Parks and Rec

Pack and Prepare for Hiking in San Diego County

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As the weather becomes warmer, people’s thoughts often turn to the outdoors, and San Diego County’s beautiful mountains beckon. But rescuers are reminding people to plan for a safe hike before heading out on an adventurous whim; otherwise you can end up lost, hurt, dehydrated, sick or worse. 

While the rescue of two hikers over the weekend at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park turned out well, it could have had a very different outcome, said sheriff’s Sgt. Don Parker of the Search and Rescue Unit.

“If it had been (foggier) or rainy or cooler, it would have been life-threatening for them,” he said.

Two 23-year-old men set out Saturday afternoon to hike to Cuyamaca peak. They were not dressed for cold weather, didn’t bring enough food and water and went off trail and became lost. Shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday, as their cell phone battery drained, they decided to call for help. They were in thick brush on the west side of the peak and temperatures were probably between 50 and 55 degrees at that time, Parker said.

The men told Parker that they hadn’t eaten or had water in eight hours and were shivering from the cold. Search and rescue teams were called around midnight.

Due to low clouds and fog, a sheriff’s helicopter could not perform a rescue, so ground searchers were called in. The lost men were able to flash a light into the sky, which allowed rescuers to pinpoint their location, but only because the sky was clear at the hikers’ elevation. The men were found around 4:45 a.m. but it took experienced rescuers 2 ½ hours to navigate the brushy terrain at night to get to them. The hikers were hungry and thirsty but in good condition.

“They went way past their limitations and way past their limitation of water and food,” said Parker. “If you think you are going to run out of daylight and you don’t have the appropriate food, water and clothing, then you should probably turn around and go back to your car. The ultimate goal is to make it out of there safely.”

Off-trail hiking is also risky, particularly when hikers are not experienced and don’t know the area well.

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People also need to consider the trail’s difficulty and their own physical fitness level before setting out. Some trails, such as downhill ones, can be deceptive, Parker said. People don’t often take into account the hike back uphill or the weather,  and that can be dangerous.

Parker said his team has been on at least five hiker rescues already this year. In 2012 and the first part of this year, the sheriff’s helicopter unit rescued 18 people in the Cedar Creek area alone, said Cpl. Dave Weldon.  All but two were injured, he said.

While the Sheriff’s helicopter responds to rescues throughout the county, by far, the majority of distressed hiker calls come from the Cedar Creek Falls and Three Sisters Falls trails in the Cleveland National Forest between Julian and Ramona, Weldon said.

Last year, a 19-year-old woman died after suffering heat stroke at Cedar Creek Falls. In 2011, a teenage boy fell to his death from a cliff in the same area.

Rescuers suggest hikers take these precautions:

  • Let someone know where you will be and when you plan to return
  • Hike with others, never alone
  • Leave your dog at home for difficult hikes, they can become overheated and require medical attention
  • Stay on marked trails
  • Take plenty of water, one bottle is not enough (bring enough for a dog, if you bring one)
  • Stay hydrated
  • Alcohol is not permitted in some areas like the Cedar Creek and Three Sisters falls areas. Alcohol dehydrates and can result in poor judgment
  • Take extra food
  • Take a mobile phone (Coverage is spotty and people often have to hike up before they can get a signal to make phone call. Consider turning off the phone until needed to prevent the battery from draining.)
  • Bring a map or GPS
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, ventilated clothing for warm weather
  • Bring along a warm jacket if you plan to stay out after dusk
  • Wear sturdy shoes or boots with traction for slippery rocks
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Bring a flashlight, whistle and a pocket knife or multi-purpose tool
  • Take breaks in shade, if possible
  • Follow all posted safety rules

For more information on hiking at Cedar Creek Falls, watch the San Diego Sheriff’s and U.S. Forest Service’s short video below or this safety reminder.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact