How to Go Trekking Safely In Costa Rica’s Mountains

Unfortunately, getting lost during walks or hikes in the mountains or volcanoes of Costa Rica is not uncommon. In 2020, the Red Cross made 120 rescues of missing persons from the heights.

But these losses can be avoided. There is a wealth of advice and technical recommendations for people who want to know the mountains of the country. In this article, 3 experts will help us explain them, step by step.

Giovanni Rodríguez is a Costa Rican mountaineer, with more than 20 years of experience. He works as a logistics guide, consulting, group training, and adventure quality management for hiking, trekking, and mountaineering trips. In addition, he has participated in rescues of missing people in the Costa Rican mountains. He accompanies us in this explanatory article in order to understand how to minimize risks, and also put all the winds on our side when going out to explore.

We also had a conversation with Rocío Nieves, a journalist and runner who specializes in mountain trail running. And with Alonso Tenorio, a professional photographer who has been a Red Cross volunteer, a rescue worker, and who is currently a volunteer in the fire department. Oh, we almost forget it, and someone who knows the Cerro Chirripó like the palm of his hand!

For Gio Rodríguez, as he calls himself professionally, an essential point is something that is acquired before the adventure: knowledge. What to do when the cellphone is turned off because the battery drained of energy? A person properly prepared for mountaineering can avoid getting lost with the knowledge of it, without relying on mobile apps. But let’s go step by step.

Although the terms may vary depending on the place, they are usually separated as follows:

Hiking: Walk marked and approved routes or trails on foot in a non-competitive way. In addition to physical activity in the open air, a goal of hiking is to know the natural and cultural characteristics of the area you visit. Outings usually last less than a day.

Trekking: It implies a higher level of difficulty. The outings usually last more than a day and are made in remote areas, difficult to access or in high mountains. In addition, the trails are not necessarily marked or approved. For trekking, much more technical equipment is usually used, which corresponds to the geographical and climatic characteristics of the area to be explored.

Mountaineering: A sport that consists of the ascent and descent of mountains. It is practiced in high mountain areas, which are characterized by extreme climatic and environmental conditions.

Tips for mountaineering, trekking, or hiking without getting lost

“A compass by itself only indicates north. But if you do not know what to do with that information, it is not very useful”, says Gio Rodríguez. “What people usually do in Costa Rica is start hiking in simple places, and they get excited. When they get excited, they often skip the knowledge stage; prepare by learning. That is vital for mountaineering”.

It can be dangerous to go out unprepared; neither physical condition nor knowledge, and enter the most complex trails of the national parks. Much worse is if you make the poor decision to going off the marked trails, especially when you do not have the proper knowledge.

In addition, the more you know about mountaineering or mountain hiking, the more you enjoy the adventure. And this axiom also extends to physical condition: the better our condition, the more we will enjoy the walks.

“You always have to train. But you do not go to the mountains to train!”, warns Rodríguez.

But where do I learn mountaineering and hiking?

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) offers free mountaineering courses among its general pensa (click here if you are interested). YouTube is full of guides on how to read a map sheet, how to properly use a compass, and also about digital applications that can be useful, even without an Internet connection (such as maps.me).

People like Giovanni Rodríguez also offer courses and professional guides for people who are enthusiastic about visiting the mountains. (There are different packages and prices, which you can check here).

“The main cause of getting lost in the mountains last year, from the searches carried out by the Red Cross, is that the person ran out of cellphone battery. So people are using apps for mountaineering. And that is not bad at all.

But what happens next?

Their cellphones go off and they do not know what to do anymore. It is like learning to use Excel without knowing simple mathematics”, says the expert, who has climbed the Cerro Chirripó more than 100 times, and has reached the top of mountains more than 6,000 meters high in the Andes.

Main tips from Gio Rodríguez:

-Take a well-equipped backpack. Do not associate the weight of a backpack with something negative, because you have to go with good preparation. The basics cannot be missing from our luggage, and the basics imply a certain weight.

-Take a thick jacket for the cold environment.

-Take change clothes, or at least one change, if you go for a whole day.

-It is essential to wear, at least, another pair of socks.

-Take a thermal blanket. “People sometimes ask what the blanket is for, that it will not be used. The true fact is that it is not known”, points out Rodríguez.

-Take quick-dry clothes.

