Getting Lost or Separated While #Hiking and Controlling the Panic Response

I have been in several situations where panic on a hike has reared its ugly head.  The first was when we lost someone.  That individual got separated from the group on an unfamiliar trail; they did not stop and think.  Instead they gave in to panic and ran headlong down the trail, crossed a river multiple times, apparently at one point even thinking maybe they had passed us but never sat down to wait.

The next time panic almost struck was when we crossed over our trail without noticing it and ended up in a place where the map was unhelpful.  We then made a decision to go down a certain trail but it felt like it was going in the wrong direction.  I asked Mr. T to stop and told him it felt wrong. We decided to backtrack a little and then to use the compass to hike out to a road.  But at that point when we started heading in the wrong direction, I started to have a feeling of panic come on me. Fortunately or unfortunately there were five or six other people to whom I was responsible so I had to push down the panic and help make some decisions.

So what is panic?  One definition is that it is fear or fright that results in “unthinking behavior.” One example of panic that appears frequently is when people become frightened in a stadium and head for the exits trampling everything in their wake. There is no thinking in this situation.  They are running blindly for the exits.

If you are in the woods, and you panic, you can do things that can put you and your group into more danger.

I’m going to suggest a few things:

1.  Don’t give in to your fright. Focus on positive thoughts and avoid negativity.

2.  Slow things way down. Down make rash decisions. Sit down in the trail if you have to. Have a conversation and think about the things you can do to get yourself out of whatever bad situation you find yourself in.

3.  Don’t go running off through the woods without stopping and thinking about where you are and what your best course of action would be.  It might be backtracking the way you came. It might be using your compass to get to the nearest road.  Or it might be sitting and waiting for help.  But running in the wrong direction is liable to get you more lost than you already are so you have to think it through before you move on.

4. If you are the leader, it is important to convey a sense of confidence that everything will be okay. Giving in to personal feelings of panic will only cause the group to panic as well and that is not constructive. It is not going to resolve your problem whatever it is and may exacerbate it.

5.  If you have a hiker who is involved in an accident, you need to take stock of the situation, stabilize the individual, and then make a decision about how you are going to resolve it.  But if you give in to feelings of panic, you may not be able to handle the situation correctly which might cause a poor outcome for someone else.

In a nutshell, what it all boils down to is self control when an emergency comes up whether it is getting lost or dealing with an illness or accident. Panic is a natural response to a frightening situation but you must tell yourself that you can deal with it and then stop and take stock of where you are.  Once the situation has been resolved, it is okay to acknowledge those feelings and even share them.

Everyone has the potential to succumb to panic. The trick is to recognize what you are feeling and suppress it so that you can deal with whatever situation you find yourself in effectively.

Happy hiking!


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Random Thoughts on Taking Photographs

I really didn’t start off being a photographer. I actually just started off hiking, watching my feet, and snapping photos on the run! It wasn’t until I met this wonderful lady over in Spartanburg that I even thought my photos were anything special.  But once it was pointed out to me, I decided that maybe if I tried a little harder I could take better pictures.  But becoming a photographer is another story.  It is like any label that we take on, sometimes at first the ‘shirt’ doesn’t fit quite right and we struggle against it.  Eventually the title starts to be more comfortable and we can be okay with it.

It was kind of like that when I started leading group hikes. I was supposed to lead one hike and here I am 7 plus years later still leading them. And I’m okay with that.  Being a leader to me means being willing to take on the responsibility of the bad and the good even when it’s uncomfortable.

I spend a lot of my lunches wandering around trying to improve my skills.  Sometimes it’s a challenge when you know a place well but things are always changing so it’s not that hard to find something new in Greenville to photograph.  I have several cameras and am still working to master what I call the fancier model but sometimes I just pull out my Nikon Coolpix that I always have with me and take a shot or two.  I do take the smaller camera with me on hikes because it weighs less and I don’t worry as much about destroying it out in the woods or falling into the water with it!   When I do take my Sony, I have had to promise not to pull it out until we get to our destination because it will slow us down too much.

