Hike Smart, Stay Alive

With the recent and tragic story of Geraldine Largay, the hiker whose remains were recently found more than two years after she got lost on the Appalachian Trail, it’s important to remember that hiking requires research and preparation.

When you’re visiting White Oak Lodge and Resort, you’ll probably want to enjoy some hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. Finding established trails and hiking with others go a long way toward ensuring a safe experience, but what else should you be prepared for?

More adventurous hikers may want to explore off the beaten path or even go out alone, so it’s important to 1) try to make sure you don’t get lost in the first place, and 2) know what to do if it happens.

In a recent article from About.com, experienced hiker Matt Jaffe shares his tips.

Preparing for a Safe Hike

Have a plan. Everyone loves to be spontaneous but you really should make a decision about your day and then take the necessary steps to make that happen.

Know where you’re going. Pick a trail, then check a map and familiarize yourself with the terrain where you’ll be hiking. Are there stream crossings? Are there multiple junctions or intersecting trails that could be confusing?

Charge your phone. There’s no guarantee that you’ll have cell coverage on the trail. But you definitely won’t if your battery is dead.

Bring the essentials. Make sure that you’ve packed food, water, an extra layer of clothing, flashlight, compass, maps, fire starter, and whistle (more on that later).

Tell someone where and when you’re hiking. Let a friend or family member know your itinerary. Some people also leave a note inside their car at trailheads to help rescuers.

Check the weather forecast. Changing weather conditions can create problems on the trail. Rain swells rivers and makes crossings more difficult. Lightning is a major danger and by attempting to find a safe location, you might stray off the trail. And In cooler months, sudden snows can obscure trails and cause you to get lost too.

Don’t go out too late. If you’re hiking in the afternoon, check to see what time the sun will go down. Fading daylight can lead to a feeling of panic if you start becoming disoriented and will increase the risk of making bad decisions that exacerbate the situation.

I’m Lost. Now What?

Frequent hikers should invest in a personal locator beacon. These high-powered devices are about the size of a cell phone and send out a personalized emergency distress signal. Average price is around $150.

Follow the STOP rule: Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.

Stay calm. Find a comfortable spot, drink some water, have something to eat, and center yourself before taking any action.

Take inventory of your resources. Determine how much food and water you have and limit your intake to avoid depleting your stocks. There’s no need to start foraging for berries and grubs or drinking from streams until you absolutely have no choice.

Assess your situation. Take note of the location of the sun. And assuming you brought a map, look for landmarks and use your compass to see if you can figure out your approximate location before making any moves.

Try to retrace your steps. Don’t go any farther down the trail and try to determine where you were last aware of your exact location. Assess whether you can work your way back to that spot. If you can get there, you might then get reoriented and can hike back out on your own.

Check for phone coverage. If you’ve determined that you’re truly lost and can’t hike back out, see if you have cell phone coverage and call the authorities. And make sure that you’re not running any apps that could drain your battery.

Use your whistle. Other people in the area are more likely to hear a whistle than yelling, plus you’ll save your voice. Blow three distinct whistle blasts (a recognized distress signal), then wait a few minutes and repeat.

Make yourself noticeable. Find a clearing where can be spotted from the air. If you have any brightly colored objects or clothing, take these items out to provide additional visual cues for rescuers.

Start a small, contained fire. Smoke, even from a small fire, can draw attention to your location. But carefully tend the fire because lost hikers and hunters have sometimes accidentally started large wildfires.

There’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy a fun, safe hike in the Smoky Mountains, and if you prepare, your chances of danger will greatly decrease.

Have you been hiking in the Smokies? Tell us some of your favorite tips for staying on trail and staying safe.

Victoria Hoffman

A native of New Jersey, Victoria isn't entirely sure how she ended up in Kansas City, but has enjoyed writing, editing, creating, communicating and marketing for high-profile accounts throughout the city ever since. In her spare time, Victoria is an actor (and active) with local community and city theatre.