Hike Safety: How to Protect Yourself from Two-Legged Predators.

There is a lot to love about hiking, and the outdoor community. From the solitude of the forest to the unique and breathtaking mountaintop views that only the dedicated and slightly crazy (most of us) enthusiasts get to see. The hiking community is one of brother and sisterhood and we often greet each other as long lost friends even if we’ve never met before. But this sometimes lulls us into a false sense of security and an assumption that everyone we meet on the trail is a harmless thrill seeker like ourselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Sometimes people enter the forest trail with sinister intentions, and while we hate to admit that those people walk amongst us, it’s an unfortunate reality that we must face.

I didn’t want to write this post for a multitude of reasons, but the topic has been constantly on my mind since the news of the murder of two young girls on a trail in my home state this past month made it to my ears. Without going into detail out of respect for the young women and their families all I will say is that the murderer is still out there. Now I often find myself thinking of ways to spot these types of people before they reveal their intentions and think of what I would have done in the same situation. But truth be told, I’m a large intimidating figure on the trail, not a young teenage girl. This alone makes me less likely to become the victim of this type of crime. But not everyone on the trail is a 6 foot 270 pound man, so what can we do to make sure that we stay safe while we enjoy our favorite outdoor recreation?

Here are a few basic precautions that you should always take when you go hiking.

  1. Be familiar with the area that you’re hiking in. Unless you’re an experienced outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, always head into unfamiliar areas with a group. Either take friends or join an established group of hikers from a site like meetup.com, but always check the group reputation before heading to any remote locations. Look for active groups with a lot of people that frequent the outings. Make sure to visit places in groups several times before planning any extended solo adventures. Knowing the lay of the land and where you can hide without being found by others is an essential survival skill. Running, hiding and being able to camouflage  is your first line of defense if things go amiss. Never underestimate the power of camo, I’ve been standing on a creek bed filtering water 5 feet off the trail in camo and had people walk right by me and not notice that I’m there until I move.This can be invaluable when someone is looking for you and you don’t want to be found. Finally, don’t plan solo trips until you know the area well and are comfortable in the terrain.
  2. Tell a friend or family member exactly where you’re going. Even more specifically, tell a friend or family member that is capable of meeting up with you or finding you in that area should you fail to check in. Leave a map of the area with a detailed plan for where you plan to be at what time and any intended stops along the way. Be sure to check in with this person at a set interval during your trip. This is especially important when you’re going on a multi-day solo trip. Even the most experienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts do this, so add it to your plan before you go.
  3. Carry something for self-defense. Always be prepared for other people’s bad intentions, being in the middle of nowhere doesn’t always make you safe. Even on the most popular and heavily trafficked long trail in the Nation has seen 11 murders in the last 40 years. The truth remains that we’re far more likely to be harmed by 2 legged animals than any number of the 4 legged animals on the trail. Plan for this before you go out and make sure you take something with you. I always hike with at least a knife and mace spray, no matter what trip I’m planning or the duration of the trip. Mace is effective against most of your smaller predators, and will give you a leg up if you’re attacked by a person while hiking. You can also carry a firearm if you’re old enough and have been through a firearm safety course, or have at least been taught by a competent person and have any licenses required by your state to own and carry and conceal a firearm. A .380 is small and lightweight enough that you can conceal it in a pocket without noticing the additional weight too much even for smaller built individuals. If you’re underage or have an aversion to firearms, you can carry a small pellet gun for emergencies. Catching a pellet or metal BB to the face will stop most people or animals in their tracks. Also remember that if you are attacked, make as much noise as possible while the attack is going on. Most hiking packs have a built in emergency whistle on the chest strap that can alert other hikers in the area to the attack so that they can assist you.
  4. Hike with a dog. Nothing says “don’t mess with me” like man’s best friend. Hiking with your dog is therapeutic for master and pup, but also serves as a deterrent to people who may have bad intentions on the trail. Strangers are often weary of dogs that they don’t know and the threat of having a set of jaws clamped onto their body is enough to keep most people at bay. Besides being fiercely loyal and willing to give their lives to protect their owners. Dogs make a hell of a lot of racket when something upsets them. A barking dog along with the sound of a commotion and an emergency whistle will be enough draw help from miles around. The attacker having to deal with a dog will also give you extra time to ready your personal defenses.
  5. Improvise, fight and commit. If you can’t elude the person and you don’t have a firearm or more lethal weapon, trekking poles are a walking stick can be used as weapons. Aim for the groin, the middle of the chest, the neck and the face. If you have trekking poles, pop the rubber guards off and jab like it’s a spear. Continue to make as much noise as you can, and never allow the person to force you off the trail. If they are planning to harm you, make them stay in the open where someone can see the altercation and help. Oftentimes help is just out of sight, if you go off trail your chances of being seen go down dramatically. Once you’ve determined that you must fight, do not stop attacking until you can safely get away. As soon as that opportunity presents itself, make a run for it. If they follow, keep making as much noise as possible.

