How to stay safe in the woods

by jwisinski

Walking in the woods is usually a wonderful experience, but it has one potential drawback - it's potentially dangerous. These tips will help keep you safe.

Being in the woods is usually a wonderful experience. It's great exercise and you can enjoy fresh air and great scenery.

There are other great things about being in the woods, too. For one, it's inexpensive; you can always find free trails, and even if there is a charge it's usually nominal. And hiking connects you with others. If you're hiking a remote trail and happen to run across another hiker, it would be rare to not stop and chat. What other activity can you think of where just participating at the same place and time gives you instant friendship?

I can think of just one potential drawback to being in the woods - it's potentially dangerous. Hazards range from almost invisible insects to bears to "the most dangerous animal of all." You also have to watch out for bad weather and dehydration. Then there's the ever-present possibility of getting lost.

All this is not to discourage you from going into the woods, whether it's for hiking, hunting or just for a walk. On the contrary, being in the woods is a great joy; I recommend the experience for anyone. But you do want to stay safe.

So, here, then, are 10 tips for staying safe while in the woods.

Avoid hiking accidents

Hiking in the woods often involves looking at beautiful scenery, especially if you're in the mountains. The tendency, then, is to look around at the views such as the one on the right, which is on the Appalachian Trial between Newfound Gap and Charlie's Bunion. That's great, but it's too easy to therefore ignore the dangers of being on a hiking trail. Those dangers include rocks, ruts, roots, rattlesnakes and rabbits. (Well, rabbits may be overrated as a danger, but the others are very real!)
Here are some tips for avoiding accidents in the woods.

Take the long view You may have heard this advice when you learned to drive a car, and it's good advice. Don't focus your eyes nearby; look far ahead. You'll spot potential dangers in time to avoid them and enjoy the view more, too.

Keep your eyes busy Even though your focus should normally be far away, keep switching your view from far to near and back again. It sounds silly to call our tendency to not do this laziness, but it really is. So don't be lazy; keep your eyes constantly moving and your focus continually changing. You'll spot potential dangers whether they're nearby or far away.

Don't hurry, especially when tired One tendency on the trail, especially when you get near the end of your hiking for the day, is to hurry. That's when accidents happen. Haste and fatigue are a bad combination. Instead, as the day nears its end, make an effort to slow down. Take shorter steps and more frequent breaks. These practices are contrary to our natural tendency, but can save you from a potential accident.

Use a hiking pole If you've never used a hiking pole, you're missing out on a very valuable piece of safety equipment. A hiking pole will potentially save you from many falls.

Apart from keeping you safe, a pole carries other advantages. When you're climbing hills, the pole will cut down on the effort needed. When going down hills it will reduce wear on your knees. And the pole is a good potential weapon if an unfriendly dog heads your way.

The only question is whether to use one pole or two. I personally prefer just one, but many hikers like two. I'd suggest trying both ways and seeing what you prefer. Your stick doesn't have to be expensive. You can find a wide variety of poles on Amazon. Some even double as other tools, such as a monopole to mount your camera on.

Watch out for wildlife

In general, the old saying is true - animals are more afraid of you than you are of them. There are a couple of exceptions, which I'll discuss below, but be aware that in most cases it doesn't matter if an animal is afraid of you or not; many can still hurt you. So here are tips for dealing with four types of wildlife you may find in the woods.

Ask people what dangers exist in the woods, and many would first say "bears." But in reality, there's little danger of being attacked by a bear. Most bears don't want to meet you any more than you want to meet them.

My Dad used to tell the story of seeing a black bear in the Pennsylvania mountains. Dad immediately turned and ran. Looking back over his shoulder he saw the bear running too . . . in the opposite direction! The bear wanted nothing more to do with Dad than Dad with the bear. With respect to my late father, running from the bear wasn't the best course of action. Usually bears will avoid humans. The exception, of course, is getting between a mother and her cubs.

If a bear does act assertively toward you, talk to the animal and back away slowly. According to the National Park Conservation Association, if a black bear attacks, you should fight back. But if attacked by a grizzly, play dead.

I hate snakes! I admit it. Yet an inevitable part of hiking or biking is seeing snakes. In fact, I've seen so many snakes I guess I'm starting to get used to them; they don't scare me as much as they used to. But I still am a bit wary about seeing them, even though I know that the chance of a bite from a venomous snake is small.

If you're hiking in the U.S., there are only four types of venomous snakes to watch for: rattlesnakes, copperheads, coral snakes and water moccasins, which are sometimes called cottonmouths. (There are numerous subspecies though.) About 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by venomous snakes each year; seven to ten of those people die from the bite.

In most snakebite cases, the victim was attempting to pick up, kill or otherwise disturb the snake. The best way to avoid snakebite, then, is obvious: leave them alone.

