Getting ready for Spring & Summer: Going Hiking?

I’ve done a lot of hiking in my life.  Sometimes it’s part of the job, and sometimes it’s just for fun.  There are trails in this area that I can walk virtually blindfolded, and others I haven’t gotten to, or hiked a long time ago.  Each spring as the snow  finishes melting,  the area sees a lot of hikers start hitting the trails.  Most of the time, they go in, have a good time, and come out.  Every now and then, something goes wrong.  I’ve talked about a few of the more amusing incidents.  They’re funny now, because they ended well.  Someone was a little stupid, but came out of it alright.  In the Albany paper a short time ago, there’s a case where it didn’t end well.   While the particulars in this case haven’t been determined, it’s unfortunately not uncommon.   People start a hike,  and something happens.  The majority of the time, it ends well but not always.   It’s also often preventable.

Over the years, I’ve seen any number of ill-prepared hikers.  Sometimes they get away with it, or they decide to cut their hike short.  There’s a big difference between walking a mile in a town and walking a mile in the woods.

1.  Let someone know where you’re going, when you’re planning to leave, and when you’re planning on returning.  I realize that everyone is hooked on electronics and social networking, but Facebook, Twitter, or your personal web site are not the same thing as letting someone know.  If you’ve decided to do an impromptu hike, leave a note inside your vehicle, on the driver’s seat.  Yes, searchers (who are law enforcement) will look inside.

2.  Dress appropriately.   That means good hiking shoes  or boots, socks, long pants (preferably) and a good shirt.   Making a fashion statement may be perfectly fine walking the mall or down the street, but it’s not a good idea on a trail.   While it may be fashionable to wear sandals, they make terrible hiking shoes.  The shorts and t-shirt or tank top may be very comfortable, but they’re scant protection from brush, tree branches, and biting insects.   You’ll save yourself a lot of misery with some simple prevention.

3.  Sign the trail registers, if they’re there.  One of the first things that searchers do is check the registers.  Why?  They want to get an idea of which trail you took and when you started.  It will save them a lot of time, and it just might save you.

4.  Plan your hike, if possible.   Take a look at a trail guide, look at a topographic map, and ask for information at the visitor centers.   You want to look at things like the terrain you’re crossing, any features you’ll see, and what sort of conditions you’re going to run into.  For example, there’s a trail I hike several times a year, as part of my work.  In the summer, it’s a piece of cake.  Slight incline, with a slightly tougher incline towards the end, but nothing terribly strenuous.  In the spring? It’s a nightmare.  It’s muddy, temporary streams run across it, trees and limbs down, and there are random unmelted snow drifts.   The hike that in summer might take me a little over an hour turns into a two hour slog, and the need for a change of clothing afterward.   I know this, so I plan (and dress) accordingly.  Another part of “planning” is to keep track of the time.   It’s one thing to decide to take a short trail (<1 mile) in the late afternoon.  It’s another to start a 6 mile round-trip hike.  It is going to get dark, and believe me, you do not want to be hiking at in the dark.

5.  Know your limits.  How far can you walk?  No, seriously, be honest with yourself.   There’s a big difference between walking a mile on a sidewalk or in a city park and walking a mile on a wilderness trail.  There’s an even bigger difference between a two mile relatively level hike and a two mile hike up a mountain.   Every year, the rangers have to carry someone out who got into trouble, because they didn’t know their limits, or didn’t pay attention.

6.   Carry an “emergency kit.”  Nobody thinks they can get lost.    Unless you’re absolutely familiar with where you’re going, you’re probably wrong.   I usually carry an “emergency kit” with me in the woods.  It’s nothing much.  A lighter, a knife, some string, a whistle, a poncho, and some energy bars.  If I’m being fancy, I  carry some water purification tablets (or a straw water purifier if I’m really fancy), besides my normal canteen and a jacket.  Why those?  Well, the poncho and jacket have come in really handy when the weather suddenly turned nasty – as it often does around here.  If I get lost, well, I have the ability to make a fire, and a whistle is a lot easier to use than yelling for help.

7.  Stay on the trail.  Most of the time when people get lost up here, it’s because they decided to cut cross-country, explore something off the trail, or didn’t pay attention to the trail markers.   It’s astonishingly easy to get lost.  Sometimes you only need to walk a few feet before the vegetation entirely hides where you were from view.   Landmarks that were “obvious” from the road or on the trail aren’t when you’re in the middle of a forest.   Unless you’re intimately familiar with the terrain, stay on the trail.  While you’re at it, stop once in a while and look back the way you came.  That way you can see what the trail looks like when you’re heading back.

