In what is a likely a first of-its-kind case, a federal magistrate judge cited a hiker’s lack of planning and preparation after convicting him for starting a wildfire. The judge also ordered the hiker to pay almost $300,000 in restitution.
According to published reports, Philip Powers, of Arizona, set out on Memorial Day weekend in 2018 to hike the Cabin Loop, a 17-mile trek in the Prescott and Coconino national forests in northern Arizona. With plans to complete the hike in one day, he started out with less than a gallon of water, a few snacks, a battery pack to charge his cell phone, a sleeping bag, camp stove fuel (it’s unclear if there was an actual camp stove), a machete, knife, and a few other items.
The hike started out easily enough, and he reached an old cabin that acts as a waypoint for hikers. After continuing past the cabin for a few miles, he lost the trail and, after spending some time trying to find it, doubled back and returned to the cabin. By then, he was almost out of food and water and his cell phone had no service, so he couldn’t call for help and he didn’t have access to his navigation apps. Eventually his cell phone battery went dead. He found some food in the cabin, but no water, and at one point resorted to drinking his own urine. At one point, he started suffering from severe cramps, and had difficulty moving.
In an attempt to summon help, Powers attempted several times to start a fire, hoping that the smoke would attract attention. But in the process, he started a 230-acre fire that took a week to extinguish. There were fire restrictions in place at the time, which banned starting fires for any reason.
Powers was airlifted to a hospital where he was treated for a variety of illnesses, not the least of which was severe dehydration. After being questioned by U.S. Forest Service law enforcement, Powers was charged with seven misdemeanor offenses related to the fire, including starting a fire when prohibited and leaving a fire unattended.
Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille D. Bibles ordered Powers pay restitution and sentenced him to a year’s probation. While Powers and his attorneys argued that the fire was necessary to save his life, Bibles noted that Powers’ lack of proper equipment and inadequate preparedness — all things over which he had control — caused him to be in this predicament. Based on the report filed by USFS law enforcement, Powers did not have GPS or a paper map, instead relying only on his cellphone, which was useless without a signal. He didn’t have a flashlight — he was also relying on the flashlight in his cell phone — did not have a first aid kit, and had no way to signal for help. In fact, he was on the wrong trail. Instead of hiking on the Cabin Trail, he was on the longer and more strenuous Taylor Cabin Loop, which was 50 miles from the trail he was supposed to be (and even thought) he was on.
Most importantly, he didn’t have nearly enough water. A doctor testified at the trial that a hiker would need up to 3 gallons of water for an 18-mile hike. Powers had no where near that amount.
Whether criminal charges were or were not warranted is a matter many will debate, but this incident really is a teaching moment.
First, know and carry the “10 Essentials” every time you go on a hike. Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, by taking them with you on every hike, you’ll have them on every hike.
The American Hiking Society lists these as the 10 essentials:
- Appropriate footwear
- Map, compass and/or GPS. And no how to use them
- Water and the ability to purify additional water from natural sources
- Extra clothing. In the winter, this means extra layers in case it gets colder. In the summer, this means rain gear
- Safety items such as a flashlight and whistle. Also, something to start a fire, but be aware of any fire restrictions
- First aid kit. Take a first aid class, too
- Knife or multitool
- Sun protection, such as sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
- Shelter. A space blanket or even a large trash bag can be used to protect you from rain, snow or sun.
My own additional essentials:
- A personal locator beacon. They work anywhere in the world, and will quickly summon help to your exact location. It’s the best piece-of-mind money you’ll ever spend.
- Shoelaces. Ever try to walk in shoes that are untied due to a broken shoelace? Laces can also be used for a variety of other purposes, including lashing broken backpack straps or pants belts.
- Prescription medication. You might think you’ll be back in time for your next scheduled dose, but many things could happen that would delay that. This is especially important for medicines that have strict time schedules.
Finally, tell someone where you’re going and be specific. What is the name of the trailhead? Where is the trailhead? What is the name of the trail? When do you expect to be back and who should they call if you’re not back at the anticipated time? And most of all, make sure you are where you’re supposed to be.
Be Good. Do Good Things. Leave No Trace.