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Long Trail Safety: From A to Y (10/03)

Meet two Vermont hikers. Which one are you more like?

Hiker A

  • I summit twenty peaks a year, or more.
  • I usually hike on both weekend days.
  • I can recite the shelters along the Long Trail, in order.
  • I layer with polypro, fleece, waterproof pants and jacket.
  • I own summer, winter and 3-season sleeping bags.
  • I can find my way with a map and a compass.
  • I’ve studied wilderness first aid.

Hiker B

  • Well, I try to get out at least once a year.
  • I can’t move the day after a long hike.
  • Isn’t there a lodge on Mt. Mansfield – or something?
  • I’ve heard of “polypro” – I think.
  • Are you kidding?? I’m gonna sleep in my own comfy bed!
  • Why do I need a map? Aren’t the trails marked?
  • I’m pretty sure there’s a bandaid in my fanny pack.

Most GMC members fall somewhere in between. We love getting out on the trails, but often many weeks or even many months pass between hikes – and because we don’t hike regularly, we’re apt to forget things that are important for our safety. Here is some information, tips and reminders for the now-and-again day hiker, information that might keep you from an unplanned acquaintance with the excellent men and women on Vermont’s search and rescue teams.

T.R.A.I.L.  S.A.F.E.T.Y.

T = Thirst and Water

Water – Always carry water, even for a short hike. If you haven’t done a lot of hiking, carry more than you think you’ll need. Stop for a few swigs of water often, before you feel thirsty.

Never drink from a stream. That sparkling water looks so tempting, but water that looks perfectly clean can be loaded with giardia, a nasty intestinal parasite. Be safe. Don’t drink any untreated water.

R = Rabies

It’s in Vermont and pretty much throughout the Northeast. Some people feel safer with a small container of pepper spray to use if a wild animal (raccoon, skunk, etc.) comes at them acting strangely. But you’ll be OK if you stay a good distance from wild critters. Be suspicious of any animal that doesn’t seem afraid of you. Never touch a dead animal. If you’re bitten, wash the wound with soap and water, leave the trail and see a doctor immediately. (Rabies is treatable if you get medical attention soon after you’re bitten; otherwise, it’s 100% fatal.)

A = Animals that are smaller than you

Day hikers often encounter bold and adorable chipmunks when they stop for lunch. It’s tempting to share your trail mix with them, but it’s better just to look. It doesn’t help the animals to get them used to handouts, and it goes against Leave No Trace wilderness ethics to be throwing food around. Also, there’s a possibility of getting nipped or bitten. You won’t have any fun hiking back to your car if you’re getting more and more worried about infection or rabies.

I = Insects

In Vermont and the Adirondacks, clouds of tiny, biting blackflies can drive hikers nuts. They’re around starting in late May and usually disappear in July. (Old timers say blackflies leave on the Fourth of July. Don’t believe them.) If you want to hike during these weeks, wear long pants and long sleeves and put on insect repellent. Long pants also help guard against the possibility of ticks.

L = Lost (how not to be)

Always have a trail map and a compass. Stay alert for blazes. Blazes are 2” by 6”, white along the Long Trail and blue on side trails, and are used in pairs to mark important turns. Blazes are almost always on trees, but on open summits they’re painted on the rock. There are also cairns (rock piles) to mark trails that cross open rock.

If you’re hiking with a friend and you know you both tend to get lost in conversation, take turns making sure you don’t sail on past a blaze and end up following an animal track. If you’re hiking in the winter, markings on exposed bedrock are invisible and tree blazes can be covered with caked-on snow. Also, there might be ski or snowboard trails going off in unexpected directions. Be especially careful.

At any time of the year, bring a headlamp or flashlight if there’s any chance you might be coming down in darkness. If you’re on a guided hike, stick with the group. (This sounds obvious, but people sometimes lag behind and then head off on side trails by mistake.)

If you want to improve your skills with maps and compasses, look in Ridge Lines (a benefit of Burlington section membership) or on the GMC website for classes and practice sessions. There are also classes for people interested in learning how to use a GPS unit.

S = Season, hunting

If you’re on the Long Trail, you’re walking through land that’s open to hunting. Most hikers know about deer season, but there are many other legal hunting seasons from Labor Day through Thanksgiving, as well as a wild turkey season in May. It’s a good idea to know what’s being hunted when. You can get a hunting and fishing guide at sporting goods stores. Pet food stores also have free copies of cards with the dates of important hunting seasons.

