POTENTIAL HAZARDS AND CONSIDERATIONS
The first principle in Leave No Trace is Plan Ahead and Prepare. It’s important you are aware of some of the potential hazards and considerations when planning a day trip or long-distance adventure on the Arizona Trail. While this list is certainly not comprehensive, it’s a good start.
Within nature are the great unknowns, which is what attracts the adventurous among us to explore, attempt and risk, with the hopes of gaining an experience that will enrich our lives. Risk is always a factor in backcountry travel. Many AZT activities can be dangerous, especially when weather is adverse or unpredictable, and when unforeseen events or conditions create a hazardous situation. It is your responsibility to learn the necessary skills for safe backcountry travel, and to exercise caution in potentially hazardous areas. The ATA disclaims any liability for injury or other damage caused by backcountry travel or performing any other activity described herein. Accept responsibility for yourself and those around you, and be prepared for everything you may encounter along the way.
DAY HIKING DANGERS
Day hiking is inherently more dangerous than overnight backpacking. Think about it. If you plan to hike the entire Arizona Trail as day hikes then you will be visiting areas that are just as remote as the people who are backpacking the AZT. The main difference is, they are carrying a lot more resources on their backs that they can use if something goes wrong. If a backpacker gets lost or injured, they have a tent, sleeping bag, extra food, and a lot of other tools with them that can help them handle their situation. As a day hiker you should consider carrying additional resources with you for your safety, including:
- Extra water and food
- Water Treatment/Water Filter
- Headlamp & Extra Batteries
- Winter Hat
- Rain Jacket
- Warm Socks
- First Aid Kit
- Pocket Knife
- Satellite Communication Device
- …and anything else that can keep you safe if things don’t go as planned.
The AZT was intentionally routed through wild, remote parts of the state to provide a primitive experience to the backcountry traveler. In some places, help will be far away and preparation for hazards is essential. Anyone considering a hike along the AZT should carefully evaluate his or her ability to cope with potential dangers. Remember, self-rescue is always the primary means of dealing with an emergency and is often the fastest. Search & Rescue missions to assist lost or injured trail users can take a very long time, depending on how far from the nearest road the patient may be.
Cellular telephone coverage is intermittent and unreliable along much of the AZT. Carrying a satellite communication device is a better option, but they are no substitute for good trail sense and on-the-ground experience. It’s always best to leave a detailed itinerary with a reliable friend or family member and check in with them regularly to acknowledge you are safe and on track. Knowing the point last seen is a vital piece of information for rescue personnel.
The greatest peril from drinking natural water is contamination, especially from Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium, small parasites that cause severe intestinal discomfort in humans. E coli is often found where cattle have defecated into water sources, and can be deadly. A lightweight water filter system is the best defense against such impurities. Always carry two means to treat water (chemical, mechanical, UV, etc.) in case one system fails or your supply dwindles. Drinking contaminated water is a better option than not drinking at all; you can survive a bout with Giardia but dehydration kills quickly.
Arizona’s low humidity, combined with the increased respiration rate during strenuous hiking, can result in potentially dangerous dehydration. Hikers may need a gallon of water per day, which must be carried or cached along the route unless there are guaranteed natural sources. Consult updated Water Source information online, and talk with stewards, land managers and recent trail users to confirm water availability.
HEAT EXHAUSTION & HEAT STROKE
The intense sun and heat along much of the AZT can pose a serious health threat during half the year. Heat exhaustion can overtake a person rapidly, and, because disorientation and confusion are common symptoms, a victim may never know what happened. Keep an eye on each other and be aware of these symptoms of heat exhaustion: chills, clammy skin, stumbling, muscle weakness, nausea. If heat exhaustion advances, it may turn into heat stroke, which is even more serious and often deadly. Skin will go from clammy to hot and dry, and unconsciousness may follow. Rapid and immediate cooling of the entire body is the only backcountry response, and emergency medical personnel should be contacted immediately.
Arizona’s weather is extreme and can change at any time. Even in the low-elevation deserts, snow and cold rain are possible. Carrying an emergency mylar blanket in your first-aid kit can help retain body heat in emergency situations.
Floods kill several people each year, and often with just a few seconds’ warning. Survivors have described flash floods as sudden, raging walls of water, not gradually increasing flows. To avoid these calamities, stay aware of the weather and the terrain. Flash floods occur when thunderstorms drop a large amount of rain and the ground cannot absorb all of the water. Obviously, dark skies and the sound of distant thunder are warning signs, but floods can develop many miles away, and the storm may not be evident downstream. As for terrain, floods follow established waterways and seek the lowest ground. Thus, it is important not to camp or linger in dry washes or near streams or rivers, especially during the rainy season or thunderstorms. Low-lying areas that are not obvious waterways can also be inundated. Err on the side of caution and always camp on high ground. Never enter an enclosed canyon when thunderstorms are present or likely.
