Any of these factors may put you behind schedule, out after dark, etc. or bring you to a halt altogether.
On the Trail
While you are on a designated trail physical injury or mishap may come as a result of these factors:
- Being out of shape
- Becoming dehydrated
- Being/becoming ill
- Pulling a muscle
- A simple slip on a sandy/wet rock (causing bruises, sprains, or fractures)
- A sudden rain or snow storm (causing hypothermia, poor footing or poor visibility)
- Downed trees
- High water at stream crossings (the last two are common in spring and may render the trail impassable)
- Animal encounter
Losing the trail
Losing the trail can easily occur, even with the experienced hiker. Contributing factors include:
- A rocky or sandy area (the trail is hard to see; it takes a sharp turn but you forge straight ahead)
- Following a false trail made by other lost souls
- Being/becoming ill
- Mistaking a drainage ditch at a switchback for the real trail
- Snow on the trail
- Detouring around windfalls (downed trees) or around a bad stream crossing
- An inadequate map
- Out after dark with/without a light
- Going off trail to find a photo op
- Deliberately trying for a shortcut (shortcut a switchback, only to have the trail turn the other way).
Off the trail
Hiking off trail can be adventurous and fun if you are familiar with and comfortable using a compass and map. Experienced cross-country hikers (even map and compass instructors) are known to get lost when conditions aren't ideal. The following factors should be considered before veering off of the designated trail:
- Taking off cross-country without really knowing the terrain ahead
- Going down or up terrain you can't reverse, without knowing if your path will succeed. If it doesn't you are stuck. Being stuck, if no one knows you're there, means you are dead. You will die of starvation, dehydration, exposure, or boredom. Even if you aren't stuck, you may be too tired, etc., to get out safely.
- Trusting smooth, wet, sandy, mossy or loose rock for a foothold. Slipping on this stuff in your backyard or on the trail is one thing. Losing your footing next to a cliff or swiftwater is something else again.
- Getting careless next to, or in, streams, e.g., simply filling your water bottle, swimming above dangerous water, boulder hopping,wading across, etc.
- Current is stronger than you think. Cold water saps your strength and reflexes. Rocks are everywhere and hard. You'll be over a 15-foot drop before you know it. Whitewater is half air/half water-you can neither float in it nor breathe it. Hydraulics, entrapments, and strainers hold you under.
- Cliffs are obviously dangerous (innate fear of heights?). The dangers of whitewater may not be so obvious, and, when standing next to a stream, there is often no height difference to ring the alarm. The risks may have to be learned, hopefully not the hard way.
- Thinking your skills in one environment (e.g., a strong swimmer in surf) will transfer into a new one (e.g., swiftwater).
- Becoming complacent because nothing went wrong the last time you tried this stunt.
- Remaining ignorant of the dangers or solutions because you're too busy having fun to bother learning the serious stuff.
- Bad weather while off trail, if you're not equipped to deal with it and unable to get out quickly.
So, expect trouble, but don't expect a rescue. Be responsible for yourself by going prepared. In addition to learning to recognize the pitfalls above, a little gear and planning is in order.
How to avoid becoming lost or injured.
Before you leave:
- Know your route and the forecast (mountain weather is often unpredictable)
- Leave your plans with a friend
What to take - basic items per person (even for a short hike); don't let someone else carry your stuff:
- Flashlight (plus spare batteries and bulbs)
- Rain/wind/cold weather wear (can be very lightweight)
- Plenty of water (at least 3 liters of water per day per person)
- First-Aid items (Band-Aids, elastic bandages, etc)
- Your medicine
- Decent footwear
- Compass (make sure you know how to use it!)
- Let the smaller children carry their own light, whistle, etc (teach skills, responsibility, just like teaching them how to dial 911, how not to talk to strangers, etc)
- Fire starter (matches, fire ribbon)
- Emergency shelter
How not to get lost
Know the common pitfalls mentioned above. Watch for examples on the hike. Show these to your kids. Get into the habit of checking behind you periodically, to recognize your backtrail. Learn to watch for the first hint of disorientation.
IF YOU GET LOST
How to get found
- Leave the following with a friend: your plans, route, vehicle description and license #, recent photo, sole pattern and size, scent articles, gear description, and who/when to call. (and your cell phone number?)
- If separated, yell, whistle, stop and listen
- Kids: hug a tree
- Adults: STOP. Learn your surroundings, explore carefully, and be able to return to the last known point (pick something nearby that you can recognize at a distance, e.g. a tall dead tree).
- Sometimes it's better to stay put, sometimes to move, but know when to turn around or stop, and be willing to do so (remember the off-trail hazards, above). Down hill or down stream is not always the way out (there are often cliffs and waterfalls)
- Check your own pulse, recognize haste. Be willing to sit all night if you have no light. Even with one, off-trail travel at night can be risky. If you have to find or make a shelter, or gather firewood, do it before dark or before the storm comes in, not during.
If you can not get out on your own
- Stay near an open area, for visibility
- Make a signal: a brightly-colored pack, artificial patterns such as tracks in the snow, a signal mirror (not any old mirror), a flashlight, aerial flare, or fire at night and smoke by day (but watch that fire!!)
If a member of your party is missing
- Search for him or her, but preserve tracks, scent articles (clothing, pack, etc), belongings, witnesses, point-last-seen, camp, car, etc.
- Send for help, with a clear, complete, accurate report. Your report should include an exact location, what happened, if there is an injury, the missing person's medical background, if they are conscious, able to walk, etc.,
The vast majority of hikers never get into trouble and we're not advocating that you carry a 50-lb pack every time you go out in your backyard. Agencies like ours may have a warped perspective because we only meet the unfortunate minority. But in their cases, just a few pieces of gear and/or lessons learned might have made a big difference.