When to bail on a hike

When to bail on a hike

Hiking is a physical activity in wilderness and wilderness-like regions, and therefore many factors can affect the success of a hike. At times, these factors can cause injuries and may even be life-threatening.

Golden Retriever with down cast eyes, looking sad.
Finley doesn’t like bailing on hikes, but he knows that his safety must come first.

I venture to say that everyone who hikes intends to reach a planned destination.  A destination could be a turnaround point based on time: “I will hike until 3:00 pm and then turn around”.  It could be a mileage goal, a point to point trail, the completion of a loop or summiting a mountain.  In all of these cases, there is the intention of completing the plan.

Unfortunately, not all hiking plans are successful.  There are times when bailing is necessary for the safety of the hikers.

Weather

Black storm clouds
Storm clouds, with the potential of lightening storms, are signs to retreat from exposed mountain tops.

Weather is unpredictable.  Appropriate clothing and gear can help keep you protected from the sun, warm in the cold months and dry during the rain.  Unfortunately, you cannot pack items that will keep you safe in all weather conditions.  

Unsafe weather conditions include:

  • Extreme hot or cold temperatures
  • Lightening and thunder storms
  • High winds
  • Fog / cloud coverage of the trail
  • Heavy precipitation including rain, hail and snow
  • Tornado / Hurricane 

In mid October 2017, my husband, dogs and I embarked on a 3 day, 55 mile northbound backpack trip in Virginia.  It was unseasonably warm and dry, the daily temperatures topping off around 95 degrees.  We packed extra water, carrying 3 liters each, expecting that it would hold us until we arrived at the  day 1 shelter 15 miles away.  Our black lab, Toro, was overheated by mile 2 and drank a full liter of water while we rested in the shade.  We trudged uphill, taking more breaks than normal, the dogs polishing off 2 more liters by mile 6.  After 9 miles, we arrived at the first water source and found a pit of mud.  Some southbound AT thru hikers were trying to syphon off some liquid from the muck and shared that there was no water for the next 20 miles.  We gave the pups another liter of water and made the decision to hike out.  Brian and I could ration our water, getting some fluids from our packed clementines and apples.  However, there was no way that our dogs could have made a 20 mile trek on the final bottle.  We bailed on our original plans, turned the trip into 3 day hikes, ensuring that we had water for ourselves and to share with thirsty thru hikers along the way.

A small brown puddle of water surrounded by mud.
The only water source within a 30 mile section of the Virginia Appalachian Trail was mucky and not enough to fill the water bottles of the thru hikers or our crew.

Terrain

For planning purposes, hikers can find elevation, mileage and water crossing information on printed trail maps or in hiking apps such as Guthook and All Trails.  Youtube videos also provide a clue of trail terrain.  Terrain conditions change due to weather, causing challenging trails to become dangerous.

Unsafe terrain conditions:

  • High and rushing water on the trail
  • Rock slides
  • Wet rocks and rock faces
  • Ice

I have not yet come to a high river crossing where I’ve needed to decide to proceed or retreat.  Unfortunately, my husband has had that experience and it frankly still scares him.  He was hiking with a friend in the backwoods of Colorado when they came to a rushing Taylor River.  They traversed the river, walked with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, buddy style.  He ranks that crossing in the top 10 of “stupid things done during he-man hiking trips” and counts his blessings that neither were knocked under by the current.

Backpacking man walking through a brown river, the water high on his legs.
Luckily, the Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon was calm when we crossed. Just days before our arrival, storms and flash floods ravaged the canyon, turning clear blue-green water into opaque brown liquid.

Hiker health

The best way to get into great hiking shape is to hike.  With that being said, it is important to build up fitness gradually and not jump into a 20 miler.  Hikers should walk within their limitations so that they have the strength and endurance to complete the trek safely.  Being familiar with signs and symptoms of illness it important to safety so that hikers can bail when feeling unwell.

