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I have done a good deal of hiking and backpacking in the Eastern US (mostly in New England), but I recently moved to California. What are the major differences in terms of preparation or equipment that should be packing? I am talking more about hiking in wooded areas (as opposed to deserts).

What new challenges will I see from the terrain, wildlife, etc, and how can I prepare for it?

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Here's a brief summary of what I can let you know. I should say this will apply more to the Eastern parts of the state, either North or South. I live in Arizona, which has similar difficulties...

  1. Altitude: While not all hikes in the West are done at altitude, there are many more opportunities. I routinely hike 8000 feet in elevation, which is very difficult to do on the East Coast. This can cause a large variety of symptoms, the first of which is usually just being weaker than normal.
  2. Water- Depending on where you hike, there might be much fewer opportunities to get water than you would have in other places. Check beforehand if you have water available, and even if you do, plan to bring more than you think you need.
  3. The wild life tends to be a bit more wild. Learn about the area you are going, and what you need to do to protect yourself, especially against bears.
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Some helpful points from someone who lives in the western US...

Altitude:

  • is a big factor in hikes, often in the West, especially around the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas, you will experience a lot of altitude changes. the Western terrain varies widely - even in the space of a few miles. Make sure your equipment (boots, pack, supplies, etc.) can handle changes such as these. I've changed many thousands of feet in several hours, on foot.
  • Be prepared for altitude sickness and realized that you burn more energy/calories at higher elevation.
  • Also, there is less air. So you will find that you will run out of breath much quicker (depending on how extreme the elevation is). You probably will have to adjust your timetable to allow for breaks and time to adjust to the elevation and breathing in thinner air.

Wildlife:

  • The American West, again, especially in the Rockies and Sierras, as well as other mountainous/forested areas, there are a lot of different kinds of wildlife.
  • Be aware of what each region has and how to identify and deal with them. I've written a summary of dealing with bears here: What precautions should I take to protect myself and my camp from bears?. Bear in mind, for example, that there are similarities and differences in how you should encounter a bear and a mountain lion. Mountain lions, you should stare down, bears, no. But you should make yourself as big as possible to both.

Weather:

  • Always plan for a variety of weather conditions, you can get snow, rain, and clear skies all in the space of 12-18 hours. Many Western states are desert areas, meaning it can be very hot during the day, and very cold at night. So plan accordingly.
  • the climate is often hot and dry, the humidity can be very high or very low, so be prepared for dry skin, cracked lips, and expect to drink much more water in dryer climates than you are used to. Rule of thumb: If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
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Something you may want to add to an otherwise great answer, nasal passages from the east coast are used to much higher ambient humidity. In the dry air, nosebleeds can occur. A simple preventative is to carry some lip balm and rub some on your finger and then rub the balmed finger around the opening of your nose. Not pretty, but better than a nosebleed. –  Pulsehead Jan 25 '12 at 13:19
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One point to add to the altitude: Sunshine. Having hiked mostly through cloudy weather close to sea level at 68–70°N, I've never spent a thought on the Sun as a danger, but at 3500 m at 37°N, I'm quite sure it is. –  gerrit Apr 1 '13 at 22:01
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