-Take enough food. At least 2,500 calories of food per person, which can be light nutritional bars, or strategic foods high in carbohydrates, such as potatoes boiled with salt, recommends Rodríguez. “That is delicious on the mountain and it gets you a ton of carbs”, he affirms.

-Choose well whom to go hiking, trekking, or mountaineering with; recognize if one is fast or slow, and be accompanied by someone with a similar physical profile. It is not about ditching people or getting dumped; the important thing is to be accompanied, period! In addition, this way the road is more enjoyable.

-Why is it important to be accompanied, no matter how experienced a person is? “Well, in case of a bad-sprained ankle. That is the fundamental reason”, emphasizes Rodríguez. Depending on how bad the injury is, going with someone else will make the difference between being in pain without being able to walk or being able to move forward thanks to someone’s help.

-If you are going to an area with a lot of contact with the flora, you better take anti-allergic drugs.

-Bring tools to prolong the life of our cellphone; fully charged and good-quality portable batteries are the best option. There are those, which are not so expensive, designed to provide power for more than 15 hours (20,000 mAh or more).

“A mountaineer’s backpack has to be adapted to the place where he is going,” says Rodríguez. But he recommends never wearing backpacks that are too small. Weight is not a problem in this case, because rather it can save our own lives.

-Do not be afraid. “Do not work with fear; but work with prevention. Making decisions with fear causes us to make mistakes. Preventing people from the risks of the activity is the responsibility of those of us who have been doing this for years. And it is also the responsibility of the people to inform themselves before going on their walks”.

Is it always necessary to going with a guide?

“Not always”, says Rodríguez. “Most national parks have very well marked trails. They can be done self-guided. As long as you go on the trails, there are places in the Talamanca mountain range that do require a guide, but there are different kinds of guides. There are even people who have climbed the Chirripó twice and, shortly after, they create a Facebook page and start offering guides at half price. If you are about to hire a guide, it is important you make sure that they are truly professionals”.

-It is also a good idea to carry good quality mirrors and whistles, which can be useful in case of loss; the former, to reflect long-distance light signals and, the latter, to indicate the position in a sounding way.

As the difficulty increases, it is better to hire a guide. But you have to be well informed that the person has certification and experience. Beware of charlatans! There have been cases of so-called guides leaving groups on their own.

Advice from Rocío Nieves

Here are some tips from Rocío Nieves, journalist and author of the blog “Let’s Talk about Trail” who has extensive experience running on trails in the country. As we will see, some tips resemble those provided by Rodríguez for touring the mountains.

She has been trail running since 2018. She has run on the Cerro de la Muerte, in Quebradilla de Cartago, Orosí, Desamparados, Zona de los Santos, Monteverde, etc., many of them being mountain areas.

Usually, she says, not meeting many people during her tours. She runs into farm owners and, in national parks, they can spend hours before seeing someone other than the group she runs with.

These are the recommendations she gives on what to carry when hiking in the mountains:

– “What to carry depends a lot on how well you know the area, but if it is the first time you visit or travel a route, it is important to count on the next item”, says Nieves.

-The main thing is to carry, at least, 1 liter of water for 10 kilometers (especially if you go to an unknown place).

-The cellphone has to be well-charged and, hopefully, carry a spare battery.

-Take a windbreaker coat.

-Carry enough food. “We do not take things to run like to have a picnic, because every gram counts on. We opted for energy or protein bars, seeds, cookies, some fruit, honey or energy gels; the main idea is to maintain enough calories so that we can be able to continue with the activity. The amount of food depends on each body; however, always think about taking a little more”, recommends Rocío Nieves.

-The vital recommendation from her: “Never deviate; follow the path. Do not interact with animals. There are people who by taking a photo deviate a bit and on the mountain from one moment to another the mist can confuse them. Do not go ahead if you do not know ”.

-Know where you are: She always wears a specialized watch that shows her the map of where she is, or that gives her directions like a Waze on her wrist. But if she does not have this technology, it is necessary for her to take at least a digital photo of the area’s map.

Do you have any testimony of getting lost?

“I have got lost myself in the competitions, but it was not serious. Although I was following the trails, I could not see the markings. After a few kilometers, when I did not see marks or people either in front or behind, I returned the way I had come. But it was not so bad, fortunately”.

