The 3 Best Ways to Not Die in the Catskills

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Blackhead Range

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

Every month, people get into trouble in the Catskills, almost always because they are under-prepared. Here are the three 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! To get the full dope, read The Ten Essentials.

2. Have a Good Plan & 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, probably, you 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 and you can use a GPS map like Avenza or Gaia to find your way to a major road.)

But, 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 DEC emergency number for the Catskills, to wit…

3. Put this Number in Your Phone Right Now

When people get into serious trouble in the Catskills, they usually dial 911. Bad idea. The police can help but they don’t know the terrain. Calling 911 only adds delay while they coordinate with the DEC. Instead, call the DEC emergency number directly.

Add this number to your phone as

“DEC Dispatch Center”

(518) 408-5850

Full info via the DEC website

Every single person on your hike should have this number in their phone.

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


Next, Prepare to Wait

In the backcountry, there are no quick remedies. You should be prepared 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.

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 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 Catskills, cell service comes and goes, with no guarantees.

You can often get cell coverage up high, and it’s a little better at many of the summits. But it can also be weird. For example, 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 comes back. 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. But it’s always patchy, because it’s the wilderness.

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

These three tips will keep you alive long enough to enjoy at least one hike. Congrats! Now make sure to pack the ten essentials and start building your own, personalized hiking kit.

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