8.  If you’re lost, find an open dry spot, and stay put.   In the previous paragraph, I said “unless you’re intimately familiar with the terrain.”  Yes, I’ve gotten lost on occasion.  I’ve been able to get myself out of it, but only because I knew the area I was in very, very well, and have been able to figure out how to get back to where I was.  That, and I’m a decent tracker, so I can follow myself back.  That’s what comes from a lot of time spent running around the woods in my life.  When I’m in unfamiliar territory, I stay on the trail.   The reason I say stay put is that the worst thing you can do is to continue blundering around.  You’ll not only get yourself more lost, you’ll make it that much more difficult for searchers to find you.

Hiking is great exercise, and a way to enjoy nature.  Over the years, I’ve seen some remarkable things, and jaw-dropping views.    Yes, I have had to do it as part of my job, but I’ve done it for fun as well.   In all those years, I’ve rarely had a problem, because I use some common sense – which sometimes appears to be not very common.   It’s when people don’t use it that we have stories to tell.   So if you’re going hiking, take some precautions and have a good time.  Remember, though, if something happens, someone will come looking for you.  Please make it easy on them – and you.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Getting ready for Spring & Summer: Going Hiking?

  1. overseasgranny

    I remember every Spring, some would go up on Mt. Rainier and the day would be gorgeous and warm at Paradise, so they would decide to go farther up the mountain, get caught in a sudden blizzard and were lucky if they survived.

    Same thing happens here on Galtymore. The weather coming off the ocean can change in a minute. If you are caught up near the peak, may the gods save you.

    • We don’t get quite that extreme a variation, but because of the mountains, you can get an unpleasant – but not lethal – surprise. I remember once working the southern end of a lake, and it was a perfect day. Nice, sunny, calm. When I got back in, the guys working the northern end of the lake came in, and they were sopping wet. They were griping about the huge rainstorm that had hit them. 😆 Most of the injuries are broken legs or serious sprains. People don’t seem to realize sometimes that you have to watch where you step, or that the fashionable shoes they’re wearing don’t have much traction or ankle support.

      • overseasgranny

        There is a phenomena here in Ireland. The sky can be blue and sunny and in a minute, literally, it will totally cloud over and pour, and then a minute later be blue all over once again. I wish I understood how that happens.

        There is another dangerous mountain – Crogh Patrick. The devotees go up it barefoot on rocks. Ouch! That one, too, can suddenly go blizzardy and people have to be taken down by the rescue services, barefeet and all. Not for me.

        • Here, it’s not quite that rapid – you can see it coming – but where it hits isn’t predictable. I’ve seen it raining cats and dogs in one place, one mile later, you’re in sun, and a few miles beyond that, it’s raining. I’ve learned to have a poncho with me because it’s amazing the number of times the weatherman has predicted sun and what I get is rain. 🙄

  2. Aquagranny911

    I will share my story of gross stupidity. Years ago I lived in a small mountain town in Colorado. I could literally walk out my back door and in a few minutes be hiking a beautiful mountain trail to my special ‘look out rock’ where I could enjoy the view and the peace.

    One sunny July afternoon I headed for my space. It was pleasant, peaceful and I could even see the roof of my own house from where I sat. When I saw clouds came from over the mountains, I did immediately begin the climb down that trail but before I got home, a violent summer storm drenched me with rain and pummeled me with hail. The trail was slippery and scary. I was wearing, shorts, a T-shirt and tennis shoes. No protection from the weather. I just mostly got cold, wet and scared but I never hiked up there again without a small emergency pack.

    • After the first time or two something like that happened to me, I learned to never ever trust the weather reports. There’s nothing like being 3 miles out in the woods on a day that was predicted to have a “10% chance of rain”, only to find out that the 10% has become 100%. 🙄 One of my lessons about “stay on the trail” came when I was a teenager, and a friend and I got cocky. We decided to follow a trail up a mountain, and thought we’d save time by cutting across a switchback in the trail. Which lead us up the mountain, beating our way through brush and high grass, wondering just how a busy trail could be so bad. Turned out we weren’t on the trail, we were following the phone line cut to the fire tower on the mountain. Instead of taking the nice, relatively easy and very nice trail up, we’d just gone straight up the mountain through the woods. It ended up alright, but it was wasn’t much fun.

