Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway, June 2017Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway, June 2017

Safety First - How To Protect Yourself on the Trail

September 04, 2020  •  1 Comment

With temps starting to gradually fall, we're all looking forward to getting out with our cameras to enjoy and photograph the autumn colors.  But I wanted to write a post I've not often seen much or discussed, SAFETY.  As I continue to add to my age, the body is getting older and some health issues are cropping up.  So safety when I'm hiking in the middle of nowhere and without cell phone coverage is important no matter what your age.  Anyone can easily slip or twist or break an ankle.  Not taking the proper safety precautions may put you in a dire situation.  So what can you do to mitigate some typical safety concerns?  The following suggestions won't be exhaustive by any means.  I'm sure many of you can provide many other important risk mitigators.

Use the Buddy System

This one is self-explanatory.  There is safety in numbers.  If you're heading out into the wilderness or just out of cell phone range, go out with a friend or two.  Then, in case something were to happen, there is someone to seek help and provide aid.

Inform Someone Where You Are Going

Again, a no brainer but how many times have you forgotten to do it.  Let someone know that you're heading out, where you'll be and approximately when you'll be back.  If you forget to check in, someone will know approximately where you are and can call for help.

Water / Snacks

While this may be obvious, having enough water with you is essential to your safety and comfort.  You are burning a lot of calories while hiking and you need to stay hydrated.  By the time you realize you have sun stroke, it could be too late.  Always have a few high energy snacks with you to provide a little bit of a boost while you're out on the trail.

Get an Emergency Beacon

I use a Garmin SE Reach+ GPS device for this purpose.  This unit has a "SOS" button.  When activated it will send your exact GPS coordinates to someone who will get help to you.  One word of caution.  The device must have a clear view of the sky.  If your are in a cave or a very thick forest, the device may not be able to connect to the satellite.  So be aware of that point.

also have the ability to text to provide information to first responders.  One thing I use all the time are its three predefined and "free" texts to your specified emergency contact.  For me, that's my wife.  Depending on the monthly plan you subscribe to, you only get so many texts before they get costly.  With the predefined texts I can tell my contact; (1) I'm starting my hike, (2) Something came up, I'm OK but will be late, or , (3) I'm on my way home.  The messages can be anything you choose.  

There are several other advanced features like downloading trail maps, setting waypoints, etc.

This unit is around $350 and I use the cheapest monthly plan of $13 per month.  Not cheap but is it worth your safety and peace of mind.  

Trail Tape

I always have a roll of orange trail tape with me.  Most of the time it isn't necessary as I'm on marked well-groomed trails.  But lately, I've been visiting new more remote waterfalls.  Trails are sketchy at best. So I use the tape to tie on tree branches along my way in so I can find my way out.  This has already saved me twice this year. This tape is only a few dollars.

Correct Footwear

This may be obvious but all too often I see people hiking with flip-flops.  I good pair of sturdy hiking boots will help protect your feet and provide much better support and footing.  Trails can be slippery and feet slip. Protect yourself from twisting an ankle or foot or little biting bugs.  Some trails can be along high ridges or with steep drop-offs.  If you lose one of the flip-flops, you're stuck with a bare foot.

Whistle and Flashlight

These are not expensive and could save your life.  Just last year a friend and I were down in the Linville gorge in western North Carolina shooting a waterfall during autumn.  We had absolutely perfect conditions and were having a load of fun.  Time got away from us and we realized that we stayed past sunset and it was quickly getting dark.  The hike up the trail isn't easy even in the daylight but doing it in the dark would have been impossible.  But we had flashlights with us.  Even with those, it was challenging, and a bit creepy I might add, climbing up in the darkness.  It was very disorienting.  Had we not had the flashlights, we would have been staying the night in very cold conditions.

Whistles are obviously for calling for help or letting your hiking partner know where you are.  Recently, a whistle proved very helpful during a hike.  Normally when I photograph with someone, we agree to stick relatively close together.  But this time, I went back up the trail and off trail a bit.  In the dense woods, I couldn't be seen.  But with the whistle, I was able to let my friend know where I was.

Hiking Poles

Hiking with poles might be something most people just do not want to bother with.  When I shoot waterfalls, I'm often in the stream. Poles come in very handy for me to provide extra balance when I'm maneuvering on slippery rocks.  For me, they also take pressure off my legs as I'm using my arms and shoulders to climb uphill.

In western North Carolina, I'm always out in the deep woods.  We have two poisonous snakes here, copperheads and rattlesnakes.  Lovely, right?  While I primarily use my poles for support, they come in very handy when checking for snakes.  I never step over a log or reach up somewhere I can't see without taking my pole and doing a little probing.  They come in handy too when I'm off trail and I can use them to clear leaves in front of me in case a snake is around.  I've been very fortunate that in five years living here, I've never seen one.  Oh, one thing I've learned is that rattlesnakes don't always use their rattler to let you know you're too close so be careful.  

No Brainers...maybe

Some obvious things you might also have with you in your car are sun screen, bug spray, and a first aid kit.  I do keep a first aid kit in my car.  But that won't do me much good if I need it out on a trail.  But you can only carry so much in your bag.   If you live in bear country, don't forget bear spray and know how to us it.  In NC we have plenty of black bears but they are not normally aggressive towards humans so I forego spray.  If it's hunting season, wearing bright clothing or baseball cap could also be a good safeguard.  

For Those on Blood Thinners

My doctor put me on blood thinners earlier this year.  I really didn't think much about it.  That is, until recently.  A few weeks ago I was out, by myself, visiting a new waterfall, which was definitely off the beaten path.  While climbing around the wet rocks, my foot slipped and my knee banged a bit on a rock.  Not thinking much about it, I finished up and climbed back up to my car and headed home.  When I got home and showered, I realized my knee had become very swollen and was beginning to hurt.

​​​​​​​Since I was on a blood thinner I was concerned I still might be continuing to bleed around the knee.  I had it checked out and it was fine but three weeks later I still have a big knot below my knee.  So I'll be seeing a doctor about the best way to hopefully drain whatever is left in there.

But it got me thinking about what if something else had happened like slipping and cracking my head.  Instead of getting a good bump and a headache, I might be in some real trouble.  So, while extreme as it is, I'm going to take extra precautions going forward.  I'll be wearing a helmet along with elbow and knee pads.  My doctor thought that was very advisable for anyone on blood thinners.

Be Safe Out There

I hope you found this post useful.  The items I mentioned are largely very light and won't weigh you down.  Most of us don't really consider hiking as dangerous.  Most of the time, that's absolutely correct.  But you don't expect your house to burn down either but we all have insurance just in case.  The measures above could be life saving on the trail just in case something unexpected happens.  Stay safe.


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