The rain had stopped just before daylight, leaving the forest floor soaked as the sun rose. Rainwater dripping off the leaves was beginning to slow its rhythm. A few vehicles parked at the trailhead were a sign the trail must be a popular one. We (the family and me) worked our way up the trail consisting of rock outcroppings; some of the trail was on exposed rock making for some slippery steps. With the trail just having a rain bath, the hike had an added element of adventure, or danger if attention to safety was ignored.
The family of four on the trail ahead of me had just arrived at the top of a waterfall. Although the waterfall was not extremely tall, the terrain surrounding it was bare stone – wet stone. The father was digging out his camera from his new backpack, while his wife and two kids were crawling away from the trail towards the crest of the waterfall.
I couldn’t help but stare at the dangerous situation unfolding before me, but I didn’t want to come off as a nosy intruder of their adventure. Then, the smaller of the two children began walking straight for the rock edge to watch the water fall.
Hiking is considered by most, a simple walk with no real planning necessary. That thinking has led to many unexpected overnight stays in the wild, injuries and even death. The simplest day hike should at least have a few thoughts of pre-planning to ensure a pleasant experience. Taking things like orienteering for granted can lead to trouble.
I know what you’re thinking. How could you get lost on a small loop trail or other short hike? Well, it happens. An attraction or distraction along an established trail can lead a hiker astray. A golden rule to hiking established trails is to stay on the trail. Not only will side tripping create a possible emergency for the hiker, the new path may encourage others to follow which may lead to damaging erosion or impact wildlife habitat.
Adding a map to your daypack will not only help keep you safe, it will keep you informed of interesting facts or sights along the way. A topographical map is best, especially when planning for physical limitations. Any steepness of the trail will be obvious on the ‘topo’ map, which will distinguish any surprises about incline and decline contours of the targeted trail. A GPS unit is a great orienteering tool, but it is an electronic device that can fail. Learning to use a compass correctly can be fun and a reliable back up.
I’ve heard many comments from other hikers while on the trail. One that always brings a smile is, “I don’t think I can make it back! I didn’t realize the trail was this long.” Well, a mile is still a mile, that’s for sure. Again, a bit of planning and being aware of what you’re about to get into will keep the trek fun. Be realistic when planning a hike and consider everyone’s physical abilities. As a 6’4” tall person and having a wife barely sprouting above feet, I normally hear, “Slow down!” Keep this in mind when kids are included. And, think of the extra weight a child clinging to your back will add if you misjudge their distance-covering capability and you become a human taxi.
A fully stocked backpack is not needed for a day’s trek, but a sufficient supply of drinking water should make every trip. Avoid drinking from natural water sources without purification treatment to avoid sickness. Include a few cereal bars to the daypack and a simple lunch if you plan to be on the trail all day. Whatever the menu, choose one that is high in carbohydrates for energy.
Many trails wind through scenic landscapes that skirt along tall river gorges, rock formations or cliffs. Such a trail was the scene of a tragic and deadly fall of a young girl who wandered from the designated trail. Today, a warning sign at this trailhead warns of the dangers that are present when caution is ignored. There are two signs actually, one placed by the Park Service and the second placed by the deceased girl’s family, pleading to trail users to follow rules and practice safe hiking to avoid another accident.
The scene described at the beginning, looked as if I was about to witness a similar accident. The mother saw her small child approaching the cliff’s edge and called for them to come back. The child slipped as she turned. The father leaped and grabbed her in a flash, stopping her from sliding over. She screamed as did her mother and siblings.
The expression of fear on the family’s faces was confirmation that a lesson was learned this day on the trail. The wonders of the wild are fascinating and walking among it is inspirational. Doing so with a bit of preparation and good judgment leads to a fantastic experience. If not, another tragic headline may appear in the next day’s newspaper.