Although they're not wildlife, domesticated dogs can be dangerous to hikers, too. Just about every hiker has been approached by dogs on the trail. One question when a dog approaches is this: Is the animal a friend or a foe? Sometimes you can't tell until he's got his fangs in your nice, juicy leg.

Some hikers recommend carrying pepper spray to discourage dogs, but I see three problem with sprays.

* They are an extra expense
* They are extra weight to carry
* You have to take the time to grab the spray when attacked

Instead, I suggest using a hiking stick for protection. Chances are you are carrying a stick anyway, so it serves double duty. I've found that swinging a hiking stick at a dog discourages the most ferocious animal. I've never had to actually hit a dog with my hiking stick, although I'm prepared to do so if necessary. I have swung a stick back and forth like a sword at dogs as they've charged, and found that action to be quite effective in stopping the animal in its tracks. I can almost see the dog thinking, "You know, it might not be a good idea to continue this. I think I'll back off."

Another advantage to a hiking stick: if the dog turns out to be friendly you won't hurt it. Such is not the case with pepper spray.

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Beware of the most dangerous animal of all

What is the most dangerous animal? The answer may surprise you.

What would you say is the most dangerous animal?
* Bears, with their insatiable appetites and awesome strength?
* Venomous snakes, with their quick striking ability?
* Dogs, which can turn vicious in a moment no matter how benign they seem?

No, no and no.

The most dangerous animal is smart, aggressive, can strike anytime and doesn't even need a motive to hurt or kill.

It's mankind.

In truth, hikers probably have bigger issues to worry about than attacks by humans. Yet cases exist of hikers being senselessly killed. It's believed that nine hikers have been murdered on the Appalachian Trail since 1974.

But some point out that three to four million people hike the AT each year, and the incidence of crime is actually low compared to, say, three or four million living in a metropolitan area.

As always, your best defense is common sense. If you don't like the looks of someone you meet while on a trail, avoid them. If you feel threatened, call authorities. Often if a potential threat knows you have alerted authorities he will leave you alone. And don't be afraid of looking timid because you want to alert someone that you feel threatened. That's far better than being hurt.

If you're lost, walk downhill

I only half-jokingly say that I've never been lost in the woods. Sometimes I didn't know where I was, but I wasn't lost. That's kind of true, because to me, being lost implies that you have no idea how to get out of your predicament, but if you merely don't know where you're at, then you do know how to eventually reach civilization again.

So here's the tip - walk downhill. This is good advice for two reasons. One, people who are lost in the woods tend to walk in circles. Even if we think we're walking in a straight line, we actually do tend to circle. (This may have happened to you, e.g., "Haven't I seen that rock formation before?") But walking downhill helps you to maintain a more or less straight line, because you know if you are suddenly walking on a side hill or uphill you might be circling.

The exception to the "you must be circling" statement is that you reached a valley and are now walking up another mountain. But you don't want to do that; you want to see which way the valley slopes and head toward the lowest side. That leads me to the second reason you want to keep walking downhill - if you do, eventually you're going to run across a small stream, because water, of course, always seeks the lowest elevation. Once you reach a stream, follow it downstream and it will usually merge with another stream. That stream will, in turn, merge with another, larger stream, which merges with another, etc. Keep following the streams downhill and eventually one of them will cross a road, and you're out of the woods!

Sure, you still have to get back to your car or home, but being on a road is far better than being lost in the woods. At least you have a chance of meeting someone who can take you, or at least direct you, to safety.

Bring your cell phone

I know the arguments against having a cell phone in the woods. But one could save your life.

Yes, I know all the anti-technology arguments. "Technology ruins the experience." "Technology annoys others." "My great-grandfather spent his whole life in the woods and he didn't have a cell phone." "Blah, blah, blah."

Forget all the arguments. Bring your cell phone. There's no law that says you have to use the phone while in the woods. In fact, you may not have a signal (more about that in a minute). But there's no substitute for a phone in reaching help quickly.

Let's use an example. Say you and a fellow hiker are two hours deep in the woods when you slip, fall and break a leg. Neither of you has a phone, so your only choice is for your buddy to hike out of the woods (two hours), find help (who knows how long that will take) and then lead your rescuers back to you (another two hours). Alternately, if you have a phone your buddy can call 911 for help (virtually zero minutes) and your rescuers can start on their way almost immediately, reaching you in two hours. The time difference is at least two hours.

Furthermore, if you buddy has to hike out for help you're going to be there by yourself for those four plus hours. You'd prefer that to having your friend with you, comforting you and attending to your needs? Really?

Just bring your cell phone. It might save someone's life, maybe even yours.

Know about being able to text

Even if you can't call, you might be able to text.

Now, as I said, you may not have a cell phone signal if you're deep in the woods. But, not many people know that you can often text even if you can't talk.

Here's a personal example. I was once hiking on the Appalachian Trail
in Georgia from Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain and back. The first part of this hike consists of climbing a mountain called Rocky Mountain, which is about a mile or so from Unicoi Gap. I had just reached the top of Rocky Mountain when, rather to my surprise, I received a text message from a friend.