“Any distraction can be fatal on the mountain. One is going to enjoy, but that is why one has to enjoy with all the senses; being always alert. Even if you know the route, accidents can happen: a misstep can cause you a bad sprain; a snake can bite you; you can slip and fall into the river, etc. Trail running or hiking is not an easy task. It takes a lot of preparation; however, one should not over trust oneself”.

What to do if I get lost in the mountains? Tips from a former Red Cross volunteer, rescuer, firefighter, mountaineer, and professional photographer

Alonso Tenorio, an expert in mountaineering and rescues, assures that many people who visit the Chirripó or Ventisqueros hills (the second highest in Costa Rica), have lost their way because they do not measure the time they have to descend from the top, when they go to sight the sunset.

“When there is still a little light, or when the sun sets a little, there is still a slight light. At that moment, if you do not know the place, you have to start going down. There is a very rocky part and if a dense fog comes down, you can lose sight of the road ”, warns Tenorio.

He says that he has been in dense fogs that do not allow him to see more than 2 meters away. It is vital to knowing the area well, because someone new can get easily lost on any stage.

When visiting and climbing the Cerro Chirripó is that once you reach the Crestones Base Shelter, which is more than 3,400 meters above sea level (masl), but it is about 5 kilometers from the top of the hill (at exactly 3,820 meters above sea level), it is common for the same people, among groups of strangers, to coordinate going up together. But there are also those who go up alone, or accompanied by very few people.

Some tips from Alonso Tenorio to prevent getting lost in the mountains

-Before leaving a camp or, in the case of Chirripó, from the Crestones Base, it is necessary to note with the compass where one goes walking to reach the top. For the return you will have to walk in the opposite direction.

-Do not go up with dark clothes, which is something very common, according to Tenorio. It is better to be dressed in unnatural colors, easily visible from a distance. Wear fluorescent orange, green, or yellow clothes, for example.

-Bring a mountain whistle, or a high quality whistle. Naturally, let’s not carry a plastic whistle that is used in piñatas. A metal whistle, one of those deafening ones, can be very useful in case of loss.

-Carry a long and resistant rope. Tenorio says that on a certain occasion, in the Cerro Chirripó, he accompanied a group of 10 people. A dense fog, one of those that he often describes, started coming down. By holding together, they were guided with a rope to return to Crestones. Every now and then, they called each other’s number, 1 to 10, out loud, to make sure everyone returned safely.

-Take a pair of large plastic bags. The bag, along with the rope, makes it easy to make a roof between trees in case of loss. That can make the difference between getting wet or staying dry.

-Watch out. Many people, even when they do not know exactly a place or a mountain, rush out trying to be the first ones to reach the top or the goal. It is important, in mountain environments, to having both physical and visual references. These references can make a difference. It is much better to climb slowly, by carefully observing the surroundings.

What do I do if I get lost?

As we mentioned earlier, it is not about thinking about this situation with fear, but about preparing all the possibilities, and knowing what to do. Tenorio recommends not walking too much; that is, not continuing to walk away.

“If I already got lost, I am going to walk forward 1 minute or 30 steps. Where I think the path is, where I come from. I realize that I am lost at one point. If he cannot find a path or anything, I have to stay there, aware that I am lost, and waiting for them to find me”, explains Tenorio.

“People are going to go back to look for you where you got lost. If you walk too long, that is where people get lost; moreover, if anxiety and stress start”.

Advance hiking technology

There is a state-of-the-art technology, which is very accurate with the use of a GPS device. An example is the SPOT satellite tracker. This can give details of the exact location of one to our partner, friends, or family. It can be programmed for a trip such as going to the summit of Cerro Chirripó, and thus monitoring is much easier. Other applications such as Strava or Komoot help to plan trips

Rocío Nieves, in fact, says that she has her WhatsApp account configured to send her location to a relative in real time. “Now the clocks mark well where one is walking, and even send an alert in case of accidents,” says Nieves. “

It is a good idea to search for these applications. And if we are really going to explore the country on a regular basis, why not buy high-quality equipment to prevent loss. Of course: All this can be done without neglecting advice such as those listed by Nieves, Tenorio, and Rodríguez in this article.

Mountain rescues

This is how mountain rescues are, as described by Giovanni Rodríguez. We start on something very basic; the person’s profile. The physical, health, and age profile is analyzed Then, the causes of the incident. And from there, a strategy is designed based on the specific terrain. The volunteers are then divided into patrols and the land is divided to comb the area. Nowadays, you can also include drones to investigate the area.

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