Enjoy The National Parks This Summer...But Don't Overlook Your Safety

Don't let your park vacation end with a helicopter ride. Be safe out there, and watch out for the safety of others. NPS photo from Joshua Tree National Park during search-and-rescue mission.

With the summer travel season officially here, millions of folks will be heading out into the National Park System in the coming months. If you're one of them, just remember to be mindful of your safety, and that of your family and friends.

That might sound like obvious, unnecessary, advice. But often when folks go on vacation...they really go on vacation, and sometimes let their guards down a bit. Pulling from past history, some recent, some not, here are some tips to safely enjoy your park vacation:

* No Leap Is Too Small.

Don't underestimate the appearances of things, or what possibly could go wrong, before leaping into action.

Just the other day a 24-year-old hiker from Norway sustained a lower leg fracture near the summit of Angels Landing in Zion National Park when he jumped approximately five feet off a small, isolated pinnacle atop the route, according to Canyon District Ranger Brandon Torres.

"Grand Canyon’s helicopter and flight crew were summoned and short-hauled the man off the peak. While waiting for the helicopter, rangers prepared for a lengthy technical lowering operation down the 1,500-foot-high north face of the mountain should weather or other factors preclude a short-haul evacuation," the ranger added.

Bottom-line: Carefully judge the distance of any leap you're thinking of making, and consider worst-case scenarios, be they landing awkwardly and spraining an ankle or breaking a leg ... or falling a great, great distance.

* Waters Fast And Cold

No doubt the cold, wet spring is going to be followed by a hot, dry summer in many areas of the country. And while streams and rivers in national parks sure are tempting to cool off in and have some fun, choose your streams carefully. Especially this year, where the high snowpack in the West and Rockies ensures high, fast, and cold streamflows for at least the start of summer.

Too often in Sequoia National Park there are drownings near Hospital Rock along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, and elsewhere in the park system there have been paddling accidents in places such as Buffalo National River, New River Gorge National River, even at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area where the Big South Fork River is particularly enticing to paddlers but its Angel Falls rapid a killer.

Another dicey patch of water is at Great Falls of the Potomac outside of Washington, D.C. That stretch of water can be so dangerous at times that last May officials posted a sign that said: "If you enter the river, you will die." That might seem a bit excessive to hard-core, well-experienced paddlers, but the river has developed a deadly reputation.

Just last week two men decided to swim across the Buffalo River at an area known as Blue Hole, even though the stream was running at flood stage. Once they made it to the far side, where they explored a cave, they re-entered the water to head back to their starting point. Only one made it back alive.

Bottom-line: Choose your rivers carefully, watch the river levels, and employ the buddy system. If you're paddling, wear your PFD at all times on the water.

* Be Careful About Leaving The Trail

As the recent case of a birder gone missing in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve near New Orleans demonstrates, it doesn't take much to get lost. Fortunately, prominent Colombian educator Dr. Francisco Piedrahita was found alive and in fairly good shape after being missing for four days in the Barataria Preserve unit of the park.

Another missing hiker story with a happy ending was written last September when a 64-year-old California man survived a seven-day ordeal in the rugged, canyon-riddled backcountry of Joshua Tree National Park in surprisingly good condition for someone who probably went several days in the desert without food or water.

Bottom-line: Think twice about leaving a hiking trail. If you intend to do so, have map and compass, more water and snacks than you think you'll need, just in case, and leave word with someone about where you're planning to go and when you plan to return.

* Stay Alert in Bear Country

If you're visiting a park with bears -- Glacier, Sequoia, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Great Smoky and Shenandoah come immediately to mind in the Lower 48 -- hike in groups and make a little noise when in the backcountry to alert any bears to your presence. And, whether in a front-country campground or backcountry campsite, properly store your food. Black bears in particular are always on the hunt for food, and grizzlies can be troublesome, too, if they associate park visitors with a meal.

Bottom-line: Let bears know you're coming, store your foods properly, and carry pepper spray.

* Watch The Surf

Be sure to keep an eye on the surf when visiting a national seashore, and on riptides whether at a national seashore or national lakeshore.

With a vigorous hurricane season in the forecast, you can be sure storm watchers will head to some seashore beaches to watch the pounding surf. Unfortunately, two summers ago a young girl lost her life at Acadia National Park when a rogue wave swept her and her parents into the ocean. In all, seven visitors were washed into the sea. Sixteen people overall suffered injuries, including compound fractures.

Even without storms, potentially deadly riptides can pull swimmers out to sea.

Bottom-line: Keep an eye on the surf, and watch for warnings about riptides and read up on how to escape them. Most suggestions are to not try to swim directly back to shore, as you'll be struggling against the outgoing current. Rather, swim across the current, parellel to the shore, until you're free of it, then head to shore.

* Don't Overlook the Little Things

Even if you don't intend to enter the water, hike cross-country, or stand on a cliff, don't overlook the little things that go a long way to making your trip enjoyable. Carry, and use, sunblock to ward off sunburn. Sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat also can make being outdoors more comfortable in warm, sunny weather. If you're hiking in a park with bears, even just a short hike, it can be a good idea to carry bear spray; bears don't always avoid front-country areas in the parks.

Carry enough water and snacks with you on hikes, don't over-estimate your abilities -- hiking from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back the same day might sound like fun, but the oven-like temperatures of the Inner Canyon can lead quickly to debilitating hyperthermia -- and don't be too stubborn to turn back from any endeavor. Also, base your plans on the abilities of the weakest members of your party.

National parks are great destinations with many wonders. Enjoy them safely.