Above all else, remember that there is safety in numbers. Even if the attacker has a gun they can still be overpowered by a group. Most times a group of 3 or more will deter a would-be attacker, so when you’re planning a trip somewhere new, remember the more the merrier. Always be prepared for the worst and plan accordingly. Not everyone has the best intentions, but a little planning can keep you happy, safe and enjoying nature for your entire life. Above all, stay safe and enjoy all that the trails have to offer.

Please feel free to comment any additional advice below, this post is not all inclusive, merely some of the skills I’ve learned and personally use when I’m out. Don’t forget to share this advice with your friends in the outdoor community, it could save a life.

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8 Reasons That Not Hiking is Probably Killing You

Hiking is an all-around great workout. Walking is one of the most beneficial exercises that you can do for heart health according to the American Heart Association, when you add a weighted pack into the mix as well as negotiating (sometimes) strenuous paths in the forest the benefits only increase. But even knowing all that, we still find ways to put that next hiking trip on the back burner in favor of less strenuous activity. So here are 10 reasons that putting off that next hiking trip is probably killing you.

  1. Heart Disease. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in men and women over age 40, much of this owing to our increasingly bad diets and a tendency to get less and less physical exercise as we age. The more we sit and watch television, grab artery clogging fast food and generally avoid strenuous activity, the higher our risk of heart disease climbs. But, hiking is one of the best cardio workout around. Nothing gets your blood pumping like carrying extra weight on your back and negotiating fallen trees, mountain paths and burbling streams with views so beautiful, you’ll forget that you’re exercising. So not only will your eyes thank you for going on that trip you’ve been putting off, your heart will too.
  2. Blood Pressure/ Blood Sugar. High blood pressure and irregular blood sugar are becoming more and more common with younger and younger patients every year. We have an endless supply of starchy, sugary snacks at our fingertips and more and more series piling up on our “binge list” on Netflix. This combination of bad habits can lead to a few extra pounds piling on before you even realize it and aside from bad eating habits and lack of exercise (I hope you’re seeing a pattern here) excess body weight is the leading cause of high blood pressure and those bad habits going on for too long can wreak havoc on your pancreas, eventually leading to irregular blood sugar or even Type 2 Diabetes. But, one of the best ways to drive off high blood pressure and blood sugar problems is to start living a healthier lifestyle by eating better and getting more exercise. So instead of reaching for that soda and binge watching the next season of The Walking Dead, grab a bottle of water, some of your favorite trail snacks and head out for a short hike instead.
  3. Weak Bones. As we grow older our bodies naturally stop funneling calcium into our bones. A problem that is further compounded for women who have children, because a growing baby will leach the calcium out of their mothers bones if not enough is present in her diet. Inactivity also leads to decreased bone density, which in turn makes it easier to break bones in the event of a fall or other minor accident. But weight bearing exercise is a great way to increase bone density. When our muscles are forced to lift or bear more weight than what they are used to, our bones are forced to support greater weight loads, so our bodies increase our bone density to accommodate the increased load bearing needs. This is why Doctors tell people with bone density problems to begin lifting free weights. But instead of heading to the gym and lifting weights, backpackers carry that weight in their packs.
  4. Weak legs. Much like the stomach and arms, the legs tend to be one of the first areas that our body looks to store excess body fat. Extra leg and butt fat is less than flattering and are two of the areas that most people wish they could shape and change. Smaller leg muscles and excess body fat in this area also contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. However, increasing the size of your leg muscles by walking with a weighted pack will help you trim away the excess fat from your legs and butt, and is also good for your heart. Many of the largest muscle groups in your body are in your legs. Your hamstrings, glutes and quads move a lot of blood when they are active. This blood has to be moved by the heart, causing an increased heart rate and improving heart health. It also leads to strong, good looking legs, and who doesn’t want that?
