Hitting the Trails Safely

Whether you’re hiking in a management area in Rhode Island or a wilderness area farther north in the White Mountains, you should always keep some basic information in mind to stay safe. The gear and even the clothing for your trip will vary depending on what you’re doing, how long you’re gone and where you’ll be.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has been a trusted resource for backcountry knowledge and advice for over 100 years. There is a lot of useful information on their website, outdoors.org, and it’s a great starting point for deeper search topics about any backcountry sport you’re looking to get into.

The AMC outlines five core practices to stay safe while you enjoy the outdoors:

  1. With knowledge and gear. Become self-reliant by learning about the terrain, conditions, local weather and your equipment before you start.
  2. To leave your plans. Tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.
  3. To stay together. When you start as a group, hike as a group and end as a group. Pace your hike to the slowest person.
  4. To turn back. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Fatigue and unexpected conditions can also affect your hike. Know your limitations and when to postpone your plans. The mountains will be there another day.
  5. For emergencies. Even if you are headed out for just an hour, an injury, severe weather or a wrong turn could become life threatening. Don’t assume you will be rescued; know how to rescue yourself.

When you set out on your trip you need a few essentials: good footwear, a map, compass, trail food, water, first aid kit, protection from the sun and insects, along with a way to carry it all. Other considerations for longer hikes include a shelter, multi-tool, flashlight, sleeping bag, stove and a way to clean water.

Your feet are your single most important asset. If you can’t afford proper boots for the amount of hiking you’ll be doing, consider a shorter trip or one with less demanding terrain. Sneakers, athletic shoes, boots and anything with good tread are fine for most of the hikes in and around Rhode Island on a sunny dry day.

As you start on longer outings in increasingly inclement weather pay attention to your feet and invest in proper footwear as needed. If you outpace your boots, you’ll discover how they can chew your feet apart. The opening scene of Wild is a pretty accurate portrayal of what can happen when there is a problem with your footwear.

Everything you bring goes on your back and if you set out for an overnight or longer with a bag that doesn’t fit right, it can make your trip unpleasant from blisters and chafing. For a day hike, a backpack to carry water bottles and snacks is fine. Anything from your old school bag to a small 10 liter pack will work. As soon as you need anything bigger you should head into a local outdoors shop or a chain store like REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) or EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) for advice.

When you are new to a mountain range, get familiar with the environmental management or protection agencies overseeing the area. It will have an official website filled with information to help you stay safe in that region, including everything from trail and road conditions to what animals inhabit the area and how to respect them in their habitat. The quality of your trip comes down to pre-planning.

Once you’re on the trail, the biggest problem you’ll have to deal with is animals raiding your food on overnights. The only sure option to secure your food is with a bear-proof container or by hanging it high enough that a bear can’t reach it. Most parks on the East Coast have bear boxes or a designated hanging area at impact sites used for camping close to major through trails. Check out backpacker.com/skills/how-to-hang-a-bear-bag to learn about the official way to tie off a bear bag in a tree. Have someone experienced teach you a few times before trying it yourself in black bear territory.

It’s especially important to remember the leave-no-trace ethic hikers are expected to follow. Everything you pack in must be packed out, with the exception of your human waste, which should be buried. Be safe, do your homework, have fun.

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