Hiking Essentials - Hiking Safety
All outdoor activities including hiking involve risks. Life itself entails a succession of risks. Some activities require more risks than others. Hiking is a relatively safe endeavor, as long as you know how to take care of yourself in the outdoors and use caution when appropriate. Many of us believe that in most respects the natural world is actually a much safer place than civilization (certainly more so than many of our urban areas or the nation’s highways).
The point of discussing safety is not to encourage you to focus on the negative, of course, but rather help you prevent any problem from arising that could get in the way of your enjoyment of hiking. Most potential problems can be avoided or nipped in the bud, as long as you know what to look out for and what steps to take when action is called for. Don’t let any concerns you might have about these matters keep you from hiking!
Accidents and Injuries
Serious accidents while hiking are rare. Most accidents are entirely avoidable. If you’re walking on a rough trail, carelessness or inattentiveness could lead to stumbling and falling. Fortunately, many of us instinctively know when and where to be especially careful -- such as when walking on rocks or boulders, or near a precipice, or if the footing is slippery. Some of us tend to take our falls on the very easiest of trails, since we’re less likely to be watching our step -- and some of the most serious falls and other accidents occur at home for the same reason.
The most common hiking injury is probably a twisted ankle. Most twisted ankles are fortunately not serious, and we’re usually able to complete the hike unassisted. A major sprain, however, can be incapacitating. Good hiking boots and a reasonable degree of alertness will help prevent such an accident from happening to you.
An ankle is most likely to be twisted while hiking downhill, and also late in the day, when you’re tired and often not as careful. It’s wise to always slow down whenever descending on a trail. Hurrying downhill is asking for trouble. A loose stone or rock could move unexpectedly underfoot, causing you to lose your balance and perhaps fall or tumble.
Or there might be a small tree root, partially hidden in the undergrowth, that could trip you up. If the ground is wet it’s especially easy to slip when going downhill. Staying aware of your footing and slowing your pace when appropriate are the best ways to guard against an accident.
Hiking steeply downhill is also hard on the knees, especially if the trail is rocky. This is another good reason for descending slowly. It’s easiest on the knees if you step down gently, rather than pounding with the full force of your weight on each foot.
Most other injuries sustained while hiking tend to be minor affairs, such as scraping a knee or an arm on a rock. Fatal accidents are exceedingly rare and almost unheard of among responsible hikers. Most serious accidents in wild natural areas that one reads or hears about can usually be attributed to extreme carelessness or recklessness, and the use of alcohol or drugs is frequently implicated.
Danger From Wildlife
Fear of wild animals is pretty prevalent, especially among those who have spent little time in wild areas. Concern or anxiety seems to run the highest with respect to bears and snakes. The actual danger from such animals is minimal, assuming you know how to behave when you encounter such creatures, which will happen sooner or later. The chances of being attacked or in any way harmed by a wild animal are so slight that even those of us who spend much of our lives in the great outdoors are unlikely to ever have such an experience.
There’s no doubt that bears are among the most fearsome-looking wild animals in the United States. Yet most bears in the eastern US will take every measure to avoid contact with human beings. The exception is those bears that have become used to people, as in some national parks, and areas where people live in the edge of bear country. If and when you do meet up with a bear, he or she will probably depart quickly or at least keep his distance.
Especially feared is the grizzly, which does have a reputation for unpredictable behavior and occasionally attacking human beings. There are no grizzlies in the eastern United States, but if you’ll be vacationing in grizzly country it’s sensible to be especially cautious, and read up on the subject beforehand. Nevertheless, millions of people do hike and camp in grizzly territory each year without incident (the rare injuries or fatalities that occur tend to be heavily publicized, giving the impression that it’s happening all the time).
If and when you see a bear while hiking in the East, you should stop moving. Don’t run, or shout, or do anything that might cause a bear to feel threatened. Usually the bear will flee or retreat before you have a chance to do anything, but if that doesn’t happen, and especially if you’ve surprised a bear at close quarters, gently back off while continuing to face the bear, and at the same time look downward and don’t stare at him.
Never, ever approach a bear (or any wild animal) to take photos or for any other reason. Your approach might be interpreted as a threat, especially if there are cubs nearby, which means you could be placing yourself in danger.
On Wild Earth Adventures trips we see black bears on an average of probably once a year, which means about every
80-90 trips. Over the course of many years we’ve never even once had a serious problem or a close call with a bear.
Snakes are common throughout much of the United States, including the Northeast. Poisonous snakes exist here, but the snake population is much smaller than in areas where the climate is especially warm or hot. In any case, very few hikers are bitten by snakes. But it’s always sensible to watch where you’re stepping, especially if the trail is somewhat overgrown with vegetation.
