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Stay safe on the trails

Stay safe on the trails
A picnic table on the Grey Pine trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. No matter how long the hike, carry everything you need to stay safe should you get lost or suffer an injury.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Tracy Salcedo

He was clearly an experienced hiker. He was wearing the proper clothing, carrying a day pack loaded with water and other supplies, and using a walking stick. He was also slowly, painstakingly, bushwhacking up a steep hill, trying to get back on the established trail after heading cross-country up the creek in search of another trail; one not on the map.

At first, he declined my assistance — not that there was much I could do. He was about 25 yards downhill, and the slope was nearly vertical. He was using brush and his stick to keep his footing, and concentrating very hard. I walked on a short distance, not wanting to be a bother, but then stopped and waited, and when I didn’t see him reach the trail in what I thought was the right amount of time, I went back to check on him.

He wasn’t far off the main track but still struggling, and a fall would be, at best, bruising and, at worst, disastrous. He accepted my help now, but I couldn’t do much more than cheerleading and offering suggestions on the best way up. Another hiker joined me on the uphill side, and together we pulled him onto the trail proper, rested with him, made sure he was truly alright, and then saw him on his way.

The encounter was kindly and ended well but was a reminder that all of us, no matter how experienced, should be prepared when we head off into the woods. Some things to keep in mind: – No matter how long the hike, carry everything you need to stay safe should you get lost or suffer an injury. Your day pack should contain, at minimum, water (1 to 2 liters, depending on your hike length), snack food (fruit and nut bars are a lightweight, compact option that pack good energy), layers of clothing (a lightweight jacket, hat, and gloves), a first aid kit (bandages, antiseptic wipes, and painkillers), and toiletry items (a shovel, toilet paper, and ziplock bags so you can pack it out).

– To summon help your cellphone is a good option, but it must be charged and have service. Better yet: Carry an InReach or SPOT device, which uses satellite technology and has an “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” emergency button. Also carry a whistle, either around your neck or attached to the front strap of your day pack.

– Cellphone apps, like AllTrails, are great options for choosing trails to follow, but directions and trail conditions are crowdsourced and not always reliable or current. OuterSpatial ( incorporates data from managing agencies (parks departments, national forests, etc.), and is more reliable and accurate. Better yet: Carry a map and compass (or a guidebook); their batteries never die, and the people who put them together are professionals.

– Hike with a partner or in a group. A companion can talk you out of doing something dicey, help in an emergency, and be entertaining. If you choose to hike solo (and I often do), make sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return.

– Be realistic about your physical abilities. Let’s face it: Very few of us are athletic marvels or have just completed a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. You can (and should) challenge yourself on occasion, but even when you do, select hikes with mileages, elevation gains, and trail surfaces that match your level of fitness and experience.

– Be aware of weather conditions. Heat stroke and hypothermia are both deadly; learn the symptoms.

– Wear good shoes. Wear a hat. Wear sunscreen.

– Be prepared to turn around. No rule says you have to get to the top, or to trail’s end, especially if you’re tired, hurt, or just not in the mood.

– Stay on established trails. Not only will you avoid the unpleasantness of poison oak and stinging nettle, you’ll also protect fragile ecosystems and not contribute to erosion.

– Leave no trace. This mindset is weightless and takes up no room in your pack, but it’s growing more important as more people head off into the wilderness. Natural beauty and solace won’t remain natural beauty and solace if they’re buried in trash and poop.