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Tips for Staying Safe During Your Visit to the National Parks


National parks offer many wonderful experiences. Keep in mind a few obvious tips and ensure that your visit will be a safe experience. Kurt Repanshek photo of Lyell Fork, Yosemite National Park.

The summer travel season has not even arrived, yet already there has been a spate of tragic accidents in the National Park System:

* Three young men drown in the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park

* A paddler dies in a river accident at Big South National River and Recreation Area

* A woman disappears after falling into the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, and,

* A hiker dies in the sand dunes of Death Valley National Park.

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.

In General

* 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.

Featured Article


This from a local tv station on the question of "staying safe" in Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon fraught with peril for unprepared
(May 23rd, 2009 @ 9:21am)

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. - Frank Poole worked out at a gym and hiked around his Mississippi home carrying a weighted pack for months in preparation for his trip to the Grand Canyon.
But it wasn't long after Poole started hiking on a popular Grand Canyon trail that he was struggling to breathe. Several hours later, he was in a northern Arizona hospital, where doctors determined the 75-year-old Poole had suffered a heart attack.

``I never suspected I was having a heart attack,'' Poole said recently from his home in Oxford, Miss. ``I just thought it was the heat and extra exertion, the altitude and things like that. I was just so naive.''

As tourist season picks up, emergency workers at the park and hospital officials know they'll start seeing more people with injuries or those who, like Poole, didn't know they had underlying health conditions that surfaced during the strenuous hikes at the canyon.

The canyon lures millions of people each year with its colorful landscape, immense size, and awe-inspiring geology. But it presents obstacles that can leave even experienced hikers emerging sore and fatigued, including scorching heat during summer months, an altitude of 7,000 feet, and steep, rocky, winding trails.

``There's a million ways you can hurt yourself down there,'' said Lon Ayers, who works in the park's backcountry office.

The last few weeks have illustrated that.

In late April, an Ohio man fell 60 feet when he was peering over the edge of the canyon and lost his balance. Two days later, two teenagers and a young man who were swimming in the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon were swept away and drowned. Another injury occurred when a mule lost its footing on a trail, fell and rolled over the passenger it was carrying.

Falls, fatigue, extreme temperatures and horseplay at national parks around the country lead to nearly 3,600 search and rescue operations each year, according to 2007 figures. The park service also responds to 16,000 emergency medical calls a year for anything from abrasions to twisted ankles, heat stroke and cardiac arrest, said Dean Ross, NPS branch chief of emergency services in Washington, D.C.

Rangers at the Grand Canyon perform more rescues than at any other park, including 300 helicopter rescues a year, said Ross.

People who come prepared, bringing plenty of snacks and water, and who pace themselves and listen to their bodies fare the best.

``Don't be afraid to try it, (but) take it easy,'' said Dave Florence of Green Bay, Wis., who recently completed a 40-mile, five-day hike at the canyon.

But hikers don't always heed warnings from rangers and on signs posted around the canyon.

Allan Widener of Louisville, Ky., recently took the Bright Angel trail just off the canyon's South Rim. After a park staff member strongly recommended that Widener not head down without water, the hiker quipped that, ``I don't drink water, I drink Coke.''

On the way back from his 11/2 mile hike, leaning against the canyon wall in a shady spot, the 48-year-old said he wished he would have had something to drink.

Park rangers say they generally encounter three types of people hiking in the canyon. There are the strong-headed ones, usually in their teens and 20s who have an invincibility complex and will go against recommendations. Others are excited and unprepared but willing to change plans if needed.

Then there are people like Albert Shank, who are prepared and generally stick to plans they've made, but sometimes get in trouble because of circumstance or because they made a bad decision, said Marc Yeston, deputy chief ranger.

Shank was about 28 miles into what was supposed to be a 42-mile rim-to-rim run in April when his legs started cramping and his body refused to keep down any food or water. He nearly collapsed on a park bench and spent several hours having saline pumped into his body before he was able to walk out of the canyon.

The Arizona State University faculty associate, who often runs distances longer than marathons, had plenty of water, energy bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but not enough electrolytes or salty food.

``That was a rookie mistake, and I'm not a rookie,'' he said. ``I learned that no matter how good of shape you're in, the canyon is something you need to respect, and dehydration will take you down.''

What can be deceiving at the Grand Canyon is that the temperature at the South Rim, where 90 percent of all visitors go, is about 20 degrees cooler than at the bottom. And while most trails lead hikers up a mountain before the downward descent, it's the opposite at the Grand Canyon.

``It's a unique set of circumstances,'' Ayers said. ``People from all over the world need to at least hear it from somebody on what to expect. People who have never hiked the Grand Canyon before expect it to be a walk in the park.''

Ayers said the level to which hikers are prepared amazes him at times.

Other times, rangers say they aren't sure what people were thinking. They've seen a man in a business suit carrying a briefcase full of water bottles, a man playing a tuba and people hiking without shoes or in flip-flops.

``It all stems from a lack of preplanning and knowledge of these trails,'' said Ian Buchanan, a seasonal park worker who advises people on smart hiking. ``A lot of people get the sense that it's Disneyland when it's an environmental park.''

At the Flagstaff Medical Center - northern Arizona's only Level I trauma center - officials have a name for the spring and summer months when many tourists travel to the canyon. They call it ``Grand Canyon Season.''

It's a time where about 30 percent of heart patients are brought in from the canyon with conditions such as valve and rhythm problems, and heart disease and blockages.

Since the hospital started its open heart surgery program in 2004, there has been at least one month where all heart attack patients came from the Grand Canyon, said Gigi Sorenson, the hospital's cardiopulmonary services director.

``You just get used to it,'' she said. ``And now when tourist season kicks in, you just start to expect when they call and say they're coming from the canyon.''

Poole, who had three clogged arteries, was the hospital's first open heart surgery patient after his heart attack at the canyon in 2004. He said his general good health, the exercise he did in preparing for his trip and willingness to seek help spared him from a more serious problem.

He hasn't had any complications with his heart since the surgery. ``My heart's in good shape now,'' he said.

Rick Smith

Keeping visitors and EMPLOYEES safe in the National Park Service is an interesting topic. Far too often the serious injuries and or death that occur were completely preventable. System wide 101 Days of Summer campaign would be my first suggestion. The Northeast Region did an outstanding job with this a couple of years ago for their employees. The same could be adapted for visitors. Visitors need to know that the 101 days of summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day they are at their greatest risk of getting injured because they are inattentive, are in a hurry to enjoy the long awaited vacation and they've planned poorly in some instances. Our employees assume a much higher level of risk due to the incidents created during this time frame. If we could slow our visitors down, just a bit and provide them the opportunity to think before they engage in the behavior that is reckless we could avoid a tremendous amount of accidents. I applaud the units and regions that are working on this already. If we as an Agency did a nationwide campaign and blitzed the system prior to summer we would see a drop in our incident rates. We need to quit sugar coating the information and treat the public like adults so they have the opportunity to make the appropriate decisions.

Chief Ranger makes some excellent points.

I agree that the NPS as a whole and many individual parks need to look for new ways to be more effective - and proactive - in terms of safety.

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