It's summer time and lots of folks are hitting the trails again for the long summer day hikes and back packing trips in to the deeper bush to get away from it all. I have been really impressed with the number of couples and groups I have met on the trails here recently, for whom hiking and camping are new experiences. Back in the early spring I was given the opportunity to teach a couple from South Florida how to start a fire under very wet conditions, here in the southern end of the East Appalachian Temperate Rain Forest where I live. A few weeks ago, on a very hot day in June, a group of young girls made their way back to the parking area of a Cumberland trail access point with two complaining of leg cramps and muscle spasms. They had meant to go for a short walk, but then ended up hiking for hours. The only thing they had taken with them was a new found enthusiasm for the outdoors. Luckily I keep plenty of water in my truck, and I had a few bottles of gatorade in a cooler. Last week I had to explain to a group of young men from Nevada that the ledge they were walking towards was not a ledge at all, but just leaf covered dead-fall spanning a gap between two stone outcrops, and that the absence of vegetation in that spot was the first clue. In their defense, the light was low, and they were wanting to get near the edge to see the sunset over the Tennessee River Valley. Luckily for them it is an area I know very well. It is in this spirit of looking out for those who have discovered a new found love in the outdoors, that I thought I would post a few bits of knowledge that could come in handy somewhere along the trail.
Under ideal conditions a mile or two is really not very far to travel, even on foot. Under the stressful conditions that can develop after a mishap or an accident, it can seem like a very great distance. It's a long known fact that “stuff” happens, and we all know Mr. Murphy's law. Any trip into the wilderness should include at least some basic items to deal with contingencies. I have found it a good policy to always have a small first aid kit that also includes an anti inflammatory and an antihistamine. Severe allergies in the field can be a pain to endure. I also always have a mirrored sighting compass with me, even if I am in a familiar area. One of my personal favorites is the Suunto MC-2G. Thanks to the large sighting mirror, it has been used as many times for removing foreign objects from my eyes as it has for finding direction. An emergency light is always a good idea. Statistically speaking, should you become disoriented in an unfamiliar area at night without a light, you are probably safer staying in place until sunrise.
The human body is made up of roughly 60% water. Maintaining proper hydration on the trail is very important for a number of reasons. Dehydration can cause severe headaches, and very unpleasant, muscle cramps and spasms. Dehydration and lowered levels of electrolytes can also have negative affects on the mind. It will, over prolonged periods of time, lead to diminished cognitive function and contribute to poor decision making. For proper hydration a person needs to consume daily between a half ounce and an ounce of water per pound of body weight. Always take a water bottle or water bladder on any hike, and on extended hikes it is good to take along some means of purifying water on the trail. A bandanna is a multipurpose piece of kit. Just some of its possible uses are as a sweat band, a wash cloth, an improvised table cloth, a pre filter for straining water, or as a tourniquet.
Even if you go to the woods alone just to get away from it all for a while, you are never actually alone in the forest. You are entering an environment inhabited by a great many animals and insects. The vast majority of them will have absolutely no desire to harm you, though some may be very curious and check you out. It should be noted that many of the insects in the woods that can sting or bite have excellent natural camouflage. It pays to be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to what you disturb and where you place your body parts. Even creatures that are very reluctant to go on the offensive, can quickly become very defensive. Things such as disturbing a baldfaced hornets nest can be a very unpleasant experience, where otherwise they may have gone completely unnoticed, even passed at a distance of less than two meters. That said, I am a major advocate of using the buddy system when it comes to wilderness travels.
In the summer there are usually lots of different berry vines along the edges of open areas in the woods, from blackberries and raspberries, to grapes and muscadines. These can make for some very tasty trail snacks, and help extend your food supplies. However there is almost always competition in one form or another. Always exercise some caution when eating wild berries. Spiders, hunting insects, and hornets, hunting spiders will often be just out of sight in the shadows. Also, look closely before you pop anything in your mouth. In low light, with their natural camouflage, some insects can blend in very well and at a glance appear as simply part of the fruit.
Snakes are another issue in the wild places. Most snakes are nonvenomous, and more likely to cause you to hurt yourself while overreacting than they are to actually cause any harm themselves. Pit vipers are the only dangerous snakes one will find in the forests of the U.S.. We have three here: Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and Cottonmouth Water Moccasins. Of those three the Cottonmouth is only in the more southern states, and always found near warmer water such as ponds, lakes, and rivers. They really do not care for the cold water of the shaded mountain streams. Only the Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are found in the higher elevations. Rattlesnakes will usually warn you if you get too close, and will often move away from you. If you don't get to close you will usually not get hurt by them. Copperheads can be a little different. They aren't really known for going out of their way to attack people, but they also aren't really known for their patience and calm tempers. They blend in very well with the forest floor, as you can see in the photo. They do not have a way to warn you they are there, and they typically will not retreat. If you get too close they are very likely to perceive you as a threat and go on the defensive. It is a good idea to pay attention to your surroundings.
The forests, with all of the various fauna flora and insect life, are very beautiful places. Exploring them is a wonderful way to get away from the hectic hustle and bustle of the city. It does the body and mind good to get out, unwind, destress, and recharge the internal batteries. It does the spirit good to get out and experience all of the sights, sounds, and scents. It just pays to practice proper preparedness, be aware of your surroundings, and remember that you are just a visitor in an environment that is home too many.
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Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.