Avoiding Trail Hazard Surprises

News & Tips: Avoiding Trail Hazard Surprises

Surprises come in two flavors: good and bad. Regarding hiking trails, both types of surprises exist. Rounding a bend on the side of a ridge to be welcomed by a breathtaking, panoramic view is a great surprise. Rounding that same ridge to find a large, evergreen tree clinging to the ridge and crossing the trail is not so good.

AvoidingTrailHazardSurprises blog
Before heading on the trailhead, check trail reports to learn about any hazards that may be waiting for you.

Trail hazards are a part of hiking; part of the adventure, if you will. A few days before writing this blog entry, tragedy struck a family out for an adventurous hike in Colorado, crushed by a rock slide. According to local officials, recent heavy rains had loosened the ground under the rock field. The unsuspecting family didn't have time to escape the danger.

Avoiding trail hazards completely is impossible. Mother Nature rules. But keeping possible hazards in mind, while planning and/or selecting a hiking trail does improve your odds of finding pleasant surprises. Weather is a leading cause of trail hazards. Watching and trusting the weather forecast is worth the effort, even if the forecast is off. Better to be safe than sorry. In addition to loosened soil, rain slickens trails and fills creeks. Creekside trails may be impacted by water spilling over the stream's banks. I've seen trail sections wiped completely out by a heavy dose of running rainwater, which caused me to climb off trail to detour the missing path.

The effects of time and the strength of nature create bad surprises and can do so in a hurry. Erosion not only steals trail sections, but changes the landscape flanking the trail. Silt washed downhill and spread over the trail surface can cause a surprising spill for the hiker. Water bars constructed on trail become deep and turn ankles. The same water effects that cause rockslides, also weaken a large tree's rooting ability to the point of falling over.

Seasonal hazards such as bees and poison plants often surprise even avid hikers. Unfortunately, bees make their presence known when it's too late to back away from their nest. One buzzing bee may be the only warning sign of what lies ahead, so be aware of your surroundings. Keep in mind that warm weather is also snake warming weather. Snakes often take advantage of open trails to absorb sunshine to warm themselves, on the trail and on top of logs and rocks about ankle height. Again, be aware of your surroundings.

Before heading to the trailhead, review trail reports from trail maintenance volunteers and land managers. Know what hazards may be waiting and either prepare to avoid them or deal with them — hike it another day. At the trailhead, don't be bashful when passing oncoming or returning hikers. Ask how his or her hike went and if there is anything you should be aware of. If you discover a hazard, consider reporting it to the land manager or posting a warning on an appropriate message board on the Internet or at the trailhead bulletin board.