This serious danger can strike anywhere, but is most threatening at exposed high elevations, such as Arizona’s sky islands or the high ridges of such wilderness areas as the Superstitions, the Mazatzals, and the San Francisco Peaks. Lightning is most likely during Arizona’s monsoon rainstorms of June, July, and August, and it usually occurs in the afternoon. Look for a low, treeless spot and squat there until the storm passes. It’s also acceptable to take shelter in a low-elevation stand of trees of uniform height. Hiding in caves is dangerous, as they provide an ideal conduit for ground currents.
Most animals you encounter in the backcountry will be more frightened of you than you are of them. However, a large animal occasionally may exhibit protective or aggressive behavior. Animals, and their prey, may be attracted by the smell of food. Maintain a clean camp and keep food in one place (such as a stuff sack) 100 yards from your tent to minimize the chance of confronting a hungry visitor. When there are trees near your campsite, hang food high off the ground from a slender branch.
Mountain lions and bears inhabit Arizona, but, for the most part, they are shy of humans. In the unlikely event that you have a threatening encounter, experts suggest standing up tall, waving your arms, making noise, and slowly backing up. Throwing rocks or a walking stick at a persistent mountain lion may also be effective. If you are attacked, fight back.
The best defense against snakes, scorpions and spiders is to avoid putting your hands and feet in places you can’t see, such as deep grass, rock crevices, and holes. The majority of snake bites occur on the hands and face of the victim because they are harassing it! If you see a rattlesnake, back away and leave the snake an escape route. They are beautiful creatures that use camouflage as their primary defense, their rattle as a secondary defense, and their fangs as a last resort.
In spite of their reputation, rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, although they are extremely painful and victims that are envenomated can lose muscle and tissue to necrosis. If you are bitten, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm and get professional medical attention as soon as possible. Keeping your heart rate down slows the spread of venom through your body. Do not apply a tourniquet, nor pack the area with ice or ice water, nor cut the wound, nor suck out venom by mouth. Just get to a hospital quickly.
Africanized honeybees, also called killer bees, are hybrids of African bees and European honeybees, the most common bees in North America. Africanized bees are more aggressive and persistent, attack in larger numbers, and may pursue intruders farther from their hives than European bees. Their venom is the same as that of the European bee. Because it is difficult to distinguish the two kinds of bees, it is best to treat all bees with respect. Wear light-colored clothing and avoid shiny jewelry. If you enter an area with a lot of bees, move away calmly. Never swat or kill a bee, because sudden movements and the odor of an injured bee stimulate the attack instinct in Africanized bees. If you are attacked, run away and keep running. Cover your head and face with clothing, because these are the first places bees will sting. Seek shelter. Unleash pets so they can escape too. If you are stung, scrape away the stinger but don’t squeeze it, which will release more venom.
Thousands of abandoned mine shafts dot the hillsides of Arizona. They are not maintained and are extremely dangerous. Not only are they subject to collapsing rock, they also may contain toxic fumes that can overcome a careless explorer. And there is very little to see; they have been picked clean of any interesting artifacts. Give them a wide berth and avoid the temptation to use them as shelter from rainstorms.
Snags are dead trees whose root structures may be decayed to the point that the tree is ready to topple over. They are particularly prevalent in burned areas which, unfortunately, are common along the AZT. Although the danger of being hit by a falling tree is slight, they have killed people. Don’t camp under snags and remember that even live trees are susceptible to blowing over in a strong storm.
An invisible danger along the trail is a microscopic fungus living in the soil called Coccidioidomycosis, and more commonly referred to as Valley Fever. While it is dormant during long dry spells, it develops as a mold with long filaments that break off into airborne spores when it rains. The spores are swept into the air by disruption of the soil during windstorms and though regular activities that create dust like hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Coccidioidomycosis is a common cause of bronchitis and pneumonia, and infections usually occur due to inhalation of the spores. Some classic signs and symptoms include a profound feeling of tiredness, loss of smell and taste, fever, cough, headaches, rash, and muscle and join pain. Fatigue can persist for many months after initial infection, and can lead to severe health complications in some individuals. The disease is not contagious. In some cases, the infection may recur or become chronic. Most mammals are susceptible to Valley Fever, so if your dog develops a painful dry cough after your hike, consider get it tested for Coccidioidomycosis. Valley Fever is often diagnosed by a blood test, chest X-ray or skin test.