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The Blue Ridge Parkway trail accesses are packed. Pilot Mountain State Park’s website advises that it can take a half hour to score a parking spot on weekends. The knob for which Hanging Rock State Park gets its name resembles an anthill as hikers scramble for views.

October, with its cooler temperatures and even cooler colors, is one of the most popular months to be on the trail in North Carolina. That means a goodly number of occasional hikers, folks without a lot of experience on the trail, will be out. And that lack of experience can quickly turn a glorious autumn afternoon into the type of adventure you like reading about, but don’t want to have yourself.

Hikers of all experience levels can avoid trouble on the trail by observing just a few rules so you can hike safely:

Let someone know your game plan.

Even if you’re hiking with other people, let someone who’s not on the hike know your plan: where you’re hiking, the trail(s) you’ll be on, when you expect to return. If you don’t report back by the appointed time, let your contact know who — state park ranger’s office, National Forest Service district office, etc. — they can notify.

Check the weather before heading out.

If there’s a chance of rain, take a rain jacket or poncho. If it’s cool, pack an extra layer for when you stop and the sweat you’ve worked up suddenly turns cold.

Check sunset.

This time of year especially, the days are getting shorter more quickly. Make sure the hike you have in mind won’t be ending after dark.

Take a map.

Even if you’re on what seems like a simple, well-marked trail, take a map. (At North Carolina’s State Parks, you can almost always pick one up near the trailhead.) You think you know your plan, you come across another trail that looks interesting … . Before you know it, you’re a bit disoriented. Then, Oh yeah, the map!

Take a whistle.

Should something unforeseen and unfortunate happen — fall and twist your ankle, for instance — three quick blasts on your whistle will alert anyone nearby that you are in need.

Take water.

Even on a short hike, take water. Get dehydrated and all sorts of bad things can happen, starting with a loss of crucial energy to fuel your hike.

Take your phone.

Yes, one of your goals on the trail is to escape the infernal thing, but it could come in handy should you encounter trouble. Put it on airplane mode, stick it in your pack, forget about it. Unless you suddenly need it.

Stick to the trail.

The main reason to stay on the trail is that it minimizes a hiker’s impact on the land. But it also keeps inexperienced hikers from suddenly wandering off and having no idea where they are or how to get back to the trail. Staying the course can also help you avoid unintentional destinations — like the down side of a cliff.

Watch your step.

Many of the more well-known trails in the state suffer from the erosion that accompanies popularity; rocks and tree roots can be everywhere. When that proves to be the case, pay attention to the trail itself while hiking, stop when you want to check out the colorful scenery.

When in doubt, retreat.

Some creeks have bridges, some do not. If you encounter a creek where the water level and flow exceed your comfort level and there’s no obviously safe way to cross, remember that the trail that got you this far also can take you back where you started. There’s no dishonor in retreat. Besides, you’ll be surprised how different the terrain looks hiking in the opposite direction.

[Top image: Shutterstock]

Joe Miller

About Joe Miller

Joe Miller is the author of four books on outdoor adventure, and writes about health, fitness and the outdoors. Read his blog at GetGoingNC.com.