The summer travel season has not even arrived, yet already there has been a spate of tragic accidents in the National Park System:
Sadly, none of these incidents had to happen. Nevertheless, they send a sobering message: National parks can be dangerous places. But they don't have to be if you remember some simple rules when visiting the parks. Here are some obvious, and a few not-so-obvious, tips to remember when you visit the national parks:
When Hiking and In the Mountains
* Carry a map of the area you're in.
* Don't shortcut switchbacks. It's dangerous and scars the landscape.
* Remember that mountains make their own weather. Be prepared to turn back on any hike or climb if the weather becomes threatening. You can always come back.
* Carry enough clothing and other protection to avoid hypothermia, particularly if you get wet; your ability to make rational decisions deteriorates rapidly due to hypothermia.
* In the mountains, if you encounter snowfields be careful when glissading so that the run-out at the bottom is safe. Many out-of-control glissaders have ended up in the rock debris at the end of snowfields.
* Don't assume water found at higher altitudes is safe. Always treat your water.
* Higher altitudes exacerbate the effects of the sun. Use high-number sun blocks at altitude and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
* Be careful of stream flows, particularly in spring when runoff is high. What might seem to be a tranquil stream can be challenging to cross, particularly with a full pack on your back.
* Take your time. Hiking or climbing at altitude is hard work. Plan your trip accordingly.
* Dress in layers so that you can take off or put on clothing as conditions change.
* If you live at or near sea level and head to a higher-elevation park, it's best to acclimatize for a few days before hiking or climbing. Understand the symptoms of altitude sickness, which can strike some folks at 8,000 feet.
* In the West and Southwest, when bushwhacking or climbing, it's not a good idea to place your hands on a ledge you can't see. There could be a rattlesnake or scorpion there.
On the Water
* Always wear PFDs while on and around water when you're boating.
* Scout rapids, both the ones you don't know, and the ones that you think you do. A lot could have changed since you last traversed them.
* Water, boats, and alcohol don't mix well. If you are boating, don't drink.
* Always have a spotter if water-skiing or wake-boarding.
* Remember, Western rivers are cold and have swift currents. Swim only in places the NPS has designated.
* When paddling, keep an eye on the weather. Afternoons often see an increase in wind, and lakes can quickly be turned into small oceans with pitching waves.
* Canoers and kayakers should keep relatively close to shore when on lakes. Crossings should be made at the narrowest point and, preferably, early in the day when waters usually are the most calm.
* At national seashores, be careful of rip currents and know how to escape them (Don't fight them. Swim out of the current, generally to the side.) According to the National Weather Service, rip currents can also occur on the Great Lakes (home to several national parks and national lakeshores).
* Don't jump from bluffs or cliffs. You don't know how deep the water is at the bottom.
* Read carefully the safety information provided by the NPS and the people from whom you rent boats, canoes, or kayaks. This information can prevent an accident.
* Obey warning signs and don't climb past safety railings. They're there for a good reason, often based on previous accidents.
* Get accurate, up-to-date information on weather, trail, and water conditions.
* Know when to say when. Be willing to turn back when conditions deteriorate or anyone in the group is becoming too fatigued to enjoy the activity.
* Keep your group together and let the slowest member set the pace. Many a search can be traced to the words, "You guys go on ahead, and I'll catch up."
* Always carry at least basic emergency supplies, even on a day hike or river trip. There are plenty of lists of the "ten essentials" available on-line.
* Keep your distance from - and never feed - wildlife.
* If you realize you're in trouble (in terrain or conditions beyond your ability for a safe self-rescue), stop and wait for - or call for- help. Don't push on and make the situation worse.
* Don't count on cell phone service in many park areas.
* Leave a detailed itinerary with someone back home so that searchers would know where to begin.
* If lost, STOP. Find a spot where you can be protected from the weather or sun and wait to be rescued. Don't wander around and make things more difficult for search-and-rescue people.
* Always carry more water than you think you will need. If you're planning an all-day hike, packing a water filter is not a bad idea.
* When you are thirsty, drink. Don't try to ration your water. You must avoid dehydration, which robs you of the ability to make rational decisions.
* Use plenty of sun block.
* Consider your age, physical and mental condition while planning a hike within a national park area. Don't bite off more than you can chew. You will be miserable if you do and you are putting yourself at risk for an accident.
* Carry enough First-Aid equipment to treat common injuries--cuts, sprains, abrasions, heat exhaustion. Learn how to use this equipment before leaving for your trip.
* If you're planning extended backcountry treks, consider investing in SPOT.
* Have fun! Being outside is great for our souls.