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    Study Finds White Mountain National Forest Hikers Often Unprepared

    In a new study based on surveys of hikers in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, Brown University researchers find that many people hit the trails without essential equipment, often because they don’t think it’s needed for short hikes.

    Hikers may be preparing to scale the peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, but a new study finds they’re doing it without most of the necessary gear.

    The Brown University study led by fourth-year Warren Alpert Medical School student Ryan Mason surveyed 199 hikers in the summer of 2011 at three trailheads about carrying the 10 essential items recommended by New Hampshire’s HikeSafe program.

    They are map, a compass, extra clothes, rain gear, a fire starter, a flashlight, extra food and water, a knife, a first aid kit, and a whistle.

    Young and inexperienced hikers were most likely to lack multiple items, according to the research. The study found only three of five hikers brought seven or fewer items, while 18 percent had all 10 items.

    “One of the goals of this paper was to figure out where are the gaps, what are people missing, and what are people good at,” said Mason.

    To compile the data, Mason surveyed the hikers at the heads of three trails of varying difficulty in the national forest. Mason, who before medical school worked for several summers to maintain hiking trails in parks around the country, asked the hikers 22 questions about what gear they were packing, whether they had told others of their hiking plans and checked the weather, and why they packed or omitted what they did.

    Among the 57 hikers in the 20 to 29 age group, only 17 were prepared, while among the 51 hikers aged 50-59, 29 were prepared. Among hikers who reported having “a lot of experience,” 54 percent proved to be prepared, while among hikers with some, little or no experience, only 29 percent were prepared.

    Other findings included:

    • vast majorities of hikers did check weather and inform a third party of their travel plans in advance;
    • among the 150 people who planned to hike for less than 12 hours, only 39.3 percent were prepared, but among the 41 who planned to hike for more than 12 hours, 48.8 percent were prepared;
    • the most common reasons for leaving out equipment was that the hike was considered a short trip or that the hiker forgot. Only nine of 167 hikers offering reasons said they didn’t own the needed equipment;
    • the most commonly omitted items from the list were whistle (57 percent omitted one), compass (54 percent), and a fire starter (48 percent).

    While many hikers did not bring a compass, 122 out of 199 brought GPS technology. But most of those hikers (95 out of 122) brought GPS-enabled cell phones, which have little or no reception within the park (even dedicated GPS receivers can sometimes fail there).

    Mason said he found it encouraging that two out of five hikers were prepared in that they brought more than seven of the 10 items, but some kinds of hikers were clearly less prepared than others.

    In other regions of the country, different equipment might be needed for a safe hike, Mason noted. While this study only examines New Hampshire, Mason said that rescue organizations often perceive most hikers as underprepared.

    With a better understanding now of where the gaps in hiker preparedness are, Mason said, further education could help the numbers improve and keep unfortunate injuries and costly search and rescue missions to a minimum.

    Image by Marty Basch

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