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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