July 24, 2018 / Comments (0)

Angels Among Us – Trailhead Stewards in the White Mountains

Hiking in the White Mountains brings people from all over the region, country and even the world.  From the experienced hiker practicing for Everest to the curious tourist, the mountains are a haven for many.    The White Mountains boasts hundreds of trails of every kind.  You can hike to waterfalls, lakes, summits, shelters and campsites, old logging campsites, ghost towns and more.  One mountain trail even leads to a  B18 Bomber crash site.  There are no shortage of adventures in the White Mountains and no shortage of hikers to explore them.  Thousands of people flock to the White Mountains every year to explore these trails. Along with all these hikers comes the possibility of much going wrong on a hike.  Trailhead Stewards are posted at all of the popular trailheads to promote safety and protection of public land.


Search and Rescue

New Hampshire’s Fish and Game’s Specialized Search and Rescue Team consisting of 16 specially trained and skilled Conservation Officers respond to an average of 145 calls for assistance each year.  Many of these are from hikers in distress.  There are numerous clubs and volunteer organizations that help with these Search and Rescues.  All have saved lives and each member is a true hero.

This video highlights real life stories of a few hikers that found themselves in trouble and what could have been done differently to keep them safe.  (Video courtesy of New Hampshire Outdoor Council)

Not a week goes by that I don’t read about one or more Search and Rescue missions in these mountains.  Much has been written about some that have ended tragically and many more have thankfully ended successfully.


Trailhead Stewards: Anticipating and Stopping Tragedy Before it Occurs

Why are there so many callouts and what can be done to educate hikers that are unknowingly unprepared for the hike ahead of them?  This is where the Trailhead Stewards step in.

Trailhead Stewards are an ambitious group of volunteers spending their own time to share their experiences so hikers can be kept safe.  Their goal is to ensure hikers of all levels and abilities can continue to enjoy their hike rather than becoming another casualty and rescue call out.

The Conway Daily Suns reports that these generous volunteers spoke with more than 40,000 visitors in 2017, volunteering over 3,500 hours.  Their dedication is surely saving lives.

Courtesy of The Conway Daily Sun

I talked with a couple Trailhead Stewards (THS) to learn more about how they help hikers.

(Please understand, the following is solely coming from several members the WMNF THS/BCP Volunteers speaking from experiences at Trailheads and on Backcountry Patrol and not an opinion or representation of the United States Forest Service.)

I was curious about the types of conversations the Trailhead Stewards  held with hikers, what some of the common issues were and if the hikers were receptive to correction.


Ten Essentials Are Not As Common As We Think

Most commonly Trailhead Stewards are educating hikers on the proper gear that they should have with them before setting out.  The most common oversight of new hikers is not knowing what the “Ten Essentials” are.  The ‘Ten Essentials’ are basics needed for survival.  Tragedy has been the real result of many victims not having one or more of the items on the list.  Some think it may be overkill for a day hike but a good rule of thumb for every day hike is to be prepared to spend a cold night on the mountain each time you head out.

The ‘Ten Essentials’ are listed here.

Of the ten essentials the most common missing pieces of gear are maps and headlamps.  Many hikers are not expecting to be hiking out in the dark and cannot continue without light.  Needless expensive Search and Rescue (SAR) operations have occurred with the only purpose being providing the victims a headlamp so they can navigate their way out of the forest.  Always bring a headlamp.


According to Trailhead Stewards, a surprising number of people hike without bringing a map.


Many Hikers Don’t Check Summit Weather Forecasts

Other than being properly prepared with gear, Trailhead Stewards help hikers understand that weather changes quickly.  Many hikers don’t understand that summit weather is often very different from trailhead weather.  It’s hard to imagine you could be in summer clothing in the warm sunshine at the trailhead and experience hypothermia on a summit.  It’s important to be prepared for all kinds of weather.


Leave No Trace Encompasses More Than Many Realize

They also educate on the Leave No Trace (LNT) Principal and Protection of Alpine Vegetation. It is so important to hike on the trail and not side step around rocks or mud if it takes you off the trail.

