The great states of California, Oregon, and Washington are made for outdoor sports, and it’s hard to find a local who isn’t a hiker, climber, biker, camper, surfer, or all of the above. We’ve compiled the things you’ll want to know about outdoor life on the West Coast, whether you’ve lived here your whole life or moved here yesterday. Consider this your checklist for making the most of all that the great West Coast outdoors has to offer — and avoiding the things you’d rather it didn’t.
How to find out what’s public land
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has an awesomely comprehensive website that includes both printed and interactive maps outlining land ownership, general recreation, ski trails, and even things like bird-watching. Many of them are free, too.
How to camp without a reservation
With so many places to pitch a tent on the West Coast, it’s not surprising that tourists travel from faraway places to flock to major spots like Yosemite. And it’s true — if you have time to plan ahead, a reservation can save you some hassle for sure. But if you’re heading out on a last-minute trip, there are still places you can go without reserving first. The San Francisco Chronicle has a great list of camping spots in Northern California, and Sunset has compiled spots along the entire coast.
Additionally, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has a huge list of all the campgrounds that are first-come, first-serve — though many of these fill up quickly on the weekends.
What to do if you see a bear
Black bears are on the rise throughout the West Coast, with the population estimate in California, Washington, and Oregon each at 25,000-30,000 bears. Depending on where you spend your time, your odds of seeing a bear vary widely, but regardless, you’ll want to know what to do if you encounter one.
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife recommends staying calm, avoiding direct eye contact, and making sure the bear knows you’re a human by talking and waving your arms.
Check out the full list of tips here.
…Or a rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes hardly ever provoke attack, and most often will retreat if given the chance. But rattlesnakes can be found almost anywhere — even on golf courses and in urban parks — so it’s worth knowing what to do to reduce your chances of a bite.
Never wear sandals (or go barefoot) on hiking trails, and step on rocks and logs, not over them, because snakes often hide on the edges or under them. In general, don’t step where you can’t see, and don’t reach where you can’t see.
Get more advice from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
…Or, finally, a mountain lion
A third West Coast animal that’s worth being wary of is the mountain lion (also known as the puma or cougar). Mountain lions most often attack deer, but will go after pets and, very occasionally, people. Since 1986, there have only been 14 documented attacks in California, and only three of those were fatal.
If you see a mountain lion, make noise, wave your arms, and face the animal. Pick up small children or pets, and don’t run.
Get more tips from the Mountain Lion Foundation.
How to tie a bowline knot
It’s simple to learn, and can be used when rock climbing, camping, sailing, or even when rescuing someone. In short, it could make a lot of the things you like to do a little more fun. Many outdoor experts have deemed it “The Most Important Knot to Know,” and once you know it, you can ditch all your inferior knotting techniques.
Here’s how to do a bowline, from AskWoodman.com.
How to stay warm on cold nights
It’s no secret that the West Coast often has chilly nights, even in the dead of summer. If you’re camping or even out hiking at dusk, a few simple steps can keep you much more comfortable. Wear wool socks – they’ll wick away moisture, which is the enemy of warmth. And change your clothes before hitting your sleeping bag, for the same reason. The clothes you’ve worn all day have most likely accumulated moisture from your body.
When you’re setting up camp, avoid low areas if you can. We all know that heat rises; well, conversely, cold air stays low. Finally, wear a hat, just like your mom always said. It’ll prevent body heat from escaping through your head.
How to ID poison oak
Save yourself a world of itch by knowing what poison oak looks like. (UC-Berkeley has tons of helpful photos here.) And remember the oft-used expression, “Leaves of three, let it be.”
Beyond that, wear clothing that covers your skin, and change your clothes immediately if you think you’ve come into contact with poison oak. Wash them (and yourself), and then wash them again. Use cold water on your body, and lots of it.
In rare cases, poison oak can cause severe allergic reactions, so call a doctor immediately if you experience swelling, especially of your face or throat. Otherwise, OTC medications like calamine and hydrocortisone can help relieve a rash.
How to swim
If you’re not a strong swimmer already, living on the West Coast should give you that push to get confident in the water. Whether you do water sports or not, it’s perhaps the one skill most likely to save your life. There are adult swim lessons all up and down the coast, and there are many, many adults that take them, either to up their water game or because they’re total novices.
An added benefit: It’ll open up an enormous new world of outdoor adventure sports you can do, from surfing to kayaking to windsurfing and kiteboarding. The West Coast has more than 1,000 miles of coastline, and you’ll be able to take advantage of them.
How to prevent wildfires.
According to PreventWildfireCA.org, about 90 percent of wildfires in California are caused by people. And in California, fires are a real threat: In 2007, more than 3,000 homes and buildings were destroyed and over a million people evacuated by a series of major wildfires in Southern California.
California campfires require a permit. Get one, as well as key tips for safely building your campfire, here. And if you’re towing something from your vehicle, make sure it’s set up properly as well, as anything that can light a spark can also start a fire.