Hikers are quite a varied bunch, coming from many walks of life and having many personalities, but they do have one thing in common: the reasons they sometimes need to be rescued.

Here are five of these reasons …

The mountains are inviting to many people. “They call to me,” many will say. They are beautiful from afar—a majestic backdrop to any scene. And for those able, they’re even more stunning up close. To be on and among them, of course, is the ultimate way to get to know them, and to many, this experience is quite sublime. Or “amazing,” “breathtaking,” even “otherworldly,” some will exclaim. Getting close to these mountains, however, is a double-edged sword. To the uninitiated, they can be deadly. Even to the experienced, this statement can hold true. Up close, you get to admire them in the most intimate way possible, but there are risks, especially to those who hike them instead of using the alternative means available on some mountains. The people who hike them, have one thing in common: the reasons they sometimes need to be rescued. And the reasons are oft-repeated. Five of these reasons—in no particular order—follow.


1. Being Stuck After Dark

What happens, exactly?

The title is a literal description in this case. If you think it’s possible to hike in the dark, think again. It’s very dangerous and near impossible, except in certain conditions. When above tree-line in the winter, for example, hiking by the light of the full moon may be perfectly adequate, but the vast majority of the time, forget about it.

How does it happen?

This is a gear issue, or lack thereof. People don’t think they will be out after dark, so they don’t prepare accordingly, but obviously some are wrong. Some end up trying to use their phone’s flashlight. This is barely adequate, and that’s not even considering the really limited battery life. Packing right is key.

What are the consequences?

Being caught in the woods overnight will probably not be a lethal experience—though it can easily become one—but it will very likely be a crappy, scary experience. If it will be cold, a call for rescue may be required, and if it is, being this is an inadequate gear issue, a fine could result.

How can someone remedy/avoid it?

Carry a headlamp. While a flashlight satisfies the letter of the law, a headlamp that turns with your head and allows hands-free operation is far superior. In addition to a headlamp, carry another headlamp as backup. Spare batteries are also a good idea, but nothing beats a spare headlamp. After all, changing batteries in the dark has its own issues.


2. Becoming Lost or Disoriented

What happens, exactly?

Often times you’re on trail one minute, then the next minute you’re facing down some tight vegetation. Other times a lack of visibility or experience can lead to your becoming disoriented. This is especially true in the late fall and winter when leaves or snow can hide the way.

How does it happen?

As noted a lack of visibility can sometimes be the culprit, or the trail may become obscured (even during the summer on some wilder, less defined trails), but often it is simply a lack of attention. Panic is also a byproduct, and it can make things worse. If lost—stop, take a break, think things through, and do not panic.

What are the consequences?

The consequences are many, ranging from being momentarily inconvenienced or alarmed to literally dying in the woods. And going from one state to the other is certainly possible, depending on weather, duration, your gear, and/or just how far off track you are. A fine could result if you don’t have a map and compass.

How can someone remedy/avoid it?

The number one thing someone can do is to prepare by getting to know the route then paying attention throughout the hike. And to add to that, if a moment of indecision does occur, don’t panic. Also, carry the right tools (and know how to use them): a current topomap of the trail and a proper compass. A wristwatch altimeter is also very helpful.


mike cherim guiding

Hikers ascending Huntington Ravine.  (Photo by Nico Dubois, courtesy of Redline Guiding.)


3. Getting an Injury or Illness

What happens, exactly?

A misstep leading to a fall is quite common. Sprains, contusions, and broken bones are typical. Some can be life threatening for myriad reasons. Or anything medically can happen to anyone at any time and cover a wide range of issues from anaphylaxis to heart attack and anything in between.

How does it happen?

Injuries often happen to those descending. They’re tired, elated, and inattention takes over … then, bam. Sometimes, however, falls are gear-related due to a lack of traction, for example. Illness, on the other hand, can commonly be brought about through heat, cold, and hydration issues. Or simply by way of a lack of fitness.

What are the consequences?

