The dangers of hiking: How to stay safe

Chris Mabes The path less traveled — Hikers should take the appropriate precautions while on trails including hiking with others, staying alert and carrying a cell phone.

The Virginian wilderness has become a recreational playground for adventure seekers, but in an instant that playground can become a prison.

Visitors and residents use Virginia’s landscape for camping, hiking, canoeing and multiple other activities.  Central Virginia alone offers an abundance of hiking trails and camping sites.  The Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park, Panther Falls, Appalachian Trail and Devils Marble Yard are  just a few of the public spots for recreation.  These are all available for little to no admittance cost. However, with each activity there are dangers involved. One primary danger is getting lost.

“It’s pretty hard to get lost,” said Robert Speiden an expert in tracking. “Sometimes you really have to work at it. It also depends on the experience of the hiker though.”

Park Ranger Don Holter said that October is one of the busiest months for missing campers and hikers.  He said people venture out late and unprepared which results in the sun setting and darkness causing confusion that hinders their return.  The largest demographic reported missing involve either young children or the elderly who have veered off the marked trail.

Virginia game wardens detail that when someone is reported missing, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management sends out an alert to various authorities and private search-and-rescue associations.  Virginia, fortunately, is rich in search-and-rescue associations that are comprised of volunteers.  These associations meet and train in search-and-rescue techniques. Due to the training, they are able to work in conjunction with emergency service personnel to locate the missing.

“It’s very rare to not be found in under 12 hours, even more rare is for the search to go multi-day. If they were missing, we’d be lookin’ for them,” Speiden said.

Speiden has had many years experience in tracking people and finding the missing.  He is involved with multiple search-and-rescue organizations including Black Diamond Search-and-Rescue Council, Angel Search-and-Rescue and  the Southwest Virginia Mountain Rescue Group.  With these groups he has helped find many missing people in Virginia.  Speiden helped with two recent cases involving a 19-year-old who fell off a mountain and a lost blind man.

In September Koby Karuzis, 19 years old and a student at Central Virginia Community College, was sightseeing with friends on Poor Mountain near the Roanoke/Montgomery county line.  He decided to stay longer on the mountain while his friends walked back to the car. While taking pictures the rock he was standing on slid out from under him and he fell 15 feet down a cliff spraining his ankle on landing. Acting on advice from his grandfather Karuzis decided to follow a stream downriver in hopes of encountering a road.  Instead he was led deeper into the Poor Mountain Woods.

Karuzis had a cell phone and spoke with the 911 dispatcher until his battery died. The dispatcher told him to light a fire if possible to help signal rescue crews of his whereabouts. Around midnight a police helicopter saw a glow in their night vision from the fire he made by burning his hat, shirt, water bottle, business cards and tinder.  Crews decided to direct themselves toward that location at sunrise.After 24 hours of being lost Karuzis was found by search-and-rescue workers. He had survived a night in the Virginian wilderness.

“I’ve never been so happy to see an animal,” Karuizis said about the search-and-rescue hound that found him.

Another recent account of a hiker gone missing occurred on the Appalachian Trail in Amherst county last May. Experienced hiker Ken Knight from Michigan was lost for six days when he strayed from the Appalachian Trail in Amherst County.  To compound his difficulties, Knight is legally blind. Rescue crews were notified and began searching a 300 square mile area.  Knight knew not to wander when lost, so he set up camp and waited for crews to find him.

Eventually, he set brush on fire to signal his location. Firefighters were notified of a forest fire and found Knight when they responded to the call. Multiple acres of forest were destroyed but Knight was found unharmed.

Even though the percentage of adventurers who become lost is small, park ranger Don Holter says planning and prevention helps the hiker get home. He suggests that the hiker takes advantage of technology and carry a cell phone with them.
“It’s not uncommon for the hiker to report themselves missing,” Holter said, ”Usually they wonder enough to find reception and then call 911, who then notifies us and we go get them.”

Though cell phones are great tools, Speiden suggests being more prepared when going into the woods.  He advises that hikers plan their route beforehand, notify a friend of their expected arrival, travel with someone and take the survival essentials.

Survival essentials include a change of socks, matches, flashlight, compass, map, fleece, tent, food, water and a signal mirror.

“Always plan on staying a night in the woods — pack accordingly. You’ll be glad you did,” Speiden said.

Virginia’s woods are filled with dangers including rugged terrain, bears and snakes.  It is easy to compensate for the terrain and bears by simple prevention.  Hikers should research the area they will be traveling and be acquainted with the physical landmarks of the area.  Bears are also simple to overcome by keeping food out of the campsite and sealed.  People are able to avoid snakes, and if one is bitten treatment is simple in Virginia.

But expert search-and-rescue persons say that the most dangerous predators one can encounter is possibly another hiker.  The reason:  it is impossible to know what another person has planned.

“Be alert, be wary and be smart,” avid camper Jennifer Auroux said. “Just because you are in nature doesn’t mean you can let your guard down.”

She also advises people to never hike alone, not just for safety from injury, but for safety in numbers.

“Little did I know that I would repeatedly respond to human fatalities, murders and scenes of child abuse,” Bruce Bytnar said in his book about his 32 years of service on the Blue Ridge Parkway called “A Park Rangers Life”.

Virginia is full of options for those who desire to enjoy the outdoors, but many people are not aware of the dangers involved. Safety is often overlooked resulting in harrowing situations.

Columnist and former Ranger Andrea Lankford suggest the easy access and remote locations make the Blue Ridge Parkway a convenient place for criminals to discard evidence or take victims.  For this reason, the innocent should take caution when enjoying Virginia’s wilderness.

Fortunately, recreationists are able to guard themselves against getting lost or finding themselves in harrowing situations by following the simple steps of preparation, caution and common sense.

One comment

  • Thanks for the great article. I appreciate it whenever someone makes the effort to educate people before they enter the woods. Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains is enjoyable and safe as long as you use common sense such as suggested in this article.

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