Trail Safety: Playing it Safe on the Billy Goat Trail

Preparation is the Key to a Fun and Safe Hike

When getting ready for a hike along the Billy Goat Trail or other trail in around Great Falls Park, plan ahead, be prepared and take steps to prevent problems before they occur. Although we couldn’t possibly describe every incident you might encounter in the woods—after all, the unknown is part of the adventure—the following are some basic steps for using common sense to promote safety on the trail, and ultimately enjoy your hike more.

Plan Ahead
Learn about the trail and the area you plan to visit before you get there. Review maps to learn the general lay of the land and familiarize yourself with prominent landmarks and terrain features. Once you’ve planned your route, including alternate routes and back-up meeting destinations, leave your itinerary, including the time you expect to return, with a friend and take a cellphone.

Be Prepared
Part of being prepared for a hike is being physically capable and knowing your own limits.

If your idea of regular exercise is a trip from the couch to the ice box, attempting a three-hour trek along the Billy Goat Trail is not common sense. To get yourself physically prepared for a hiking adventure, begin a regular exercise routine that includes aerobic activity and strength workouts. You should always consult a doctor before beginning a fitness program. Remember that other factors, such as lack of sleep, insufficient food, or being too hot or cold, will affect your ability on the trail and may decrease your stamina, strength or coordination. Drugs, medicinal or otherwise, may also have hindering effects including drowsiness, slow reaction time, and impaired judgment.

What about the Weather?
Pay close attention to current weather conditions and unique topography.

What are the low and high temperatures for that season? When is the prime season for mosquitoes, black flies, or other pests that will take a bite out of you and your enjoyment if not properly reckoned with?

Dress Your Best
Your hike will be more enjoyable and safer if you wear the proper clothing.
Synthetic or natural fibers, not cotton, are best for allowing your skin to breathe but a poly-blend will dry faster. You can regulate your body temperature by dressing in layers. When you stop to rest in cool weather, put on a sweater or jacket to avoid chills. Long sleeves and full length pants will protect you from sun, briars and insects. Finally, be sure to travel with a hat, which will help you retain body heat in the winter and shield you from other outdoor hazards, like insects and sunburn.

Temperature Troubles.
If you must be in the sun, cover exposed skin with sunscreen and wear sunglasses. Remember, even on cloudy days, the sun’s rays can still be strong. Also be aware that heat exhaustion, caused by prolonged physical exertion in hot temperatures, can afflict even the most physically fit. If this does occur, cool down by whatever means available. Have the person rest and drink lots of fluids.

Bad Weather
Always plan for bad weather, even if your day starts out nice, by bringing a rain coat or jacket for cool weather. Typically, lightning storms occur in the afternoons, so begin your hike early, and be prepared to turn back and descend below the ridge tops and lower areas away from the river should an electrical storm start.

Finding Your Way
Always carry a map (and compass or GPS device) with you whenever you hike. And learn how to use them before you head off into the wilderness—otherwise, they won’t do you much good. Once you start your hike, stay on the blazed trail if trails are marked. Otherwise, be aware of your surroundings and make mental notes of unique landmarks so you’ll remember them on your way back.

Feet First
Hiking boots or good sturdy walking shoes are a must. Avoid painful blisters by breaking in your boots or shoes before your hike. Walk around in them for several days, or wear them to work or to the store a few times. Two pairs of socks, one lightweight inner sock and a heavy outer sock, are strongly recommended.

The Company You Keep
Although it’s best not to hike alone, try to limit your group to less than 10 people. In fact, some areas require you to register your group prior to starting your hike. When hiking with a group, establish a leader, a sweep and a plan of action for forks in the trail or a change of direction.

For example, you may decide the leader will wait at all forks until the entire group is present. Make sure everyone in your group knows the destination. Don’t leave the trail without asking a fellow hiker to wait for your return. If only one person has first aid knowledge, that person should be at the end of the group.

First Aid
Pack a first-aid kit whenever you hike. Make sure it’s fully stocked (restock it after every hike) and everything is clearly labeled. You should have plenty of bandages, antiseptic, burn treatment, sun screen, insect bite treatment, and scissors or tweezers. It’s a good idea for at least one person in your group to have first-aid training or equivalent.

It is important to drink before you feel thirsty to avoid dehydration. Hydrate.