White-tailed deer season, from mid- to late November, is the time when the greatest number of hunters will be in the woods. If you’re going to hike during this season, wear bright colors such as fluorescent orange. Avoid wearing tan, brown and black and don’t even think of wearing anything that could be seen through the trees as the white underside of a deer’s tail. If you’re hiking with a dog during deer season, keep your pet close to you and make sure he’s wearing bright orange.

A = Animals that are bigger than you

Moose don’t usually attack people, but mothers will protect their young and both males and females can be dangerous during rutting (mating) season. (Bull moose are in rut from late August till October. Calves are born in May and June.) Chances are you’ll never see a bear while hiking, but if you do stand still and make some noise. Don’t turn and run.

F = Falcons

Every year, some trails are closed due to nesting peregrine falcons. The closings, which don’t happen every year on the same trails, are clearly marked with signs at the trailheads. Don’t go on these trails – for the sake of the falcons, who might abandon nesting if they’re disturbed, and, to a lesser degree, for your own safety. Birds of prey have very sharp talons and have been known to use them against the faces and heads of people who get too close to their nests. (An unfortunate AT hiker was badly injured a few years when a gyrfalcon – the peregrine’s larger cousin – peeled back part of his scalp.)

E = Emergencies

For most trail injuries, do basic first aid and then help the injured person back down the trail to a car. In a life-threatening situation, or if the injured person can’t be moved, send one person for help if possible. If you’re alone and you’re on a well-used trail, stay put and yell or use your whistle at regular intervals. If you can’t reasonably expect another hiker to come by, you might have to start down by yourself. (Hikers with cell phones can call 911. This option should be saved for true medical emergencies. Getting professional medical help on the trail is a whole lot more complicated and a whole lot more time-consuming than calling an ambulance to your home.)

T = Twisty animals

You might come across snakes in any open place on any trail in Vermont, soaking up sunshine on a cool day. Don’t worry; there aren’t any poisonous snakes along the Long Trail or the Appalachian Trail in VT. (Limited numbers of rattlesnakes inhabit some cliffs in southern Vermont, but their range doesn’t overlap hiking trails.)

Y = Year-round safety

If you’re heading out for a day hike in the middle of summer and it’s hot and dry with no weather changes predicted, you can wear your shorts and T-shirt, but put a lightweight windbreaker in your pack.

When you hike in late spring or early fall, or on summer days that aren’t picture perfect, make sure you’ve got the 3 W’s with you: Wick, Warm and Wind. That is, wear or carry a layer that wicks moisture away from you (not cotton), a layer that’s warm (fleece), and a layer that protects you against wind and rain.

In the in-between seasons, wear layers, always pack or wear a hat and gloves, and carry extra warm clothing. If you want to hike in the winter, don’t start out without reading pages 21-22 and 24-26 of the Long Trail Guide (25th Edition, 2003).

Wear hiking boots that support your ankles. (No matter what the ads say, “sports sandals” aren’t safe on rocky trails.) Get boots with good soles that won’t slip on wet rocks. If your boots are new, break them at home before wearing them on a long hike.

In any season, carry an up-to-date map. Always carry water and some high-energy snacks, enough to keep you going all day and overnight. It’s a good idea to have a small first aid kit and a loud whistle. You might want to carry a space blanket; they take up no room, weigh nothing and could save your life. If you’re hiking alone, make sure someone knows what trailhead you’re starting from, what trails you’re planning to take, and when you expect to be back at your car. Even if you know the trail and are sure you’ll only be out a few hours, plan for a possible unintended overnight. (Think about a twisted ankle or a fall, far from any other person.)

If you’re backpacking...

Kill bacteria and viruses by boiling water for ten minutes, or by using water purification tablets or by using a water purifier. Make sure you get a purifier that’s guaranteed to remove giardia, a nasty intestinal parasite. Purifiers and purification tablets are available at outdoor supply stores such as EMS, or Climb High.)

Remember that the night will be full of little critters who will be trying to get at anything in your pack that smells good. Hang food, toothpaste, etc. in bags away from you and your pack. Hang up your boots; porcupines love sweaty leather. Also hang packs, camera cases, etc. if the straps are stained with sweat.

To sum up

Think ahead. Be prepared. Know your mountain and your own capabilities. Then get out and enjoy Vermont’s beautiful hiking trails, safely.