I enjoy solo hiking. Part of it is the convenience of being able to just say “I’ve got nothing to do today, I’m going hiking”, part is the confidence-boost of being self-reliant, but most of it is just being able to be alone with nature. Solo hiking, however, comes with a very specific set of dangers, the most pronounced of which is this: If you get in trouble, you’re on your own.
All my recent hiking has happened in and around Short Hills Provincial Park, which is a pretty tame wilderness. It’s 660 hectares of Carolinian forest and post-agricultural meadows, with well-marked and frequently-traveled trails. Sturdy bridges cross every stream. It’s right in the middle of Niagara wine country, for pete’s sake, and it’s five minutes from an emergency room that I can personally attest is well-staffed and modern. There are no dangerous animals or poisonous snakes. Walk a hundred metres out of the park in any direction and you’re on someone’s front porch. Walk into the middle of the park and there’s a well-tended Scout camp. This is not the back of the beyond, is the point I’m trying to make.
But… the park straddles the Niagara Escarpment. Some of its trails are very rugged, climbing up and down steep ravines. There are impressive waterfalls, yes, and they’ve carved out impressive limestone gorges to a depth of ten metres or more. Because of the rugged terrain, cell phone coverage is spotty, especially in the lower parts. There is no source of potable water in the park — not so much as a public tap — and the streams are known to harbor giardia and cryptosporidium, so you have to pack in your water, period. There is no overnight camping in the park and the place closes at sunset.
The other day I took a solo hike on the Swazye Falls Trail. It was a long morning’s counterclockwise loop through the western end of the park with lots of vertical changes and — on the eastern side of the loop — almost no tree cover as the trail skirts a lot of open meadows. It turned out to be a very hot day. I packed three liters of water in my pack and had a bag of gorp for snacks in my backpack. I had my cellphone in my pocket, and a small first aid kit in my pack. I was wearing a multi-tool and a lighter on my belt. I had a map and compass handy. I was sun-screened and -hatted to a fare-thee-well. I was, in every way, prepared for a day out in the woods… in fact, I was probably over-prepared, but what the heck: it’s good training at the very least.
The contents of my day pack.
As I was working my way through back from the “falls” — there was no actual waterfall, just a dry gorge and an algae-befouled basin, a testament to this summer’s drought conditions — I paused to open my last 500mL water bottle, looked up, and was approached by only the second person I’d seen all day: another hiker who was going the other direction. Or rather, she wasn’t a hiker, she was a pedestrian. Black yoga pants, red sleeveless top and she was wearing crocs on her feet. No hat. No bag. No map. No water. No cellphone that I would see. Not so much as a fanny pack. She was dressed for the mall, not the trail… and in fact at a shopping mall she probably would have been at least carrying a purse. She was more than a kilometre into a six-and-a-half kilometre loop. And she asks me, nicely, how much further until the waterfall.
I was absolutely gobsmacked. I explained, as politely as possible, that it would be at least a mile through some very hot and exposed fields, before getting into some pretty rugged country through the trees. I didn’t want to be all pushy, but she was not outfitted for the kind of terrain she was going to be coming into, and I tried to communicate that to her as gently as I could. She thanked me and continued on her way. I shook my head and continued on mine… and checked the local papers for any “missing persons” reports the next day.
There is a basic degree of preparedness that you must, repeat must, have before you set out on even the most forgiving trail. This person did not remotely meet that standard, and I can only hope that she turned around and came back shortly after she passed me; if she finished her hike successfully it was only through sheer idiot luck. As my dad is fond of saying, the good lord protects fools, drunkards and little children.
I don’t believe in unearned luck, and divine favour is a fickle commodity at the best of times.
Let me describe my “nightmare scenario” on the trail: it’s not being mauled by an animal or struck by a sudden blizzard; it starts much more innocuously:
The Wife™ is out of town, or maybe she had to go to work early. It’s the middle of the week and don’t have a job to get to, so I decide impulsively to go for a hike. I leave the dogs at home and drive out to the park; I’ve got some water and my cellphone, and that’s all I need. I spend a happy summer’s day romping around and as it starts getting dark, I see a perfect shot of a waterfall from the edge of a ravine. Cellphone in hand, I walk to the edge, frame the shot… and take a bad step. Maybe I slip. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to where I set my feet. Maybe a bit of the limestone rim gave under my weight. And now I’m thirty feet down at the bottom of the ravine. My cellphone is shattered against the rocks and has fallen gods-know-where. One of my legs is broken, or both are, or maybe my back is. I’m critically injured, the sun is setting, the park will close soon and no one else is going to use this trail tonight. No one knows I’m here anyway. Best case, I’m in for a very painful, very long night… and maybe more than one. I have no food. I have a few swallows of water left. By midday tomorrow, I will be too weak to even call for help from the hikers and cyclists I can hear using the trails nearby. Sure, maybe The Wife™ gets home and gets worried and calls the cops but how will they know where to look?
And what started as a pleasant afternoon in the woods suddenly becomes — not five miles from a modern and well-equipped emergency room in the middle of a popular and well-traveled park — a life-or-death crisis.
Sounds ridiculous, right? But it could easily happen. In fact, it happened just last year. A 33-year-old local man, whose name was never released to the media, died by misadventure just off a well-marked and popular trail in Short Hills Provincial Park… the very same trail I hiked that day. The details of his death are not on the public record, so maybe he was killed instantly when he hit the stones at the bottom of the gorge. Or maybe he lingered for hours or days in pain, unable to call for help. But he was never declared missing and nobody knew he was in the park until a hiker found his body.
The single most important safety measure you take when solo hiking is this: Let people know where you’re going and how long you expect to be there. During my first hike in the park I had to change my planned route partway through and I actually texted The Wife™ my new route so that someone would know where I was.
I am not reckless in when I go out to the woods. I always carry a first aid kit. I always carry a source of fire — in fact I carry two. I carry a little food and a multitool and even a jumbo garbage bag which I can use to improvise a crude shelter. I have a compass and some cordage in the form of a paracord bracelet I wove myself. In an emergency situation, I have the skills and the tools to improvise what I need to survive… all of which means nothing if I can’t make my way out or call for help and nobody knows to come looking for me. In those circumstances all I’ve managed to do is buy myself a slower, more agonizing death.
The contents of my pockets, sans cellphone (which I used to take this photo)
I have come to love the lush woods and the winding trails and even the deep limestone ravines of Short Hills Provincial Park… but I have absolutely no intention of dying there. I could go out on dozens or hundreds of solo hikes and never need more than the contents of my pockets and often I won’t even need that, much less the emergency gear and first aid kit I routinely carry in my backpack; thousands of people each year hike that park, prepared or unprepared alike, without needing anything more than a bottle of water and some sturdy shoes. But an emergency might happen and if someone knows I’m there, then I’m never really on my own, I’m just a greater or lesser distance from the search party that is inevitably coming.
I don’t believe in unearned luck… but I definitely believe in bad luck. And it doesn’t matter how smart or fit or prepared you are: Bad luck can kill you. Try not to give it any unnecessary opportunities to do so.
And hell, even if I do take that bad step and I get killed outright, at least my family won’t spend days or weeks not knowing where I am or what happened to me.