When you’re hiking off a trail in tall grasses or bushes, make a bit of noise with your feet to alert any resting or sleeping creatures of your presence (often the vibrations from your footsteps will induce a snake to slither off). Always refrain, of course, from putting your hands into a crack, hole, or any other place you can’t see into -- and if you’re climbing a steep trail, never reach above to grab a rock without looking, just in case a snake or other creature is resting there.
Snakebite kits have long been sold in outdoor stores, but many of us don’t carry them since the probability of sustaining a bite is so low. Plus the kits themselves can be dangerous to use in unskilled hands.
If you encounter a snake, you’ll obviously want to keep your distance, and if necessary, detour around him. As long as you don’t get too close, he’ll refrain from attempting to strike, and will usually retreat if permitted to do so. If you were to be bitten by a poisonous snake, you would need to return to the highway and obtain medical help as quickly as possible (you should also know that snakebite in this country is rarely fatal among healthy adults).
Sightings or encounters with wild animals are not as common as some who are new to the wilder places expect (especially those who have been watching TV wildlife shows). Keen senses allow most mammals, birds, and other creatures to avoid us, and with some species a sighting is a rare and special pleasure. Yet sooner or later you’re likely to cross paths with such common wildlife as deer, fox, porcupine, raccoon, skunk, and woodchuck, among others -- and moose in some northeastern states.
Approaching any wild animal, no matter how unthreatening it may seem, is always unwise. Most animals will attempt to get away if permitted to do so, but they’re also capable of attacking or biting when cornered or frightened by a human being who has gotten too close to them.
In some environments and at certain times of year insects can be a nuisance, but they’re rarely a serious problem in this part of the country. In the Northeast probably the most annoying biting bug is the northern blackfly, a small fly that’s most prevalent in northern New England and the upper reaches of New York state during the weeks of late spring and early summer. We see few blackflies on our day hikes, and most of them are gone by July 4th weekend, which tends to be the time when we schedule our first Adirondacks wilderness camping trip each year).
When insects are present and biting, the obvious solution is to use bug repellent. In some cases (which we never experience on our day hikes) bugs are so numerous and pesky that wearing a headnet is advisable or necessary. Insects are found only where temperatures are reasonably warm. One of the many advantages of hiking in the mountains, where most Wild Earth Adventures trips take place, is that the mountain climate tends to be cooler and breezier, meaning bugs are scarce on the majority of our hikes.
Some people consider bugs to be profoundly annoying, yet many of us find a degree of tolerance for insects developing as we spend more time in the wilder places. It’s to be expected that a few bugs (often of the non-biting varieties) may be buzzing around wherever we are in the summer, and assuming you’re not constantly being bitten, there’s no reason this should seriously interfere with your enjoyment of the outdoors.
While it’s not easy for us to appreciate or accept them, we also need to remember that bugs are a part of the chain of life, have been around a lot longer than we have, and like all forms of life, have every right to be here.
Ticks and Lyme Disease
Every few years there’s a scare that succeeds in frightening some would-be hikers and others away from the natural world. Among the many such scares in recent decades was the one regarding Lyme Disease that started in the 1980s. Everyone should know about Lyme Disease, which is carried by ticks, but over-reporting in the media has caused many people to be excessively fearful about ticks.
Most hikers do not get Lyme Disease, and most cases of Lyme Disease are not serious as long as you receive proper treatment. However, a small percentage of people who contract it do become quite ill and develop complications, which is obviously a serious matter -- and this has been the focus of much of the negative media coverage. For many victims who receive the appropriate medication it's probably no worse than coming down with the flu.
Lyme Disease does have some flu-like symptoms, and any case of summer flu should be checked out by a doctor (there’s usually, but not always, a round red bulls-eye rash surrounding the area of the tick bite).
Deer ticks are most often found in grassy, brushy, or woodsy areas at low elevations. The good news for hikers in the Northeast is that ticks carrying Lyme Disease are pretty rarely found in the mountain regions where we hike, especially at elevations over 1,500 feet. Our trip statistics: in well over 2000 trips during the past 36 years we've had just 2 reported cases of Lyme Disease among participants.
You won’t pick up a tick while hiking along an open trail. If the trail is overgrown with high grasses or other vegetation, and you’re in a valley or at a low elevation, your chances are somewhat greater. For those who hike during the warmer months in areas known to harbor ticks, the advice is to check your body and hair for ticks both during and after hiking.
The vast majority of ticks don’t carry the disease. If you do get a tick bite, it takes 24-36 hours for the tick to pass the disease to you (if the tick is removed in time, there should be no problem). Wearing light-colored pants makes it easier to spot a tick. Authorities generally recommend tucking pants into socks and spraying insect repellant on legs and feet.
