When a Tree Falls in the Woods ... Reducing Your Risk from Falling Trees
Has it been raining a lot lately? Are there seriously strong gusts? Are you walking through an area with a lot of dead trees? These simple questions can help you stay aware of your risks from falling trees.
Hikers and trail users regularly go into the woods prepared for managing risks. They carry the 10 essentials. They're ready for stormy weather, minor mishaps or meeting wildlife. But one often-overlooked safety hazard are trees themselves. Trees do fall in the woods all the time. When it happens you don't want to be standing too close.
When it comes to staying safe from the hazards of falling trees or branches, we turned to some of the situational awareness strategies used by WTA's trail maintenance team. Here are some of the tips and guidelines they use to keep volunteers safe in the forest.
Know before you go
The first step to being safe in a forest is to be aware of the conditions that will increase the likelihood of falling trees before you step out of the door.
Heavy rain. As soil becomes saturated, it becomes easier for trees—even healthy ones—to loose their footing and fall over.
High wind. Strong winds are a major warning sign for tree fall. Even a healthy tree can be taken down with by a strong gust. Check the forecast before you head out to know if you should expect strong winds. In general, consistent strong gusts should be avoided when possible.
Burn sites. Dead trees can be extremely unstable and are much more likely to fall or drop branches even without the presence of wind or rain. This is true for many years after an area has burned.
When hiking in higher-risk conditions, there are several things you can do to mitigate danger and keep you and your group as safe as possible.
- Be constantly aware of your surroundings. Look around (and up!) and be aware of nearby dead trees, limbs or snags while on trail. If the wind picks up, stop and watch the trees overhead until the gusts die down. (Alternatively, move quickly through more hazardous spots, if safer forest is ahead or behind you.) If you stop for lunch or a rest, try to choose a clearing or an area where trees are less likely to fall. Engage all of your senses—listen for creaking and cracking sounds, and watch for trees shedding smaller branches.
- Communicate with your team or hiking partners. Make sure your group is aware of the conditions and how they might increase risk. Our volunteer crews can be spread out over a half-a-mile, so our crew leaders make sure to pass the word down the line to get the word to everyone; you can do the same thing if your group hikes at different speeds. If you notice any suspicious trees or branches, or if you notice something fall, stop to let everyone in your group know.
- Know when to call it a day. The safety of you and your group will always be more important the trail work being done or the viewpoint at the end of your hike. If conditions seem unsafe, know when to turn in for the day and head for home.