The summer is almost upon us and already there have been lost hikers and even a death after someone lost their footing.
One thing is for certain, there are things you can do to reduce your risks while hiking.
Anybody can get lost. It’s easy to do.
You can get lost in the day time. Forget a map, misread the trail, not pay attention, have too much fun.
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You can slide into the brush, trip on a log, rub up against poison oak or stinging nettles, turn your ankle or come home with ticks.
The weather can change from hot to cold, from calm to gusty and from dry to wet. You can be delayed coming home and find yourself in the dark.
The question isn’t what to do once you are in a dire situation. Rather, know how to avoid getting into a bad situation in the first place.
But also you want to be prepared and capable of dealing with a situation if it happens.
Here are some hiking safety tips to help keep you out of trouble:
Go with other people. Hike with a group. There’s safety in numbers. Go with people more experienced than you. Identify the navigator. Stay close to others, or at least know where they are on the trail — in front or behind you. Carry emergency phone numbers for forest rangers and local law enforcement.
Make a plan and share the plan. Designate a trusted friend or family member as an emergency contact. Identify and research exactly where you are going, when you will be there, how far it is, how difficult, how long a trip and the description and license of your car and cellphone number. Check in on arrival and let them know what they should do if you don’t call. Have them call you before calling park headquarters, the sheriff, or search and rescue just in case you forgot to phone them.
Know where you’re going. Pick a trail, look at the books, download or print a copy of the trail map and bring it with you in a sealable plastic bag. Take several pictures of the map on your cellphone. Get familiar with the location and terrain where you’ll be hiking. Get online and look for recent trip reports. Is the snow melted? Check the road and trail conditions. Study the trail specifics and learn what you will encounter before you leave.
Dress Appropriately. Head to toe, wear the clothes you need to match the conditions. Hot or cold, rain or shine. Bring the right hiking shoes, socks, shirts, shorts, pants, hat, gloves, sunscreen and bug spray.
Charge your cell phone. Turn on power saving mode. Turn off any apps that will drain your battery. Bring an extra fully charged battery pack. Reception may not be available, but without juice you will definitely can’t communicate. That snapshot of the trail map is your ticket to home. Cellphone providers can tell law enforcement if the phone has pinged any repeater towers, and aid in triangulation location. But plan on your electronics failing. Use a paper map and learn how to use a compass.
Carry a day pack with all the key essentials. Think ahead and carry everything you need to survive if you get stuck out all night. For each person, this includes: extra food, water, extra layers of clothing, flashlight, compass, maps, knife, rope, space blanket, plastic poncho, mirror or a CD, first aid kit, fire starter, fluorescent tape, water filter, glow stick and whistle.
Check the weather forecast. Use the point forecasts and know the high temperatures during the day and the low temperatures at night. Bring what you need to accommodate changing conditions. If the weather turns inclement, stay off the trail, get to safety fast. And In cooler months, sudden snows can obscure trails and cause you to get lost too.
Sign in at the Trail Head. You may also want to place a note on your dashboard inside their car at the trailhead to help rescuers locate you. Don’t leave anything valuable in your parked car.
Bring a watch. Pay close attention to the time and the distance. Use your compass. Take a reading when you start. Pay attention to the direction you are going. Watch the time and mark how far you travel in what length of time. Even good hikers may only travel at one mile per hour when the trail is steep and covered with logs and boulders. Know when the sun will go down so you can get back while there’s still light.
Track your location. Place a GPS tracker on your cellphone and learn how to use it. Hit record when you start hiking. Look at your progress every hour or so. Pay attention to landmarks frequently. Take pictures at useful places. Mark these on your maps to keep track of your location. Straight trails are usually easy. Y-trails are not. Each new junction increases the risk of getting lost on the way back. With your fluorescent tape, mark the trees or shrubs along your trail to find your way back.
Pay attention to the trail. Look for footprints and know the difference between the side trails and the main trail which will have more traffic and wear. If you come to a confusing junction, use marking tape on bushes or branches to mark the right direction or use a tree limb to block the trail that should not be taken.
Stay on the main trail. Avoid extended unplanned side trips. If you go off the main trail to take photos, catch a view or to find a place to sit, keep track of where it is. Don’t get too close to rocky edges and waterfalls, don’t climb along giant logs and be particularly careful crossing streams and fast flowing water.
If you get lost, here are some best practices:
Use the STOP rule. Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.
Stay calm. Relax and calm yourself. Then look around, study your surroundings, get out your map. Get comfortable, drink some water, have something to eat. Focus and center yourself before taking any action.
Take inventory of your situation and resources. Determine how much food and water you have. Ration what you use to avoid running out.
Assess the situation. What’s the weather, the time, where’s the sun, and what do you see? Identify and recognizable landmarks. Find true north by the sun or by the north star. Get out your map and your cellphone. Use your compass to identify north, south, etc., and see if you can figure your approximate location before making any moves.
Try to retrace your steps. Don’t go any farther down the trail. Try to remember where you were last aware of your exact location. Can you get back to that spot?
Check for phone coverage. If you’ve determined that you’re truly lost and can’t hike back out, see if you have cellphone coverage and try to call your emergency contact or the authorities.
Use your whistle. People in the area are more likely to hear your whistle than any amount of yelling, plus you’ll save your voice. The internationally known distress signal is to blow three distinct whistle blasts, then wait a few minutes and repeat. Call for help calmly and frequently but don’t panic.
Make yourself noticeable. Try to find a clearing where can be spotted from the air. Get out any brightly colored objects or clothing. Use your mirror or CD to reflect the sun to a helicopter or to searchers on the ground.
Start a small, contained fire. Smoke, even from a small fire, can draw attention to your location. But keep it small and don’t accidentally cause a wildfire.
Find a sheltered spot. Pushing on in the dark may only make things worse. Spending the night may be the safest thing to do. Put on any extra clothing, and get as comfortable and dry as possible out of the wind and rain. Cold sinks to the bottom of valleys so a hillside in rocks and trees will be warmer and drier. Avoid rushing water so you can hear people. Find your spot for shelter while it is still light. Gather dry wood for a fire and settle in.
Keep all of your senses engaged. Pay attention to the sounds and smells. Listen for people and animals. Place food away from your body so animals can’t get it. Stay rested, drink water carefully and conserve food and energy while you wait.
If you plan ahead, take the right precautions, learn a few basic navigational skills, keep calm and use common sense, you’ll be fine.
Paul Krupin is an avid local hiking enthusiast, retired environmental specialist, and a member of the InterMountain Alpine Club (IMAC). He has been hiking the trails of the Pacific Northwest since 1976. Find out more at the IMAC Facebook or Meetup pages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.