November Trail Safety: A Matter Of Situational Awareness, Courtesy And Common Sense



Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Wild beasts are not a concern on the trails of Oakland County, but knowing a bit about trail etiquette and practicing situational awareness, spiced with a heavy dose of common sense, is an excellent practice for all trail users. Rule One: Don’t hike alone if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Many parks and nature centers have trails where you will easily find others. You can also seek out a club, like the Michigan Adventurers Club, that organizes numerous hikes in Southeast Michigan. Many are offered right here in Oakland County.


November is a great month to hike. The air is crisp and the forest rich with the scent of autumn, but with seasonal changes, new hazards may emerge. Rule Two: Carry a day pack with essentials if your hike takes you beyond a well-marked trail. No one ever plans to get lost, but sometimes it happens, especially when darkness creeps in quickly and the trail suddenly vanishes. I may take it to the extreme, but my day pack always has seasonally appropriate items for an unexpected night out. The list now includes: fire starters, dry tinder, duct tape, a knife, an emergency shelter, compass, snacks, a tiny cook stove and instant coffee, water, a backpacker’s headlamp, and a bright orange whistle. The whistle may be the best investment you will ever make—and one you’ll hopefully never need to use.


Last spring I lived on South Manitou Island (10 miles offshore from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) for five weeks and noticed that a fair number of children wore bright orange whistles tied onto their clothes. The kids knew that if ‘’their parents got lost” while they camped, they were to sit by a tree and blow the whistle. Three short blasts. Wait. Three more short blasts. That’s a distress symbol and whistles also last longer than yelling for help if you slip and fall or somehow become immobilized. During my island stay we had no lost children, but there were adults who did not pay attention to trails, had no idea how to follow a map, and needed assistance from other campers or ranger staff to reach their destinations.


Hunting is permitted in some Oakland County areas with public hiking trails, especially in our large State Recreation Areas, so be aware of that fact. Rule Three: Dress in bright colors and don’t hike off trail at dawn or dusk. Wooden foot bridges may become slippery with wet leaves or early morning frost, and weather can change rapidly. Slip and fall and trouble comes your way. Be prepared if you stray into the ‘wilder side’. One might define the wilder side, as a place YOU are not familiar with and lacking any creature comforts.


Some trails are shared by equestrians, cyclists and hikers. Caution and courtesy go hand in hand for all three user groups. Last Sunday I was preparing to cycle the Wadham to Avoca Trail in St Clair County when I was approached by Judy Doeer, an equestrian that just saddled her horse a few dozen yards from my bike. She asked if I would walk my bike up to the horses to help with ‘bicycle desensitizing’.  She noted my puzzled look and explained horses can be startled by encounters with cyclists. In her words,  “As a horse owner, it is my responsibility to make sure my horse is as prepared as possible for encountering things on the trail like, bicycles, joggers, walkers, strollers, and dogs, before going out in a shared trail. People who encounter horses on a trail can help by sharing a simple verbal greeting as they pass, to help the horses understand that what they are seeing involves humans, and not an unknown Pokémon! Simple courtesy enables all of us to enjoy the beauty of this great state!” Rule Four: Be courteous.


Crime is rare on trails, but the words of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, words they share with hikers on that 2,190 mile trek from Maine to Georgia, are equally important for trail hikes within our county.  “Situational awareness is one of your best defenses against crime. Be aware of what you are doing, where you are, and with whom you are talking. Remember to trust your gut – it’s usually right, even when your brain can’t explain why.” Rule Five: Trust your instincts.


Common sense is as important as situational awareness. If you are heading out on a back country trail, it’s wise to let someone know. Rule Six: Share where you are going and when you will be back with someone. Unless you are an experienced hiker, it’s also best to stay on marked trails. Bushwhacking to save time accelerates the chance of an accident or becoming lost.


Lest my words deter you from a fantastic November hike, hike on, for as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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2 thoughts on “November Trail Safety: A Matter Of Situational Awareness, Courtesy And Common Sense

  1. Please remember that on a shared use trail, horses always have the right-of-way. If you are a walker or biker you must yield to the horse on the trail.

  2. […] TRAIL SAFETY: It’s best to stay on the designated trails, and if a dog is your hiking companion, it must be leashed at all times (even if you believe you are alone in the park). It’s the law. Wearing orange or yellow is wise until the end of December, the end of the seasonal archery deer hunt.  When encountering equestrians on the shared trails it’s important to step to the side, but stay in view and talk to the horses so they know you are a human and are not startled. […]

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