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Hiking Safety Tips

Perhaps you are thinking of a trip to the Adirondacks with your family this summer.  Maybe you'd like to visit in Autumn to see the trees turn.  These are excellent ideas and thousands of families pursue these activities every year.  Maybe you'll come completely prepared for these adventures... maybe.

Unfortunately, every year a few visitors arrive, no matter what the season, discover when they get here that hiking is a big, big part of the Adirondack recreational picture, and conclude that although they haven't any hiking equipment with them, not even a map,  that they can just go into the woods "a little ways" to see what it's like.  If they are experienced hikers already, they'll either drop the idea or they'll pick up the necessary equipment for the trip they have in mind, before they enter the forest..

 Occasionally, however, people who ought to know better or who are unacquainted with the dangers and realities of the back country, dive right into the forest in sneakers, wearing jeans and a tee shirt, with no map, no food or water, and no compass; intending to just go in "a little ways".  Most of the time they come out just fine.  Others come out on stretchers, are helped out by a ranger, or are lifted out by helicopter.  And, some don't come out at all or not until their bones are discovered years hence.  Those latter are the ones that win the Darwin Award for demonstrating Darwin's Theory that the fit survive, while the rest are culled from the herd or get lucky.

Certainly, it's a rather bleak joke, the Darwin Award.  Nevertheless, a few years ago "Adirondac", the magazine of the Adirondack Mountain Club, carried the report of a clergyman who decided to take a bunch of kids in his charge on a hike up around The Brothers or Porter Mtn, I forget which.  It was on the spur of the moment and so the party did not think out what equipment they might need, what the weather might be, etc.  They were not too badly equipped, in fact.  But...

Safety Tips For Hiking in The Adirondacks

They went too far in (even though they were on a small mountain at the edge of the forest), but...  
it was late Fall and it snowed.  So...
they got scared and panicked, resulting in...
their decision to take a "short-cut", which meant that...
they left the trail.
To make matters worse, they then decided to split up to find the trail again.
In the meantime, darkness fell (about 5:30 PM in the winter) and with it, their chances.
One group eventually found their way back and contacted a ranger regarding those still lost in the snow storm in the dark.  
So what do you suppose the state of mind was of those boys and girls still lost in the cold, snowy night, unprepared for spending the night?  

some of them were now in a state of panic; they were shivering, the cold was starting to lessen their abilities to think straight, and they had no idea whether the other group had made it back or was still roaming through the forest. The fear would have been palpable once dark set in.  Thoughts of frostbite and death undoubtedly occupied their minds .

Fortunately.... a mountain rescue team was assembled and went in in the early evening.  A terrified group of boys and girls was found far from where they ought to have been.  They had no clue where they actually were.  In the end, everyone survived, in spite of:

  Improper or no planning;
  Failure to take into account the probability of sudden weather changes common in the Adirondacks;
  Leaving the trail;
  Splitting up;
  Failure to stay put when they realized they were lost;
  Not equipped for an emergency such as darkness, snow, etc.

Bottom line, these people, particularly the adult, saw the conditions of the moment and assumed that everything would remain just like that throughout the hike.  In the Adirondacks what is, is not what will be.  I was taught as an officer in the US Navy the problem with making assumptions.  It's simply this:  ASSUME is U and ME led by an ASS.  As to the clergyman leading this party... well, not to berate a man of God, but it is also said that:  "There is no one so stupid that he/she cannot serve as a bad example."

AND ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN...

I think it was in the very same issue of "Adirondac" that they reported on an experienced hiker who went on a solo bushwhack, which as you may know means that he was hiking off the trail.  Well away from civilization he broke his leg.

  He had left a detailed route and itinerary with his wife.  This included what time he would be back and she knew what to do if he failed to   reappear on time.
  He carried emergency food and had knowledge of appropriate first aid procedures.
  He had a tent and means to stay warm and dry for a protracted period.
  He stayed on his planned route.
  While it's not wise to travel alone, particularly off trail, he was quickly found.

Hiking Safely

When you hike there are some things to KNOW, to DO, and to TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.  This list may not be complete, but it's an excellent start.   

On each trip take into account these factors.

THE ROUTE: its length, its difficulty, and the number of nights involved.  The longer you will be out there the greater the chance of severe changes of temperature and weather, thus, the more you need to prepare for eventuality. 
THE SEASON: typical weather for the time and, in particular, the variance possible from "typical".  Apply these in consideration of the highest elevation you expect to reach. 
PERSONAL FACTORS:  these are your degree of physical conditioning and stamina, as well as your general health.  Ditto for each member of your party, especially because the least able person in your party will be the determining factor to how fast you move, etc.. 