For me, photography is about seeing first.  If you don’t see something, you will never take a picture of it.  You have to see the leaf on the sidewalk, the raindrop on the window, or the leaves blowing down the street.  That is one shot I am going to try for next Fall!  I often stop to listen to the birds when I walk but I don’t have a camera lens that is suitable for birding. No matter. 

I once led a downtown hike where we explored the city with our senses which I guess to some people would seem rather odd.  But since I have the option of being able to experiment, I really enjoyed trying to see if I could get people to think about what they heard, and felt, and saw in a different light. There were a couple people who did get it so maybe I will try it again.  One of my fellow hikers took a photo on that hike and I could see she got me! Very encouraging. 

Every story is supposed to have an ending but every day is a new beginning and another picture waiting to be taken. Inspiration is everywhere!

Happy hiking!

TD Stage and Peace Center, Greenville, SC

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Hiking and Bad Weather: Lightning

Often while looking at stories about hiking, I come across what I want to call the ‘bad’ stories that happen to people.  In the last week, there were two deaths at a national park from lightning strikes and that has caused me to think about what to do if we are on a hike and a thunderstorm comes up.

The general advice is first not to hike when you know the forecast is calling for lightning and thunderstorms.  This is really a judgment call because in the Carolinas we often have a late afternoon shower in the summer, often scattered.  Most of the time we simply just go on ahead and hike because more often than not rain does not fall where we are. But while you are hiking, you need to be aware of the weather in case a storm comes up. We’ve been caught in a wind storm up near Roan Mountain on the AT (fortunately in the woods and not on the bald) and all we could do was sit tight until it passed. We were soaked but no worse for wear (as the saying goes).

If you do decide to hike, and this advice is for me as well, and it starts to thunderstorm, the advice is to try and get out of the weather if possible. Your car is a pretty safe place with all the windows closed. If you can’t, then what?

On a bald,  you will need to toss your hiking poles as far away from you as possible and squat on your pack, making yourself small until the storm passes.  Try and keep your feet from touching the ground directly.  If you are in the woods, surrounded by trees, the likelihood of being struck is less but tossing your poles as far away as possible is still a good idea along with your pack, and crouch down in place until the storm passes.  Stay at least 15 feet from another hiker but spread out more if possible (to try and avoid multiple victims).  You should choose the smallest stand of trees to squat under as the idea is lightning will hit the taller trees. Cover your ears and eyes.

Other advice is to avoid water and single trees as a high percentage of lightning strikes occur near these. Stay off your cell phone. And even though a cave or an overhang might appear cozy (and dry),  they are apparently not safe in a lightning storm.

Finally,  if you can hear the thunder, you can still be struck by lightning even though the storm might seem far away. This is your clue to seek shelter (if possible) or get prepared per the discussion above.

Hopefully you and I won’t need to take advantage of this advice but if we do we will be ready and know what to do.

Happy hiking!

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#Hiking Chinquapin Mountain, Glen Falls, Scaly Mountain (Highlands, NC)

Total Distance: About 10.8 miles combined distance

Difficulty: Strenuous due to mileage and elevation gain

Location: Near Highlands, North Carolina

Comments:  We started on the Glen Falls Trail, hiked up to Chinquapin Mountain for lunch, and then drove over to Osage Overlook to hike to Scaly Mountain.

Glen Falls (actually a series of 3 falls) and Chinquapin Mountain can be reached from the same trailhead. Once you see the third fall on the Glen Falls Trail, I would suggest turning around and going back to the trailhead. This trail was somewhat technical with lots of roots. Walk carefully. Chinquapin Mountain has a number of views. We did not make it to the one farthest away but thought the first view you come up to is probably the best.

The drive between trailheads is maybe less than five miles. The trip to Scaly Mountain starts across the road from the Osage Overlook and goes uphill on the Bartram Trail. Signage was good. There are two views a little distance apart at Scaly Mountain. I thought the first one was the best but I would visit both.

Views at Scaly Mountain were much better than at Chinquapin. If you only have time for one, I would pick Scaly Mountain.

