For Alan Mazurek, a recent afternoon hiking trip in the Superstition Wilderness turned into an overnight misadventure when he left the trail to look for an Indian ruin.
If not for a detailed itinerary he left with his wife, backed up by a note he scribbled in the guest register at the trailhead, Mazurek may have been stuck longer than the nearly 11 hours he spent alone.
"The wilderness can humble you very quickly," said Mazurek, an avid hiker who lives in Mesa.
Mazurek said he underestimated the time it can take to retrace steps, especially in the dark, even in familiar territory. But after his wife alerted authorities that he'd failed to return, his itinerary led searchers to him after a few hours.
As cooler weather arrives, more hikers will head into the desert. And officials hope they will follow Mazurek's example by preparing for trouble.
"Most people go on these trips totally unprepared," said Robert Cooper, commander of Superstition Search and Rescue, an all-volunteer group that teams with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.
"You can't just get off your couch one Sunday and say, ‘I feel like a hike today,'" Cooper said. "You should ask yourself, ‘Can I really handle it?'"
Sonoran Search and Rescue, another volunteer group partnering with Pinal officials, usually gets called to rescue overconfident locals and tourists unfamiliar with the desert, said Louie Villa, the group's coordinator.
People often go hiking without enough water or get stuck in the dark or take a wrong trail, Villa said.
"So they've turned a simple five-mile hike into a 20-mile headache," Villa said.
Villa's group is teaming with Arizona State Parks to educate hikers Oct. 27 at Picacho Peak State Park.
"People take stepping outdoors here lightly, but this is not Wisconsin," said Ellen Bilbrey, a spokeswoman for Arizona State Parks.
"People need to be continually educated."
Dehydration and exhaustion are the biggest reasons for hiker rescues in Arizona, Bilbrey said.
Villa said hikers too often fail to consider the basics.
"We'll remind them to always keep plenty of water, food and to please, please wear proper hiking shoes, not sandals or heels," Villa said. "You can even last without food for some days, but not without water."
A fully charged cell phone, whistle and signal mirror will help a lost hiker get help, and rescue officials recommend against hiking alone.
In any event, hikers should bring a detailed map of the area.
"The worst thing to happen is breaking your leg a thousand feet high somewhere without any means of help," Cooper said.
Lon McAdam of Apache Junction had hiked the Superstition Wilderness countless times when he got in trouble on a long solo hike in April, smashing his knee on a rock and having to wait six days for help. He'd brought along a satellite phone, but a leaking water pouch knocked it out of commission.
Like Mazurek, McAdam left an itinerary, and his wife directed searchers in the right direction when he failed to return. He signaled a helicopter with a mirror.
"If someone less experienced would have gotten stuck out there the way I did, the outcome could have been a lot worse," McAdam said.
Arizona State Parks: www.azstateparks.com
Sonoran Search and Rescue: www.sonoransar.org
Superstition Search and Rescue: www.superstition-sar.org