Again, remember that in spite of all the warnings you may hear about the risks of Lyme Disease, on most mountain trails in the northeastern United States your chances of picking up a tick carrying Lyme Disease are extremely low. The risks are much higher for people who live in low-elevation suburban areas with grassy lawns and bushes, as well as in low-lying areas in counties like Westchester County (NY), Fairfield County (CT), and the ocean shoreline of Long Island (NY).
Most of us know that during an electrical storm it’s dangerous to be in a high or exposed area, or under a lone tree. If you’re on top of a mountain and can see or hear a thunderstorm coming, it’s time to descend immediately to a lower and less exposed place. If you’re in the higher mountains, that means below timberline if at all possible -- and away from open areas, as well as prominent rocks or trees. In a dense and relatively uniform forest, the risk of being hit by lightening is exceedingly low.
In the higher mountains, storms occasionally strike with sudden fury. If you have little time, it may be necessary to leave the trail and get down into the bushes until it blows over. If lightning is actually striking nearby, the recommended posture is to kneel, lean forward all the way, and place your head on your knees -- since lightning sometimes travels horizontally upon striking, and this posture is said to be safest because it minimizes your contact with the ground.
Fortunately, in the mountain areas where most of Wild Earth Adventures hikes take place, thunderstorms with lightning are most common later in the afternoon (when they come at all), and if we’ve climbed a mountain, we’ve usually descended by the time a storm breaks out. Only rarely over the years have we found it necessary to change an itinerary because of nearby lightning or thunder. But it's important to know when to turn back, change course, or seek a more-protected area to wait out a severe storm.
If you get badly chilled in cold, wet weather, there’s a serious danger of hypothermia (popularly known as “exposure”). In this condition, your core body temperature begins to drop. Shivering becomes pronounced, your thought processes and speech may be confused, and you’re at great risk. If you don’t get immediate help, death could result.
Most cases of hypothermia are completely avoidable. As long as you know how to take care of yourself in the cold there’s little need for concern. Whenever you’re in the rain, it’s important to wear dependable raingear, and when you feel cold, to put on additional clothing (preferably synthetics or wool rather than cotton). Increasing the intensity of exercise will sometimes help you warm up. Eating something is also important, as your body needs fuel to stay warm. If you’ve had an adequate amount of sleep the night before, you’ll also be less susceptible to hypothermia.
Some people carelessly allow themselves to get wet and cold, having no idea they could be risking their lives. Hypothermia can occur in temperatures as warm as 60 degrees F. What’s important to remember is to never let yourself become seriously chilled, whether you’re wet or dry. It’s also vital to tell others if you’re feeling uncomfortably cold, to borrow additional clothing if necessary, and get whatever help you might need. If you’re alone and unsuccessful in attempting to stay warm, it’s time to head for the highway and the nearest source of heat as quickly as possible.
Strenuous exercise in truly hot weather can be risky. Most Wild Earth Adventures trips during the summer months take place in the higher mountains, incidentally, where temperatures are often ideal for hiking -- and include visits to cool-water lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. If you’re shaded or sheltered from the sun, as in forested areas, you’re less likely to overheat. It’s sensible to hike in cooler, shadier places when it’s hot. In such weather you also need to carry and drink large quantities of water.
If you feel dizzy, weak or nauseated at any time while hiking in the heat, it’s important to take a long rest and cool off. The hike should be shortened, if possible. It’s foolish to try and push on when your body is telling you to stop.
Time is required for acclimating to higher temperatures. If you’re not used to the heat, it’s sensible to refrain from setting ambitious hiking goals. In warm or hot areas where there’s little or no protection from the sun, the best time to hike is in the early morning and evening hours.
We don’t have to worry about altitude sickness in the eastern United States, and the vast majority of Wild Earth Adventures trips involve elevations under 4,000 feet. But if you’ll be hiking in areas where you’ll be higher than 5,000-6,000 feet -- and especially 8,000-10,000 feet and above -- be aware that it takes time (a number of days) to fully adjust to such altitudes. You’re wise to limit yourself to perhaps half the distance that you might usually hike, since it's almost certain to feel much more tiring than it would at the lower elevations you're used to.
Even for the most fit among us, some initial shortness of breath is to be expected, particularly at heights over 10,000 feet. It’s smart to go slowly and rest frequently. If you find yourself feeling weak, dizzy, or nauseated, conclude the hike as soon as possible and get down to a lower elevation. Pushing on might mean a serious case of altitude sickness.
