When you think about going to a national park, you think of the once-in-a-lifetime sights. You might worry about crowds, having the right gear, planning to do everything you want. But, do you think about danger? While we advocate for visiting the parks, we believe it’s important to remember that they are wild, dangerous places.
“From heatstroke, to hypothermia, to facing severe weather ... to getting horribly lost,” the parks pose risks to visitors, according to Carl Borg, founder of Outforia, a site that analyzed and shared National Park Service data on the parks with the most search and rescue incidents in recent years.
Websites for parks post the current weather, road and trail closures, maps and more. Visitors are told to “plan like a ranger.” While rescue services are available, the onus is on you to keep yourself safe when you are alone on the trails.
“People sometimes get lost or disoriented, may get injured or sick, or be delayed by inclement weather conditions,” the park service said in a statement. “No matter the cause, our responders, officers, special agents and partners are some of the most highly trained, experienced and proficient subject-matter experts for search-and-rescue (SAR) operations and missing person investigations, from urban parks to wilderness areas of the National Park System.”
There are basic tips that we have shared before. You shouldn’t hike alone. Some people say it helps them clear their heads to get away from people. But, if you get injured or lost, it’s always safer to be with someone. You should tell people where you are going and when you’ll be back. Piggybacking off of that, you should be reliable in those plans. You shouldn’t “play it by ear” and, if you do change your plans, update people. We’ve also said, many times, to bring a physical map or have one downloaded to your phone. Relying on having a cell signal in the parks is a gamble you shouldn’t take.
Anna Marini, a preventative search and rescue coordinator for Joshua Tree National Park, has other tips. You should bring a headlamp. You never know when you will need a light, and using the flashlight on your phone drains the battery very quickly. Another one of her tips is to leave a note on your dashboard with your backup plans. Because cell phone coverage is so bad, if your family can’t find you, they will see your message and quickly get your help or know when to expect your back. Her other tip was to expect a trail to take longer than you think. Even if you calculate how long a route will take based on your skill, you have to add time for snacks, breathers, admiring the view, and taking pictures. There are more pauses than you realize in a hike, so expect those delays and plan accordingly.
With these tips, you can make your day safer and more fun. We want you to have a great day in the park! A visit to our nation’s natural playgrounds should be memorable for joyful reasons, not because of injures and misadventures!