The point is, I was deep in the woods. Unicoi Gap is, in and of itself, in the proverbial middle of nowhere (about halfway between the North Georgia metropolises of Helen and Hiawassee). Rocky Mountain, then is really in the toulies, the boondocks, the backwaters, the sticks or however you want to express it. Yet I was able to receive a text.

Furthermore, my friend and I texted back and forth several times over the next few hours. The point is, no matter how deep in the wilds I was the texting function on my phone worked, even though I would not have been able to make or receive a phone call from there.

While I'm on the topic of using a cell phone in the woods, let me also suggest that you bring a mobile charger for your phone.

If you really have a philosophical objection to bringing a phone into the woods, at least invest in a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. These excellent devices will send a check in message or a help message at the touch of a button.

Know about hydration

It's hot. Or not. Either way, you're sweating. Bring water.
Dehydration occurs when your body loses more fluid than it takes in. This can easily occur even if you're in the shade in the woods, especially if the weather is hot and humid and you're working hard.

Symptoms of dehydration include dry mouth, excessive thirst, and dizziness or lightheadedness. Although mild dehydration is usually not serious, obviously getting dizzy is a problem for hikers because of the danger of falls. Severe dehydration can have serious medical consequences.
The best cure for dehydration is prevention: make sure you bring along plenty of water and other non-alcoholic fluids. If you begin to experience mild dehydration, take in more fluids.

As a rule, I like to carry one pint (16 ounces) of water or sports drink for each hour I plan to hike. Of course, that means one pint per person.

Tip: Don't carry your water in your hands, for two reasons. One, you can't carry enough by hand, and two, you need to keep your hands free for safety purposes. Instead, buy a fanny pack or back pack and carry your sports drink or water there. A backpack or fanny pack is also useful for carrying protein bars.

Avoid hypothermia

It doesn't have to be very cold for hypothermia to set in

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat and body temperature drops below 95 degrees F. Contrary to popular belief, hypothermia doesn't occur only in temperatures that are freezing or below. It can happen in relatively moderate temperatures, especially if the hiker gets wet. Left untreated, hypothermia can result in death.

Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, lack of coordination, slurred speech, confusion, low energy and apathy. One danger with hypothermia is that sufferers may make poor decisions, such as going for a walk while not dressed warmly enough. That causes a further drop in body temperature, and the vicious cycle begins.

If you think you're beginning to suffer from hypothermia, move to a warm, dry location. Replace cold, wet clothing with warm, dry clothes. Drink warm beverages and cover yourself with a warm blanket.

Prevent heat exhaustion

I was on a 80-plus mile bike ride in central Florida in July. That's not unusual; I often ride that distance even in summer. But as I approached the last 15 miles on this day I knew something wasn't quite right. I was tired, even weak. I felt a bit lightheaded. I begin stopping every few miles for water; it didn't help much.

I made it home without incident, but I was exhausted. I slept for a couple of hours but was still wiped out for most of the rest of the day.

I'm not sure I recognized it then, but I believe now that I was experiencing heat exhaustion. I was fortunate, though. My condition didn't progress into the much more serious heat stroke, which is a medical emergency.

Although, as I said, that experience happened to me during a bike ride, the same can happen while in the woods.

Follow these tips to avoid heat exhaustion.

* Avoid long hikes in high heat and humidity
* Drink plenty of fluids. Don't wait until you're thirsty, drink water or other healthy liquids early and often
* Take breaks to cool off and rest
* If you think you're starting to suffer from heat exhaustion, stop your hike if possible
* If symptoms progress, get medical help. Don't allow your condition to progress into heat stroke.

Stay safe in thunderstorms

They can be beautiful, but can also be deadly

The conventional wisdom when thunderstorms approach is to get inside a building. Obviously, that's often not feasible when you're hiking because you may be far from any building. So, how can you protect yourself?

Find a low spot, away from tall trees, preferable a depression or ditch (watch for flash floods though)

If lightning is hitting nearby, crouch down (don't lie down). Lean your head forward and keep your hands off the ground.

If you're carrying any metal, such as a metal-frame pack or a metal hiking stick, put it down at least 100 feet from where you'll take shelter.

If you're hiking with others, stay at least 20 feet apart.

Furthermore, you should avoid spots where lightning is most likely to hit. Places to avoid include:

* The tallest trees
* Hills
* Water
* Open spaces

According the National Lightning Safety Institute, the danger from lightning usually isn't over until no thunder and no lightning have been observed for 30 minutes.

Updated: 04/07/2013, jwisinski
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Rose on 01/25/2014

What a great article. It definitely pays to be careful.

katiem2 on 04/07/2013

I love the outdoors, hiking repelling and exploring are three of my favorite outdoor adventures. Thanks for the useful tips to stay safe and sound. :)K

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