Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


AUGUST 26, 2010 11:37PM

Ten Essentials

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We returned home from a great vacation about a minute before my son started first grade at a new school.  It's been awesome, but I'm still unpacking and adjusting to our new schedule.  Sorry for the recycled post, but I've made some gentle revisions and additions that I think improve the tone. Enjoy!


I'm freshly home from two big, fun, family trips.  Both included significant time away from civilization.  One was in the desert and the other was in Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park.  We had a fantastic time, and enjoyed some amazing scenery hiking in the Canadian Rockies.


We are experienced backpackers, cyclists, and before children, climbers. Whether I'm hiking alone, with my children, or with a group, I (unfortunately) always carry a heavy pack.  I believe it is my personal responsibility to keep myself safe and to avoid endangering rescuers.  Hiking with children adds another significant layer of preparedness responsibility, along with all the extra kid snacks and gear to keep everyone happy and (relatively) calm.  It seems to me that the protocol for wilderness preparedness is analogous to that of critical thinking preparedness.
Mountaineering organizations have compiled lists of important potentially lifesaving items backpackers should carry at all times. These are known as the Ten Essentials. Although the item details vary among lists, there is general consensus about the ten broad categories of essentials.  Here are the categories:

1. Navigational equipment
This includes topographic maps, compass, GPS, etc. along with competency in their use.
2. Sun protection
Quality sunglasses/sunscreen along with spf chapstick.
3. Insulation
Extra clothing made of synthetic materials--hat, gloves and enough layers to allow you to survive the coldest temperatures you could reasonably expect if you're stuck out         overnight. I would also include rain gear in this category.
4. Illumination
A headlamp with an extra set of batteries works well.  Remember to carry at least one water bottle and all battery-powered items in interior pockets in very cold weather so the batteries stay warm and the water stays liquid.
5. First Aid supplies
And familiarity with first aid techniques.  I learned while doing research for this post that prepackaged first aid kits are inadequate.  I'll have to modify my own kit.
6. Fire
You need an ignition source such as a couple of disposable lighters along with fire starting material like a candle or dry tinder.
7. Repair kit and tools: Things like knife/multitool, 6 feet of so of duct tape, extra cordage for broken laces or pitching an emergency shelter.
8. Nutrition
Enough no-cook food for and extra day and night--jerkey, Clif Bars, and the like.
9. Hydration
Carry plenty of water plus means of ground-source water purification--like a filter or iodine tablets.
10. Emergency shelter
Like a space blanket or a couple of extra-large trash bags.

In addition to these items, I typically carry pepper spray, a tooth brush (I cope better in crises with clean teeth), toilet paper, and a cell phone (turned off--it's only for emergency use).  When we hike with our children, everyone carries a whistle, and we enforce the rule that we all stay together as a group. It is also critical to let someone outside your party know the details of your trip plan and when to call authorities if you fail to return.

Like mountaineering, critical thinking requires ongoing refinement of the essential skillsets and gear.  It can be difficult to objectively and logically evaluate an argument, especially when either (or both) party has a strong emotional investment.  It's very difficult to keep a level head in potentially dangerous conditions.  I have read many accounts of mountaineering injuries and fatalities that might have been prevented. In hindsight it's very easy to see where one bad decision or mistake led to increasingly serious mistakes. Likewise, after everyone calms down, it's easy to see where a debate went awry and devolved into ad-hominem attacks.

