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.