Any weak link in the above factors will govern your planning and execution.  DON'T STRAIN THE WEAK LINK.  Base your preparations (what you will/will not bring, revisions to your route, etc.) on those factors.  Some of the MUST DO's:

If it's an overnight, bring good shelter, but a bivy sack is very light and would suffice if you do not have a tent.  A bivy is sufficient for 3 season shelter, when coupled with a sleeping bag.  
If it's a day hike, bring an emergency aluminum foil shelters it weighs an ounce and costs around very little.  As of 2004, one of these has kept me alive at least once.
Unless you have a reservation for a lean-to, which is only possible at a state campground or on private property such as Adirondack Loj, do NOT bet on finding an empty lean-to and thus fail to bring shelter.  But if you have no shelter demand that the folks in the lean-to make room, since safe shelter is the primary mission of the lean-tos.  Occupants of lean-to's are, therefore, obliged by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to accommodate additional persons that may arrive.
Carry a basic first-aid kit, a whistle, a compass, emergency lighting, and a topographic map.  These are available at any store that serves hikers.  
Avoid cotton except for your handkerchief.  Cotton readily absorbs rain and holds it.  The moisture surrounding your body then conducts the heat out of your body 20 times more efficiently than if you were wearing any of the wicking fabrics that wick off moisture rather than holding it.  Generally, wicking fabrics can dry on you in twenty minutes or so, once you stop sweating.  If, like me, you really prefer cotton for its comfort, then wear it when you hike but be sure to have one or several wicking tees in your pack in case temperatures drop.

Note:  Actually, the best fabric you can buy for hiking is merino wool which keeps you cooler when it's hot and warmer when it's cool, in comparison to synthetics.  I know---you're saying that wool is hot, but not merino.  It is highly effective at making you comfortable, even when wet.  Moreover, merino wool suppresses your manly or womanly odor when you've been wearing that shirt for a day or more.  Merino is often not available in your local backpacker store, but if you search for it on the Internet you will find it quickly.  It costs more, but it pays dividends.    

A distant second to merino is the many proprietary synthetic fibers, the most well-known of which is Cool MaxTM.  Synthetics are much less comfortable and versatile than merino wool, being clammy when wet, and occasionally itchy.  If, like the vast majority of hikers, synthetic is the route you have chosen, try to find a synthetic that has a soft feel (more properly called a "soft hand").   We recommend Duofold brand garments which are synthetic, yet very snuggly, never itchy, and reasonably comfortable when soaked.

Regarding food and water:

At a minimum, carry a day pack with water.  By far, the best way to carry water is with one of the various types of hydration units that feed you water via a hose.  You drink much less because you use it efficiently by taking frequent sips rather than infrequent gulps.  Forget about that goat skin water bag your former boy friend bought you.  Yes, it's very romantic and very Hemingway, but unless you like the oily taste of dead goat....!  And as for canteens and water bottles, they may suffice in a pinch, but the hydration unit approach is by far the best.  
Bring enough food for at least one additional day beyond what you are anticipating.  Bring food that will give you energy; i.e., carbohydrates.  That doesn't mean you have to bring three meals, but be sure to bring enough to enable you to function and survive for another day.

There's a lot more to it than the basics we provide here, but if you do this much, the odds are against you dying.  We only intend this to help you realize, if you haven't, that this is not a game and you are not immortal.  If any of this is surprising, then we recommend you investigate further in any good guide to survival and get yourself equipped.

One last thing to consider is your cell phone!  
There's a phenomenon going on in the US today in which some hikers have concluded that if they bring their cell phone along, they can take greater risks since the ranger is just a call away.  Thus, distress calls are becoming more frequent and are abusing, if not exhausting, state and federal rescue resources.  Such calls are also a new low in self-absorption.  Quite justifiably, states such as New Hampshire and Oregon have started charging for rescue.  Fines so far in NH have varied between $500 and $2,500 depending on the cost of the rescue, but a few have been much more.  We have heard of charges out West as high as $20,000.  Lately, we've tried calling our significant others from the woods just to test the odds of getting through when there are mountains all around.  I'm batting about .250 in the Adirondacks and .500 in the Appalachians.  Both figures are based on attempts to call out while on a summit.  When not on a summit, it has not be possible to connect.  Cell phones are line-of-sight devices with very limited power for transmission to the nearest transceiver tower.  Calling from just anywhere doesn't work and there aren't towers in the woods.  DO NOT depend on your cell phone as a survival technique unless you can burn it to stay warm.  

