The autumn season is nature’s fireworks show bursting from tree limbs scattered along hillsides, mountains, streams and roadways. Blood red sugar maple leaves pulse in the wind, glowing against black limbs. Plump, round quaking aspen tree leaves shudder at the slightest puff as they turn from glazed buttery blonde to succulent papaya orange.
Watching the leaves turn brilliant colors during the fall is a time-honored outdoor experience. But there are a few dangerous elements to outdoor post-fall activity.
Three Fall and Post-Fall Dangers
Fall and winter bring earlier sunsets, blinding trail paths sooner and making your “on-the-trail" time shorter — unless you’re prepared for nighttime conditions.
Autumn also brings an uptick in the aggressive nature of a few stinging insects. If you’re not careful, then you could find yourself on the wrong end of an attack – and what you think is the right thing to do may be the worst plan of all.
Finally, when those leaves disembark from their rooted hosts and gracefully flutter to the ground, the ocular delight show quickly ends and turns your trekking route into a hiking hazard.
Leaves Are Slippery. It’s Why We Call It “Fall”
Leaves on the ground hide rocks, roots, pits — and they are slippery, especially when wet. Hiking enthusiast and author Aislinn Sarnacki admits when she falls it is usually when she’s descending mountains, and not climbing up.
“I think a lot of factors play into that: tired legs, a faster pace, downhill momentum plus gravity. And I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve witnessed a few hiking buddies fall on their butt, and it always seems to be while heading downhill.”
John “Jed” Williamson agrees. He’s a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council and has been collecting data on climbing and trekking accidents in North America for 40 years.
“Wet leaves are slippery — even without rocks underneath. They also hide sticks that you might catch with a boot at ankle height - and could cause you to trip easily. Mud and wet ground are seasonal hazards, too,” he said.
Legendary mountaineer and member of Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council, Ed Viesturs, agrees. “Be aware of hidden risks such as iced-over rocks which could cause you to lose your footing.”
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When the trail is covered with leaves, the best course of action is to tread carefully. The pile of leaves in your path could be shrouding an unburied stone, hiding a wayward tree root, or covering a small hole — each of which could trip you up and cause an injury. If there has been recent rainfall then all leaves on your path will increase the chance of slipping. Wearing appropriate hiking footwear with good ankle support can mitigate the risk of ankle injury from hidden obstacles.
“If you have ambulatory difficulty, or are walking after a rain fall, the use of trekking or hiking poles can increase your stability providing you with four points of contact on the ground and not just two. If the worst-case scenario happens, they can be used as splints to support a fractured leg,” said Jeff Weinstein, a medical operations supervisor at Global Rescue with 16 years of combined experience in emergency and disaster response, critical care paramedicine, and emergency management.
“Adjustable trekking poles are a good idea. Running shoes are a bad idea for wet, slippery conditions. I prefer hiking boots that come above the ankle,” Williamson said.
Sarnacki agrees. “Hiking poles and walking sticks are helpful for maintaining balance. I do suggest hiking poles to anyone who has free hands. When you use them, it’s like having four legs rather than two.”
Don’t Bug the Pests
Yellowjackets become more aggressive this time of the year. Yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets and paper wasps are much more active during the fall season because hive development is completed and colonies are at their maximum size, leading to increased activity in and outside their homes, according to Joe Boggs, an entomologist with Ohio State University's Buckeye Yard and Garden Online.
“The populations are very high. Their behavior is only bad late in the season,” he said, noting that, stings aside, these insects are beneficial because they eat plant pests.
Yellowjacket stingers are not barbed, making them capable of repeatedly pricking their victim without killing themselves. Honey bees have barbed stingers. After the sting, the honey bee tries to pull out the stinger and ends up rupturing its lower abdomen and dying.
Weinstein says the risk is anaphylaxis or a deadly allergic reaction to a bee or wasp sting. “It is rare, but some people are extra sensitive to stings. If you know you are at risk for anaphylaxis from a sting you should be carrying your prescribed epinephrine auto-injector with you anytime you go into the outdoors during spring, summer, or fall,” he said.
Weinstein recommends hikers throw a bottle of Benadryl into their bag when hiking. “If you get stung and start to become itchy or have some hives appear you can take some and mitigate your body’s histamine response, he said.
The best way to prevent unpleasant encounters with social wasps, such as yellow jackets, is to avoid them, according to Marcia Anderson, EPA’s Center of Expertise for School Integrated Pest Management.
Anderson advises avoiding wearing bright colors and sweet-smelling shampoos, lotions, perfumes and soaps that attract yellowjackets. “Avoid swatting and squashing yellowjackets because it is counterproductive. When a yellowjacket is squashed, a chemical (pheromone) is released that attracts and incites nearby yellowjackets,” she added.
