With summer in full swing, hikers are out of hibernation and tourists are flocking to the wide open spaces of the mountains. The outdoors season also brings more wilderness rescue calls for Haywood County’s first responders.
There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in Haywood County, ranging from mile-long hikes to multi-day expeditions. No one heads into the woods with a plan to get lost, but preparedness is key to avoiding a longer-than-anticipated hike or surviving the elements should something go wrong.
Once prepared for the worst, hikers are ready to expect and enjoy the best of the scenic, sprawling Appalachian Mountains. So before rushing out the door for a day-hike, camping trip or backpacking trek, consider these essential tips for a journey of any length.
Trail maps are used to plan routes before a trip, and to keep hikers oriented in the woods. In designated wilderness areas like Haywood’s Shining Rock Wilderness, maps are especially essential because the land is managed to minimize evidence of human presence — which can mean trail signage is limited.
An accurate map and compass — and knowing how to use them — are considered “mandatory for travel in a wilderness area,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.
In places with unmarked trails, of which there are many in Haywood, one wrong turn means an intended two-mile hike turns into a 10-mile expedition, making spatial awareness and the ability to actually read your topographic map of utmost importance.
2. Don’t stray
Leaving the trail is top way hikers get lost. Dense vegetation and mountain terrain can quickly obscuring the trail. If you do get lost, rescuers search along trails first, so your chance of being found quickly is much higher if you haven’t left the trail. Otherwise, finding a lost hiker in the vast wilderness is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Beware of being led astray by unofficial trails. If a trail becomes increasingly narrow and overgrown, or dead-ends at a fire ring, chances are you inadvertently got off the main trail.
If you do get lost, try to stay put. Continuing on can often mean getting farther and farther afield. Searchers will also have more trouble finding you if you keep moving around.
3. Cell phone hit-or-miss
Hikers often embark on a trail intending to use their phone to navigate. But cell phone service in the mountains is spotty, rendering that map on your phone useless.
Even if you start a hike with a signal, you can soon find yourself in a dead spot or weak service area — unable to call up your GPS app to get back out.
Some hikers who become lost are thankfully able to place a call for help. But in areas with poor service, cell phone batteries drain quickly when constantly searching for a signal.
Make sure your battery is fully charged when heading out, and keep it on airplane mode or turned off when not in use. You can also take along a portable power stick to recharge your phone should it die.
4. Food and water
Nutrition and hydration are essential for outdoor adventures of any length. Pack an extra day’s supply of food, preferably no-cook items with good nutritional value, in case a trip becomes longer than expected.
A gallon of water weighs about eight pounds, and it is advised to carry as much as one comfortably can while walking in remote outdoor areas. Iodine tablets are a light-weight option to throw in a pack to purify creek water on-the-go.
5. The elements
Because nature is unpredictable, particularly in the Western North Carolina mountains where an afternoon thunderstorm can creep overhead in a blink of the eye, it is important to prepare for changes in weather conditions. Pack an extra layer of clothing for insulation that reflects the most extreme weather conditions encounterable on trail.
An emergency space blanket made of heat-reflective material is a lightweight addition to your pack that captures your own body heat to insulate you from plummeting temps at night, even if your clothes have become damp.
Sunglasses and sunscreen are also advised during these sunny summer months.
A fire-starting device can be used for sending emergency signals and as a heat source for overnight trips, although mountaineers should familiarize themselves with current fire regulations for their area.
A mirror is also a handy tool for signaling. For those who become seriously lost, helicopters are deployed for searches from the air. Find an opening in the tree canopy and use the mirror to catch the sun’s reflection, and the glinting beacon will catch searchers’ attention.
Carry a whistle to signal to ground search parties. Your voice will eventually give out, but periodic blows on a whistle can be sustained for hours and will be heard for a much longer distance.
8. Light the way
If a day-hike lasts a bit longer than expected and sunshine starts running low, a flashlight, lantern or headlamp — plus extra batteries — becomes invaluable for the return trek. Even if your hike is supposed to be a mile, a light source can be critical if you end up having to spend a night in the woods.
9. First aid
First-aid supplies are paramount, because accidents are never planned.
“Start with a pre-made kit and modify it to fit your trip and your medical needs,” the National Park Service advises. “Consider including an emergency guide in case you are faced with an unfamiliar medical emergency.”
Similarly, repair kits and tools like a pocketknife, duct tape and scissors can come in handy when least expected.
10. Life line
Be sure to tell someone where you are going, and when you intend to return. If they don’t heard from you by a pre-determined time, they can call for help on your behalf — and will be able to tell rescuers what your intended route was to help focus the search.