"Fools Step In Where Angels Fear to Tread"
It was a nice day amidst a week of almost constant rain.  We had decided to climb Tabletop from Marcy Dam and then take the connector over to Lake Arnold so we could climb Colden.  Just before ascending Tabletop we decided to take a look at the nice view from Indian Falls.  There we ran into a man and his daughter bound for Marcy's summit.  Acknowledging that he'd never backpacked before, he was carrying a very large pack, so poorly packed and so poorly adjusted that, instead of being parallel to his spine, it was canted at 40 degrees to the right, so that he was leaning to his right to offset the pack leaning to his left.  The poor soul was wearing Teva's to climb Marcy.  He and she were fully decked out in cotton:  in her case she was wearing fleecy pajama bottoms.   We suggested to them that they ditch the big pack for the climb and put food, rain gear, etc., in her day pack.  Actually, we also suggested that, dressed as they were, they not continue. 

Later that day, after climbing Colden, we ran into a party of 5 or 6 lost about a quarter mile below Lake Arnold.  They were arguing about where they were (or weren't).  They had wound up miles off course in their attempt to get to Feldspar Brook.  Very tired puppies!  Their leader (sic) was trying to assure them and us that all was (now) well, but the troops were rioting.  In fact, they had gotten themselves to the right trail and were headed in the right direction, but weren't sure, had no map, and were pooped. 

It was Benjamin Franklin who said, "We must all hang together, or we will surely all hang separately..."
Once a year, ADK's Adirondac Magazine reports on some of the more interesting rescue stories that take place in the Adirondacks.  The Jan/Feb 2002 issue describes no less than 4 different groups that got lost or in trouble.  

Three of the groups allowed themselves to get separated.  Interestingly, three of these rescues were mostly due to parental ignorance of hiking safety, mainly keeping the group---especially with kids---together! 

The first of these allowed two children to go on ahead, but the children lost the trail.  A 44 hour search by rangers was the result. 
The second group allowed three 12-year-olds to take a "short-cut".  This mistake required a technical rescue on a bare rock face. 
Another party was coming down Algonquin and didn't wait for one member of the party who needed a bio-break but had no flashlight.  This incident required a late-night search.  
Another group became disoriented on Rocky Peak Ridge.  They had no map (always a no-no!)  and wound up hiking back up the peak they'd just climbed on the same trail they'd just descended without knowing it.   A white-out ensued.  The scared girls called their father who called the forest rangers

One reads these and shudders but the errors were simple, innocent things:  a whiz, no map, a short-cut, and letting the kids run on ahead.  In the forest simple errors quickly compound.  Three of them here: (1) carry a flashlight even if you are only intending to take a short walk that'll bring you back in mid-afternoon; (2) carry a map even if you know the route; (3) and, finally, keep the group together.  If it is necessary to separate, ensure there are clear plans for rendezvous, and that each party carries the necessary gear.  

IMPORTANT NOTES:
1. Information provided on this site is intended only to supplement and not replace or contradict the information provided in guidebooks.   
2. Adirondack Journey cannot and does not attest to the accuracy of  information provided by others, and states that even accurate information is prone to rapidly become inaccurate due to the forces of nature.  Data provided on these pages reflects only the conditions at the time the trail was hiked by those persons that created the page.
3. Weather conditions, trail conditions, presence or absence of obstacles to passage, the hikers' physical and mental condition, and their knowledge of hiking, orienteering, and first aid, are among the factors that make it impossible for Adirondack Journey to either assure that what readers find in the forest or experience in the forest matches in any way the information posted on these pages.
4. The Adirondack Forest Preserve and High Peaks region is vast, larger than the 2 largest national parks in the lower 48 states, combined.  Persons not appropriately equipped or knowledgeable should not embark on foot on trails in this region.  A minimum list of skills and equipment for hiking includes, but is not limited to:  proper attire that takes into account rough trails and sudden changes of weather; first aid kit, topographic trail map, compass, food for at least one extra day beyond the planned trip, guidebook, whistle, source of fire, emergency shelter, and appropriate knowledge to use all items correctly and for one's own benefit.