  5. Weaker core muscles. Your core muscles, i.e. you abs, obliques, hip flexors and back muscles, affect every movement we make in our daily lives. If you’ve ever done an intense core workout, you likely became painfully aware of just how much you use your core in the days following. Not only does a strong core help balance and stability, it also leads decreases your chance of heart disease, diabetes and a long list of other maladies. The opposite is also true, a weak core burns less fat as fuel, makes hernia-type injuries more likely to occur, leads to unflattering belly fat and makes you more susceptible to a laundry list of chronic preventable disease. But, shouldering a weighted pack and navigating your favorite trail passively builds up these muscles groups by holding the weight securely in place while you maneuver with your legs. Carrying weight long distances will quickly build up your core muscles.
  6. Poor Coordination. We gain absolutely nothing from watching television or sitting around the house. We lose time, gain weight and miss out on cool opportunities to make unforgettable memories. Walking on flat, level ground all the time lulls us into a false sense of security and leads to weaker auxiliary muscles in our legs and core that help up maintain our balance when we’re negotiating difficult terrain or maneuvering over boulders, fallen trees or unstable rocks. But hiking forces us to move over difficult terrain, often up and down gradual to step slopes and across all sorts of rocks, boulders, tree roots, branches, water hazards and undergrowth. This forces our minds and bodies to think and act quickly and builds cognitive awareness that increases our balance.
  7. Excess body fat. Being sedentary in our daily lives leads to a quick increase in body fat. Any time we don’t burn what we eat, we put on weight in the form of excess body fat and while it is not detrimental to have a little extra body fat, obesity is one of the most deadly chronic diseases in America and thousands more a year are falling into its clutches due to more and more people living sedentary lifestyles. But it’s no secret that hiking burns calories, thru hikers on the AT often lose between 20-50 pounds on the trail, and many are in great shape when they start. With a loaded pack and on moderate to difficult terrain a hiker can burn well north of 3000 calories in a day. Even a one to two hour hike can burn between 800-2000 calories depending on your body weight, the weight in your pack, and the difficulty of the route you’re on.
  8. Psychological health. We’re biologically designed to live in nature. We’ve evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to find our homeostasis in an outdoor environment. So naturally, when we’re deprived of the environment that our bodies developed to live in, we begin to see negative effects on our psyche and mental health. Because our ancestors lived for so long in the wilderness environment, many of the aspects of being outdoors effect our well being. They became basic needs over a very long time, basic needs that are no longer met by our man made environments. Another basic need that is not met as often as it was in decades and centuries passed is our connection to the community. Human beings are social creatures, but outside of our immediate families, people rarely get outside human interaction anymore. Society teaches us that we should be staying in and consuming artificial entertainment by ourselves or with a few members of our immediate family instead of going out with friends to seek entertainment outside of the home. Hiking is a great past time that only gets better when you include friends. Sitting by a campfire, having a few adult beverages and laughing and talking with friends is a great way to satisfy our need for human interaction and to be out in nature. This is a great way to get your blood pumping and stave off depression. Additionally, getting out and hiking and camping on your own or with close friends is a great way to build confidence in your ability to provide for and take care of yourself in harsh or uncomfortably situations. This builds confidence in what we can do, and helps alleviate anxiety.

