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12/17/2014 by Brian Eagen Click to Tweet

6 Reasons to Turn Around

Have you heard of summit fever? It's the feeling that sets in when you are getting close to accomplishing a big objective but are not quite there yet, the anxiety that you must get to the top no matter what. It's a huge factor that can lead people to make poor decisions, because the urge to complete a hike/climb overwhelms our otherwise sound judgement. Sometimes you can get away with pushing the boundaries of comfort and safety, but other times the boundaries push back.

I used to struggle with turning around and occasionally I still do. Turning back can feel really bad, like you failed, you weren't physically fit enough, or you made some poor planning decisions... But let me tell you something: it's okay to turn around. In fact, it's the number one sign of a smart outdoors person.

I like to think about every hike as a game of jenga I am playing with the outdoors. Every time I make a poor decision, I have to remove a piece. Small mistakes, such as leaving an extra layer at home or not bringing enough water, result in me remove a single piece. Bigger mistakes, such as getting started late or not doing thorough research, result in me removing several pieces. The goal is to get back to the trailhead before the whole thing comes tumbling down.

playing jenga with the outdoors

Evaluate your situation using your past experiences, judgement, and common sense. If you decide your jenda tower is stacked against you then head home. No need to make excuses. You are making the smart choice.

6 Possible Reasons to Turn Around

  • Your decision to leave late can have a big impact depending on where you are and what your goal is. In California leaving late usually means hiking in hotter weather, which means you must carry more water to combat dehydration. In mountainous terrain leaving late often means you are racing to get off exposed ridges and peaks before afternoon storms set in. If nothing else, leaving late means you are more tired from the day and are starting out with less energy.
  • Is there potential for an electrical storm to hit? That should be a big clue to head home fast. But what if it is just lightly raining? Getting wet leads to feeling cold which leads to being tired. But if you brought rain gear, maybe this isn't a reason to turn around on its own.
  • Maybe you estimated how much water you would need incorrectly, or maybe a water source you were counting on was dry. Either way, running low on water is another sign that it might be time to turn around.
  • Depending on the level of severity this might mean making a b-line back or taking a break to evaluate the extent of the injury and possibly pressing on. Injuries are often a sign that you (or your team mate) are getting tired. So if someone gets hurt, you should evaluate both the level of injury and the group's energy levels.
  • Even though a quality topographic map should always be included in your ten essentials, often times it is replaced by one of lower quality. If the trail is well marked, you can get away with a simple map. But if you find yourself second guessing which way to go, your best bet is often to turn around.
  • This can be a hard one to quantify, and is often the decision that makes us feel like we need to validate our choice. Ask yourself this question -- If I finish this hike will I feel good, or just happy I'm done? There are two types of fun, Type 1 is when you are having fun in the moment, Type 2 is when you are not having fun, but will look back on the experience fondly once it's over. What kind of fun do you like?
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Senarios to Consider

What would you do in each of these cases? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

  • 1) You are over halfway through a big loop hike when the trail disappears. You spend some time trying to find it but have no success. You could either off-trail hike through a forest for 4 miles, or backtrack on a nice trail for 8 miles. You have plenty of food, water, layers, time, and energy.
  • 2) You are a half-mile away from the summit of a 14er but are an hour past your turn-around time. You estimate it will take you a half an hour to get to the top, then another two hours to get below tree line. Afternoon storms often roll in around 3PM, it is currently 1:30PM but the weather looks clear.
  • 3) You didn't bring enough warm layers and are getting cold when you stop for more than 5 minutes. You are 3 miles from the car and have another 6 miles to hike. You are comfortable as long as you are moving.
  • 4) You are 4 miles into a 10 mile hike and have already drank over half of your water. No water sources are available, but you have a lot of energy.

What would you do, and why? Leave us a comment below.

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