The 3 Best Ways to Not Die on a Hike

Blackhead Range

From Buck Ridge Lookout: Thomas Cole, Black Dome and Blackhead are visible over Hunter’s flank

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Every month, people get into trouble in the Catskills and Adirondacks, almost always because they are under-prepared. Here are the 3 best things you can do to stay safe on your hike, while making sure you’re prepared in the event of an emergency.

1. Pack “The Ten Essentials”

Briefly, you want navigation supplies, weather protection, a headlamp, first-aid, nutrition, water, and emergency supplies. Don’t half-ass any of this. Nine times out of 10, you’ll be lucky. One time out of 10, you’ll be in deep trouble. One-time-in-ten is terrible odds!

2. Have a Good Plan (and Tell Someone About It)

Research your route. Make sure the trailhead is in your phone. Know what time sunset is at and plan for only 1-2 miles of hiking per hour. Two miles per hour on some of these mountains is pretty good!

Allow for the fact that you probably won’t have cell coverage at the trailhead. At the end of a long tiring hike, getting reverse directions home may not be possible. In which case: GPS works without cell service so you can use a GPS map like Avenza or Gaia to find your way to a major road.

Most importantly, email or text a loved one these three pieces of information…

  1. Your starting location, destination, and planned route
  2. A time by which you’ll check in to let them know you’re safe
  3. The correct DEC emergency number for the Catskills, to wit…

If any of these five key pieces of information changes, let your contact know a.s.a.p. (See below.)

3. Put these Numbers in Your Phone Right Now

When people get into serious trouble on a mountain, they usually dial 911. Bad idea. The police will help you, but they don’t know the terrain. Calling 911 only adds delay while they coordinate with the DEC.

Instead, call the correct DEC emergency number directly.

Add these DEC numbers to your phone …

Catskills Forest Rangers

(518) 408-5850

Use this number for any forest emergency in New York outside of the Adirondacks. For emergencies inside the Adirondack Park, use the following number…

Adirondacks Forest Rangers

(518) 891-0235

The DEC Forest Rangers know our hills intimately. They train regularly to handle emergencies and rescues in our hills. If you call and say, “I’m on Friday Mountain and I’m lost,” they can probably visualize the area mentally. They are awesome. They know how to find you.

Full info via the DEC website.

Every single person on your hike should have these numbers in their phone.

Now, Prepare to Wait!

In the backcountry, there are no quick remedies. You should always be prepared — with good gear, supplies and knowledge — to handle an emergency situation.

Scratch any idea about an exciting helicopter rescue. If something goes wrong, and you have to put in a call, you’ll be waiting for hours — even as the sun sets and the temperature drops — while a team assembles at the trailhead and then hikes out to your location on foot. It takes a while.

If you’re lost, they’ll get you back to your car. If you’re hypothermic, they’ll warm you up and get you to the trailhead. If you’ve broken a leg, they’ll stabilize your injury, put you on a stretcher, and haul your ass to a waiting ambulance.

They do these awesome things every month.

You don’t want to deal with any of this.

(But it’s a big advantage to have the right number when you need it.)

What If Things Change? Cell Coverage in the Catskills

Maybe hiking a section of trail took longer than planned, or maybe the weather suddenly changed. Maybe you came to a ledge that’s a just a little out of your comfort zone and, very wisely, you decided to turn around.

In the mountains, cell service comes and goes, with no guarantees.

You can often get cell coverage up high, and it’s a little better on many of the summits. But it can also be weird. For example, in the Catskills, there’s decent cell coverage in the Moonhaw Road parking area, which is in a clove, but coverage drops as you climb Friday Mountain. Then it returns. Then it drops again. And so on.

You can never rely on having cell coverage. On the other hand, if you can walk, you can hike to signal.

In the Catskills, you’re constantly walking in and out of coverage. It’s always patchy — it’s the wilderness!

If things change — especially if you alter your planned route — let your contact know at the first opportunity. Never assume you’ll have cell service five minutes from where you are. Your plan has already changed once. You do not know what’s going to happen later.

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These tips will keep you alive long enough to enjoy at least one hike. Congrats!

Now, level up with these essential pieces of gear

  1. On every hike, make sure you carry a headlamp.
  2. In cold weather, make sure you pack a pair of microspikes
  3. When there’s more than 8″ of snow on the ground, always hike with snowshoes.
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Hello, I’m Sean

I write independent hiking content to help hikers like you find amazing hikes in the Catskills, Adirondacks, Gunks, Hudson Highlands, Taconics and beyond.

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