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Important Things To Know When Hiking Off Trail

By James and Terry Hyde, R.N., B.S.N.

New England Poet Robert Frost wrote, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" in one of his many classic poems, and indeed there's something fascinating about the pristine New England wilderness that compels us to wander into the region's wondrous forests simply because of how peaceful they are. To many adults looking for a break from the confines of the nine-to-five cubicle, the forest is as alluring as is an arcade to a kid who's been in a classroom for too long.

With so much New England forestland begging exploration, hiking is one of the favored pastimes for those who visit here in the spring, summer and fall, whether it be on a recreation path, an established hiking trail of off trail.

Of those options, the last can be the most enjoyable and challenging, but also the most dangerous, even for experienced hikers. It's with off-trail hiking that you can get into a serious jam. That's especially so if the weather changes and you're off trail in a sudden snowstorm, rain or a thick fog.

This article offers some safety tips culled from personal experience, as well as the hiking trials and tribulations of others, and offers some ways to avoid getting lost, injured, or worse. Before you decide to heed the call of the wild, consider ten potential problems that could challenge even the most seasoned hiker.

First. Make sure you have the right hiking boots, good socks and clothing for your hike. Actually, you should have a good backpack in which you can store a change of clothes in case you fall into a river or get caught in the rain.

HikingStaying dry is critical if you get lost and have to rough it until you get found. Wearing shorts on a summer hike is fine, but make sure you use sprays to keep mosquitoes and other insects at bay. Deet works best on mosquitoes, even though some folks object to its use. We're concerned about what works, not what somebody else thinks we should use.

Nonetheless, there are natural alternatives at most sporting goods stores. It's particularly important to keep mosquitoes off. They carry a number of encephalitis-type diseases, some of which can be life threatening. Ticks, especially the smaller ones, are well known for carrying Lyme Disease.

Second. Make sure you know how to use some basic hiking tools. Read and learn before you head off into the thick, dark yonder. Learning the fundamentals will do two major things: 1. Teach you what to look for to enjoy, such as wild flowers, wildlife and the wonder of nature itself; and 2. Warn you about the dangers posed by wild flowers, wildlife and nature.

Importantly, you should carry with you short narrow strips of fluorescent-colored plastic and as you go along, "blaze" your trail by tying the plastic strips to branches. On your way back out, please don’t forget to untie them and put them in your pocket. It's important to walk out of a forest as clean or cleaner when you exit.

Third. The potential for getting lost rises in direct proportion to one's lack of understanding of the terrain ahead of and behind you. You need to have a fundamental idea about what you'll encounter, such as: rivers, streams, cliffs, etc. by looking at a map (preferably a topographical map that shows elevations in the terrain) before you start out. The smarter thing to do is to buy and learn how to use a GPS monitor. GPS stands for "global positioning satellite," and using a hand-held GPS monitor, you can tell exactly where you are at any given time.

These are particularly important if you do get lost, but can still use your cell phone. You can call for help and give them your precise location, then just wait for them to get you.

Fourth. If you're new to an area, in addition to knowing something about the terrain, you'll also need to know if you can reverse an unmarked trail if you encounter a situation that could leave you trapped otherwise.

The great danger here is that because you're off trail, people won't know where to look for you. That leaves you exposed, and unless you're experienced in the wild, you face dehydration, malnourishment and the elements, any one of which can be a very serious threat.

HikingIf you're going hiking off trail, let someone know, even if it's your hotel's concierge, and let him or her know approximately when you expect to return. In addition, to find your way back, check how to blaze a trail in Number Two above.

Fifth. Watch your step when you're near a stream or river. Many people, confident that they're coordinated enough to stoop down to fill their canteens, sometimes find a riverbank a less-than-reliable foothold and find themselves falling in. Wet clothing, especially wet socks, can turn into a very serious problem in the wild. Remember too that river boulders can be notoriously slippery, especially after rain, so if you jump from one rock to another, look for the driest spot on each rock and aim for it.

Sixth. If you find yourself having to cross a river, remember that in water only one foot deep, a fast current can knock you off balance surprisingly fast, especially if you're on mossy rocks at the bottom of the riverbed.

Make sure you cross where the river or stream is narrowest and the current is relatively slow. If you fall, grab onto a boulder, tree or anything solid to prevent being swept downstream where you may wind up in white water. Even though white water is loaded with air, you still can't breath in it, and a hydraulic (the point at which water cascades downward like a water fall and churns the water at the bottom of the fall), can trap and pin you under water, unable to either escape or breathe.

Seventh. Hiking near a ravine, cliff or steep mountainside can be a major challenge to many less experienced hikers. Beware of slippery surfaces (moss, sandy soil, loose rocks, dead trees and wet leaves) when you're walking near the edge.

HikingEighth. Wildlife encounters with small critters don't present much of a threat unless that cute, furry little beastie is a raccoon or skunk wandering around in the daytime and acting oddly.

Both raccoons and skunks are nocturnal, so if they're walking around during the day, steer clear. They could have rabies, and animals with rabies tend to get very aggressive. Getting sprayed by a skunk is far less of a problem than is being bitten by a rabid one. For encounters with other animals, please see, Wild Animals links on the Safety Survival Home Page.

Ninth. You played football, lacrosse, hockey and baseball and you think you're in shape, so why worry about a walk through the woods? No big deal, right? Not necessarily.

It can be very easy to start the journey convinced that all will go well... until you encounter something completely unexpected and haven't a clue how to deal with it, or that climbing a hill that looked like a snap took much more out of you than you thought it would.

You want to enjoy your hike, not get winded by it. When you expend a lot of energy and moisture, you need to replace it, especially water. But beware of brook and river water, which may appear crystal clear. It's what the human eye can't see that's dangerous. A river, stream or brook may contain various parasitic protozoa that can make you dreadfully ill. The only way to make brook or river water safe is through filtration, with iodine (which comes in various forms and can be purchased at most sports stores) or by boiling it for at least ten minutes.

Tenth. To avoid an encounter with larger animals, it's a good idea to make noise as you go along by whistling or occasionally shouting. Playing the harmonica works, as well. This works particularly well with black bear and moose that inhabit the woods throughout most of New England. If you should see one, never approach a bear, moose or a deer.

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