Safety in the Woods

Curious Screech Owl peers down from a tree.

Here are some tips to keep you safe in the woods.

Slips and Falls

The best way to treat injuries is to avoid them. When hiking or walking on trails, it is important to take preventative measures. Use the guidelines below to avert potential hazards and threats to your health.

  • Stay on the trail. Stay on developed trails or dry, solid rock areas with good footing. Think about your footing while traveling near cliffs. Trees and bushes can’t be trusted to hold you.
  • Share your plans. Tell someone where and when you are going, when you expect to return and how many individuals are in your party.
  • Know your limits. Be in appropriate physical condition for your planned activity. Set a comfortable pace as you hike. A group trip should be designed for the least capable member of the group.
  • Dress correctly. Wear appropriate clothing and footwear for the trail conditions and season.
  • Be weather wise. Keep an eye on current and predicted weather conditions.
  • Learn basic first aid. Know how to identify and treat injuries and illnesses. Carry a first aid kit with you.
  • Camp before dark. Traveling after dark has resulted in many accidents from falls, so travel only during daylight. Set up camp well away from the edge of cliffs, and learn the terrain during daylight. If you have to leave camp after dark, stay in areas you have seen in daylight, go with a friend and always use a good flashlight.
  • Watch your step. Be alert for slippery areas and take your time to avoid tripping. Low-hanging branches and variable terrain make running unsafe. Leaves can hide slippery areas underneath. Log crossings can be especially dangerous. Find alternate routes across streams.

First Aid Checklist

  • Adhesive bandages
  • Gauze
  • Elastic wrap for sprains
  • Antiseptic
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors
  • Digital thermometer
  • Antibacterial and antifungal ointments/creams
  • 1% hydrocortisone cream
  • Moleskin for blisters
  • Aloe gel for sunburns
  • Lubricating eye drops
  • First aid quick reference card

Caves

Cave exploration can be fun and exciting, but it can also be quite dangerous. Caves are inherently dangerous environments, with many hazards we may not be used to dealing with from our above ground experience.

Imagine you are deep in a cave. You are looking at a beautiful stalactite, you take a step back... you step on a loose rock... you stumble... you drop your flashlight... it hits a rock... it breaks... TOTAL DARKNESS! It would be impossible to crawl out to safety. It's cold... it's dark... your foot hurts... you are beginning to get hungry. What are you going to do?

The best way to get out of this situation is not to get into it in the first place. The following safety rules will keep you safe. They are the ones followed by the National Speleological Society, a group of professional cave explorers.

  • Kids should never explore caves without an adult.
  • Each person should have at least four reliable lights.
  • Never, ever, go in a cave alone. The minimum is four people. If someone gets hurt, one person can stay with the hurt person while two go for help. One person should wait at the entrance to the cave while the fourth person notifies the Sheriff or Forest Rangers. This makes it easier to find the cave again when the rescuers arrive.
  • ALWAYS tell a responsible adult exactly where you are going and when you'll be back. Just because you don't come home for dinner doesn't mean anybody will think to look in a cave. They may think you've run away and joined the circus!
  • Don't run or jump in a cave. Even a sprained ankle can be deadly in a cave.
  • Don't go in a cave when there is rain predicted for the area. Caves often flood suddenly.
  • Never touch or damage stalactites or other cave formations. These take thousands of years to grow. Even a light touch of a finger is enough to mar one!
  • The best way to explore caves is to go on an organized tour or tag along with a caving club. Caving clubs, also called "grottoes," are located all over. Call the Geology Department of your nearest college. Someone there will know how to contact your local caving group. They welcome interested cavers.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls are popular places for viewing, picnicking and wading. While beautiful to see, they often pose risks to unprepared visitors.

Slippery rocks, steep slopes and undercurrents can catch you by surprise when walking through or in the vicinity of a waterfall.

  • Know the potential hazards of waterfalls, which include slick and slippery surfaces.
  • Stay back from the edge. People have been injured, sometimes fatally, trying to get a closer look.
  • Avoid slippery rocks.
  • Wear stable shoes and watch your footing.
  • Don’t jump off of waterfalls or dive in waterfall pools because of unseen objects such as logs and boulders.
  • Stay out of restricted areas.

If You Get Lost

The Number One tool needed for survival when you are lost or injured in the wilds is a Positive Mental Attitude.

You should continually tell yourself that you have to get home. When you panic or lose hope, the situation becomes fatal.

