Hindsight is 20/20: Adirondack Hiking Preparedness

The following is a guest post from our friend Edward Smathers of Dig The Falls. Whether you're taking your first hike or you are a seasoned mountain climber, we all can learn something new about hiking from those more experienced around us.

Below are real experiences of Adirondack hikers where things went wrong. Read on to learn about the importance of preparation when hiking in the Adirondacks.

Edward Smathers

A "Little" Adirondack Weather

We all make mistakes, but not all of us listen to experienced hikers and professionals when they tell us to be prepared for our journeys. No matter how short, simple or mundane the hike may seem, preparation is key.

Last year, I was standing in as the second shooter for a wedding my wife was photographing on top of Whiteface Mountain, when we discovered the value of experience from an Adirondack Forest Ranger when an uninvited guest arrived.

At the top of the mountain, a little rain shower rolled in (it was actually raining quite hard, but what's the difference?). The Ranger stated that the rain made the trail dangerous, potentially impassible, and we had to sit tight until things cleared up. Turns out we were stuck up there for over an hour while the rain persisted.

Thinking about the hike up, it seemed incredible to me that those rough and worn rock ledges could become dangerous because of a little water. If anything, the rock faces should have been cleaner and provide more grip for my shoes (which happened to be dress shoes... I was second shooting a wedding after all!).

Once the rain had tapered off the Ranger agreed to "guide" us back to the parking area near the top of the mountain to be sure we made it safely. What followed was a comedic display of the wedding party and other guests floundering down what was an easily traveled path before the rain. The rain had seemingly turned the trail into a slip-n-slide of jagged rough surfaced ice! How could this be?

The Ranger was right in holding us back from the trail, as they are right about almost everything their profession entails. Here's the awful truth: I was an experienced hiker... At least I thought I was. I have hiked hundreds, if not thousands of miles in my life and had never encountered conditions like this. How could I have never even had a conversation about this phenomenon?

Looking back, I can name a dozen situations where I had encountered those conditions, but they were in different regions, at different altitudes and in other seasons, but not after a rainstorm. It's easy to see why I did not connect the dots. The point is, you will not be prepared for every condition, but it's best to try to confront any condition by being and as prepared as reasonably possible.

The Disoriented Factor

In my travels, I have been able to talk to many experienced hikers. One told me an interesting story about a hike that could have ended badly. Thankfully, his experience in Boy Scouts and his many years hiking allowed for the whole adventure to turn out okay.

Here is his story: He was hiking an area that he was somewhat familiar with. After a couple of hours, he started his route back to the parking area. At some point, he became disoriented and lost the trail, which became a real issue due to how late it was getting.

He wanted to continue trying to find the trail, but his experience told him to stay put. The trouble with disorientation is, it doesn't always come with signs that will help warn you that it is affecting your judgment. There are many different factors impairing your judgment during this time, including some fight or flight survival mechanisms in your brain. If you can't readily call out the date and time, feel confused or can't pay close attention to details around you, you are most likely in some state of disorientation. At any point you find yourself not on the trail, not recognizing the trail or feeling any of the symptoms above, stop and take a quick assessment of the situation; make sure you are in a safe location, look for landmarks, stay where you are and call for help.

He spent the night in the woods. He had no headlamp because the hike should have ended well before dusk, he thought. Sitting on a large stump and occasionally getting up to do jumping jacks to stay warm, he waited until it was light enough to move again. Luckily, he did bring water with him, which helped calm him in this scary situation. In the morning, he could hear the highway and rush hour (something you are not likely to hear near any peak in the Adirondacks), which gave him a clue to which direction his car was parked.

Later he found he had crossed over the path out at least twice without ever noticing it. Not all paths have trail markers or are traveled heavily enough to notice if you crossed over them.

Both stories could have ended differently, with or without the proper gear. The common thread is, with the proper gear and preparation you are far more likely to tell a story with a happy ending.

What is the right gear for Adirondack hiking?

In the first story, was there mention of the bride and groom having an issue with the hike back down? They had proper hiking boots on which, while they still slipped a bit, made it exponentially safer for them to traverse the wet rock faces. The weather was not mentioned once before starting the climb, and no other persons attending the wedding were in hiking apparel of any kind.

A few aspects saved us. One lucky factor was the visitors center at the top for the mountain that saved us all from sitting out in the rain, which would have given us more reason to hike the trail down. Who wants to sit at the top of a mountain getting rained on? Second, this whole scenario would have been made worse if the Ranger was not available to hold us from taking the trek back down!

The missing gear on the Whiteface Mountain hike

• Proper hiking shoes/boots
• Walking/hiking poles
• Checking the weather would have suggested we have rain gear with us
• Time – No wedding is ever planned with extra time to sit and wait for the rain to stop...

I may never have heard the second story if my friend did not utilize his experience in a difficult situation. Given the same situation, would you have stayed overnight in the woods, familiar or not, without a flashlight or head lamp?

Gear Needed in Case of Night Hiking

  • Compass
  • Map of the area
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Safety blanket
  • Food or snack

Let Others Know Your Hiking Plans

One last simple piece of advice: All of the items above could be forgotten, and you could still have made it out before sunrise by informing a friend or family member of the area you were hiking and how late you might return by. The mere fact that you didn't return at the expected time would have triggered a call to the local authorities who, in the very least, would have gone looking for your vehicle.

No one is immune to accidents or random acts of Murphy's Law (the belief that if something can go wrong, it will). What we can do is make the best effort to plan and utilize the correct gear in preparation to prevent any of these incidents from happening in the first place.

About the Author …
Edward Smathers
Edward is our friend from Dig the Falls. He offers advice and tips on how to stay safe and be prepared for hiking in and around the Adirondacks to visitors of the area.
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