Wednesday, September 16, 2015

10 Easy Tips For Safe and Healthy Hiking

Last week we had a somewhat scary incident at work. It ended well, but we were lucky that it wasn't worse. Folks that should have known better made mistakes that could have severely endangered one of my colleagues.

It’s been very hot and humid, and a call came over the radio asking if we had any popsicles in the Visitor Center. I answered no, but we did have ice packs—would that help? It turned out a new employee had pushed herself too hard while stringing lights for our winter lights display, and had gotten dangerously overheated. The two senior staff working with the light crew radioed that they’d bring this employee, Susan, into the Visitor Center, and then go fetch popsicles for her from another building. Ok, fine. I figured they had the situation under control and I could go take my lunchtime walk.

However, when I got outside, I encountered both staff members trundling cheerfully up the hill in their golf cart.  Poor overheated Susan was nowhere to be seen. I asked what happened to her and was told she’d been sent into the Visitor Center. Since I had come out mere moments before I was a bit puzzled by this. It turns out they’d essentially abandoned her to walk in on her own while both of her acting supervisors fetched popsicles. Yikes. I returned to the Visitor Center to check on her whereabouts. She had indeed made it inside, but was slumped uncomfortably on a bench in the corner of our lobby.  I brought her into the library to a more comfortable chair, and refilled her warm, stale water bottle with fresh cold water. I also got an ice pack for her to hold against the back of her neck. 

Eventually staff returned with the popsicles.  I helped Susan open one, and chatted with her while she ate it. Several minutes later, the cold water, ice pack, popsicle and some salty peanuts helped to make her feel well enough to return to work.

This all got me thinking about how if even outdoor professionals can sometimes miss safety actions sometimes (like not realizing Susan should have been at least escorted inside, if not given a ride in the golf cart), what about the rest of us? What if she’d been worse off than we realized and nobody had checked on her? How should we make sure we and our hiking companions stay safe and healthy when we’re exploring the outdoors, especially if we don’t have a lot of experience at it?
To answer that, I came up with my top ten tips to stay safe and healthy when you’re hiking.

If you're careful and prepared, you can find gorgeous scenes like this one while you're out hiking.

10 Easy Tips For Safe and Healthy Hiking

1.     Hike with at least one buddy, if not two or three. Everybody should pay attention to everybody else, and watch for warning signs of overexertion, heat or cold exposure, and so forth. This is especially important since one of the early signs of overexposure (to either heat or cold) is confusion. your own judgement may not be reliable if you're starting to suffer from heat exhaustion, for example. If you're hiking on your own, try to take extra precautions like carrying an extra layer in the wintertime, freezing one of your water bottles in the summer to make sure you always have cool water to drink, and so forth.

2.     Make sure you have a printed map of the trail(s) you’re hiking. Also know what to do if you accidentally wander off the trail: DON’T keep heading forward in hopes that you’ll encounter another trail. Instead, you should turn around as soon as you realize you’re lost, and try to retrace your steps until you find the trail again. Even a map that’s drawn to scale can sometimes make large distances look deceptively small. Most of the time you’ll be closer to the trail behind you than the next one ahead of you.

At a Virginia State Park where I worked for several years, I once encountered a group of visitors who were upset that they had gotten lost on our property. They were a walking club who apparently were more used to city or suburban walks, rather than out in the forest. They hadn't been paying too much attention to our trail markers, accidentally veered off the trail, and then when they realized they were in the middle of nowhere, decided to keep on wandering rather than turning around.  So of course it took them more than 45 minutes to come out of the forest onto one of our roads. Don't let that happen to you! 

3.     Carry a cell phone with you for calling for help, but also have a whistle in case you have no signal on the trail. If you do need to call for help and have barely one bar, know that text messages are easier to get through on low signal than actual voice calls are. Anyway, don’t depend on your cell phone for the trail map or for calling for help. Battery life is inevitably limited, even if you do have signal. If you're lost and need help, a universal signal for help is three blasts on your whistle. You’ll probably be able to blow the whistle longer than you would be able to holler for help.

4.     Carry water with you—probably more than you think will be necessary, especially in summer.

I recently went on an amazing guided hike to find butterflies, and definitely didn't have enough water with me. I'd packed my usual single bottle, not taking into account that it was extra hot outside, plus the trail was almost completely in the open, with no cooling shade anywhere to be found. I ran out of water before we even reached the halfway point of the hike! I was lucky that the rest of the hike was merely uncomfortable, it could have been worse. I can tell you for sure I've never been more grateful for warm water than when I got back to my car, to drink the emergency bottle of water I keep there. It had warmed in the sun, of course, but I was so thirsty I really didn't care.