Flowers: Fire Pink, Indian Pipe on the Scaly Mountain Trail (July); blueberries were not ripe yet; also Rhododendron

Parking: Good at both trailheads for multiple vehicles




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Being Prepared: Snakes and Snakebites While Hiking

I have been hiking in the Carolinas for over seven years and although we have seen plenty of snakes, we just recently had a snakebite on a hike. This is actually a very good result. On this particular hike, we were walking down a social trail as a cut to the Pinnacle Pass Trail in Jones Gap State Park in South Carolina. The person who was bit thought it was just a branch and ignored it. He did not realize until later in the day that he had been bitten because of the pain and swelling. This has given me occasion to think about snakes and snakebites and what we need to do if/when this ever happens again.

Most snakes will try to get off the trail when they feel you walking down the trail. But I have noticed that the few venomous snakes that we have seen don’t really seem to move much and will stay in place rather than move. We have come up on a rattlesnake on the bald at Drawbar Cliffs and a couple times in Pisgah Forest. None of them got off the trail and we had to go around them. My biggest worry on one of these occasions was my fellow hikers who wanted to get what I thought was too close to take a picture. Not worth it in my opinion.

I have read that most snakebites are caused by people themselves trying to pick them up which is not a good idea. I have heard stories about people killing them which I find to be wrong. If they are out in the woods, in their natural environment and don’t pose a threat to you, why kill them?

So what is the best way to prevent snakebite? Conventional wisdom says to always step up on logs in the trail before you cross and make sure there is not a snake tucked up on the other side. Watch where you put your hands and where you sit on the ground. I have actually seen a snake in a tree poking his head out of a knothole. Probably best not to bushwhack in seasons where the snakes are active. I have a few places I like to go that require a little bushwhack but I prefer to go to them in the winter (but I have seen a snake in February/March here so it’s not a given). Even though it is great to wear shorts in the summer, it might be good to continue to wear knee high hiking socks. If the snake just wants to strike at you, the socks may slow them down. Don’t try and pick up snakes and don’t be fooled that the smaller snakes are less dangerous. In fact, the young venomous snakes are more likely to inject their venom in you as I understand that they don’t have the same control as an older snake.

What do you do if you are bitten on a hike? I really likes this post from the Los Angeles meetup so I’m posting the link rather than repeat the advice. You might want to take a look at it with the hope you will never need it.

Overall I think the best advice is to stay calm and sit down and think about what you are going to do. Don’t panic. If you are in a place where you can get out of the woods within a couple hours, make your way slowly to the exit point and get to a hospital.  If not, send for help.  Here’s another reason not to hike alone (which I will talk about in another blog!).

Remember snakebites are rare so don’t let the potential keep you from getting out and enjoying the outdoors.

Happy hiking!

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The Importance of Staying Hydrated When Hiking

Unfortunately most of the advice I have to give you comes from having personally experienced things over the years. One of these is dehydration. I can’t stress enough how important it is to drink enough on the trail no matter the time of year or the weather. Of course, in hotter climates, it is especially important to bring enough water (and to consume it!) over the course of your hike.

My bad experience came on a pretty warm Summer day hiking in Pisgah Forest in North Carolina. I was hiking with two other people on a steep trail coming up from the valley below the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Parkway itself when I started to experience symptoms of what I later found out was dehydration: a general weakness and vomiting. I found myself stopping on the trail just to sit and rest and we finally did make it to the top but it was tough. Dehydration, if left untreated, can lead to heatstroke and death.

The Mayo Clinic suggests hydrating properly the day before you plan to do any strenuous exercise (I’ve posted a link to their site on this topic below). And you will want to bring lots of water on the trail with you and remember to drink it. I have gotten away from hydration bladders because I can’t tell how much I’ve been drinking. With a water bottle, you can just pull it out and see where you are. Do what is right for you. Obviously the bladder will hold more water and distribute the weight more evenly. Sometimes carrying Powerade or Gatorade is a good choice.

