What every hiker needs to know: It's no walk in the park

Len Lisenbee

Last year I read about a trio of young Boy Scouts hiking along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania when one of them got into a bit of trouble. It seems he tried reaching a point along a small cliff, and lost his footing instead.

Hiking with a companion is always a great idea to make sure you're safe on the trail.

He fell around 30 feet, breaking his ankle and suffering some cracked or bruised ribs. But not to worry, he was expected to make a full recovery.

It took a team of 12 rescue experts more than half a day to reach the hapless lad, secure him on a stretcher, and carry him out to safety. I found it a little humorous when one of them said the lad’s ankle was so well splinted when they arrived that they left it alone until reaching the hospital. I believe that means a merit badge for one or both of his companions.

This news story points to a very important lesson for anyone who utilizes any part of our outdoor world. The Appalachian Trail is without any doubt one of our most heavily traveled hiking areas. But never forget that almost all wild places, regardless of how well-traveled they might be, can still be dangerous if we let down our guard.

Cliffs, drop-offs, loose rock areas, shale ledges and steep slopes are not the only danger faced by hikers almost anywhere in the hills and mountains of the eastern United States, including this part of New York.

Len Lisenbee

There are loose or moss-covered rocks that might slip or give way, causing a fall. Deadfalls (leaning dead trees) and hanging tree limbs from recent storms could fall at any time. And injuries of all types seem to happen when we are least expecting them.

The main fact that every hiker must remember is that something as simple as a severely sprained or twisted ankle can easily become a life or death situation if the hiker isn't prepared with at least a few basic items.

Basic safety while afield starts long before the outdoors person leaves home. Informing some reliable person about where (at least generally) the hiker is planning to go and how long he or she plans to be gone usually takes five minutes or less, yet it can be the most important step any person can take toward their continued survival should an accident overtake them on the trail. Being able to start a search early and in the right area is an essential element of an early rescue.

The second thing hikers can do to improve the chances they won't get into a serious fix is to always go with at least one reliable friend. Two persons on such an excursion almost always ensures that both will survive any but the most extremely serious situations.

The partner can either go for help or stay with the injured person and create signals for rescuers, depending on the circumstances of the accident.

Toting along a few items that weigh less than 10 pounds in a fanny pack won't slow anyone down or limit their activities while afield. Yet, such a pack can contain most of the essentials for survival under even the most adverse conditions.

So here is the scenario: You are on a solo hike (you failed to follow suggestion No. 2 above) when you step in a woodchuck hole and suddenly find that you can no longer walk.

It is late in the day and night is coming on fast. No one will miss you and raise an alarm before dark, but you did remember to carry along your survival fanny pack.

The first item in the pack should be a fully charged cell phone in good operation condition. While it may not receive any service in some of the more remote locations, it is surprising how far it will send and receive in many locations. A satellite phone might possibly be a better choice, but purchase expense and monthly fees will probably be greater.

Next, I would opt for a box or two of "waterproof" matches or a butane lighter, or both (around $1 each). Being able to start a small fire does wonders for a person's positive mental outlook when the chips are down.

And it makes finding someone much easier. Even a small campfire can be spotted from a mile or more away at night. And adding a little moist or green wood or damp leaf litter means generating a column of smoke, a definite plus for daytime rescues.

Nights in the Finger Lakes or Southern Tier counties, even during the summer, can get downright chilly. But not too many people want to carry a sleeping bag along on a short hike or day-trip.

That's why having a small "survival" plastic-metallic blanket or two in the pack can ensure a much warmer night then just sleeping on the ground, even with a fire nearby (around $15).

A small container of water is always a useful item to tote along. A squeeze bottle like those on fancy bicycles carries between a pint and a quart of water. A boy scout-type canteen won't fit inside most fanny packs, but it is still a useful item when you need it.

And there is at least one model of fanny pack on the market that has a built-in canteen, holding around a quart of liquid when full. (A one-quart plastic squeeze bottle costs around $5.)

Food, especially useful food, is another handy item to tuck away in that fanny pack. A can of sardines or kipper snacks, a can of Vienna sausage or even a can of tuna or chunky ham or chicken will taste like a full-course gourmet meal during one of these ordeals (don’t forget an army-issue type can opener - $2).

Or, one of the freeze-dried meals that weighs around 2 ounces yet contains a lot of food value makes another good choice. It can be mixed with water right in the package it came in.

Granola is all right, and so is "trail-mix" fruit and nuts. But forget the candy bars. (Cost of any one of these items ranges from around $1 to $12.)

The last two items in the fanny pack should be a small first aid kit and a squeeze bottle of insect repellent or Avon's "Skin-So-Soft." The first speaks for itself, and there are several such kits available locally that are small, light in weight and well equipped (at around $25 or less).

The biting and stinging insects in certain local areas can be real pesky at times, which is why the second item is suggested (around $10).

All of the above items are available locally, and at very reasonable costs. The fanny pack itself will run around $15 to $45 dollars. But it will give the owner many years of service, which makes it a bargain regardless of price.

If, that is, it is filled with the right items and is remembered when it is time to take a hike.

Now here is my question for all of my 94 semi-regular readers. Can you think of anything else a hiker might want to carry along for safety?

If you have an idea, drop me a note at the email address below.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger's outdoor columnist. Contact him at lisenbee@ frontiernet.net