FIND YOUR BEARINGS — Ed Riggs checks his guide while atop a summit during a hike. Having a plan and carrying an accurate map are a few of Ed’s tips for a safe hike.

Every week, it seems that another hiker has been found after being lost, or has suffered an injury or death while on the trail. While the hiking in south-central Pennsylvania is not generally considered dangerous, one should always consider health and safety issues while out in the woods or on the trail.

Whatever your level of comfort with hiking, safety must always be on your mind. A day hike up and down Mt. Elbert (14, 439 feet) in Colorado, for example, is intrinsically more dangerous than hiking up to Pole Steeple in Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Cumberland County. A backpacking hike through the White Mountains of New Hampshire can be more of a threat to one’s health than a backpacking trek on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. Regardless of the difficulty of the hike, the main considerations are one’s experience and preparation. Nothing can ruin a hike like getting lost, injured, or stuck in dangerous weather and not knowing what to do.

A study done in 2019 by showed the top three reasons why hikers may require the services of search and rescue personnel – wandering off the trail, injury, and bad weather. Most of the time, these hikers are not backpackers, with a full pack of gear and food. The ones who get into trouble are usually day-hikers, who carry with them little more than a light jacket and water bottle.

The key to hiking safety is simply to know what you are doing. Know what to carry with you, know where you are going, and know what your own level of conditioning is. There are some good questions to ask yourself before you embark on your hike.

Where am I going? However easy or difficult a hike may be, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Many stories make the rounds among the hiking community about hikers that have gone missing. Search and rescue teams are available all around the country, but so many of those stories, happy conclusion or not, did not have to happen, and help could have been more expedient had the hikers let others know where they were going.

If you are among the directionally challenged, you may want to consider carrying a map of the area you will be hiking. If adept with map and compass, carry a compass, too. In a case of poor directional skills, it might be better to stick to small loop paths that are marked.

If you do become lost, there is always a good possibility that it will start to get dark before you find your way, or before you are found. While not much use on a bright sunny day, a small flashlight, with strong batteries, can be a life-saver if it gets dark while you are out in the woods.

Can I handle it? Obviously, types of hikes vary greatly. A walk on a flat, crushed stone path for two miles can be very different than a longer walk on a rocky path, or on a path where you have to use your hands to maneuver through rocks, or up and down a steep slope. Know what the path is like that you are going to traverse. How far is it? How long should it take? What obstacles may be present, such as streams? How difficult is it? How are the hills? Do you know exactly where you are going? Is the trail marked, or are you just making a good guess where you should go?

Caledonia State Park, 15 miles west of Gettysburg off of Rt. 30, has miles and miles of nice hiking trails. Some are designated ‘easy’, and have no hills or difficult terrain to negotiate. But there are a few trails, like the section of the Appalachian Trail that goes through the park, that are designated as ‘most difficult’. If you are interested in hiking steep hills with rocks and roots as your steps, be sure that it is something that you know you can handle. People get tired when hiking up a steep hill, but they get hurt when they are going down. Know your limitations.

What should I wear? Another thing that can make a difference if you are lost or injured on the trail is the type of clothing you are wearing or have with you. Some areas have very changeable weather. A seven-mile hike that starts on a warm, sunny morning can easily turn into a struggle if the weather turns windy, cold, rainy, or snowy. Especially if the only thing you are wearing is shorts and a t-shirt. Carry some extra layers with you if the weather may turn cold. Carry rain gear if rain is predicted, particularly in the fall or early spring. A hat can be very useful for warmth, or for simply keeping the sun off your face.

What if I get thirsty? Many hikes take you by beautiful brooks and cascades. These streams can be breathtaking and amazing, but it is not likely that this is water that you should drink, at least without filtering or treating it first. Most of the streams in our area go through pastures, under roads, or through communities. There are many water-born illnesses that are quite debilitating, not the worst of which is giardia, and be assured, that is not a risk most people want to take. Carry enough water with you, or know where water sources are and how to filter it. Water needs of individuals vary greatly, but generally, consider carrying enough water to drink about a half-liter for every hour you hike, especially in warm weather.

Do my shoes matter? I have seen hikers on the weekend clamoring up rocky paths to get to a great view, but they were wearing flipflops or open-toe sandals. It is important to wear proper footwear when hiking. Closed-toe, comfortable shoes, whether sneakers or actual hiking boots or shoes, are very important, particularly when hiking on uneven terrain. And be aware, that sneakers or running shoes are not always sufficient. All it takes is one bare stubbed toe or a turned ankle to ruin a hike and make it difficult to get back to the trailhead. Choices in footwear vary greatly, but make sure you find sturdy shoes that work for you.

It’s all good – I have my phone with me! These days, we rely on our cell phones. We use them for phone calls and texting, obviously, but we also use them for music, internet service, and if you are a hiker, access to on-line trail guides. That is all good, unless you are hiking where you cannot get a phone signal or internet service. In that case, the phone is just another thing you are carrying. Most of the Appalachian Trail in our area, for example, has no phone service. It is great to have a phone for emergencies, but if you rely on it out in the woods, you may develop a false sense of security and be in big trouble if that is your only out.

Should I go out by myself? I know as well as anyone the lure of exploring unknown areas and getting away from other people to enjoy the peace and quiet of the trail. Many times, that can be fine. But many times, it can be prudent to have a hiking buddy or a group.

Healthy Adams County hosts many hikes and walks for those who enjoy hiking with others. For the last five years, the Physical Fitness Taskforce of Healthy Adams County has offered free, led hikes in the winter and summer months, and walks and runs in the fall and spring. If you are a beginning hiker or uncertain about hiking on your own, these hikes may be just the ticket. Find out more information on the Healthy Adams County website (

Hiking alone, or hiking with a group or a friend, can both be satisfying and wonderful. But a little prudent preparation, knowledge, and experience can help keep one safe and allow for a memorable hike.

The next On The Trail will appear in the Aug. 30th edition of the Gettysburg Times.

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