If You Get Lost ... Don't Panic!

  • Stay calm if you get lost. Panic is your greatest enemy. Try to remember how you got to your present location.
  • Pay close attention to your surroundings and land-marks, and relate this to your location on a map.
  • Trust your map and compass, and do not walk aimlessly. If you are on a trail, don’t leave it. GPS users: find your lat and long and carry spare batteries.
  • Most trails are marked with signs (where intersections meet) and diamond blazes or markers. However, signs are sometimes vandalized or stolen.
  • Your best bet is simply to stay where you are, especially if it is nightfall, if you are injured, or if you are near exhaustion.
  • While waiting for assistance, keep yourself hydrated and nourished, adapt to weather conditions by keeping yourself warm or cool.
  • Call for help! Remember, before you leave file a trip plan and carry a fully charged cell phone. Cell phone coverage in remote areas may be limited.

Hazard Trees

Falling trees and branches are an ever-present hazard when traveling or camping in a forest. A hazard tree is one that has a structural defect that makes it likely to fail in whole or in part.

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Trees can fall without warning. Look up for trees with broken limbs or tops. Do not stand or camp under leaning trees.
  • Numerous down or leaning trees may indicate structural defects. Avoid dense patches of dead trees. Limbs and damaged trees may fall at any time. Absence of needles, bark or limbs may also indicate structural defects. The possibility of rot is indicated by conks, broken tops, basal scars, cat faces, numerous down limbs, ants or an abundance of woodpecker holes.
  • Beware of hazardous trees due to ice storm or insect damage. Ice storms can inflict serious damage to trees—uprooting or breaking off large limbs. Cracks can develop in large branches which, although damaged, might not fall from the tree. Such branches can present a hazard to people or property long after the ice has melted.
  • Strong winds may weaken unstable trees. Be particularly watchful when it is windy or following a snowstorm when branches are covered with snow. Stay out of the forest when there are strong winds that could blow down trees. If you are already in the forest when winds kick up, head to a clearing out of reach of any potential falling trees.
  • Park close to a main road rather than on a spur or one-way section when driving in remote areas of the forest to avoid being trapped if a tree falls across the road.
  • Camp in open spaces. Place tents and camp sites in areas where they will not be hit if a tree falls.
  • Do not rely on cell phones for safety. Often there is no coverage in many areas of the national forest.
  • Report hazardous trees. Contact authorities with location and information if you find a tree that presents a likely hazard, such as near a trail or camp site.

Hunting

National forests are a refuge for wild animals of all kinds, which makes recreational activities like hunting and wildlife viewing possible. Hunting is a seasonal activity. State regulations for seasons, dates and licensing apply on national forest land.

  • Check weather reports before visiting the forest.
  • Tell someone where you will be hunting and when you will return.
  • Be familiar with the area you want to hunt.
  • Dress properly and be prepared for the worst possible conditions.
  • During certain seasons, hunters must wear hunter orange viewable from all directions.
  • If accompanied by a dog, the dog should also wear hunter orange or a very visible color on a vest, leash, coat or bandana.
  • Check hunting equipment before and after each outing, and maintain it properly. Familiarize yourself with its operation before using it in the field.
  • Carry a spare set of dry clothing. Utilize layering techniques to wick away moisture while retaining body warmth. Always bring rain gear.
  • Clearly identify your target before shooting. Prevent unfortunate accidents or fatalities.
  • Be alert when hunting near developed areas and trails. Other recreationists are in the forest as well.
  • Avoid wearing white or tan during deer and turkey season. Wear hunter orange or another highly visible color.

Avalanche Danger

Both large and small avalanches have tremendous force, and are a serious threat to winter travelers. The more time you spend skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and on other winter activities, the greater are your chances of being caught by a snow avalanche.

Understanding the basic dangers can help you avoid being caught by a snow avalanche. It is important for you to learn and understand how profoundly weather affects avalanche hazard conditions. Another recommended step would be to take an avalanche class and learn to analyze hazards before venturing into avalanche terrain. This knowledge may help you survive if you become buried in one.

Snow avalanches are complex, natural phenomena. Experts do not fully understand all the causes and, therefore, cannot predict avalanches with certainty. The general guidelines in this folder, however, will help an informed observer develop sound judgment about the presence and degree of avalanche danger.

To learn more about avalanches, dangers, and skills to prevent you from becoming a victim, visit National Avalanche Center.