If you do start to feel sick or weak on a hike, and you are with a group, please be sure and tell your hike leader so the group can stop and give you some time to rest and hydrate. There is no shame in this and it can happen to anyone.

Happy hiking!

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Defensive Hiking – Avoiding Falls on the Trail

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen on the trail and several very serious ones that I’m lucky to have made it back up from. Fortunately none have ended in death as I’m still here to talk about it.  Since I’ve started tweeting (as in Twitter for those of my hiking friends not on that particular social media), I’ve noticed a lot of news stories about people falling to their deaths.  This seems to be very common. Often it is near a waterfall or on a sketchy part of the trail.  If I started to think about the times I’ve really taken a tumble, it often seemed to come out of nowhere as I tripped on a root or a rock in the trail.  Once I flipped off a trail covered in slippery fallen leaves. Who knows how that one happened?  So this blog is as much for you as it is for me to cause me to think about how to avoid future falls (if at all possible).

Paying attention to the trail. I think as we walk along and the terrain gets interesting we often lose our concentration on our footing. We are busy looking at a nice view or a small flower we’ve never seen before and we stop paying attention to the surface we are walking on. The general advice appears to be that we need to be vigilant as we walk and scan the trail ten feet in front  of us to watch for and avoid obstacles. If we want to look at something closely, we just need to stop and take a look.

Wear good shoes.  I think there is some conflicting advice on what the best boots/shoes to hike in are. Some people are advocating trail runners, going barefoot, and those new shoes that look like feet (including places for your toes).  We are definitely not talking flip flops which I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen.  I think this is all a personal preference but I think the best advice is to make sure that whatever hiking boot/shoe you are wearing is in good condition, has good tread and some ankle support, and fits your feet well.

Hiking poles are great for helping on the steep ups and downs and has prevented many a fall in my case. There are some writers who have suggested too much dependence on poles contributes to poorer balance overall especially as we age. I have taken to carrying my poles in my hands on flat surfaces and places where I don’t need a pole to help get me over the tough spots.  I actually think the poles slow me down some but I have become so used to carrying them that it would seem odd to be without them.

Speed. I’m not sure how much speed contributes to falls in general but I do know of at least one person who was hiking too fast and fell several times on the same day.  The best general advice is to hike your hike meaning to go the speed you are comfortable with.  If you are trying to keep up with someone else and that is not your normal speed, that may contribute to a fall.

Waterfalls can be beautiful but deadly.  These are just not a place to take any chances with your life. The footing can be treacherous, often with a lot of slippery rocks. Sometimes you hear of people climbing too close to the edge to see over or trying to climb to the top to see the view.  Best not to.  Waterfalls are actually pretty boring when seen from the top in my opinion. Many of them just abruptly drop off from the stream bed.  Use lots of caution when viewing them and stay on the designated trail as much as possible.

Be knowledgeable. I tend to hike in places I’ve never been before so it is hard to know what the terrain is going to be like but it has been suggested that we study the terrain before we go.  Good advice.  But don’t be fooled. You can fall in the most innocuous of places such as a five foot drop when you hit a soft spot on the side of the trail. If you are depending on a hiking pole for balance, and you hit a soft spot, you could find yourself tipping over in a bad way. Based on that I would suggest hiking in the center of the trail as much as possible and avoiding the edges. Single file works best for a reason.

Health can be an issue when you hike.  If you are having any health issues that might cause you to lose your balance, first you might want to have it checked out, and secondly you might want to consider hiking an easier, flatter trail until you are feeling better.

Being tired. I think we have all gotten close to the end of a 10 mile hike and started to get tired.  We start to stumble on little rocks in the trail.  Sometimes it is better just to sit down for a few minutes and take a little rest, a drink of water, and a snack and then get back up and finish your hike.

Finally, I’m going to qualify all this by reminding you I’m an expert in falling but not in preventing falls. So do your homework before you go on a hike. There are plenty of books and resources online that will help you think about the best way to avoid a fall.

Falling is not fun but it is one of the hazards of hiking. Here’s hoping that a little dose of defensive hiking can make the difference.

Happy hiking!


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