Most people will quickly name poisonous snakes or dehydration when asked about outdoor dangers. However, the truth is that some of the most dangerous situations are those you’ve deemed too unimportant or outlandish to consider. These are three often-ignored outdoor risks that could kill.
This includes things falling on you, or you tripping or falling.
For example, while tree limbs will definitely come crashing down during high winds, they also come crashing down in the still of the morning for no reason at all, says Pablo Solomon, an artist and designer, and a fan of everything outdoors. “And they can fall so fast and with such force that you may not be able to get out of the way in time,” Solomon explains.
Another common danger: vertical caves/mine shafts. “I live near the beautiful Colorado Bend State Park, which is home to the tallest waterfall in Texas,” Solomon says. “It is also home to hundreds of caves—many of which have vertical shafts.”
Solomon points out he once fell into a shaft that was completely covered in leaves, despite being a thoroughly experienced hiker. “Luckily, I was in good shape and have fast reactions. So I stopped my slide before I went down very far and was able to get out without help,” he explains. “But I really should have followed my own advice and used my walking stick to probe before taking each step in areas with a lot of caves.”
And the danger doesn’t stop there. Hikers going off-trail can slide down a wet rock, just because of the grip, or lack thereof, in their boots. Mitigate the risk by following simple best practices. Bring trekking poles or walking sticks. Wear proper boots or hiking shoes. Be conscious of your surroundings.
One of the most common risks that people ignore when hiking? Hypothermia. “People ignore hypothermia because they are unaware it’s happening,” says Steve Silberberg, owner of Fitpacking Weight Loss Backpacking. “You can become hypothermic even in 50-degree rain,” Silberberg adds, which explains why people often ignore hypothermia: they don’t realize it’s happening. Gradual changes are much harder to notice than sudden ones. But the good news is, there are key signs to keep in mind.
Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering and what Silberberg calls the “umbles.” “When someone ‘mumbles,’ ‘grumbles,’ ‘fumbles,’ and ‘stumbles’ you know their motor control and judgment are compromised,” he explains. “If hiking outside in the elements, the best action, once you’ve put on warm, protective clothing, is to continue hiking (back home) vigorously,” Silberberg explains. “Exercise will warm the body. And it will delay or reverse hypothermia.”
3. Summit Fever
Summit fever is dangerous because it “infects” people’s rational decision-making, explains Sarah Knapp, founder of OutdoorFest, a community of outdoor enthusiasts in New York City. “So much of hiking and being outdoors is about making decisions and taking calculated risks,” she explains. “When the urge to get to a summit (or finish a certain section of a hike) overpowers rational thinking, hikers are basing their decisions off of emotions—which is very dangerous.”
In fact, Knapp points out that the most dangerous part of the climb/hike is usually getting back down. “If you have summit fever and you keep going even though it’s getting dark, will you lose your way?” she points out. “Will the temperature drop and are you prepared to keep warm? What if you don’t have enough food or water to fuel your body?”
That’s where the danger lies, according to Knapp: often the emotional desire to achieve a goal or reach a summit will cause people to forget about the risks involved and make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. “The best way to avoid summit fever is to make a hard limit for yourself and your group,” she adds. “For example, if you haven’t reached the summit by 4:00pm, you’re turning around and that’s that.”
Why would you make this decision and deprive yourself of a successful summit? When you turn around while you’re not yet afflicted with Summit Fever, you’re more likely to not give in to your base instincts. Rather, you’re more likely to make decisions with common sense.
When you’re in the wild and nothing particularly terrible has happened, it doesn’t mean you’re in the free and clear. Anything can happen, and even the simplest risks can be the split between life and death. Think of all the risks, even if they seem small, and make good decisions. Keeps these tips in mind, and be safe out there.