To learn more about LNT, Backcountry Rules, Hike Safe and more please visit this link.


Their Conversations Help In Search And Rescue Operations

The people who work as Trailhead Stewards and Backcountry Patrol are exceedingly experienced.  They engage and educate as many individuals that they can in a Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) format. They take mental notes and document any and all areas of concern.  If they have discussed risks with a large group or those they observe as inexperienced or ill-prepared they will relay these conversations with the acting SAR group, should a SAR call out occur .

Search and Rescue

Trailhead Stewards are called upon to relay information to SAR in the event of a call out.  (Photo Courtesy of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue)


Most hikers are receptive to the advice of the Trailhead Steward.  There are some that don’t want to be bothered but for the most part they realize the Trailhead Steward is there to help not be a ‘buzz kill’.  Hikers are very appreciative of their time and discussion of trails.  Discussions at the trailhead could lead hikers to continue with their original plan or sometimes make alternative choices based on how they are feeling about their abilities and if they are properly equipped.

Watch a quick and engaging video here to get a better understanding of the Trailhead Stewards in New Hampshire.


How Can Experienced Hikers Help?

How to Approach Those That Appear Unprepared

Veteran hikers observing what they believe to be inexperience and unprepared hikers may want to check in and ask if they are doing ok. Time of day is sometimes an area of concern.  For example, if you see an inexperienced hiker starting out at 3:00 P.M. ask “where are you headed?” .

Of course, it’s very important not to be quick to assume someone is unprepared. “If they are in Keds, that is one thing, but wearing trail runners is an acceptable choice. Being ‘out of shape’ does not equal being unprepared.”  There is an art to graciously inquiring with a hiker to determine if they are at risk or not.  Conversation rather than direct insinuations is always best.  I’ve once been told by a well meaning hiker that she “didn’t want to be reading about me in the paper the next day.”  This was after assuring her multiple times I was prepared, listing the items in my backpack and my experience,  We were leap-frogging on the same trail and every time I saw her I felt I needed to prove myself all over again.  I was happy to part ways at a junction but then I began to wonder what she knew about my hike ahead of me that I didn’t know.  Don’t do this to your fellow hiker.


If You Witness Someone Neglecting LNT, Say Something

If you see a hiker walking off trail, give them a gentle reminder to stay on the trail. Explain that if they must step off the trail to try to step onto large rocks.  This is important on wooded trails leading to summits as well as open trail in the alpine zone.  This link lists a few ways you can reduce your impact while hiking.


Don’t Shy Away From Correcting the ‘Hot Topics’

A few hot topics regarding rocks deserve attention here. Cairns are lifesaving markers indicating where the trail leads.  Never build or allow others to build their own cairns.   Doing so could lead an unaware hiker astray and into trouble.   LNT also applies to never leaving painted rocks anywhere on the trails.  I’m sure an entire article could be written about ‘kindness rocks’  and building ‘artsy’ cairns but for the sake of this article I will say ‘just don’t do it’ and it’s appropriate to say something if you see others doing it.


Which way does the trail go?


You Can Rely on the Trailhead Stewards

The Trailhead Stewards are trained and are the best last line of defense between an inexperienced hiker and tragedy.  They are trained specifically to engage visitors to the trail.  When asked about hikers approaching other hikers one Trailhead Steward says, “Be an upstander, not a bystander however, being preachy and snobby just repels people and makes them less likely to follow LNT or enjoy the outdoors which is their right. If someone looks like they need advice, offer, but accept their refusal of it.”  It’s not always easy to correct strangers.  Hikers should never put themselves in an at-risk situation. They should only engage if they are comfortable and experienced themselves.   We are lucky that the Trailhead Stewards are happy to sacrifice their time to educate us all in proper safety and LNT.

Are you interested in sharing your time, experience and expertise as a Trailhead Steward? Visit the White Mountains National Forest Volunteer Page for more information.  Your knowledge could be what saves a life some day. In the meantime be sure to thank a Trailhead Steward when you see them and, as always, Happy Trails.

Last modified: July 24, 2018

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