      What a lot of people don’t realize is just how dark it get here. There aren’t any streetlights outside of the towns, and lights of any kind that might serve to guide you. That’s why I said you don’t want to hike in the dark. It’s like being in a tunnel, except the tunnel twists and turns, and isn’t that clear. That also holds true for boating – many of the lakes don’t have navigational buoys – or buoys of any kind – and at night it’s remarkable how hard it is to tell where you are, even if you know the lake very well.

      • Aquagranny911

        Norbrook, one important thing I learned that day was that I had been treating those mountains like an extension of my own back yard. I had not seriously considered the abrupt elevation changes or how that can influence weather there. I knew and understood the desert but not the mountains.

        • Which is what gets most people in trouble. They react like they do when they’re at home, or expect things to be like they are in their areas. We have a lot of people who are surprised that that cell phones don’t work, that there aren’t fences around cliffs, the trails aren’t groomed, or that the animals aren’t tame. Help is sometimes a long ways away, and “rapid” response may mean that we get you to a hospital within the same day.

  3. Alan Scott

    Getting caught out on a lake when the weather changes is fun too . My wife and I were out in single kayaks on our local lake when we got caught in a thunderstorm . We pulled in under a stand of trees, not smart but you had to be there . I jury rigged some vinyl sheets I had in the one kayak to keep the rain off . We kept waiting for a break in the down pours, but it seemed to never come . I finally made the decision to make a run for it .

    The sun suddenly came out and very soon we had a small fleet of canoes following us back to the dock . Until that point I hadn’t realized how many others were caught like we were .

    • It’s worse when you get caught in the middle of the lake in a canoe, which happened to me when I was 15, on a youth group canoe trip. There were 2″ of water in the bottom of the canoes by the time we made shore. There’s a lake near here which is notorious for its changing conditions. The launch is in a nice, sheltered bay. Once you get beyond that bay, you have a lake which has a clear run for the wind of several miles in either direction, and the shape of the lake acts as a funnel for it. I’ve seen more than a few kayakers and canoeists get themselves more than they bargained for on it. They go out thinking “light breeze and small waves”, turn a corner, and run into blasts of wind and heavy chop. To make it worse, the wind has been known to shift direction 180 degrees, so you not only end up fighting it on the way out, you fight it on the way back.

  4. Alan Scott

    Our lakes are mere puddles and our local river is a glorified stream compared to what you have up there . Even our mountains here in the Poconos are mole hills next to anyone else’s . It doesn’t mean you can’t get into trouble .

    We used to have a low head dam in our little river . We canoed and kayaked over it many times and thought nothing of it . The local fire companies used to rescue unfortunate canoers who would get struck in it . They shot out a line on a metal weight, then used the string to get a heavier rope to the victims and pull them out . It could never happen to us . We generally had more than one boat in case it did happen .

    Well one of my younger brothers borrowed our 15′ smokercraft aluminum canoe and came down the river with his girlfriend . The water level was just right and they tipped and got stuck in the dam and almost drowned . His girl friend was kicked out by the current, but my brother was pinned against the dam with the discarded rescue cords wrapped around his throat . Somehow he eventually got spit out . We only heard about it later when we had to salvage the canoe.

    We had to put another canoe in below the dam and two of our friends paddled in to the undertow to get a rope on the boat . When 4 of us managed to pull it out it was bent in half .

    The trick to getting out of a low head dam is actually to swim to the bottom and it will kick you out . As long as you try to fight it at the surface it will pin you to the dam . We actually used to intentionally swim there after that and view the big eels that lived there . A few years ago they finally demolished the old dam .

    • The lakes that generally cause people the most problems are the artificial ones. There’s a couple that the original river valleys ran along the general wind pattern, so it creates a wind tunnel effect. The header photo here is actually a picture taken from one end of one of these lakes, and the whitecaps are caused by what would normally be a “mild breeze” elsewhere. When the wind picks up, you get some really impressive waves going.

      One of the other lakes like that is even worse from that standpoint. It’s a good 15 miles long, and the river that feeds one end of it has an almost 10 mile valley to add to that. If you’re in the “sheltered” part of the lake, you might have some light waves and a cool breeze. leave it, and you’re facing a heavy wind and very heavy waves. To make it even more … “interesting,” it’s a part of the Hudson-Black River Flood Control District, and during the year it will rise and fall by a good 14 feet. The lake I see on Memorial Day is not the lake I’ll see on the 4’th of July, and it’ll be drastically different on Columbus Day. It’s a rather common occurrence for boaters to lose props, and an occasional lower unit. One of the “tourist stories” I have was of a guy in a rented speedboat who got towed in. He was swearing up and down that “it just fell off.” Our reaction was “How long did it take to do that after you hit the rock?” 😆