds-plus bear people would show a little bit more respect (and) get back to their cars or let the bear cross the road. Sometimes people are letting the bear walk just feet from them.”
  • No matter how tame they may seem, wild animals are just that: wild. You’re in their territory, and by startling them, you risk a defensive (aka “aggressive”) response.
  • Hike prepared.
  • Gunther says respecting bears means traveling in large hiking groups, avoiding or leaving known bear areas, and always carrying bear spray (pepper spray), in case of an attack. Some people like to hike with a “bear bell” on their walking sticks or pack. Also, keep an eye out for bear scat on the trail. For someone supposedly nervous about the attack two days previous, Prophet showed a remarkable lack of good judgement. She was hiking alone, and wasn’t carrying bear spray.
  • Make noise
  • I remember a hike with my family in Glacier National Park when I was about seven. A ranger stopped us mid-hike and told us a mother grizzly defending her cubs had treed two men nearby. The area was being evacuated, and my family and the other hikers on the trail were led back down the mountain. We were given empty soda cans filled with pebbles to shake, and told to talk loudly. Bears are more afraid of you, so if you know you’re in the vicinity of one but can’t see it, the best tactic is to make your presence known, and get the hell out of dodge.
  • Know what to do if you’re charged
  • If a grizzly does show signs of aggression, says Gunther, “that nanosecond before it hits you,” drop to the ground and play dead. By putting your hands behind your neck so your elbows protect the sides of your face, you’re more likely to survive an attack (bears usually go for the head and face). Being passive will usually put a stop to the aggressive behavior and send the bear on its way.
  • Other tactics: don’t run (that stimulates the animals predatory response). Stand your ground, and try to make yourself look at large as possible; raise your arms up into a triangle shape, and talk to the animal, so it recognizes you as a human. Don’t attempt to climb a tree; both black bears and grizzlies are adept at climbing, as well as swimming, and can run a lot faster than you can.
  • Don’t be paranoid.
  • Your odds of even seeing a bear are slim. It’s always good to be prepared, but don’t let bear paranoia change your travel plans or stop you from taking a hike or visiting spectacular national parks like Yellowstone. As Gunther points out, in the park’s 140-year history, only six people are known to have been killed in bear attacks.

[Photo credits: Lake Louise, Flickr user Matt Champlain; pepper spray, Flickr user mankatt]

Hiker killed by grizzly bear in Yellowstone

A 57-year old man out for a hike along a popular trail in Yellowstone National Park was attacked, and killed by a grizzly bear on Wednesday. It was the first fatal bear attack within the park in 25 years.

The man, who has yet to be named, and his wife set out to hike the Wapiti Lake Trail, located inside Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. They reportedly had only walked a mile and half when they came upon a female grizzly bear with her cubs. The bear reacted to the surprise encounter by attacking the couple, fatally injuring the husband, while his wife looked on. Other hikers, hearing her cries for help, rushed to the scene and dialed 911, but the man passed away before park rangers could reach his location.

Summer is a very busy time in Yellowstone, and the trails are often crowded with hikers. Despite that, rangers say that there were no reported bears sightings in the area prior to the attack. As a precaution however, they’ve closed several campsites and hiking trails close to where the encounter took place, and have posted warning signs as well. A search was also underway to locate the bear, and if found, she and the cubs would most likely be relocated to a more remote location. Because the attack was in defense of her young, rangers say that the bear would not be put down. So far, the search has turned up no sign of the bears.

Despite the fact that both black bear and grizzly bear call Yellowstone home, there has not been a fatal encounter with those creatures in the park since 1986. However, last year a bear wandered into a campsite not far from the park and killed a camper in his tent. It was a grim reminder of how dangerous these animals can be when encountered in the wild.

If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone, or some other backcountry destination this year, officials from the park offered up some helpful hints to keep you safe. They recommend traveling in groups of three or more and making plenty of noise while walking. That will give animals advanced warning of your approach and time to get out of your way, making it a safer environment for you and them.

It is also highly advisable that hikers carry bear spray, which is a bit like Mace for animals. Bear spray can be purchased in most outdoor gear stores in states inhabited by the creatures, although you’ll wan to buy it once you’ve reached your destination. The TSA frowns on a giant can of extra-powerful pepper spray in your carry-on. The spray is a good investment for anyone planning a wilderness hike however.