Hiking During Hunting Season
Hunting is permitted in many (but by no means all) parks and wilderness areas, most commonly for a period of several weeks in the late fall. The season can vary a great deal from one state or region to another. Many of us choose to avoid hiking in areas where hunting is going on, since there’s always at least a small risk of being accidently mistaken for prey. Plus many of us who hike partly for the peace and quiet will find the sounds of gunshots very disturbing. Wild Earth Adventures hikes during hunting season are to areas where hunting is prohibited, or limited to archery or small game.
If you’ll be hiking on your own or with friends, it’s a good idea to inquire about and be aware of hunting seasons and regulations. If you choose to visit an area where hunting may be taking place, always wear bright orange or red. The safer and potentially much quieter alternative during hunting season is to restrict your hiking to those parks and preserves that are off-limits to hunting.
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac
Each of these plants is found in different parts of the country, and they’re obviously well worth avoiding. For many but not all people, contact will lead to a severe rash with uncomfortable itching, and symptoms may persist up to several weeks. Have someone point out these plants for you (or obtain a field guide) so you’ll be able to spot them, and always look before sitting down in weeds, or walking bare-legged through vegetation. Fortunately, none of these plants pose a major problem for hikers along the trails of the Northeast. We do occasionally see poison ivy in low-elevation areas.
Blisters aren’t dangerous, of course, but they are certainly capable of temporarily taking most of the fun and pleasure out of walking and hiking, and can help spoil a trip. The risk of blisters is often not taken seriously, but if you’ve ever had the experience of limping along in pain for some distance, you’ll appreciate the need to take care in avoiding them.
Some people are more blister-prone than others, but be especially on the alert when wearing new boots, or older boots that haven’t been worn in some time. Sweaty feet in hot weather are especially susceptible. Blisters can take you by surprise, and once you start to feel pain, the damage has probably already been done.
The key is prevention. When you feel even the very slightest rubbing or discomfort, it’s time to stop, remove your boots, and take a look at your feet. A piece of moleskin or molefoam (available from most pharmacies), which has adhesive on the back, should be cut to size and placed over any area where rubbing is taking place. The friction should be transferred to the moleskin, and a blister will usually be prevented.
If a blister has already been formed and broken, it’s best to clean it and apply a bandage. For a minor blister, moleskin may sometimes be placed over the bandage. If it’s a serious blister, molefoam (which is thicker foam with adhesive) can be placed around it. This will help take the pressure off and make hiking easier and possibly alleviate any pain. Molefoam is also useful for reducing any other uncomfortable or painful pressure inside a boot.
A little lower-body muscle or joint soreness is normal after a long hike, especially if you haven’t been hiking or exercising much. It’s important to pay attention to any pain or discomfort that arises during the hike itself. Ignoring such messages from your body could increase the likelihood of an avoidable injury.
Poorly fitting boots or inadequate footwear are frequently responsible for foot or knee pain. In addition, some of us have structural imbalances in our feet and legs which can lead to knee or foot problems when we engage extensively in activities like walking, running, or hiking. Such difficulties may sometimes be corrected by wearing orthotics or insoles in our boots or shoes. It's worth seeing if a pair of inexpensive insoles will help. A good podiatrist could also fit you with orthotics, and perhaps teach you some foot exercises that will sometimes effectively resolve a foot problem.
Dealing With Discomfort
Outdoor and wilderness-based activities like hiking don’t automatically entail discomfort, and the rewards and pleasures usually far outweigh any pain or other problems. Still, sooner or later you’re likely to get soaked in the rain, pull a muscle, develop a blister, or perhaps find yourself on a stretch of trail that may be frustratingly difficult for you. Aside from physical demands, surprise changes in weather or unexpected obstacles can occasionally require good measures of resilience and patience.
Anyone who has little or no tolerance for discomfort is probably not well suited for hiking. Yet life in general is going to present many problems for anyone who insists that everything always be easy and comfortable.
Most of us don’t deliberately choose difficult or uncomfortable situations, in or out of the natural world -- but once we’re in one, there are some opportunities available. A sense of satisfaction and accomplishment can follow solving a tough problem, or surmounting an obstacle. At some point we’re likely to learn that we can deal with just about anything we’re presented with. This knowledge will tend to diminish any fears we may have, and open the way to a more complete involvement in and enjoyment of the activity.
Lamenting about and dwelling on whatever doesn’t go right is a sure way to help spoil the day. On those relatively rare occasions when things seem to go awry, and we may be feeling some discomfort, we’ll find we can nevertheless survive, learn from the experience, feel competent and good about ourselves -- and, to our possible amazement, perhaps even discover that we can have a great time in the midst of it all.
[This discussion of Hiking Essentials continues on the Hiking Rewards page].
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