So with all of the benefits that hiking brings to the table, extending our life, making us stronger and staving off depression and anxiety. Why do we continue to put off those next hikes? Do we really have anything more important to do? Probably not, so the next time you think of putting off that next hiking trip, remember all of the benefits that you’re passing up.

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Five Reasons You Should Be Hammock Camping

Hammock camping has been quickly gaining popularity in recent years. Owing its increased success and visibility to updated designs, increased affordability and a few books like Lost on the Appalachian Trail by author and AT/PCT Thru Hiker Kyle Rohrig (highly recommended) who rave about their successes hammock camping on famous long trails. For a lot of people hammock camping is simply something that they have never been introduced to, let alone tried for themselves. But in my personal experience it’s something that you try a few times before realizing you’ll never go back to tents. So here are 5 reasons that you should be hammock camping.

  1. Leave no trace. If you’re the outdoor adventure type you’ve probably read and follow the “leave no trace” principals. Those of us that love the outdoors want to continue loving the outdoors and share than love with others for as long as possible. In a lot of cases people take “leave no trace” as simply packing out what you pack in and picking up trash here and there. But there is a lot more to it than that. Our forest ecosystems are fragile and every plant serves a multitude of functions and purposes that are invaluable to the ecosystem. When we set up tents, the first order of business is usually clearing away weeds, twigs and other undergrowth so that we have a relatively flat, even place to sleep. But on top of further altering the environment the clearing and smashed undergrowth is a spotlight to other hikers that someone slept there recently. Using a hammock, especially with the use of tree straps, completely eliminates this problem because the straps won’t harm the trees and the only thing that the hammock compresses is air. I especially enjoy this because it allows me to camp in areas that just wouldn’t work with a tent due to undergrowth or slope of the ground. It also allows you to remain better hidden from others in the forest or along the trail. Since we all crave that “alone with nature” feeling, staying hidden to other hikers outside of your group is a must. It also keeps you safer, since strangers can’t find you easily.
  2. Hammocks are light weight and don’t take up much room. Tents inevitably come with tent poles, and even the lightest tent poles still take up more room and weigh more than fabric. They’re also rigid and difficult to compact past a certain point. Hammocks on the other hand, are either mostly or all fabric. Even the higher end hammocks like the Clark Jungle Hammocks (pictured above) that come with small poles to eliminate the need for a ridge line are still easy to compact and store. When you’re planning an overnight backpacking trip anywhere space is critical, and the three biggest demands for space in your pack come from shelter, food and warmth (sleeping bag, clothing). These are also staple items that you always need to carry, so anytime you can cut weight or space taken up by these items you’re doing yourself a favor. If you intend to hike ultralight, meaning you base back weight is at or below 20 pounds, a hammock is probably for you. Even the heaviest 4 season hammocks weigh about 2 and a half to 3 and a half pounds and most are substantially lighter than this and if you’re not into cowboy camping or sleeping on the ground under an open tarp, then hammocks are your best friend.
  1. Setup time, especially with the use of tree straps, is a fraction of the time it takes to set up a tent. After the third or fourth time you set up your hammock, when you start to get comfortable with it. The process takes about 3-5 minutes. If you use carabiners and tree straps the time is cut down to less than 2 minutes. Once you’ve been out on a few trips, setting the ropes becomes second nature and it takes even less time. A tent on the other hand takes 5-7 minutes even when you’re practiced and sometimes upwards of 15 minutes when you’re new to wilderness camping. If you’ve ever hiked a 20 mile day in the winter, you know that fighting dusk to get camp set up and a fire going is never fun. You want to have a shelter system that you can set up quickly without cutting corners. The last thing you want to do in the middle of the night after a 15 or 20 mile day is have to get up and fix your tent in the cold darkness because you set it up too quickly and had it fall apart at 2am.
  1. Great sleep. Have you ever slept on a cloud? I have, and so has anyone else that has gone through a blissful night in a hammock. I tent camped for the first 25 years of my life, and I can’t tell you how many times I searched and searched for the perfect, flat, grassy area to set up my tent, just to crawl in at night and be right on top of a hidden root or jagged rock that I didn’t see when I set the tent up. Even if you manage to find that perfect rock and root free spot, you still have 8-10 hours of sleeping on thousands of feet of compacted rock and dirt. My lower back hurts just thinking about it. You never have that problem when you sleep in a hammock. No roots can touch you,  not rocks can prod you awake and no unpleasant pressure points to stiffen your joints and dampen your spirits. There is also the added benefit of not being on the ground when the rain comes, because it always does. A properly setup hammock and rain fly combo will keep you tucked away, dry and warm even in the most torrential downpours.
  1. No critters or bugs. One of the biggest turn offs to hammock camping in the past was the bug aspect, and the fear of waking up with a raccoon or possum sitting on your chest wanting to know where the food is at. Fortunately, I recent years the hammock camping professionals have wised up and added integrated bug nets as a standard feature on almost all dedicated camping hammocks. Even if you want to go the budget route you can buy a few yards of noseeum netting and attach it to an ENO hammock with a quick and dirty ridgeline for pennies on the dollar compared to what you pay for a dedicated overnight hammock. Nothing feels as good as laying in your hammock at the end of a long day hiking and seeing the mosquitos on the other end of your bug net, cursing you for outsmarting them.

 If you’re still not convinced that hammock camping is the way of the future, find someone who is doing it already (we call ourselves hangmen, we’re everywhere) and ask if you can take their hammock for a spin on your next overnight adventure. They can probably show you some cool knots to use to make the experience a lot less painful too.

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A Disease Called Modern Society

For the first time in the history of our species we live and spend most of our time in a synthetic environment. Everything is climate controlled, the lighting is dictated by the blinds and electricity. We listen to the wind and rain on the façade of our gaudy abodes instead of feeling it and experiencing it on our skin. People today would rather sit in front of a television, stare at a computer or a phone screen for a dozen hours a day than actually hold a conversation with another person. We find ourselves living in a time where we are more connected than ever before, but we communicate less. Meaningful relationships are failing to exist. Marriages end, families alienate each other and EVERYONE is depressed.

