GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Hiking is a common activity among the military. For some it is building endurance for the next deployment, for others it may be training for their physical assessment or, it can be an escape from the day-to-day march of work. As simple as walking through the woods sounds, there are risks involved.
The most crucial yet easily overlooked risk is heat exhaustion. According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, heat exhaustion is the result of strenuous work, insufficient hydration and high temperatures. All three are factors whether hiking a short, flat trail or a long, strenuous trail. To prevent this, one should hydrate before, during and after any activity. Avoid drinks such as soda, energy drinks and alcohol. If you begin to feel fatigued, dizzy or stop sweating, stop walking immediately, find shade and drink water. For longer trips, bring salted snacks or sports drinks to keep our bodies sweating efficiently with sufficient salt intake.
Bright, sunny days are common in central Texas. The TPWD states that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays will cause sunburns. Not only are sunburns uncomfortable, they can lead to excessive and irreparable skin damage. Contrary to common sense, wear long-sleeve shirts when hiking under direct sunlight. Shirts should be opaque, bright and loose fitting. Shirts with thicker materials will block more UV rays. Bright colors will reflect UV rays, reducing heat absorption. Loose fitting clothing helps regulate body temperature. Wide brim hats will protect heads and faces. Necks can be protected by small towels or bandanas loosely tied around our necks. At the very least, sunscreen can be applied to the ears, nose and hands.
Are you physically prepared to hike? It is my experience that most people cannot go from walking down the street to being able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Such things require training, conditioning and experience. Training can be a brisk walk over a mile with a weighted bag or vest. Visit local parks and walk the paths. Become comfortable with your equipment. Break in boots and wear packs with equipment on flat ground before hiking. Do you have any medical conditions; are you pregnant or suffering illness? Hiking can be a strenuous exercise and everyone should be aware of their physical condition before they end up air-lifted off the trail.
What hazards will a hiker find on the trail? Snakes, spiders and ants are common around here, but we should research hazards before hiking any trail. The most important rule is to leave all wildlife alone. Not only can they be hazards to us, but also our intervention can disrupt their lives. Mothers may abandon their young due to our smell. Animals may become dependent on human food and rummage through our trash and campsites.
What do you do if you suffer heat stroke, break an ankle or become lost?
The TPWD states that symptoms of heat stroke are confusion, convulsions or loss of consciousness. Victims of heat stroke should immediately be moved to a cool location, their clothes soaked in water and fanned with cool air. Seek medical help immediately.
Limbs can become sprained or broken when falling, twisting or making a sudden impact. If you suspect that the limb may be injured, splint it. Splinting will not cause more damage unless you apply it too tightly. Splints use three parts, two solid sticks, a clean bandage and padding. Check the wound, remove nearby jewelry and clean the area. If there is a fracture, align the bone as comfortably as we can. Do not attempt to completely realign it, this is just first-aid. Place the two sticks parallel to the wound, opposite sides of each other. Wrap the wounded area with clean cloth and extra padding. Then make two ties with improvised strips of cloth or straps from a bag, above and below the wound. Make the knots snug, but ensure that they do not cut off blood circulation. If unsure, practice the splint on an uninjured limb. If possible, avoid moving. If you need to move, reduce the weight supported by the injured limb. Attempt to make a crutch using hiking poles, large sticks or medium sticks tied together.
If unable to contact others for help, assess if you can stay put for an extended time or attempt to find help. Water and shelter are essential if deciding to wait for help. Make your area visible. Scatter brightly colored and reflective objects around your camp. A fire can keep you warm and alert others to your location. Do not light a fire in areas under a fire ban. The fire could easily spread beyond your control.
In my experience, the best way to prevent becoming lost it to prepare and plan before hiking. Study and keep physical copies of the trail map. Memorize landmarks like mountains, rock formations and rivers. Remember, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. At night, locate the Big Dipper, we can use it to find the North Star. To do so, look at the two bright stars that form the side of the bowl farthest away from the handle's tip. These are the "pointer stars." Draw a line connecting the pointer stars. Extend that line upward from the bowl about four or five times the distance between the pointer stars. You should eventually reach a somewhat bright star. This is Polaris, the North Star.
If you believe you are lost, the TPWD recommends the acronym STOP. “Stop; the first thing to do is admit that you are lost or in trouble. Think; remain calm and think clearly. Observe the area and conditions around you. Look for shelter, fuel, water and food. Plan; take an inventory of your supplies. Check your survival kit and other resources. Plan how you are going to use them best. The planning and preparation you do long before leaving home to make sure you are familiar with and have all the necessary equipment pays off in emergencies.”
Before you leave to go on a hike, notify co-workers, friends and family of where you will be. If a trail requires having a permit or check-in with a park ranger, get the permit and sign the list. Permits allow the rangers to monitor who is on the trail, where the hiker can be found in an emergency and when the hiker should reasonably return from the trail. Notifying people where you are will increase the chances of someone finding you should something go wrong.
This article is just a short list of the many risk management skills available to you. Please research and prepare before any excursion into the wilderness.
For myself, hiking is a wonderful experience. I remove myself from the seemingly never-ending needs of modern society and focus on the basics of existence. Within the basic goal of walking from here to there, filled with endless possibilities, I can focus inward and examine myself. Also, what better place to read a western or fantasy book than the plains and mountains where they take inspiration? I challenge y’all to take a hike, but do so with safety in mind.