Here are some habits that I think are essential to both outdoor survival and critical thinking.  I've undoubtedly omitted some, and would welcome suggestions:
1. Self-evaluate
Double-check your gear to make sure you have everything and that everything is in good working order. Triple-check climbing gear.
Double-check your own argument for any factual errors or logical fallacies. Overconfidence in either situation can easily lead you into trouble.
2.  Listen
Instead of replaying an argument over and over in your head, listen to the sounds around you.  The sounds of nature are amazingly restorative, and may tip you off to danger like a waterfall (which should cause you to start looking around for a cliff not to stumble off of), or a predator.
Instead of mentally preparing your counter-argument while the other person is prattling on about something ridiculous, try to actually listen and reflect back: "What I'm hearing you say is that aliens have abducted you and subjected you to sexually-themed experiments?"
3. Improvise
Don't get freaked out if some small thing goes awry.  Think about an alternative solution.  Early in a multi-day river trip, I was able to use a temple piece from an extra pair of sunglasses to repair a broken tent pole.
Don't get freaked out if an example you use to make your point falls apart.  Think of a different example to make your point and see if your argument still holds up: "I'm sorry your regular physician was dismissive. Perhaps a different doctor could swab for DNA or other evidence?"
4. Try not to panic
If you notice that dusk is falling and you're exhausted and still not back at base camp, stay calm and carefully consider your next move.  You have several options: put on your headlamp, keep going, and hope for the best; consult a map and decide whether or not you can realistically make it to base camp before dark; stop where you are and set up your emergency shelter, build a fire, have a snack, rest, and wait until morning to hike out; panic and stumble off a cliff in the dark.
If the person you are arguing with stumps you, stay calm: "I don't know the answer to the alien DNA question either.  Maybe you could ask your doctor about that, or I could help you find someone to test the implant biopsy for you."
5. Train
We live well above sea level, so all the cycling and hiking we do regularly near our home helped tremendously with our stamina in the mountains.  We were on the lookout for altitude sickness, but everyone did well.
Practice critical thinking.  If you read of hear something that doesn't sound right, check it our for yourself.  Imagine trying to convince someone to accept your argument.  Gather valid, verifiable evidence for your position.  Explore the opposite point of view and try to imagine the counter-arguments: "No, I can't prove that aliens don't abduct and probe rural Americans; however, I have seen many credible alternative explanations for alien abduction experiences and no verifiable scientific proof supporting alien abduction stores."
6. Stay warm and well-hydrated
Always good advice.
7. Don't risk your life for the summit
Many mountaineering accidents occur on the way back down from the summit.  Climbers push for the summit in the face of impending storms, darkness, or other serious risks instead of waiting out the danger and making a second attempt.
Don't engage in arguments with dangerous or mentally ill people.  Walk away.  Also, evaluate the value of your relationship with the other party before you forever alienate them: "This alien abduction and probing business is simply a lucid dream influenced by your preoccupation with homophobia..."
8.  In my anecdotal experience, mountaineering and climbing with people who are jerky egomaniacs is inherently dangerous.  In skepticism as well, don't be a dick.  It can be challenging to find a balance between science advocacy and being a jerk.  In either circumstance, being a jerk does significant harm to the cause.
9.  Stay loose on your feet and remain flexible.
If the planned route is buried in rockfall, consult a map and either retreat or find a safe way around the danger.  If credible, scientific evidence emerges that refutes your opinion, consider revising your paradigm.  To use the UFO example, there are many potential scenarios which would persuade me to revise my disbelief.
10. Maintain a sense of humor--especially about yourself.

Happy Critical Thinking!

Disclaimer:  I'm not trying to single out people who believe they've been victims of alien abduction.  I simply used this as one of many examples of a pseudoscientific paradigm about which I am strongly skeptical.  It could just have easily been anti-vaccination, or Muslims=terrorists, or any number of other misguided claims.  As ever, I remain open to changing my mind in the face of credible evidence.

I read once in Sagan's Demon Haunted World that many purported victims of alien abduction are actually victims of childhood sexual assault.  In trying to cope with that horror, they understandably fabricated an alternative reality to "someone I love is torturing me."  Check out Kitty's awesome site for more information about alien abduction.

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Love your connecting physical survival and critical thinking! So interesting and true. I need to come back to this and read more carefully but have to run. Great job as usual...

I used to live in Missoula. LOVE GWPP.

So two of my favorite things, rational skepticism and Montana. o bliss.

And solid advice, every step of the way.

I can't wait to see what we learn from alien DNA. If only we could get some.

Greg: I grew up in Whitefish. I love Missoula, but we bypassed it this trip in favor of the Seeley/Swan valley. Gorgeous!!!

I've been thinking about this: would alien biology even contain DNA? I don't know... If the pan-sperma seeding of the universe theory holds, then perhaps... If it's the robot apocalypse coming from another system, all bets are off.

Oooh....I love this. Printing to PDF for reference!