My personal opinion is that this happened because we started putting more importance on THINGS than we did relationships. The worst part of this entire problem, this disease; is that we don’t realize we have it. If you’re reading this right now you’re probably plugged in enough to realize that sometime in the recent past, probably within the last 12-24 hours, you’ve sat next to someone that you care a great deal about, in complete silence while you stared at a phone, tablet or computer screen. I do it too, frequently, and it’s wrong.

Human beings weren’t designed to live on our own, we aren’t autonomous. We need friends, we need family and we need community. Whether we like it or not we’re rapidly approaching the coming of age of a generation of human being that will be the first to go through their entire childhood caring more about technology, their phone, tablet and computer; than they do about their friends and family. If that thought doesn’t scare you, I honestly don’t know what will. We’re set up to fail, because we focus more on what we want now, than what we need.

I’ve been a party to several conversations in the last few years when my peers or other people in my specific age group try to explain to me that we have it so much harder than our parents and grandparents did, “we can’t afford to live” they tell me. “When our parents or grandparents were getting married and raising their kids they could afford to feed a family on one income and still afford a vacation every year. I can barely afford to support myself”.

This answer always baffles me, because we don’t even register the fact that we’re completely wrong. 50 years ago, the biggest expenses in a family’s budget would have been their house, THE car and food. Outside of that you had insurance, utilities and basics like food and hygiene. That was all that families paid for, that was all they needed. They got their entertainment for free, right outside their homes. Families might have 1 TV with a few channels if they were lucky, and a radio with local stations. There weren’t two car payments, they didn’t have to have a TV in every room, no internet, no $400 cell phones for every member of the family on top of a data plan that costs $200+ a month. Meals were cooked in the home almost every night from products that mostly came from close by. No smart watches, no tablets, no need for 5 or 6 pairs of $60 designer jeans to be “cool”.

The truth is, we’re just as capable of living today as our parents and grandparents were. We just don’t understand the difference between needing something and wanting it. We can live without a cell phone, we can live without a computer, or internet. We don’t need a 60” flat screen TV with a DirecTV HD bundle and a Netflix, HULU and Amazon Prime account. All of these wants that we look at as needs are the reason that people feel like they can’t get by on what they make.

This is where getting back to nature helps us come back to what is really important. When you start backpacking or camping, you find yourself distracted from modern distractions, distracted by what is really important to us. Natural life and human interaction. When you go on an overnight hiking trip with your significant other or with friends you take a step away from the modern world and everything that distracts us. You breathe the fresh air that we’re biologically designed to run off of, the sun on your skin produces vitamin D that gives you energy and the exercise and feeling of adventure produces dopamine in your brain that makes you happy, naturally.

You also get to see how you and your friends / significant other deal with hardship and critical thinking. If you’re a novice backpacker or camper. You’ll forget to pack things that will seem essential once you realize that you don’t have them. Even if you’re not a novice you’ll still run across situations like this. It’s inevitable, but it shows us how we work together to solve problems. Or maybe it shows us that we don’t work well together, that in itself can be a blessing. I went on a camping trip with my wife about a year ago. We’ve been out camping dozens of times over the course of our relationship and we know what we’re doing. But about a week before this particular camping trip I reorganized all of our camping gear and decided to consolidate our tent poles in a slightly larger bag than the one that the tent came in, to cut down on the time it takes to break down camp. For whatever reason, I didn’t communicate this well when we were packing up for the trip. So when we drive 90 miles north to our private camp site, as the sun is setting on the day, we realize we have no tent poles… and we were expecting rain.

I’ll admit I didn’t handle that news well at first, I over reacted, got angry. More at myself for not double checking our gear than at anything else. But in my moment of self-loathing and lamentation for the ruined trip, my wife asked “why don’t we just set up the rain fly over the bed of the truck”. It took that voice of reason from someone else, to point out that the trip wasn’t ruined at all, it was just a little different from what we usually did. As I look back on all the trips we’ve taken over the years, this trip is the one that I remember the most vividly. It took me out of my comfort zone, but it was fun and original and memorable. But if I’d been by myself on that trip I probably would have packed up all of my gear and gone back home cursing myself. Sometimes problem solving works better when there are two people, and it really teaches you that it’s okay to be a little codependent on your friends and loved ones. Especially if you’re the one prone to getting hot headed and not thinking logically.

The first step in breaking free from this modern disease, getting back to what’s really important, and forming and testing those meaningful relationships, is getting out and making yourself a little uncomfortable for a change. Break away from the climate control, learn to dress appropriately and start a camp fire when you’re cold, sit by that fire and watch the sun set instead of closing the blinds because it’s casting shadows on the TV screen. Get out and enjoy the free adventures that Mother Nature put here for you. You won’t regret it.

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