The forest contains some natural hazards, and visitors to our national forest may also find unforeseen hazards and dangers that present unpredictable challenges. By being prepared, you can minimize those hazards and make your trip a safe one.
Remember that your safety is your responsibility.
Accidents happen. All travel and recreation activities pose a certain degree of risk to the participants. Knowing where you might need to go in case of an emergency is important in preparing for any trip. Orienting yourself to local emergency facilities before you travel and obtaining local emergency numbers can help prevent confusion and save precious time in the event of an accident or medical emergency.
Remain Calm. Call 911 or the local emergency number.
Do not depend on a cell phone to help you in an emergency, but try to use it if one is available. Cell phone coverage is very patchy in parts of the forest, especially in valleys and along our rivers, streams and lakes. There may be a chance to reach a cell site by climbing to a ridge top. From the backcountry, report only serious emergencies by calling 911 or the local emergency numbers.
Make sure to state who you are, your specific location and the other information. Knowledge of one's location is vital to the success of any rescue. Provide your cell phone number so you can be called back; don't move if they are planning to return a call. Sometimes just a foot or two makes a difference in getting a call through to a cell phone in the forest. Be prepared to give the victim's location, the nature of the injury or accident and information about the victim or victims and their status. Stay on the line and do not hang up! If possible, have someone help guide emergency personnel to the victim's location by making themselves visible near the entrance or crossroads to the location.
Emergency response times will be longer in a remote forest than in an urban setting. Learn Basic or Advanced First Aid and CPR, and carry First Aid supplies.
Having the right equipment and contingency plans in place for different emergencies can help you beat the odds if things go wrong and can often keep things from going wrong in the first place. Monitor weather closely and be prepared for it to change quickly. Here are a list of emergency situations that can happen on the forest. Although many of these are unlikely to happen while you are out enjoying the woods, it is worth the time to think about what you'd do in these situations and what you would need to deal with them:
- Earthquakes -- Find an open space and get away from any objects that can fall on you (trees, rocks from cliffs,etc.) in this situation.
- Flooding -- Get to high ground. Don't try crossing moving water unless you have the proper equipment and training.
- Forest Fires -- Get out of the area as soon as possible. Let authorities know when you are out of the area as well, in case firefighters are looking for you to make sure you are safe (if you planned ahead, family or friends will have contacted them to let them know your location).
- Hazard Trees -- Look up often while you are on the trail. to spot any trees that look like they are stressed and could fall. Before setting up camp, recon the area around you to make sure there are no leaners, hangers, widow-makers or trees with major damage that could fall in the night.
- Lightning -- This is a scary situation out in the woods. You don't want to be out in the open where you are the tallest object; but it is also not recommended to get close to trees or rock formations that could get hit by lightning. Find an open space away from tall objects, but not at the highest point around. Hunker down by keeping your feet on the ground and bending down to hold your knees if possible. If there is a safe structure (cabin, CXT,etc.)to weather the storm, that is the best place to be.
- Rockslides--be aware of loose rocks above your position on steep hillsides and cliffs. This is important while moving on the trail; but, like with hazard trees, even more important when selecting a campsite.
- Snow and Ice -- Have the right equipment with you before you get caught in this situation. It will make the difference between an inconvenience and a survival situation. Be aware of treacherous footing as you move through these conditions and proceed cautiously.
- Tornadoes -- Take cover in low-lying areas, under bridges, or in solid structures (a concrete toilet building in a campground for example). If you shelter near water (like under a bridge), you have to weigh the risk of flooding that may happen with the storm as well.
- Hypothermia -- Dressing properly for the expected (and unexpected) cold weather is very important. Wear layers, preferably with some synthetics that can dry quickly if needed. Try to move at a pace that doesn't get you too sweaty when you are in extremely cold conditions. If the potential for cold weather exists, make sure you bring cold weather camping gear, and don't sacrifice safety for lighter equipment in the winter-time. Also, don't be fooled by thinking you are only going on a day-trip---vehicle trouble or other emergencies can force you to overnight. Always take the proper gear for a potential overnight stay if you are visiting the Forest during cold weather.
- Drinking Water -- Staying hydrated is of the utmost importance in avoiding many of the safety hazards that can occur in the woods. This is very important in the hot summer months especially. Some water treatment pills or a small filter can make a lightweight emergency water supply source.
- Insects-- Do you need to bring an epipen for allergic reactions? Do you have repellant, tick removal device, netting. All things to consider.
