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A Hike is Not a Walk

Unprepared Boston newscaster latest to learn the hard way

MONDAY, Sept. 17, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A weekend hike in New Hampshire's White Mountains could have cost Ted O'Brien his life.

Earlier this month, the Boston-based radio newscaster accidentally strayed off his trail and spent two days and two nights lost, cold, thirsty and miserable as he tried to ration two sandwiches and four cheese sticks. On his third morning in the wild, he happened onto a group of rescuers.

O'Brien was lucky. His wife knew where he was and was able to alert rescuers. Also, the weather held. If he had spent the next night in the woods, he would have encountered torrential rains and a chance of developing hypothermia. Now all O'Brien has to worry about is whether the state Attorney General will bill him for the rescue. (Probably not, says one source, because it didn't involve gross negligence).

While no figures are available on how many people have accidents or get lost while hiking, Rick Wilcox, head of the Volunteer Mountain Rescue Service for New Hampshire's White Mountains, says his group was involved in 100 to 200 rescues in just the three summer months. The state Department of Fish and Game is involved in some 250 such operations every year. In O'Brien's case, a high-profile one because of his celebrity status, some 60 rescuers and two helicopters were pressed into service.

Ten days before O'Brien's ordeal, a 53-year-old rabbi from New York was found dead after apparently suffering a heart attack while hiking. The rabbi was the focus of one of three rescue missions launched on the same day.

"To have a safe and enjoyable hike, you do need to do some preparation and pay attention to what you carry and what you bring, also to what's in your head," says Rob Burbank, public affairs director of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).

He says start by asking yourself if you are physically fit and if you have the necessary outdoor skills. If you do, read up on the trails you intend to follow, paying particular attention to the length, the type of terrain and the amount of time involved. Before setting out, tell a spouse or a friend which specific trails you're going to take and your estimated return time. Both O'Brien's wife and the rabbi's wife knew where their husbands had started, so rescuers knew where to begin.

Check local weather conditions, though this can be tricky in the mountains where weather conditions change rapidly. Make sure you bring a map and a compass and that you know how to use them. Many outdoor clubs offer workshops on basic navigational skills. Other essential gear includes a first-aid kit, knife, matches, whistle and head lamp or flashlight with back-up batteries. If you're traveling in a group on a day's outing (and it is safer to travel in a group), one person may want to carry a sleeping bag in case someone gets hurt and needs to lie down.

Dress in layers, advises Mary Margaret Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society. The first layer should be something other than cotton so it'll wick the sweat away from you. Add a long-sleeved fleece jacket or vest over that, then a windbreaker or jacket and a hat.

Make sure you bring enough food and water. Burbank recommends an average of two quarts of water -- not soda -- per person per day. Sloan often packs a water filter or purifying tablets in case she runs out of potable water and needs to drink from a stream. Don't forget to load up on calories: dried fruit, crackers, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, nuts, granola mix, energy bars and chocolate are good to carry along.

While you're hiking, Burbank suggests glancing over your shoulder once in a while so you'll have a sense of what the trail looks like in the opposite direction. If you do happen to get lost, try to find the trail then retrace your steps. If that doesn't work, try to find a water course and follow it downhill -- eventually, you'll come to some sort of "civilization." If night falls, stay in one place till morning.

Go ahead and stash a cell phone in your pack, but don't rely on it to get you out of trouble. "Some people are using cell phones as a substitute for good preparation, which is a big mistake," says Sloan. The same things that can go wrong with a cell phone in the city can go wrong in the wilderness. "Batteries wear out, things break," says Burbank. "It's better to have a good basic knowledge and rely on your own skills."

What To Do: For more about hiking and hiking safety, visit the American Hiking Society, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department, or the International Mountain Climbing School.

SOURCES: Interviews with Rick Wilcox, head, Volunteer Mountain Rescue Service, North Conway, N.H.; Rob Burbank, public affairs director, Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston, and Mary Margaret Sloan, president, American Hiking Society, Silver Spring, Md.; WBUR-FM photo
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