If injured or ill, barring intervention, the result may lead to a loss of life. And help can take a while in the mountains, even if alerted right away. A painful or uncomfortable wait is likely. A fine is unlikely as per the spirit of the mountains, unless the injury or illness is caused by a lack of gear (no traction or food/water, for example).

How can someone remedy/avoid it?

Bringing the right gear and layers is a good start; then pay attention and simply be careful. And to avoid illness, ensure you’re prepared for the task at hand on all levels. Also, carry a first aid kit to help with unexpected issues, and understand how to respond. And, do try 9-1-1, even if your phone says, “No Service,” as it may work anyway.


4. Trapped by the Terrain

What happens, exactly?

Being trapped can happen in myriad ways, some covered already (i.e., benighted, lost). Others might include literally being trapped in a spruce trap or tree well—so wear snowshoes and don’t hike alone. Another way is to become trapped in dangerous conditions, such as in icy terrain or on cliff faces in the vertical realm.

How does it happen?

Being trapped by ice is usually the result of missing, broken, or inadequate traction. And being trapped in the vertical realm is usually the result of unknowingly getting off route where it’s critical to get it right, or simply a matter of overconfidence when a hiker reaches beyond their physical or technical abilities.

What are the consequences?

You can’t go up and you can’t go down. And if you try, you fear becoming injured or dying. So, you’re stuck. Having appropriate layers at this juncture may save your life since you’re no longer moving. These types of rescues are more dangerous, lengthy, and complex than most, which could certainly result in fines.

How does someone remedy/avoid it?

Like much of this, having proper gear and knowing its use, coupled with experience, will keep you out of trouble. Simple rope tricks like hand-railing can also help a lot. In the spring and fall, some are fooled by warm weather, only to find old man winter still living in the mountains. Fix this deficiency with research.


5. Cannot Cross/Re-Cross River

What happens, exactly?

River crossings are dangerous if the water is too deep, running too fast, is too cold, and/or there are downstream hazards that make it potentially lethal. Depending on the specific circumstances, such as trend and time of day, this can range from being an inconvenience to being an out-and-out killer.

How does it happen?

It should be obvious that if it is raining, water volume will increase as the rain continues and for a period after it stops while draining occurs. As it continues, the tame babbling brook you crossed on the way in may roar. Worse, this can surprise hikers on a warm, sunny day with no rain at all if there is snowmelt flooding the rivers.

What are the consequences?

The best-case scenario is that you will have to make a challenging and potentially dangerous crossing, but you will make it. And the worst case is dying while you try. Otherwise, the last choice is to wait it out or attempt to make a detour if possible. Neither is desirable, and neither may be even an option if you didn’t pack well. A fine could ensue.

How does someone remedy/avoid it?

Do research. Choose a trail without crossings if there is rain in the forecast or if it’ll be warm, adding to the snowmelt. This means not only knowing the weather and the trails, but knowing snow-pack conditions high above you. To best determine what’s safe and the how-to, a river crossing skills course can be very helpful.

Hiking in the Mountains and Staying Safe

Staying safe has taken on a whole new meaning now during the age of coronavirus. Avoiding rescue is even more important, nowadays, simply out of respect for the dozens of individuals and families of those who work or volunteer for the agencies that you hope will come to get you. You don’t want to get these folks sick.

To avoid trouble for all, consider these bullet points:

• Know the dangers

• Do the research

• Bring the right gear

• Plan the day well

• Know the weather forecast

• Go with experienced others

• Use your head/common sense

• Get experience incrementally

• Take related classes

• Hire a guide for safety

Hike Safe Card

You also have the ability to purchase a Hike Safe Card, www.hikesafe.com, in New Hampshire.

This card is similar to carrying rescue insurance, if you will, in that you may avoid being fined, even if somewhat negligent by lacking some the appropriate gear or making some other oversight (though gross negligence isn’t tolerated). That said, please realize that this type of insurance, while certainly recommended, will NOT save your life. It is NOT a get-out-of-jail-free card. Be careful out there, because ultimately, it’s on you—you may pay dearly no matter who gets the bill.


Catch this article in the Summer/Fall 2020 printed edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region.