- Poisonous Plants -- If you are allergic to poison oak,ivey,or sumac (as many people are), know what they look like and avoid them. There are washes and preventative ointments avoidable over-the counter. Wearing long pants and shirt is also a good way to keep from getting the poisonous oil on you. If you do expect you were exposed, wash the affected clothing as soon as possible and scrub the potentially exposed oil with soap to remove the oil as soon as possible.
- Ticks & Tick Borne Diseases -- it is a good idea to check often for ticks. Stay out of bushy areas as much as possible to limit potential exposure.
- Bears -- Be #BearAware! Don't leave food out at your campsite overnight. Hang food containers high in trees at night or keep them in a bear-proof container away from your campsite. Making noise as you go down the trail (talking to friends, etc.) reduces the possibility of accidentally sneaking up on a bear on the trail. If you are being quiet to see wildlife, just be alert. Bearspray is an option to carry on the trail as well.
- Deer Collisions -- Driving at a reduced speed, especially at night, and staying alert is important to avoid these animals that can unexpectedly jump out of brush into the road in front of you.
- Dogs and other pets -- having a hiking stick or some type of spray (pepper spray or bear spray) is not a bad idea. Dogs can wander far from their property, and the Mark Twain is a checkerboard of public and private land.
- Feral Hogs -- Similar to bear and dogs, it is best to avoid these animals, but having bear spray (or other deterrent) could prove helpful. If you see a feral hog, please report it to MDC, as this is an invasive species that MDC, the Forest Service, and other agencies are working to eliminate through coordinated trapping efforts.
- Other Wildlife -- Other animals are quite capable of ruining a trip into the woods: skunks, raccoons, etc. Managing food properly, being alert to avoid, and being prepared to deter these animals is important.
- Snakes -- Know your snakes. There are snakes that are poisonous and non-poisonous in Missouri. Recognition can help you assess the danger you are in. Please do not kill any snake if it is possible to avoid them. Being alert is key avoidance. Have emergency plans in place in case someone in your party does get a venomous snake bit on the trail.
Camp & Trail Safety
- Campfires -- Many forest fires have started from unattended campfires. Learn how to make a safe campfire, never leave it unattended, and make sure it is "dead-out" before leaving the area.
- Camping -- Choosing a campsite is a major safety decision. Take into consideration the surrounding trees, natural features, streams, animals in the area, and possible weather situations when setting up camp.
- Hunter Safety -- Know if you are in the woods during hunting season and dress appropriately by wearing bright orange.
- Trail safety -- Are you just going for a day-hike? What if you twist an ankle or worse. Who knows where you are and when you'll get back. Did you choose to pack light and now wish you had some basic survival equipment for the overnight until help arrives? Think ahead before hitting the trail.
- Sharing the Trails -- All of our trails have multiple use recreation. Some our used mostly for one type or another; but you always need to be prepared to share the trail. A general rule is "wheels yield to heels". Bikes should yield to hikers and horses. Hikers should yield to horses too. Be nice to each other and these are positive encounters with other outdoor enthusiasts.
- Boating -- Know the water levels, put-ins, take-outs, and weather conditions before venturing out. Pack appropriately and have a plan in place in case the boat capsizes. Have the proper flotation devices; and always make sure that children are wearing their life vests.
- Lakes -- Just because the water isn't moving doesn't mean you should leave the life vest behind! Kids should always have life vests on when in a boat on water.
- Rivers -- Learn to "read" the current to avoid "strainers" and other dangerous obstacles. We recommend you always wear your life vest on moving water.
- Watercraft -- Follow operational guidelines and make sure your equipment is in good condition. Have a plan for breakdowns or other emergencies.
Other Safety Concerns
- Abandoned Mines -- Do not explore abandoned mines. They are dangerous. If you are in an area with abandoned mines, be careful if you go off trail to explore.
- Caves -- Only professionals should go in caves. Contact a caving group if you have intentions of exploring caves. They know what equipment to bring, and can teach you the skills needed to do this safely. Do not explore caves on your own.
- Lead Exposure -- There are lead reclamation sites on the Forest. These should be marked--do not take on unnecessary exposure to lead by recreating in these areas.
- Off-Highway Vehicles -- Take safety courses, wear proper safety gear, and ride safely. Think about contingency plans if you have some type of breakdown.
- Other People -- stay away from people that look overly intoxicated or just don't look like they are up to any good. Report any suspicious behavior to law enforcement after you have left the area.
- Roads and Driving -- Drive safely for your sake and the sake of everyone else visiting the Forest. Being in the woods doesn't make people immune to the effects of alcohol--don't drink and drive! Stay tuned in to your fatigue level as well. Outdoor recreation can take a lot out of a person. If you need to take a little nap in your car at the trailhead to prevent a vehicle accident, from falling asleep at the wheel on the way home, please do so.