Health issues:

  • Altitude sickness – headache, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing
  • Injury – joint sprain or strain, open wound, broken bone
  • Illness – allergic reaction, gastrointestinal issues, flu, migraine 
  • Lack of fitness 

Carrying first aid supplies can help in many health circumstances, but sometimes it is best to get off the trail and seek professional care.  Last summer, on day 2 of a multi-day hike, I was stung over 25 times by ground hornets.  Our Labrador, Toro, stepped onto a ground nest, the swarming hornets covering my lower legs like a blanket.  I was stung so many times, that despite immediately taking benadryl, I passed out from the venom.  I became very sick, my legs swollen and my body lethargic.  Unfortunately, I was in an area where there was no opportunity to bail.  My husband was forced to carry my pack, and my daughter walked near me as we forged onward to our camping site.  We were hours away from a road and any chance of getting help.  If this had happened close to a street or houses, we would have quickly left the trail for medical attention.  

Rushing water along a rocky trail
Rushing water flowing over the rocky trail in Arizona.

Unsafe conditions

Additional challenges include hiker miscalculations and Mother Nature:

  • Wildlife – elk, bears, coyotes, mountain lions
  • Shortage of supplies – water, food, dry clothing
  • Natural disasters – flood, fire, avalanche
  • Darkness – often safe on a marked trail, it become dangerous in steep areas and regions without trail markings
  • Lack of skills – inexperience in hiking challenging terrain

Wildlife often hide or run from human hikers, but can become aggressive if they feel threatened.  On a spring-time family hike in the Grand Tetons, our family came in contact with 2 different angry animal mamas, an elk and a grizzly bear.  Our first encounter on the trail was with a mother elk who challenged us while protecting her babies.  She snorted and stamped her foot, ready to attack if we progressed too closely to her family.  We were able to pass by her, but she chased us for several hundred yards, driving home the point that she meant business.  Later on the same trail, a grizzly bear spied us and appeared to be protective of her location.  We suspect it was a female based on the time of the year and her demeanor.  We retreated down the trail, the grizzly tracking us for about a mile.  If we had come across the bear as our first animal encounter of the day, we would have returned to the trailhead and chosen another path for the day.  We were probably safe due to the fact that there were 7 of us, a somewhat imposing group.  Had I been alone, I would not have attempted to pass the elk at the beginning of the trek.

Mama elk standing a few yards off of a trail.
Mama Elk was hesitant to let us pass on our hike in the Grand Tetons.

It just doesn’t feel right

Going with your gut is a legit reason to turnaround.  If you are questioning moving forward, then your confidence is wavering.  It is important to feel secure when aiming to complete your journey.

We recently attempted to summit Mount Princeton, a 14,204’ peak in the Sawatch Range in Colorado.  As we approached the mountain by car, we could see that the summit was covered in fog.  Weather changes quickly in Colorado, therefore we were hopeful the clouds would roll away by the time we made it to the peak.  As we ventured above tree line, a coyote challenged our hiking companion, Finley, a 3 year old Golden Retriever.  I broke up the scuffle, concerned that other coyotes were circling behind us.  We continued on, having a second encounter with the coyote.  As we moved into the rocky face of the mountain, our pace slowed.  There was no real trail and we were stepping rock to rock.  The clouds darkened and the peak was still encased with fog.  A hiker coming down from the summit announced that he was hurt with a twisted ankle.  He said the fog was so thick at the top that he couldn’t see his own foot stepping to the ground.  We paused after this conversation, trying to decide whether to move forward or to give up the hike.  At that point, the clouds opened up and rain pelted us.  We silently turned around and headed back to our starting point.  I was greatly disappointed not to reach our goal, but it was the right decision.  My husband later shared that as we climbed up the mountain, he had a feeling that something just wasn’t right.  His gut instinct was on the mark.

Gray clouds swirling over a Rocky Mountain top, a hiker walking over brown boulders toward the summit.
With our eyes on the socked in summit of Mt. Princeton, we continued over rocks and boulders until the black clouds rolled in and the rain pelted us.

When in doubt whether to continue or quit the hike, consider the risks. You can always attempt a hike a second or third or fourth time. Be safe as you enjoy your adventures!

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