In Our Backyard: Enjoy the Outdoors Safely

By Larry Malone

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Did you find yourself spending more time walking, hiking and biking on our beautiful mountain trails, our historic unpaved roads, and our charming natural parks the past several months? Good for you, and many of your neighbors. That is the good news. The bad news is that the increased activity has resulted in more 911 calls, according to Battalion Chief Justin Green of the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Department. Apparently, people have overextended themselves a bit on their adventures.

While it is not hard to imagine dramatic reasons motivating 911 calls for assistance in the forests, mountains and parks in our area— bears, snakes, cliffs, fog, rain, fallen trees, getting lost—the vast majority of calls are for mundane problems that easily could have been avoided with a little forethought and preparation.


Inexperienced people do not bring enough water. Dehydration can quickly cloud one’s thinking, leading to bad decisions, making bad decisions worse.It can also quickly lead to hypothermia, which can be fatal. Interestingly, one does not always feel thirsty as one becomes increasingly dehydrated.Drink water on a regular schedule regardless of whether you are thirsty.

According to the website MomGoesCamping, for every hour of hiking, adults should carry two cups (about ½ liter) of water; children, 1 to 2 cups of water. So, for a planned 5-hour hike, carryatleast10 cups (2.3 liters) of waterper person.This is just a general rule. On a hot, humid day, everyone will need more. Only plain water provides this level of hydration; soda, tea, coffee, juice and other drinks do not count.

Some people do not wear appropriate shoes. For hiking over rough terrain, you should wear protective, lightweight, comfortable, treaded boots; sneakers are suitable only for walking on smooth paths.

Inexperienced people commonly fail to recognize the walk back will take longer and be more tiring than the walk out. Incorporate this information in your hike duration calculation.

Inexperienced people do not have adequate respect for steep slopes—both up and down. Tread extremely carefully in these areas.

In Our Backyard

Inexperienced people do not recognize the sun sets earlier on the east side of the mountain than on the west. If you are watching a beautiful sunset at the Bear’s Den overlook, your car at the Rt. 7 parking lot is already in the dark. Did you bring a flashlight? Your cell phone light won’t last long enough, or be bright enough, for you to walk safely back to your car.

People who hike alone should alert someone where they are going and when they expect to return, and notify that person of their safe return.

People may encounter potentially dangerous wildlife. To avoid animal surprises, stay on the trail and make noise as you hike. Simply talking to your partner is sufficient to let animals know you are there; they want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.

A bear is the most worrisome animal you may encounter in this area.Should you see one, stand and face the bear directly.Never run from or approach a bear.Make yourself look as big as possible by spreading your arms, or better yet, a coat. Make noise by yelling and banging on objects.However, if a bear appears to charge you, hold your ground and stay calm.Slowly retreat, maintain eye contact, and let the bear know you are a human by speaking continuously in a calm voice.

Do not ever approach any “baby” wild animal—bear or otherwise. Even if you don’t see her, the baby’s mother will be close by, and momma always will view you as a threat.

Finally, never try to “rescue” an apparently injured animal. You have neither the training nor equipment to be of help, and by intervening, you risk serious injury to yourself and the animal.If you feel compelled to act, call the animal control department, in Loudoun 703-777-0406.

Call 911

If you are on the mountains, in a park, on a back road, or anywhere you feel unsafe—for any reason—the first and most important thing is to call 911.Professionals in the Sheriff’s office, the Fire and Rescue Department, and the State Police stress the same advice: One should call 911 as soon as they feel unsafe. You should not wait for the situation to get “bad enough” to request assistance. Rescue personnel would rather respond to a dozen minor situations, even false alarms, than to have one situation where they were too late. Theyemphasized that one should never feel embarrassed or awkward calling for help.

From your vantage point, your initial request for assistance is a simple three-digit phone call, but it triggers action by a large and complex network of organizations and well-trained professionals and volunteers ready to respond immediately and with an array of specialized equipment as needed.

In Virginia, search and rescue functions are handled by the local police/sheriff (responsible for searches) and the fire/rescue department (responsible for rescues). They coordinate closely, often responding to the same incident.

In Loudoun, most 911 calls for assistance are handled by the Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue System (LC-CFRS). Response to calls involving a ground and/or aerial (sUAS) search, such as a lost hiker on the Appalachian Trail, will include members of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team. The team is trained in land navigation, grid, spiral, and line search. The sUAS (drone) pilots also are trained in line/grid searches and locating heat sources. Often, specially trained dogs also are involved in search and rescue operations.

There may be situations in which you don’t have phone service or a working phone.If you think phone service is absent, the experts advise sending a text message anyway. Many area jurisdictions now have text to 911 capability. Often, when cell service is not apparent or you cannot make a call, a text message will go through.

In case of total communications failure or a lost device, Loudoun Fire and Rescue suggestsSTOP—Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. Stop where you are and do not continue to travel, think about where you are, and the last place you can confirm you were, observe the area around you for clues to your location, and plan on how to signal for help. Carrying a whistle, a compact (inexpensive) emergency space blanket, a simple mechanical compass, a mirror, a signal flag/panel, and a trail map, or at least two or three of these items, can help here. If you are injured and on a known trail with an adult, send someone who knows your location for help.

The Shenandoah Mountain Rescue Group

If necessary, there are several organizations a local government can call immediately, particularly for mountain, and difficult terrain, searches and rescues. For Loudoun, Clarke, Warren and Fauquier Counties, SMRG, based in Vienna, Virginia, is geographically closest. SMRG is a professional volunteer wilderness search and rescue organization established to assist people lost or injured outdoors. It responds to emergencies anywhere in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to search for missing persons or aircraft, and in wilderness areas, to carry out rescue operations requiring specialized equipment and techniques.

SMRG has over 100 active members with expertise in wilderness medicine, land navigation, search and tracking techniques, land/air evacuation methods, and emergency incident management. It is brought into a situation by a state, county, or local law enforcement agency, and works under their command. In Virginia, the Department of Emergency Management is the initial coordinator of resources for wilderness search emergencies.

The Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains encourage you to experience our area’s beautiful outdoors. Enhance your enjoyment by hiking or walking through it safely. Know that if you need help, a truly impressive network is in place to assist you.

In Part 2: The Nightmare Situation

Larry Malone is Communications Director for Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007. For more information, go to He also is a member of the executive committee of the Loudoun County Rural Economic Development Commission.In Our Backyardis compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to

Walking trail at Loudoun County Bles Park Ashburn VA | Flickr

Walking trail at Loudoun County Bles Park Ashburn

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