Essential Safety Advice from Retired Park Rangers
Every year, hundreds of Americans get lost, injured and even die while hiking through remote sections of national parks and other wild spots in the United States. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees shares these five survival tips for safer summer or fall hiking.
1. Have a plan and share it. Whether hiking solo or in a group, you need to become familiar with the area in which you will be hiking, including the hazards and the expected weather. The process of getting ready should include reviewing maps of the area, briefing all members of your group on the selected route, having a turn-around time, and developing alternate route selections. Let someone know where you are going, when, your departure point, your planned route, and expected time of return.
A tip for when you are under way: It's always a good idea to pay attention to landmarks from all angles, as these "markers" sometimes will change dramatically in appearance depending on light, elevation and your angle of observation.
2. Make sure your equipment, clothing and food are up for the trip. Test your equipment before leaving. Having a little extra clothing may weigh a bit more, but it is worth it when things go sour. The same rule of "a little extra can't hurt" applies to food and drink. Better to lug around more than to be stranded with less than you need to survive.
3. Know your limits - and those of everyone you're hiking with. A military unit travels at the speed of its slowest member and that is a good way to think about hiking. Constant communication is also key: If traveling in a group, you should use a buddy system. Check your partners for energy levels, blisters, food consumption and fatigue to prevent problems down the trail.
4. Always bring proper emergency equipment. Make sure you have a first-aid kit that includes band-aids, medical tape, over-the-counter pain relievers, moleskin, anti-bacterial ointment and a compress or two, and spare batteries. If traveling in a group, have a "community" first-aid kit with additional splints, pads and braces. Other recommended items include extra matches, needle and thread, a flare, a mirror and a whistle. Remember, splints can also be improvised using branches, pack frames, blankets, coats, sleeping bags, etc.
5. Know what to do if things go bad. Park rangers typically encourage hikers in genuine distress to "hug a tree," which means staying where you are until help comes to you. You can last a long time with the gear you have with you. Whistles, mirrors and cell phones (when they work) are priceless. A lost person who wanders around aimlessly - especially in inclement weather - can turn a merely bad situation into a truly tragic one. It is better to be lost and then found (even if a little embarrassed) than to be carried out of the wilderness in a body bag. When traveling in a group, if someone sustains an injury, good judgment is required to determine if it is safe to proceed or better to send someone (two people, if possible) back for help or to wait for help.
Updated August 2012