Years ago, when I was working summers as a park ranger, I had a distraught mother come up to me. Her teenage daughters had gone hiking, and hadn’t returned. I asked what time they’d left – she didn’t know, “sometime before noon.” Where were they hiking to? “I don’t know.” My thought was that the search and rescue teams were just going to love this one. You see, the park I was working sat at the junction of two major trail systems. In any direction you went, you could spend weeks (literally) wandering a network of trails. Always assuming, of course, that you were staying on a trail. Fortunately, the girls returned a few minutes later, before the search teams were called. They did get a lecture, though.
I had a flashback to this incident today. I stopped by to say hello to a friend at that very same park, and saw the Forest Rangers parked there. Someone had parked their vehicle near the entrance, and left a note saying that they were “camping in the woods” and would check back on Sunday afternoon. Now the Rangers were going to go look for them. As it turns out, they were camping a few miles out on a trail at one of the wilderness sites, and were fine. They did, from the report, get a talking to about “trail etiquette.”
Both of these incidents ended well. Someone was a little stupid, but unharmed. But as funny as they are after the fact, the reality is that the potential for things to have been really wrong – or have gone wrong- is there, and it’s not funny. Several times a year around here, people get lost in the woods. It’s astonishingly easy to do. People do get injured while hiking. Most of the time, it ends well. The lost person is found, or the injured person is quickly brought out of the woods and sent to medical care. Every now and then, it doesn’t end well. The person isn’t found, or is found dead. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it serves as a reminder to everyone in this area that it can happen.
It’s why the “funny” incidents were only funny after everything turned out well. What both of the incidents I mentioned had in common were that the people involved made the same preventable mistakes – ones that many hikers make. There are certain “rules” you should follow. They’re “common sense.” They are in every hiking handbook, flyer, or website. They’re not hard to follow, and they don’t cost money. What are they?
1) Make sure someone knows when you’re leaving, where you’re going, and when you expect to return; and 2) Sign the trail registers.
In the first case I mentioned, if the girls had told their mother that they were hiking to X Pond, and when they were leaving, I would have known the direction they went, and how long the hike should have taken. As it turned out, they were pretty close to that time. It also would have given me a starting direction to send search parties, if they’d been needed. The party that was camping out in the woods today would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if they’d said “we’re going to X site, we’ll be back on Thursday,” and signed the trail register on their way.
Most of the time, people hike without incident. They get a chance to see the scenery, enjoy nature, and get some exercise. Every now and then, something untoward happens. If it does, remember that someone will come looking for you. How long it takes them to start, and how successful they’ll be at finding you quickly depends on you. Make it easy for them, and use some common sense.