5.     Make sure you have at least a few basic First Aid supplies, such as bandaids, some ibuprofen/aspirin/etc., whatever you think would be helpful for you and your companions. In my experience, bandaids are often one of the most important items to bring when you're going hiking. They can mean the difference between a mild "hot spot" on your heel, and a nasty blister or sore that is so painful and uncomfortable, you lose all enjoyment of the hike.

6.     Be aware of when it will get dark, and calculate how much time you have to hike accordingly. Unless you plan on night hiking, don’t start a trail that will take you three hours when there’s barely one hour of daylight left.

7.     Also be sensible about the weather: not just what it's like when you leave your house, but what it's expected to be at your hiking location for the next several hours as well.

I’m not saying don’t hike at all when it’s raining; in fact rainy hikes can be pretty interesting as long as you are wearing a good raincoat and waterproof boots. But if there’s thunder and lightning, you really shouldn’t start a long hike until the storm is well past. It’s just not worth the risk of lightning striking you or a nearby tree.

If there are really high winds when you want to hike, it’s more of a judgement call. Some locations with lots of dead or dying trees, loose branches, etc. would be too dangerous to hike if the winds are above 40 mph or so. Not only might you get struck by a falling tree, but the trail could be blocked by a fallen tree making it difficult to get back safely or easily. Other locations, however, would be uncomfortable but not too dangerous, like hiking along the ocean or through a large field. Here's a post from a few years ago about hiking after a hurricane, when I found the trail completely blocked by a large fallen tree.

If it’s very hot or cold out, wear appropriate clothing! Also see the next tip for things to keep in mind as you hike. At the same Virginia State Park where I used to work, I once encountered an entire field trip of high school students who had all dressed for warm classroom conditions, rather than the cool breezy spring day it was outside. They were freezing in the breeze off the water, and later when a (totally expected) rainstorm blew up, they were all unprepared. Not one had brought a jacket or even a sweatshirt. Poor things, they were miserable and missed out on a lot of the fun activities we had planned for them. Don't let this happen to you!

8.     Know danger signs to watch for in your hiking companions.

 In the summertime, know what the early signs of heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration look like.These include
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue

In the wintertime, know what the early signs of overexposure, frostbite, and so forth look like as well. These include:
  • Shivering
  • Numb hands and fingers
  • Confusion
  • Clumsiness or unsteadiness
  • Slurred speech

9.     Make sure you take breaks now and then! It might even be better to get back a little after dark than to push on so desperately without resting that exhaustion causes disorientation and clumsiness for the last part of your hike. Please don’t overexert yourself or your companions. Even if you’re hiking for exercise and fitness, it’s not worth getting sick like my coworker above, or so overtired you make a stupid mistake.

A bonus of an occasional stop is you experience more of your lovely surroundings than you might while charging down the trail. That tiny scarlet leaf fluttering down, or the quiet chirping of bird in the trees above you, are things you might not notice until you stop for a few minutes to breathe.

10.  Finally, beware of what pilots call Get-there-itis: I have to get somewhere so I’m going to go regardless of how many warning signs I’m seeing. For our purposes, this translates to “I came here to hike, I’m going to hike no matter how much of a bad idea it is to go out right here, right now.” Be flexible with your plans if you’re faced with the unexpected.

Be prepared to be flexible if trail conditions or weather conditions aren't what you expected!

Obviously some of these tips will be more important for you than others depending on the age, experience level, and fitness level of you and your companions. They’re all worth reviewing and keeping in mind, however, no matter how expert you may be. I also think many first aid tips and techniques are worth reviewing periodically, such as heat-related issues at the beginning of spring and summer, then cold-related issues at the beginning of fall and winter.

As long as you are able to stay reasonably safe, I hope you have fun exploring nature!  I know for me, spending time outside is refreshing and helps restore my happiness potential. More and more these days I’m feeling that we have a large hand in creating our own happiness, so spending more time outside can really help that. Although there can be danger out there on the trail, especially if you're careless, it’s just so easy to behave safely and sensibly. Keep these ten tips in mind and you won't have a small thing like weather or lack of water turn an otherwise pleasant day into a disaster. 

So are you planning to go hiking this season? How do you make sure you and your companions stay safe and healthy along the trail? 

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