The Dark Trail
If it’s late fall or winter then it’s getting darker sooner and that means less daylight to reach your endpoint, faster temperature drops, increased likelihood of getting lost and a higher probability of stumbling over unseen objects on the path. “Darkness comes earlier, so plan your trip accordingly, and bring a few extra items just for safety-a headlamp, extra clothing, food, and water,” Viesturs said.
When you’re not prepared, hiking after dark can be frightening, according to Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking. “If humans were meant to be nocturnal, we’d have huge eyes like lemurs and echolocation like bats,” he said.
Adapting your outdoor climbing, trekking and hiking for the fall season is essential for safety and ensuring a good time. Basic tactics include modifying your outings to match the shorter day, improving your lighting resources, and including extra layers for temperature drops.
“Fall and winter weather can still be deadly if you become lost or have to spend a night in the elements. If you are going remote make sure you have the appropriate gear and equipment to navigate, call for help, and survive the cold if needed,” Weinstein said.
Viesturs routinely underscores the importance of strictly sticking to your turnaround times — the time you set to go back before you set out to summit a mountain. “Abide by an early turnaround time. The summit is never the goal, rather the goal is to get home safely,” he said.
Weinstein’s emergency rescue experience is compelling. “Most people who I’ve treated for exposure to the elements and hypothermia did not expect to become lost, and did not prepare to be. In most cases, if they had the means to obtain water, call for help, and stay warm they would have been in a much better condition when we found them. Don’t become a victim. Prepare," he said.
Stevenson agrees that getting caught after dark is more often the result of poor planning than bad luck. “Can you start a nine-mile summit attempt at 2:00 p.m. and finish before sunset? Maybe you could in Alaska in June when the sun never sets, but not in New Hampshire in November — even if your trail name is Flash Gordon,” he said.
Average hiker speed is between 1 and 2 miles per hour, especially when you include rest breaks. Plan your trail mileage accordingly, and then add an hour of safety margin. When the sun goes down, things get dark fast, especially under a tree canopy. If you are hiking in the afternoon or close to sundown, make sure you plan a get home time.
“Verify what time the sun sets on the day you are hiking, and determine how many miles into the wilderness you are. Make sure you plan for enough time to get back to your vehicle before the sun sets and it gets cold. Make sure you have enough light sources and gear in case you don’t get back by sunset, or you become lost,” Weinstein said.
Williamson suggests adding a few things to your pack. “Headlamp, extra layers, energy bars, micro-spikes and, if alone, filing a plan with someone in case they need to organize a rescue.”
Weinstein recommends including spare, dry socks. “Much rain falls during autumn, and the ground stays wet under the leaves. If you are going remote during the fall, make sure you bring spare socks to keep your feet dry, as well as weatherproof outerwear. Prolonged exposure to rain or wet environments can induce life-threatening hypothermia quickly and without much warning,” he said.
Adding a headlamp to your backpack is an easy fix, keeps your hands free and weighs about as much as a deck of cards. A headlamp serves two important purposes. First, it helps you stay on the trail, spot hidden rocks, roots and changes in the trail surface. A headlamp will help prevent you from missing a guiding blaze or junction. Next, if you are lost and search parties are looking for you, a headlamp can be used to signal help.
Relying on your smartphone flashlight in darkness is unwise. The estimated 50 lumens of light from a smartphone is not nearly as strong as a 350-1000 lumen headlamp. Holding onto your smartphone means you give up the use of one hand, risking stability and recovery potential on the trail. Finally, you burn through battery life faster using the smartphone flashlight, draining the smartphone completely and losing your communication capability.
Weinstein recommends you have more than one source of light.
“When I go remote, I have a headlamp, a handheld flashlight in my pocket, another in my bag, and extra batteries in case they are needed,” he said.
Run time on your flashlight is important to know.
“Flashlights may market a run time of 24, 48, 72hrs+, but this is normally on the lowest lumen setting providing minimal light. I recommend turning on your light to the max brightness setting and timing how long it lasts. Pack enough batteries to provide light for multiple nights. Lights can fail, don’t get stuck in the dark,” Weinstein said.
Prepare and Protect Yourself for Fall Fun
The autumn and post-fall season is a wonderful time to explore the outdoors. The weather is cooler than the dog days of summer. There are few crowds on the trails. Wildlife is much more active as they prepare for the winter. Take advantage of this time of year by planning your excursions around the shorter days and preparing with the right attitude, appropriate gear and a Global Rescue membership.
Global Rescue medical and evacuation services recently expanded its membership services to include within 100 miles of home — as well as everything beyond 100 miles. No matter where you are this season, a travel protection services membership will ensure you and your loved ones are ill or injured and are unable to get to safety on your own.
Hiking Peace of Mind
Post-Autumn Trail Travel: How to Protect Against Bugs, Leaves and Darkness
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