By Bill Cooper
The cooler days of the approaching fall is an attractant to hikers and backpackers to hit the trail. Fall brings cool, crisp air, fewer insects, and sweet aromas of maturing vegetation, including wildflowers and wild fruits. Too, the pungently sweet smell of natural decay, as the growing season comes to an end, casts its aromas into the breeze, as plant material breaks down.
“The difference in a good day and a bad day on the trail usually comes down to planning,” said Jayson Cooper, of the Ozark Trail Section Hikers and Backpackers.
Preparing for everything from a wasp sting to a bear encounter is the best way to have a great adventure while hiking, especially if you are heading into the wilder country of Missouri’s public lands.
The Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri consists of 1.6 million acres of rugged, hilly country with very few amenities, smaller crowds than most of the state’s outdoor attractions, and more room to explore than any other land holding agency in Missouri.
Most U.S. Forest Service Lands in Missouri lie south of the Missouri River in the Ozarks region. For some, these lands are a peaceful place to connect with nature, while for others, they offer a thrilling challenge to hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, hunt, fish, or enjoy nature photography.
Being properly prepared for any of these activities is paramount for a safe and enjoyable trip. While some of the tips are obviously for newbies just getting started, they also include reminders for veteran outdoor enthusiasts to restock their kits.
Navigation, illumination and preparation are essentials for every hiking and backpacking trip. Despite their convenience, cellphones are not maps. Reception can be poor, or non-existent. On the trail, or going cross country, it’s important to have a physical map of the area. Laminate the map or store it in a waterproof bag.
Also carry a real light source rather than depending on your cell phone. Backpacking retail outlets often offer flashlight models that come with a hand-crank charging option. Some double as cellphone chargers.
Leave a copy of you hiking plans with a friend or family member, so they will know where you went and when to expect you back. Carry a copy of the plans with you and leave one in your vehicle as well.
Cooper recommends starting out with short hikes, before jumping into long over nighters. “You need to know your physical abilities and slowly work up to your desired level,” he said. Recommended activities include long walks, possible gym workouts and strength training moves like squats, calf raises and lunges to prepare for the weight of a backpack.
Use the right gear for hiking trips. Wearing flip-flops for hiking purposes is an invitation for disaster. “You have to take care of your feet,” Cooper said. “They are your mode of transportation for the duration of your trip.”
Boots should provide ankle support, be comfortable and fit for long hours of hiking. Your feet will swell slightly after hours of walking, so if they have a tight fit when you begin, they will cause discomfort later.
Never hike without a packable raincoat, even if there are no rain predictions in the forecast. They are very light and take up very little space, and save the day should a storm roll in. Go prepared with sun protection as well. Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a wide brimmed hat will help prevent sunburns and overheating.
Avoid dehydration, hangries and injuries. Few things spoil a trip like arriving at the waterfall, scenic overlook, or other trip destination, and being hit with that grumpy, hungry feeling, known as “hangries.” The real punishment is knowing you have to hike all the way back in that condition.
Extra water and high-energy snacks are important, even on day hikes. Protein bars, jerky, dried fruits, and trail mixes are full of nutrients, and light weight as well.
Water is even more important than food. Drink often to stay hydrated. Keep water where it is easy to access. You’ll reach for it more often that way. A flask with a hose, or camel, is more expensive than a bottle, but far more convenient.
Study your planned hiking route for water supplies. Bring a way to filter it. Pump filters are available and reliable. Purifying tablets work well, too. Never drink directly from a wild water source. They often house dangerous bacteria, which can leave you ill for weeks.
Cuts, scrapes, and bug bites are a given when hiking. Always carry a basic first-aid kit. You will need band-aids, small bandages, pain relievers, antihistamines, tweezers, blister tape and antiseptic wipes. You can store medications there as well. Additionally, a first-aid course is beneficial.
You will be in the wild while hiking U.S. Forest Service lands in Missouri, so expect to encounter wildlife. You are likely to see everything from bugs to birds, as well as reptiles and amphibians. You may also see foxes, coyotes, bobcats, deer and wild turkey. Don’t attempt to pet wild animals. Take a photo from a safe distance.
Bears are becoming more common in the Missouri Ozarks. While they normally don’t pose a problem, they are large animals capable of inflicting serious injuries. BearSmart.com offers tips on how to handle bear encounters.
Hiking and backspacing the Ozarks in fall is an exhilarating experience with new adventures around every turn in the trail. Hike safely and hike often.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at www.facebook.com/OutsideAlways, www.aoutdoorstv.com and www.espn1073.com.